7 Questions with Lou Reed ‘Transformer’ author Simon Doonan
Released in 1972, Lou Reed’s Transformer album was just his second solo album since leaving the Velvet Underground. It also turned out to be a milestone in the trajectory of rock and roll, coming the same year as David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust (Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson coproduced Transformer, too) and helping usher in the era of glam rock.
But for all the boundaries it pushed, Transformer was also an album full of incredible songs. It’s this album, after all, that contained not only “Walk on the Wild Side” but the definitive studio versions of such Lou Reed staples as “Satellite of Love,” “Perfect Day,” and “Vicious.”
UK-born author and famed window dresser Simon Doonan grew up in the U.K. loving David Bowie and everything glam. His new book Transformer: A Story of Glitter, Glam Rock, and Loving Lou Reed is as much a memoir as it is the story of one of Lou Reed’s most impactful albums.
“Transformer is like a giant gold and black pinata,” Doonan writes. “When it was released in 1972, we each grabbed a stick and started shrieking and swinging. Out poured kink, poetry, glamour, trash, drag queens, hustlers, dope, genius, originality, and – drumroll – validation, confirmation, and encouragement for a broad swath of young people who were figuring out how to be themselves.”
Below is a brief interview with Doonan, conducted by The Colorado Sound’s Ron Bostwick.
Last year (2022) was the 50th anniversary of Transformer’s release. If Lou Reed were still with us and made that same album in 2022, what do you think the critical reaction would be?
This album still sounds sassy and fresh. I think the reception would be great. In 1972 the subject matter was edgy and taboo. Now it’s all totes norms.
In 1972, rock musicians were either the soft singer-songwriter types or overly masculine rockers. The gender-ambiguous image Lou took on for Transformer should have meant failure. Instead, the album is still on many ‘Greatest Albums of All Time’ lists. How the hell did that happen?
The glam-rock trappings are androgynous and mesmerizing, but the album endures because of the great music, and, most important, Lou’s poetry. RIP Lou, Bowie, and [guitarist Mick] Ronson.
You quote Lou as saying, “I am not original. My timing was perfect.” How much of the album’s success was that perfect timing?
1972 was Bowie’s intergalactic mega year. Transformer benefitted hugely from the dotted line (many dotted lines!) to Bowie, who BTW was only 25 years old!!! Lou and Ronson were also in their 20s. Ah the audacity of youth!
You say Andy Warhol described himself as “deeply superficial”. And you say the same about glam rock. Could you ‘go deeper’ on this?
Hippie culture preceded glam rock. Glam was a reaction to the earnest, serious aspect of hippie music and style. Glam was willfully campy and theatrical and shiny and frivolous.
As a former window dresser for Barney’s, you know the importance of image and appearance. Fashion and music have always been linked. Can you speak of how affordable clothing (a la Mr. Freedom in London) helped glam rock grow?
Glam style was about satin and tat, and rainbows and stars and space boots and make-up on men. Lots of glam rockers like [Marc] Bolan and Bowie – AND MOI! – would buy cheap, colorful clothing in girls boutiques. Glam rock was propelled forward by us fashion daredevils!
Robbie Robertson spoke of the treatment Bob Dylan and the Band got when they toured in 1966 and ‘74, saying “we didn’t change, the world just caught up to us.” I think of this when Lou’s image was later amplified by Adam Ant, Boy George, and even ‘hair metal’ bands. Did the world change, or did fans simply ‘catch up’ to Lou in ’72?
The fans loved this album. It was the stuck-in-the mud critics who were slow to catch on. Many journalists who gave it crappy reviews , later walked back their comments. This album will always belong to the fans.
What would you say is the Transformer album for the young Simon Doonans of today?
Today there is so much freewheeling creativity on the music landscape, so I am sure the young Simon Doonan’s have a million choices. Sorry I cannot give specifics. I am an old geezer. LOL.
A longtime author (and former window dresser at Barney’s), Simon Doonan is a regular storyteller at the Moth and the NPR Moth Radio Hour and an expert judge on the NBC show Making It starring Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, and Dayna Isom Johnson. Previous books of his include Confessions of a Window Dresser, Gay Men Don’t Get Fat, and Eccentric Glamour.
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