You won’t read it on Pitchfork, but Lou Reed was about as straight as a pig’s tail. The rock legend endured gay-curing electroshock therapy as a teenager and was widely rumored to have slept with both men and trans women in his Warhol years. He preserved the lost, dirty New York on vinyl and filled those long-collected discs with its denizens.
In honor of his passing — on a Sunday morning, no less — here are seven of Lou Reed’s queerest songs from his six years with the Velvet Underground. They are taken from the band’s first four studio records before Reed’s 1970 departure. Though all are over 40 years old, Reed’s skill was to take the universal outsider experience and frame it in terms that stay relevant to each new generation that presses play.
Brian Eno famously said that only 30,000 people bought the first Velvet Underground record when it was released, but they all went on to start rock bands. So if you’re unfamiliar with the magic of Velvet Underground, or a long term acolyte that didn’t know how gay it all was, take a listen. Who knows what you’ll go on to start.
(Note: Lou’s best solo album, Transformer, is gayer than Tim Curry getting a pedicure at the Castro St. Starbucks. If you’re interested in a rundown of that one, holler at me in the comments and we’ll see about a followup.)
7. “Sweet Jane” (Loaded, 1970)
On their final album, the avante-garde band finally followed a studio directive to have their new LP come “loaded with hits.” Hence the title, and the band’s most immediate collection of tracks. It’s easy to miss behind “Sweet Jane’s” scream-along chorus and DIY guitar riff, but right there in the second line, “Jack is in his corset and Jane is in her vest.” This bit of cross-dressing is amplified later in the song when Lou rallies against being defined by “evil mothers” making generalizations about those who can speak for themselves.
Following track “Rock & Roll” — a tale of salvation by radio —would be on this list if it wasn’t such a universal rebel’s anthem.
6. “Venus in Furs” (The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967)
This track from the band’s first record is the rare song about sex that one can actually have (decent) sex to. Named after a 19th century Austrian novel about girl-on-guy domination, “Venus in Furs” reads like a mumblecore S&M film. “Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather.” “Taste the whip, now plead for me.”
Though not gay in the traditional sense, this song still is a bold take on underground sexuality and, frankly, a night out in Vienna this author wouldn’t turn down. As a plus, this song is directly referenced in the films Short Bus and Velvet Goldmine.
5. “New Age” (Loaded)
Some say this song is a crack at Shelly Winters, and nothing about a “fat blonde actress” with a Robert Mitchum past suggests otherwise. However, this is one of VU’s gentlest and least sarcastic songs in it’s presentation.There’s a real admiration from the anonymous fan to the washed up screen idol he approaches for an autograph.
His familiarity with her career and romantic past, in combination with his fawning and tolerance of her faded physical stature, suggests a sheltered gay boy geeking out over meeting his childhood screen idol.
The song’s hopeful coda suggests they’ve both been changed by the meeting, as she anticipates a new age of camp icon-hood and he of coming public tolerance.
4. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” (Velvet Underground & Nico)
While unreliable source Wikipedia says this song’s title comes from something Nico said to Lou backstage, it’s impossible not to associate it with Sartre’s 1944 existentialist drama No Exit.
Still fresh in the public consciousness at the time of this song’s recording, the play features a scene where a woman offers to be another’s mirror as a means of seducing her in hell. The VU track stands alone as an affirming, classic love song. Frame it in terms of Sartre, though, and it’s a sad attempt to woo a straight girl in an inescapable hotel room.
My husband likes to tell me that The Primitives’ cover of this song is superior, but I’d like to put it on the l record that I disagree.
3. “Lady Godiva’s Operation” (White Light/White Heat, 1968)
The weirdest rock song this side of Luna’s “IHOP,” “Lady Godiva’s Operation” is still one of the only listenable moments on the band’s blessedly brief and regrettably experimental second record. (Which is a sentiment I’m going to pay for in the comments section.)
The track starts out as a fairly conventional psychedelic number about a sexually empowered Lady Godiva, strutting her stuff naked and seducing boys away from their mothers. There is a shift in the second half, though, and things get very Fassbinder. Lady Godiva is revealed to be a man, and forced to go through a hideous surgery that ends in his death.
This public exhumation of gender identity mirrors Reed’s own experience with electroshock and informs the extremely trans-friendly themes of his upcoming work. (See number 1 on this list.)
2. “Some Kinda Love (Velvet Underground, 1969)
“Situation arise, because of the weather/
And no kinds of love are better than others.
Some kinda love, Margarita told Tom/
Like a dirty French novel, the absurd court the vulgar.
And some kinds of love, the possibilities are endless/
And for me to miss one would seem to be groundless”
This is the definitive anthem for freeing sexuality from identity constraints, and the song explains why better than I ever could.
Though I will say that “Some Kinda Love” ends with a pretty strong insinuation of girl-on-guy buttsex, unless there’s another way to read “Put jelly on your shoulder/ and do what you feel most… that from which you recoil but which still makes your eyes moist…lie down upon the carpet.” Who needs Fifty Shades of Gray?
1. “Candy Says” (Velvet Underground)
Written by Lou Reed but sung by John Cale — perhaps to avoid the song’s naked sincerity — ”Candy Says” takes our number one slot. An ode to trans Andy Warhol starlet Candy Darling, the track is a stark reminder of the rigid 60s gender norms that Reed and his contemporaries worked so hard to destroy.
“I hate my body” is a harsh first sentiment from one of art scene’s brighter stars, and her alienation and discouragement only spreads from there. Candy longs for the smallest taste of the kind of love and acceptance that comes easily to her peers and seems almost whistful about the possibility of death, which came from lymphoma at age 29.
“What do you think I’d see if I could walk away from me?” is a veiled desire for death over confinement, but it also serves as the band’s unofficial motto. Lou Reed rose to prominence in a time when people like himself were still considered officially sick by the DSM.
By giving a voice to all the freaks and weirdos, his music encourages listeners to look at life from someone else’s perspective and never stop asking Candy Darling’s eternal question.