Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 242
Tues. Oct. 29, 2013
Lou Reed featuring Bruce Springsteen
a thing ♫”
Lou Reed songs so reflected the NYC streets that the city should’ve name a borough after him. Reed wasn’t uptown; Sweet Lou oozed the urban soul of a downtown poet. Reed’s specialty was bringing the down and out ‘low-dies,’ the freaks, the thugs, the lost, lonely and losers whose affinity and connection to these Gotham streets that Reed immortalized in such classic 1970’s songs as “Walk on the Wild Side.” Reed was like those immortal New York writers like Jack Kerouac, Hubert Selby Jr. and Paul Auster, Reed with his signature timelessly transcendent Gotham song stories; Lou brought NYC streets to you. Wherever you lived, it could be in Paris, Mexico City, San Antonio or somewhere in middle America all you had to do is put on your headphones and spin one of Lou Reed’s records and you where immediately transported to the underbelly of NYC within the guise of his timeless anti-pop songs that were song storied tributes to tramps, transvestites and transients of the city he called home.
Although Transformer’s “Wild Side” is Reed’s most famous NYC downtown crossover pop hit single, 1978’s “Street Hassle” was the anti-pop epic that dived further down into Gotham’s underbelly, so much that even the gutter punk transients were given a voice in Lou Reed’s eleven plus minute mini anti-rock opus. This wasn’t an uplifting Pete Townshend/The Who style operetta; Reed brought his personal downtown opera to the streets. Reed didn’t want you to take a Walk, Lou demanded that you became part of the same Wild Side streets that even the lowest of the low-dies and criminals would avoid… Reed didn’t want you to relax while listening to any of his songs as Lou once famously said, “The music is all. People should die for it. People are dying for everything else, so why not the music?” “Hassle” was so beautifully hazardous, while listening to this Street epic it actually feels like you could actually get held up at any moment. Don’t worry— Reed just wants you to lose your senses while experiencing his songs.
I have to admit, the best description of Street Hassle came from Dave Thompson’s book, Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell: The Dangerous Glitter of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, when the author wrote, “Street Hassle bears Reed’s confidence out, although no matter how great the bulk of the album it was always going to be mauled by its title track, a three-part mini movie centered around a slow fuck on a kitchen table, a sordid street-smart drug death and the ensuing uncertainty regarding what to do with the body. Angelic choruses and insistent cello powered the performance, and there was even a cameo from Bruce Springsteen.”Yes, you read right, did you know that The Boss, Bruce Springsteen himself, made a vocal cameo in the middle of Lou Reed’s three part cacophony opus that is “Street Hassle?”
So why did The Boss sing on this title track to Reed’s 1978 album, Lou explained in Nick Johnstone’s Lou Reed ‘Talking’ when the former leader of The Velvet Underground said, “Bruce Springsteen was mixing in the studio below us and I thought, ‘How fortuitous’, People expect me to badmouth him because he’s from New Jersey but I think he’s really fabulous. He did the part so well that I had to bury him in the mix. I knew Bruce would that that recitation seriously because he really is of the street, you know.”
For a 1980 interview with Dave DiMartino in Talk About a Dream: The Essential Interviews of Bruce Springsteen, Bruce talked about how he ended up on Reed’s Street Hassle when the Boss explained, “[Lou Reed] called me up in the studio, it was funny. We were at Record Plant; I hadn’t really met him and I liked his stuff, I always really liked it. He called me up and said, “I’ve got this part,” and it was related to “Born to Run, “I guess, in some way, and said, “Come on upstairs,” and he had these words, and I went upstairs…Yeah, and so I did it one, no, I think I did it twice, and he just picked one and I was really happy.” But there was one caveat that Springsteen left out as the condition to track his vocal on Reed’s “Street Hassle” as Lou clarified in Chris Roberts’ book Walk on the Wild Side: The Stories Behind The Songs of Lou Reed, “I knew Steve Van Zandt [Springsteen’s guitarist] and we asked him if Bruce would do this monologue. And Bruce said sure…but don’t use my name. I wish all of Bruce’s fans had gone out and bought it, but since we couldn’t use his name, they think it’s me imitating him.”
Now Springsteen and Reed fans now the true story. In reality, the only name that was necessary on this classic opus was Lou Reed. “Street Hassle” was Sweet Lou’s will forever be known as his lyrical baby. Bruce wanting to be uncredited just sealed the fact that this 1978 title track was solely Reed’s creation. “Street Hassle” wasn’t just one of Reed’s finest moment on wax, as he told Victor Bockris in his book Transformer, “I keep hedging my bet, instead of saying that’s really me, but [“Street Hassle”] is me, as much as you can get on record. I used my moods. I get into one of these dark, melancholy things and I just milk it for everything I can. I know I’ll be out of it soon and I won’t be looking at things the same way. For every dark mood, I also have a euphoric opposite.”
Even Reed realized “Street Hassle” was one his first artistic triumph in years. Lou talked extensively, in the book Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll, with author Mikal Gilmore about his pride and joy, the title cut from his 1978 album Street Hassle, Reed explained the meaning of the second part of his opus when he said, “Let me propose something to you. Take the guy who’s singing in the second part of ‘Street Hassle, ‘ who’s saying, ‘Hey that’s some bad shit that you came to our place with/But you ought to be a little more careful around those little girls…’ Now, he may come off a little cruel, but let’s say he’s also the guy who singing the last part about losing love. He’s already lost the one for him. He’s not aware of those feelings; he’s just handling the situation, that’s all. And who would know better than the guy who lost somebody in a natural way? That’s what my songs are all about: They’re one-to-ones. I just let people eavesdrop on them.” And those eavesdropped conversations have become some of the most eternally beautiful lyrical reflections inside the genius voice of Lou Reed. Sweet Lou doesn’t just create fairy tales out of thin air, Reed crafts urban flavors that cut deep inside the heart of how it feels to love, lose and feel lost in New York City.
Some might ask, what exactly was Reed’s goal for Street Hassle? Lou replied when he famously argued in Bill Flanagan’s Written in my Soul: Conversations with Rock’s Great Songwriters, “What if Raymond Chandler had approached rock & roll? Well, you might get Street Hassle. What is a real writer came in, just like they brought real writers like William Faulkner out to Hollywood to write screenplays? That’s what I wanted to do in a rock & roll format. I’m still for it. It’s like sitting and listening to Brecht and Weill’s Song for the Seven Deadly Sins; there’s a song for every sin out there. There’s endless things to write about. You could do that with rock, too. That’s what I want to do.” And that’s exactly what Reed did with this three part opus, 1978’s “Street Hassle.”
I think Mikal Gilmore said it best when he wrote in his book, Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll, “Lou Reed doesn’t just write about squalid characters, he allows them to leer and breathe in their own voices, and he colors familiar landscapes through their own eyes. In the process, Reed has created a body of music that comes as close to disclosing the parameters of human loss and recovery as we’re unlikely to find. That qualifies him, in my opinion, as one of the few real heroes’ rock & roll has raised.”
Gilmore is so right and the thing I loved most about Reed is that he never apologized for his songs, once famously saying, “I don’t believe in dressing up reality. I don’t believe in using makeup to make things look smoother.” The only thing smooth that ever came out of Reed’s mouth was the sound of Sweet Lou’s voice. He personified the cacophony of his urban city poetics as his authentically NYC street voice was the pillow to all those tramps, transvestites and transients, that Reed gave a metaphorical home inside of his lyrics filled with realism stained concrete. Honor the Downtown poet that was Lou Reed by putting your hands in the air and let go inside of his seedy underrated 1978 urban NYC epic—“Street Hassle.”