A beautiful film tribute to Lou Reed’s classic, Walk on the Wild Side, showing the characters involved:
What a hauntingly beautiful song. It is hard to imagine today, but I loved this song back when I heard it on the radio in Salt Lake City in 1972 without ever understanding its meaning.
This song also speaks to a time when gay culture celebrated its feminine side, something lost in today’s push to appear “normal” and assimilate.
Sadly, we no longer have “underground” cultures as everything spreads instantly across the internet, but this song stands as a tribute to a time when insiders could say astonishing things without the umbrella culture reading the code. Consider the lyrics –
Hitch-hiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
In the backroom she was everybody’s darlin’
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
Little Joe never once gave it away
Everybody had to pay and pay
A hustle here and a hustle there
Backrooms, hustlers, and trannies? How did the meaning ever escape us? Even today I will point out the song’s meaning to gay friends who are surprised they never caught it.
(OK, I did not know what a backroom was in 1972, but I did in 1982 and I didn’t get it then, either. And for my straight readers – a backroom was a dark space at the back of a gay bar where men went to have sex, a convenience shut down when AIDS hit.)
Missing from the YouTube video is the Sugar Plum Fairy, slang for drug dealer, which may be why it was left out. The Sugar Plum Fairy was Joe Campbell who played a character of that name in Andy Warhol’s film My Hustler. Joe met Harvey Milk in 1955 when Joe was 19 and Harvey 26, and to Harvey’s amazement, Joe fell instantly in love, and they lived together for 7 years in New York. Harvey moved to San Francisco’s Castro after they broke up.
Amazingly, Joe Campbell had another famous lover named Oliver “Billy” Sipple. Sipple was an ex-Marine who became famous on September 22, 1975 when he went to hear a speech by President Gerald Ford in San Francisco’s Union Square. Standing next to Sipple was a woman named Sara Jane Moore who pulled out a gun and tried to shoot the President, but was thwarted when Sipple, acting fast, knocked the gun away, saving the President. Sipple was closeted, but Harvey Milk thought this was a great opportunity to show Americans that gay men could be heroic. The San Francisco Chronicle printed the information that Sipple was gay, but the resulting press onslaught on Sipple and his parents was devastating to them, and Sipple unsuccessfully sued the Chronicle for outing him. It appears he then sank into alcoholism until his death in 1989.
A little research turned up something else interesting about the other, “Little” Joe. Joe Dallesandro is alive and well and living in Los Angeles, at least according to Wikipedia. Hard to imagine he was a hustler in New York in the 70s and made it through alive. In fact, it is Joe Dallesandro’s crotch that is memorialized on one of the most famous album covers ever, The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers:
Update: Note Mixxie’s comments below for an even fuller picture of the time and people of the song.