Main picture: Lou Reed and Warhol at Studio 54, 1977. Credit: Getty
Lou Reed believed that if rock’n’roll could emulate underworld chroniclers such as William Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr, then “You’d have the greatest thing on earth.” Street Hassle was his magnificent attempt to wrestle the whole of New York City, as he knew it, into a song, and all of himself, too: tender, brutal, desperate. “That is me,” he said, “as much as you can get on record.” But while his backstreet symphony sounds like a conscious masterpiece, it was born in pandemonium.
A hymn and a requiem to the outcasts of a city that was itself and outcast.
In 1977 Reed was as frazzled as one of his characters. He was breaking up with Rachel, the trans woman who had lit up Coney Island Baby, and maddened by a taxing diet of Scotch and heavy-duty amphetamines. While trying to overdub a rejected live album into a releasable state, he alienated producer Richard Robinson and most of his band, leaving him to salvage the album with engineer Rod O’Brien at the Record Plant, off Times Square.
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Street Hassle was the only song built from scratch. It was a scrawny little thing, just two minutes long, until Arista’s Clive Davis suggested expanding it into a potential hit single. Reed exceeded the brief by a mile. His three-part suite, which took up almost one third of the album, was not just impossibly long for the radio but unplayably graphic, with lines like, “Hey, that cunt’s not breathing.” Reed and O’Brien spent three days working out how to tie it together, using Aram Schefrin’s chugging cello arrangement like train tracks to keep the song moving from station to station. Serendipity delivered Bruce Springsteen, who was working downstairs on Darkness On The Edge Of Town and ended up lending his rough-diamond sincerity to an uncredited monologue. “When he did it, it sounded real,” said Reed.
Street Hassle was both a hymn and a requiem to the outcasts of a city that was itself an outcast. Following near bankruptcy and the chaotic summer blackout, New York was a byword for crime and decay, but Reed didn’t hold that against it. The first part, Waltzing Matilda, describes a liaison between a woman and a male prostitute with unexpected sweetness: “Neither one regretted a thing.” The second, Street Hassle, fictionalises the death of Warholite Eric Emerson, who reportedly overdosed at a party and was dumped in the street. In the climactic Slipaway, an unravelling Reed lays to rest his three-year relationship with Rachel. The meaning of “Slip away” slides from a sexual rendezvous to a callous recommendation to a final exit.
Reed isn’t just observing these people; he’s down there with them. Street Hassle is about the choices you make when you don’t feel you have a choice at all, and how little difference these personal dramas of life, sex and death make to New York. The city knows this happens every night. The city doesn’t care. The city moves on.
READ: THE 50 GREATEST LOU REED AND THE VELVET UNDERGROUND SONGS IN FULL!
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