Up From the Streets
Street Hassle by Lou Reed 1978, Arista Records
VERY FEW ROCK ALBUMS being cut these days will ever be worth a buck in a used record store five years from now. They come sealed and shrink-wrapped with all the Hollywood tack your subconscious can handle. They all inevitably get billed as "masterpieces" or "significant works" by their publishers and some suspiciously sympathetic reviewers--the music in the grooves is a mere excuse to sell the package.
Though the stifling influence of cost/benefit capitalism has tightened its control of the record industry over the past five years and glutted the market with hordes of boring, formulaic music, there are still some creative things going on in rock'n'roll today--and one of those things is Lou Reed's new album, Street Hassle. It is a hope--not revolutionary or even pivotal in its influence on music--but solid and refreshing and still; it's rock'n'roll.
This is not to say that anything Lou Reed does will ever gain as much lasting notoreity or inportance as Sgt. Pepper or even Surrealistic Pillow. But Lou Reed, along with Patti Smith and some other fringe and hard-core members of the new wave constitute a sighing reassurance that there is a future to rock in America; prophecies come true that rock'n'roll is here to stay.
As the Stones become part of history and Springsteen becomes reminiscent of our high school years, groups like Steely Dan and Electric Light Orchestra have attempted to inject some creativity into rock style. In the process, ELO turned into bubble-gum celluloid some time ago, and Steely Dan drifted into the realm of jazz (or rock-jazz, as some like to say).
The point is that no one, but no one--with the exception of the netherworld artists of the New Wave--have been able to do anything creative with rock'n'roll without losing that driven, passionate crank that distinguishes rock from jazz, blues and folk.
But after hearing the stylus grind through the heart-beat strains of Street Hassle yet another time, it is clear that the future of rock is here. Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and even Willie Loco and Blondie have proven to be ear-catchers out of the stacks, the kind of stuff that turns your heart nicely the first time you hear it, so you stop and think about what you just heard and place the stylus back a bit so you can hear it again. Street Hassle is more than just a collection of songs. The first side is a fluent cavalcade of melodic bass and brash guitar and, of course, the twisted, driving vocals of Lou Reed.
"Gimme Some Good Times" is a bright, youthful rock piece that cranks along into "Dirt," a rambling, thumping twangy ode of anger to one "pig of a person--cheap uptown dirt"; cries from a relationship run amok.
The title cut comes next, backboned by an acoustic bass line that reverberates with classical elegance and never stops through this rambling, lyrical, apocalyptic 11-minute street poem. "Street Hassle" is divided into three movements, each with the same bass line, intermittently using piano, sax, electric bass and quixotic female background vocals to supplement the poetics of Lou Reed. "Street Hassle" is an honest expression of life in the city street--a confusing apocalypse of frightening anonymity and frustration.
The second side of the album is not nearly as powerful or masterful as the first. "Shooting Star" is Reed's semi-sardonic mimic of David Bowie; "I Wanna Be Black" is at times painful--"I Wanna Be Black and get shot in the face like Martin Luther King"--but illuminating in its surprise, raw and blunt, like the life it sings of.
In "Real Good Time Together" Reed plays with his voice through a phase shifter, and the rest of the side experiments with different devices and techniques. "Wait" is a kind of happy-go-lucky tune that ends the album, tying saxophone and the other mad, rambling instruments together into a carnival of sound.
Reed wrote all the songs for Street Hassle, and he plays guitar, bass, piano and vocals on the album. Reed and Richard Robinson produce the album with impressive finesse and vision, mixing the cool female vocals behind Reed's harsh sounds at all the right times. They even connect the second and third movements of "Street Hassle" with a baroque soprano solo.
BUT BENEATH ALL the technical and musical refinement of this album, the beauty of Street Hassle--the element in its composition that distinguishes it from the rest of the celluloid--is its honesty. It was honesty that articulated the rage, frustration and exultation of the generation that turned on to rock'n'roll in the '50s and '60s, and now there are some artists who are being honest about the '70s. Unlike the now naive (in fact, senile) voices of the Rock Establishment--including Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney--Street Hassle is sung right from the street, with the same honesty about life that Jagger and Stewart once had:
Gimme Gimme Gimme Some Good Times
Gimme Gimme Gimme Some Pain
Don't You Know Things Always Look Ugly
To Me They Always Look the Same...
And that's why you'll be shocked the first time you hear Street Hassle. It's the kind of album where you hear an outrageous line or a spine-tingling chord change and you've just got to hear it again:
Why don't you grab your old lady by the feet
And lay'er out in the darkest street
And by morning she's just another hit'n'run
You know some people got no choice
And they can never find a voice to talk with or ever call their own
So the first thing they see that allows them the right to be they follow it...
You know, it's called, "Bad Luck."
Street Hassle hits with the kind of honesty that made Sgt. Pepper, Surrealistic Pillow and Let It Bleed classics. This is music that is so accurate and honest in its expression that it becomes part of what is going on in the world, rather than just an artful description. But perhaps most amazingly, Street Hassle achieves honesty and creativity without merging with jazz, blues, folk, rock-jazz, rhythm and blues, disco, for folk-rock--it's still just good rock'n'roll.