Lou Reed – Street Hassle (1978)

Despite his iconisim, Lou Reed never had a top ten Billboard hit during his career. However that never stopped the “Rock n’ Roll Animal” from selling albums and reaching an audience.

Did you know that Lou Reed has never had a top ten hit on the Billboard charts?  It’s true!  The ultimate rock n’ roll outsider, the closest he ever came was in 1972 when “Walk on the Wild Side“ petered out at the #16 spot. Yet, despite his lack of chart success, Lou Reed remains to be not only one of rock n’ roll’s most respected and revered icons, but the quintessential modern day urban poet.  Chronicling the underbelly of the New York bohemian society in which he ruled over, his body of a work is an orgy of drugs, sex, death and perversion.  His stories are filled with vibrant characters and outrageous situations from the cusps of society, and he covered topics too taboo for the radio.  He wasn’t interested in writing hit records or songs people would like.  He was more interested in writing about the dank and bleak truths he witnessed that most people were too conventional to even know about.  Tragic stories about the wrong people in the wrong places at the wrong times filled with sardonic satire, harsh truths and poetic lyrics which fell somewhere between rage and love.  To me, Lou Reed writes music the way rock n’ roll should sound – raw, dangerous and self-aware.

I have had a love affair with Lou Reed since discovering his music while working at a college radio station as a teenager.  For a cynical kid caught up in the woes of teenage depression, Lou Reed really spoke to me.  But what is strange is that no matter how old I’ve grown, how much I evolve and how much therapy I’ve had, Lou Reed’s music never grows stale to me.  It’s been injected deep into my bloodstream, and I really feel that it is amongst the most important rock music ever recorded.  Each of his albums has something special, each of his eras are interesting and unique and his catalogue is filled with musical masterpieces that shock the system and challenge the listener.  But if you asked me to pick one Lou Reed song which encompasses everything he was about, I think a lot of Reed’s devotees would agree on “Street Hassle.”  His 11 minute opus released on his 1977 album of the same name, “Street Hassle” has it all.  An ugly and disturbing tale of sex, passion, drugs and death, the song is easily Lou Reed’s definitive masterpiece.  It’s not only one of his most disturbing compositions, but also one of his most personal and most beautiful. 

Recorded during the summer of 1977, “Street Hassle” was filled with an intensity and chaos that seemed to be gripping all of New York City.

Despite Reed’s work being inhabited by colorful characters that have all become familiar to his legion of fans, when asked he’d often claim that the people and situations in his work were primarily fictional.  We know now that this wasn’t entirely true, and often real figures made cameos in his songs.  In the case of “Street Hassle,” Lou always stated that the story was completely made up and for the most part that seems to be true. However the song’s drama was filled with inspiration of real life events, and by the time the story is over Reed does something that he rarely did.  He opened his own black heart and allowed himself to bleed all over the song, giving the listener a rare glimpse into his own tormented pain.  For a man who could create powerful emotions from fictional narratives, these fleeting moments of reality in “Street Hassle” sealed its power and made it one of his most beloved recordings.

For those who haven’t really taken a deep listen to “Street Hassle” in its entirety, let me quickly summarize the content of the song for you.  Accompanied by a pulsating cello and bass line and a dramatic string section, this long narrative is broken down into three separate sections – “Waltzing Matilda,” “Street Hassle,” and “Slip Away.”  The story opens with Reed telling of a sexual encounter gone very right, until it goes very wrong.  We are introduced to Waltzing Matilda who hires herself a male prostitute and in great unapologetic graphic detail, Reed describes their sensual night of ecstasy in a narrative that straddles a line between pornography and romance.  Lewd, but strangely sensual, at the end of the verse Reed bluntly states “When the sun rose and he made to leave…. neither one regretted a thing.”   Very mature, very adult, very final.

“Sha la la la la, man. Why don’t you just slip away.” A tale filled with equal parts horror and passion, “Street Hassle” is one of Lou Reed’s most personal compositions.

The song then breaks as if it’s over but starts again to what sounds like the haunting wails of a crying angel followed by a chorus of female vocalists singing sweetly to a sad string section.  After a few moments Reed comes back in the role of an ominous jive talking New Yorker who announces “Hey, that c__t’s not breathing, I think she’s had too much” and through a long rambling monologue we learn that a woman has died of a drug overdose.  Just who Lou Reed is supposed to be is unclear (I have always assumed he is either a drug dealer or the owner of a drug den).  Although it’s never stated it exactly, it is easily assumed that the dead woman is Waltzing Matilda, and that Reed’s character is talking to the stud that she was with.  As the stud is trying to figure out what to do, Reed matter of factly chastises the man for bringing her to “our place” and allowing this to happen to her and suggests “Why don’t you grab your old lady by the feet, and just lay her out in the darkest street, and by morning she’s just another hit nd run.” The verse is brutal and unforgiving, but pure Reed at his finest.

Again, the song breaks, but starts again with that distinct baseline and a musical reprise, followed by a strange cryptic narrative by…. Bruce Springsteen?  What’s he doing here?  The future Boss mumbles something incoherent about pain and broken hearts and sad songs which is followed by Lou Reed baring it all to the world, stating that “Love is gone away” and pleading for it not to “Slip away.” 

Lou Reed at The Record Plant during the “Street Hassle” sessions.

“Street Hassle” was written in the summer of 1977 when Lou was holed up at an NYC recording studio called The Record Plant and looking to get lost in creating his eighth studio album.  Having released two solid albums the previous year, “Cony Island Baby” and “Rock n’ Roll Heart,” Reed was on a creative streak and at the top of his game.  But emotionally it was another story altogether. There was a tension and a rage within Reed which seemed to match an overall anxiety being felt through New York City that year.  One of the hottest summers in the city’s history, it was also the year of The Son of Sam murders, and a massive blackout had caused mass hysteria and multiple deaths on one chaotic night.   The heat, panic, terror and chaos were gripping the city, and it all seemed to overflow into the music that Reed was creating.

“I’d like to send this one out to Lou and Rachel”: Lou Reed with Rachel Humphreys, who he was in a relationship with from 1974 until 1977.

Hooked on a diet of scotch and amphetamines, Reed was also going through his own personal crisis, making his mood more dour than usual.  His three year relationship with Rachel Humphreys had come to an end.  The inspiration for many of the songs on “Coney Island Baby” (“I’d like to send this one out to Lou and Rachel,” Reed notably says at the end of the title track), Rachel was a transgender woman who Reed had met at Club 82 in 1974.  Although she managed to stay out of the spotlight and they remained private in their personal life, Rachel became a legendary figure to Reed’s following, and although he was openly bi-sexual and had relationships with both men and women, at the time of his relationship with Rachel Reed began identifying himself as exclusively gay.  The couple lived together, and Rachel had toured with Reed under the guise of his “road manager” (in reality, Rachel did Reed’s hair and make-up) and was pictured on the back cover of the “Sally Can’t Dance” album.  Reed’s most public relationship up until that point, Rachel became the subject of a certain fascination to his fan base.  But Reed was apparently insensitive about Rachel’s decision to identify as a woman and undergo a full sexual transition, which in the early 70’s Reed was skeptical of.  After a rocky and tumultuous love affair. the pair finally broke it off in early 1977.  Devastated by the break-up, Reed became increasingly self-destructive and sought solace in drugs, liquor and music.

Reed’s original idea for his latest album was to call it “I Want to Be Black,” after a satirical song he had written about a white Jewish college student’s envy of the black power movement.  He had planned a highly offensive album cover for the project which, thankfully, he was unable to get the label’s approval on.  But despite his depression, substance abuse and emotional instability, the material he was creating was still strong despite absolutely nothing being created that could even be considered a potential single.  So, when Arista Records president Clive Davis heard a little two minute dirge that Reed was playing around with, he thought that maybe this one could potentially be a hit.  With very little composition to the piece, Davis encouraged Reed to expand on it.  Well, Reed did, extending it to a length too long to be a single and with language and imagery that couldn’t be played on commercial radio.  So much for it being a hit, but this would, of course, became the birth of “Street Hassle.”

The inspiration for the disposal of Waltzing Matilda’s death in “Street Hassle” was from the death of Factory regular Eric Emmerson in 1975.

Now as Reed would later state, the basic storyline of “Street Hassle” was indeed fictionalized.  But the garish and harsh fate of Waltzing Matila was actually inspired by the real life death of Lou Reed’s friend Eric Emerson.  One of the regulars during the height of Andy Warhol’s Factory days, Lou Reed fans will best know Emerson’s image as the man’s head projected on the wall behind The Velvet Underground on the back cover of their 1967 debut album “The Velvet Underground and Nico.”  I always thought that the superimposed head was Reed’s, but when taking a second look I can now see it is, indeed, Eric Emerson.

Eric Emerson’s super imposed image appeared on the back cover of “The Velvet Underground and Nico: (1966).

A fixture on the New York bohemian landscape at the end of the sixties and early seventies, Eric Emerson came to New York as a trained ballet dancer, and caught the eye of Andy Warhol dancing at The Dom in 1966.  Entranced by Emerson’s good looks and sculptured physique, Warhol asked him if he’d be interested in appearing in his films.  Emerson agreed and made his film debut in Warhol’s underground art house classic “Chelsea Girls” (1966).  Becoming a fixture as one of Warhol’s eccentric entourage, Emerson continued to appear in additional Warhol films, including “Lonesome Cowboys” (1968) and “Heat” (1972), and be involved with many of Warhol and companies’ various artistic ventures.

In 1971 Eric Emerson became the lead singer of The Magic Tramps who became regulars at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s.

Around 1971, during a trip to Hollywood, Emerson met an LA based rock group calling themselves The Magic Tramps.  Convincing them to relocate to New York, Emerson took the role of the group’s new lead singer/front man and they became regulars at Max’s Kansas City and the early days of CBGB’s.  Although the band never released an album during their formation, a compilation of their music was released on CD in 2005 and is an interesting listen. 

But despite his social importance and popularity within his own community, Emerson would not live long enough to gain the same fame as many of his friends and contemporaries.  On the morning of May 28th, 1975, Emerson was found dead in a New York alley alongside his bicycle.  With no eyewitnesses to what had happened, it was deemed to be a hit and run accident by the authorities.  However, in the weeks that followed rumors began to float through the NYC art community that Emerson had actually overdosed on heroin and the people he was with, whose identities seem to be a well-guarded secret still today, dragged him into the alley and staged his bicycle by his body in order to avoid a police investigation.  Eric Emerson was only 30 years old.

Andy Warhol paid tribute to Eric Emerson in 1982 with his silkscreen “Eric Emerson (Chelsea Girls).”

Eric Emerson’s mysterious death became sort of a legend throughout the community, and his loss deeply affected the people who knew him.  In 1982 Andy Warhol immortalized Emerson in one of his silkscreens, but the best known “tribute” to Emerson remains Lou Reed’s acknowledgment of his possible true fate in the lyrics of “Street Hassle.”  The story may not be outlined in the song, but the people who knew Emerson and his story knew exactly what Reed was talking about.

But one of the most curious moments of “Street Hassle” remains to be the spoken soliloquy which happens between “Street Hassle” and “Slip Away” where Bruce Springsteen shows up out of nowhere and mutters some cryptic dialogue.  Not commonly known as being one of Lou Redd’s associates, its an unexpected and curious uncredited cameo where Springsteen utters some familiar words with a slight change – “You know, tramps like us.  We were born to pay.

“Tramps like us, we are born to pay”: Not yet a house hould name, Bruce Springsteen made a unplanned and uncredited appearance on “Street Hassle” where he says the phrase that Lou Reed stole from him.

Apparently, it wasn’t until they were laying down the track that producer Richard Robinson interrupted the recording and asked Reed if he had any idea that he had just ripped off one of Springsteen’s most famous lyrics.  Reed claims that he had no idea, and in his state of mind at the time this is possibly true.  Although Springsteen was not yet a household name nor rock n’ roll icon yet, Reed and Springsteen were actually running in each other’s worlds.  Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band had been playing as concert openers for Lou Reed for a few years, and at that very moment were downstairs in the same building recording their 1978 release “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”

According to Robinson, he and Reed went and found Bruce Springsteen and showed him Reed’s “accidental” lyrical theft and Reed personally asked Springsteen if he could use it.  Springsteen had no problems with it at all but, in the conversation the idea came up that maybe it’d be interesting if Bruce recorded the soliloquy instead.  With time on his hands, Springsteen went into the studio and laid down the track in one take:

Well hey man, that’s just a lie
It’s the lie she tells her friends
‘Cause a real song
The real song she won’t even admit to herself
The beating in her heart
It’s a song lots of people know
It’s a painful song
With a load of sad truth
But life’s full of sad songs
Penny for a wish
But wishin’ won’t make you so, Joe
But a pretty kiss or a pretty face can’t have its way
Joe, tramps like us, we were born to pay.’

The death of Waltzing Matilda in “Street Hassle” has been seen as a metaphor for the end of Lou Reed and Rachel Humpherys.

Now no matter how many times I’ve gone over these lines, I’ve never been able to fully understand what it’s supposed to mean or what Lou Reed was trying to say.  However, it is the header to the most emotional part of “Street Hassle.”  While it has been long speculated that the death of Waltzing Matilda may have been inspired by Eric Emerson, it has been also believed that her death is a metaphor for the end of Reed’s relationship with Rachel Humphreys.  This becomes fairly obvious when Reed lets down his usual cynical and chilly façade and the listener gets a rare glimpse of him in a vulnerable state.  “Slip Away” is a grieving lover’s lament to the end of love, and the anguish in Reed’s voice is so evident that it becomes the perfect painful conclusion to his beautiful horror story:

“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
Oh baby, come on and slip away
Come on baby, why don’t you slip away?”

“Love has gone away
Took the rings off my fingers
And there’s nothing left to say
But oh how, oh how I need it, baby
Come on baby, I need you, baby
Oh, please don’t slip away
I need your loving so bad, babe
Please don’t slip away.”

Advert for “Street Hassel” from “Rolling Stone Magazine.”

If “Street Hassle” wasn’t memorable enough with its haunting and brutal story, the emotional honesty at its conclusion secured it as being one of Lou Reed’s finest moments.

Although the album was full of strong songs that would become favorites amongst Reed fans, “Street Hassle” was obviously the stand out track and became the title of the album (a much better choice than “I Want to Be Black”).  It was released in February 1978 and, while it, of course, generated no hits due to the extreme nature of the content, it became an instant classic to Lou Reed’s legion of fans. 

While he’d weave in and out of various forms of self destruction through his life, 1977 was a particular tough time for Lou Reed which only added to the power of the “Street Hassle” album.  Like most successful art, pain produces potent work.  Of course Reed would bounce back and allow himself to fall in love again.  A few years later, in 1980, he married designer Sylvia Morales, who he stayed married to until 1994.  He married again in 2008 to artist Laurie Anderson, who he was with until his death in 2013. 

Rachel Humpherys on January 30, 1990 in of an undisclosed illness suspected to be AIDS related.

As for Rachel, little was heard from or known about her after the split with Lou Reed.  She literally slipped out of sight.  But on January 30, 1990, it was reported that Rachel had passed away from an undisclosed illness in a Hell’s Kitchen hospital.  Although a cause of death was not reported, the hospital, St. Clare’s, was being used as a facility to help treat people suffering from AIDS.  Rachel was put to rest in Potter’s Field in The Bronx with many destitute people who died of the epidemic.  Although she died a tragic lonely death, her legacy remains as an important element to the Lou Reed mythos.

When looking in retrospect at his body of work, I don’t think it’s far fetched to say that “Street Hassle” is amongst Lou Reed’s greatest compositions.  I think most fans of his work would agree.  But what makes it amongst his most unique is the moments of true-life inspiration, the haunting beauty that flows from its garish bleakness and how it nearly cut Lou Reed’s usually cold heart out before our ears.  It is one of Lou Reed’s most honest and revealing recordings and a painfully potent listen.

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