Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Queen For a Day

Lou Reed : Street Hassle

In February of 1978, Lou Reed released his first album for Arista, Street Hassle. It came out as Reed was being celebrated as the godfather of punk, and around the time he told Lenny Kaye he was putting the life he shared with his transsexual lover, Rachel, behind him.

"No more bullshit, dyed hair, faggot junkie trip," is the line he uttered, quoted in Anthony DeCurtis's biography.

The repudiation shows up in the very first song on the album, "Gimmie Some Good Times", where Reed the artist (performing "Sweet Jane") is confronted by Reed the fan:

Hey, if that ain't the rock'n'roll animal himself, what you doing bro. 
(Standing on the corner) 
Well, I can see that, what you got in your hand
 (Suitcase in my hand) 
No, shit, what's this 
(Jack is in his corset, Jane is in her vest)  
Fucking faggot Johnson 
(Jack, sweet Jane, I'm in a rock'n'roll band)  
Well, I can see that 

Despite its one time five star rating in the second edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide, multiple listenings have convinced me this is not the great return to form that it's reputed to be. We all wanted to believe the Rolling Stone magazine review, declaring Street Hassle “a stunning incandescent triumph”. Or, as Mikal Gilmore called the album in a 1979 Rolling Stone article,  "a jolting statement of self affirmation. But Robert Christgau was probably being kind with his B+ rating when he wrote 

 I know Lou worked his ass off on this one, but he worked his ass off on Berlin, too--like so many of his contemporaries, maybe he's better off not aiming for masterpieces. The title sequence honors Eros as much as Thanatos, a heartening development, and I'm a belated convert to "I Wanna Be Black," which treats racism as a stupid joke and gets away with it. But the production is muddled and the self-consciousness self-serving. 


40 years later, it is the 11 minute title cut that stands the test of time. Lou Reed once described it as an answer to the question "What would happen if Raymond Chandler wrote a rock 'n' roll song?"

The song is broken up in three spoken word parts, including a harrowing tale of a drug overdose, welded together by a beautiful string section engineer Rod O'Brien singled out from the session. With Reed in the room, O'Brien built the song.

In his article for Uncut Magazine on the making if Street Hassle, Damien Love quotes O'Brien :

“We sat there working on it then for two-and-a-half, three days. And then Lou discovered that I had kept all three of his vocal pieces. And he’s like: ‘Oh, that’s fantastic. Okay. Let’s do it in this order. No, no, let’s move this bit to here…’ And so we had to figure it out, how to get from the acapella of the girls, to the bass riff, how to make all these sections and stories come together. And in those days, there was no computer, you literally had to cut tape, put it together, cross-fade it with two machines and then…‘Ah, nah, that’s not working.’ And then try it again. It was two-and-a-half or three days of this kind of stuff, where we just kept trying to make things gel and flow. And I think it came out pretty good. It was pretty bizarre. And at the very end of it, Lou paid me a very nice compliment. He said, ‘Y’know, you wrote this song as much as I did.’”

The third section ,"Slipaway", features an Bruce Springsteen reading the line "tramps like us, we were born to pay". Springsteen has been in another studio at The Record Plant, working on Darkness on the Edge of Town. Reed wanted to make sure it was okay with Springsteen that he use the line and then just asked Springsteen to read it. Springsteen agreed, as long as he wouldn't be credited. He'd had enough of lawyers to last a lifetime.

The most important lines of the song reference Rachel:

Love has gone away
And there's no one here now
And there's nothing left to say
But oh how I miss him, baby ...
Took the rings off my fingers
And there's nothing left to say

"That person really did exist," Reed would say later. "He did take the rings right off my fingers, and I do miss him".

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