A quick holiday postscript…
“Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou Reed’s most famous song, was a love letter to New York nightlife. Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Joe Dallesandro, Joe Campbell, and the streets they walked were put on parade. Drag queens. Drug people. Back room beauties. There was a new character for every verse along with little pictures of things they did: “Shaved her legs and then he was a she.” “She never lost her head even when she was giving head.” “A hustle here and a hustle there.” The song slid along to Herbie Flowers’ unmistakable bassline, an immediately catchy, unthreateningly sleazy piece of portraiture that took these people out of the underground and put them on the radio and into everyday life. All of a sudden they were front and center and regular-old-people were snapping their fingers and going “do do do” right along with them.
Jump ahead 17 years…
“This next song is about a parade we have in Greenwich Village in New York where a lot of people are dying of AIDS, so this is a song about AIDS called ‘Halloween Parade.’”
The song lopes, a little upbeat and a little sad, and we watch the parade pass. Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock, Tinkerbell in tights, a “tacky” Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, no fewer than five Cinderellas, and others all go by, and as we watch them we are reminded of others who are no longer there; people with great, suggestive names like Peter Pedantic and Rotten Rita and Brandy Alexander. Reed was fond of pointing out that he never wrote a “Son of Wild Side,” but if there was one, this is it. Everyone’s in costume, and there is always a degree to which costumes allow us to be ourselves, especially when the world doesn’t want to deal with who we really are.
“Halloween Parade,” like “Walk on the Wild Side,” is a love song. It’s an elegy, a topical song that doesn’t rely for a second on the tired language of “protest” or “political” music. Reed made no secret of the influence Delmore Schwartz had on his writing, specifically the short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which he said was “one of the greatest short stories ever written…. Imagine being able to do something like that with the simple language that is available to anybody. It’s mind-bending. Now imagine putting it into a song. It’s so simple, it’s ridiculous.”
It is in this language available to anybody that Reed writes “Halloween Parade.” The images are direct, clear, and evocative. Through a simple catalog of who is in the parade and who is not, he conjures an entire social reality. Like any good art, we are not told what to think. There is nothing dogmatic present. A scene is offered, a perspective established, and the audience must make its way through the rest.
“In the back of my mind I was afraid it could be true/In the back of my mind I was afraid that they meant you.” It’s both the most explicit and mysterious moment in the song. Who has he been talking to this whole time? Whether he’s talking to a departed friend or talking to himself, it’s sad as shit.
Brendan Toller said to me the other day that Reed’s death “really puts all of that New York crowd into perspective—how they altered consciousness and certainly gave a voice to the voiceless.” It’s true. This song is about people many of us never saw at all, let alone will ever see again. Who was Peter Pedantic, anyway?
“See you next year at the Halloween Parade.” But we won’t see Lou Reed at next year’s parade any more than we’ll see Peter Pedantic or Rotten Rita or countless others we did or didn’t know…