It’s 1972. The Velvet Underground are dead. (Except for the posthumous album Squeeze, which sounds like a group of aborted Paul McCartney songs, and should really be erased from history). Lou Reed, at 30 years old, has moved back in with his parents. It’s been two years since the Velvet’s last album Loaded was released. Reed releases his self-titled debut album Lou Reed in early 1972. But it’s Reed’s second album of 1972, his sophomore solo album Transformer, that saw him finally shrug off the Velvet Underground and come into his own. All of course with the help of some powerful friends.
Transformer is a product of the intersection of three very strange and very talented men: Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Andy Warhol. Three men who were all prominent queer figures in their day.
In 1972 David Bowie was well on his way to being a household name. He had released his highly acclaimed album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in June. Along with Mick Ronson, Bowie produced and co-arranged Transformer. They can be heard playing and singing backup on multiple songs including “Satellite of Love.”
In 1972 Andy Warhol was well into his dream of realizing a more plastic world. Warhol himself was more artificial that he’d been in the early 60s. In 1968 he was shot by literal SCUM Valerie Solanas—two bullets decimated his body, hitting his stomach, liver, spleen, lungs, and esophagus. He was declared dead for a short time. The scars on his chest inspired the song “Andy’s Chest” on Transformer.
But Warhol’s influence is all over Transformer; his pale fingers are stuck in every groove. The album’s first song “Vicious” was inspired by a conversation between Reed and Warhol. Lou Reed told the story to Rolling Stone: “He [Warhol] said, ‘why don’t you write a song called Vicious.’ And I [Reed] said ‘What kind of vicious?’ ‘Oh, you know, vicious like I hit you with a flower.’”
And then there’s always “Walk On The Wild Side.” Can I Kick it? Yes you can—wait…wrong song. Yes, it was that song—more the iconic baseline really—that A Tribe Called Quest reimagined on their way into hip hop canon with “Can I Kick It?” The lyrics of “Walk On The Wild Side” tell the story of a carousel of characters from Warhol’s Factory scene.
An important aside—by my count 162 Doo’s are sung in “Walk On The Wild Side.” Lou Reed sings 64 of the Doo’s and the backup singers (who are the female trio Thunderthighs) who Reed refers to as “the colored girls” sing the other 98.
The song “Satellite of Love” is a good time to point back to Bowie and Ronson’s producing. This song wouldn’t be out of place on one of Bowie’s early albums, but it also has that Lou Reed charm. It’s got the space themes and glam rock aesthetic. It’s ambitious without being grandiose.
It would be wrong to not mention the tragically bare “Perfect Day.” A perfectly sparse song about a beautifully simple day in New York City.
Another song that needs mentioning is “Make Up.” A song that is often interpreted as Reed watching someone put on drag makeup. Reed sings “Now we’re coming out. Out of our closets.” Needless to say, Transformer is saturated in LGBTQ+ imagery and representation. The first verse of “Walk on The Wild Side” is about the transgender actress Holly Woodlawn. It’s important to note that Reed correctly genders her from the first time she’s mentioned. “Holly came from Miami, FLA. Hitchhiked her way across the USA.”
Transformer ends with the eternally fun track “Goodnight Ladies.” A song that brings the whole album to an end and recapitulates the important themes throughout. It should be obvious to any listener of the album that the “ladies” of whom Reed refers to are the listeners themselves, regardless of their gender identity.
There’s a reason why 49 years after the release of Transformer audiences still relate and identify with this record. A dense person may claim the album was “ahead of its time,” but that’s not really true. Transformer is deeply rooted in both its time: the 1970s and its place: New York City. The real reason the album has survived the wastes of time is that it’s relatable in its image of transformation. It’s about the power of choosing how you want to live for yourself. It’s about the powerful cloak of invisibility that a big city can provide, and the freedom that it allows.
In “I’m So Free” Reed sings, “I do what I want, and I want what I see.” He had a habit of thumbing his nose at any authority he could find. We know that Reed was subjected to electroshock therapy as a youth or young adult. Some sources that say his parents sent him to shock therapy for homosexual behavior, although his sister disputes these claims. Whatever the truth, it was a certainly a traumatic experience for Reed.
In Transformer, the little world which Reed has constructed, people outside the mainstream are welcome, and the cruel people who’d like to change them aren’t allowed to be “Hangin’ Round.” In the 36 minutes of Transformer, a day in the park is a blast and a “New York Telephone Conversation” is just the price you pay for living such a free life.