Discover Rachel, the mysterious muse who inspired one of rock's greatest songwriters, Lou Reed.
Going through Lou Reed’s discography as a solo performer is an interesting experience. The Velvet Underground’s lead singer and songwriter is considered one of the most influential figures in rock and roll history, with hits such as “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Perfect Day” among his best solo songs. But as an experimental musician, unafraid of trying new things even if they weren’t well received, his work is a dense, complex mishmash of genres and sounds that can be baffling for people unfamiliar with the artist’s career. Album after album, Reed reinvented himself and his music.
Transformer, his most successful album, loved by critics and audiences alike, was followed by Berlin, a record Rolling Stone originally described as a "disaster", while adding: “There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them.” The unflattering review —to say the least— was eventually reversed and the magazine would later include it in its list of the 500 greatest albums, but this incident signals just how far Reed was willing to go to uncover new edges to his sound.
Although the Transformer to Berlin jump was famously abrupt, if you listen to his discography, you’ll discover that the difference was almost imperceptible when compared to his transition from Metal Machine Music to Coney Island Baby. The former, an industrial album that Reed made while being "very stoned", was considered an act of rebellion against music critics and his record label, RCA. The latter came out a year after, and is perhaps the artist’s most approachable record, with songs of love that were inspired and dedicated to his partner at the time.
What changed from the mad, industrial sounds of MMM to ballads of love? The answer lies in the person that inspired the album and whose name is included in the lyrics of the title song: “I’d like to send this one out to Lou and Rachel. […] Man, I’d swear I’d give the whole thing up for you.” Rachel was Reed’s partner at the time, a transgender woman of Indian and Mexican ancestry, whom the artist met while out at Club 82 in 1974, a place frequented by drag queens in New York City.
Reed was immediately drawn to Rachel, with whom he chatted for a while and eventually took back to his place, despite the fact that he was living with another woman at the time. His girlfriend left after Reed flirted with the idea of engaging in a three way relationship, but Rachel stayed with him and would be his girlfriend until 1978. She’s a mysterious figure in rock history. Unlike other legendary rock girlfriends, such as Anita Pallenberg or Nancy Spungen, not much is known or has been written about Rachel, other than the fact that she was liked by all and that her upbringing hadn’t been easy, as she’d been in and out of jail a few times.
Her influence, however, is undeniable. Despite her lack of interest in music, even that written by Reed, she served as the perfect muse to her legendary partner. “Rachel was completely disinterested in who I was and what I did. Nothing could impress her. He’d hardly heard my music and didn’t like it all that much when he did,” Reed once said. The period they were together gave the artist material to get himself out of his creative funk and reduce his amphetamine consumption.
Their relationship drew gazes everywhere. These were the 1970s after all and discrimination against transgender people was even more present than it is nowadays. Even Reed’s good friend and biggest fan, Lester Bangs, the editor of Creem magazine, was harsh in his criticism of Rachel, whom he described as: “[…] grotesque, abject… like something that might have grovellingly scampered in when Lou opened the door to get milk or papers in the morning.” Reed wouldn’t forgive these comments despite Bangs’ later apologies.
After the couple broke up, Reed never mentioned Rachel again. This translated into her falling back into obscurity, even to her death since there's no information on the date or place of her burial. The importance she had in Reed’s life is made evident in Coney Island Baby, an album Aidan Levy, who wrote Dirty Blvd: The Life and Music of Lou Reed, described as a love poem to Rachel as well as to Coney Island. She helped bring one of rock’s most intriguing artists back from a state of creative stasis, so he could write exciting music once again. She deserves a spot in music history as the kind-hearted, transgender muse responsible for inspiring one of rock’s most exciting talents.
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