Tag: the Velvet Underground

Lady Godiva’s Operation

Lou Reed wasn’t known for being much of an activist, and the Velvet Underground aren’t remembered as a socially conscious band, except in the most general smash-the-norm sense. I have not read any mention or praise for Reed’s importance and influence in the sphere of sexual and identity politics. In the plainest words; if it hadn’t been for Lou Reed’s songs I would not have learned that trans* people exist, or that being gay is a lifestyle, or that kinkiness is an option, and most importantly, that all of those things are alright. I’m sure I would have learned those things eventually, but I learned those things because Lou Reed was there to matter of factly inform me (and whole a lot of other young people over the years) that someone can pluck their eyebrows, shave their legs, and then he is a she, and it’s all right. That doesn’t seem terribly important in the grand scheme of things, but as activists are still forced to remind us, representation is important. It doesn’t take much to either normalize or demonize a lifestyle or behavior or whole group of people in an impressionable mind. All it takes is someone whose opinion we trust saying that something is either alright or it’s not. Lou Reed was not the first person to write about using drugs, or describe the appearance of a drag queen, or mention gay sex, but he wrote about those things in a non-judgmental, honest way that made everything he talked about seem recognizable and normal.

Reed studied both journalism and poetry at Syracuse, and the combination of those two seemingly opposite art forms became the basis of his writing style. He also had the good fortune to fly in some unorthodox circles. Hanging out at Andy Warhol’s factory introduced him to the cast of fabulous outcasts whom he’d document throughout his career. Warhol collected odd characters like crazy ladies collect cats, if crazy cat ladies were in the habit of making their cats star in meandering, dull movies. Some of those characters never made it past footnote status; a few, like the star-crossed Edie Sedgwick, became genuine icons. Some, hovering somewhere between obscurity and cultish semi-fame, are best remembered as subjects of Lou Reed songs. Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn; self-created women who insisted on their superstardom in a world that denied that people like them had any right to exist. Candy Darling is dead. Holly Woodlawn is still kicking around, and must by now be resigned to being best known for a few lines in a song, though she’s justifiably a bit peeved that those lines document her leg-shaving activities. But that song – as well as this one, and others – was a torchlight against an almost universally transphobic culture. Walk on the Wild Side, Candy Says, and Lady Godiva’s Operation were, and remain, an anomaly in introducing trans* women as interesting human beings with dignity, feelings and personal histories, rather than dude-looks-like-a-lady punchlines (or worse.) Those songs cast a sympathetic gaze on people whom society to this day refuses to accept as normal, and that normalizing gaze helped make at least a few listeners more open minded.

Now in this particular song, who is this character and what is going on with her? Unlike some other songs, this one does not give anyone’s real name, probably because it’s not about any specific real person, or at least not one we know of. A common interpretation is that the titular lady is getting a sex-change, but though that’s an easy conclusion to come to based on the title alone and a glancing familiarity with some of the singer’s other works, it’s patently bullshit. Gender reassignment surgery has come a long way since the sixties, but at no point did it ever involve slicing into the brain. It’s pretty clear that Lady Godiva is undergoing a lobotomy. If it were anything else, she wouldn’t be screaming as the anesthetic takes hold. Also note that in the first half of the song, which describes Lady Godiva and her affinity for curly-haired boys, she is clearly gendered as a ‘she’. In the latter half, as she enters the hostile surgical environment, the point of view seems to change, with the patient reduced to being described as a body – a dehumanized ‘it’ – and finally completely misgendered by the sloppy doctor as ‘he’. This is a very subtle narrative curve, easily missed in a rather cacophonous song, what with John Cale’s canny but distracting impersonation of a breathing apparatus. I think it’s a very important thing to take not of, however, both as an example of Reed’s literary skill and his empathetic grasp of the connection between correct pronouns and identity itself. Lady Godiva is being stripped of her identity, both literally as her brain is mutilated, and on another level as her pronouns are forcibly replaced with incorrect ones. On a historical note; up until well into the 1970’s lobotomies were a popular ‘cure’ for a wide variety of ailments, from serious cases of psychosis to learning disabilities to ill-defined conditions like ‘hysteria’. Though I don’t know whether it was ever popularly used for such, I can easily imagine overzealous doctors touting it as a cure for homosexuality, cross-dressing and other cases of ‘sexual deviancy’. Also important to note; as a teenager Lou Reed himself was forced to undergo electroconvulsive therapy because his family suspected him of being gay. He wasn’t, but received the punishment anyway. So it is not so much of a stretch to assume that Lady Godiva is actually Reed’s alter-ego, or, not making that assumption, that she is at the very least a probable acquaintance who shared a similar experience. I imagine that the experience of being stigmatized and physically punished after being branded ‘not-right’ in some arbitrary way lies at the root Reed’s lifelong sympathy and affection towards outsiders and stigmatized persons, and his ability to write beautiful songs in honor of people not generally accepted as being beautiful, or even as being people.

(Photo by Stephen Shore)