Friday, August 7, 2009

August 7: Lou Reed, "Street Hassle"

Artist: Lou Reed
Album: Street Hassle
Year: 1978
Label: Arista

One might assume that, being one of the godfathers of punk, Lou Reed would have been on top of the world in the late 1970's. Having been one of the largest influences on the entire punk genre which was exploding across the globe, it would have been easy for Reed to sit back and "enjoy" the fruits of his labor. However, the reality was, with countless bands pumping out stripped-down, poetic verse, Reed was no longer the "only one," and Reed found himself doing a great deal of self examination. It is almost ironic though that Reed went to great lengths to distance himself from the punk genre, often commenting that he was far too literate to be part of, or into "punk." Though he had already found legendary success with the Velvet Underground, as well as his iconic 1972 solo release, Transformer, it's clear that he still had much to say and explore musically. Though it is difficult to find a "bad" record of his, be it either solo or with Velvet Underground, Lou Reed recorded his most raw and introspective album ever, with his gloomy, almost ominous 1978 release, Street Hassle.

Coming two years after his last major release, 1976's Coney Island Baby, Reed veered back from the strange direction he had taken. With Coney Island Baby, Reed seemed to suddenly be writing warmer, almost love-like songs, which were a great departure from everything he had done previously. On Street Hassle, he is back to his old form, with much darker, more bleak material. He even begins the album by mocking himself, singing the opening lines to "Sweet Jane" with an obvious sense of sarcasm and disgust. There are a few notable guests on Street Hassle, but perhaps the most intriguing is when a young Bruce Springsteen delivers a brief, somber, spoken word piece on the albums' epic title track. The song itself is easily one of the most amazing pieces that Reed has ever written, as it is a three-part epic tale of life on the streets of New York City. It is, by far, one of the most sensational songs ever composed, and its raw, vivid tale is, as Reed himself put it, "...a song that had a great monologue set to rock. Something that could have been written by William Burroughs, Hubert Selby, John Rechy, Tennessee Williams, Nelson Algren, maybe a little Raymond Chandler..." While it is clearly the stand out song on the record, every aspect of Street Hassle is top notch, from the lyrics to the production to the music.

Presenting nearly a complete contrast to the heavily polished, overly glam sound of Transformer, Street Hassle is a far more direct and organic experience. The music on Street Hassle is an amazing combination of beyond minimalist studio work, as well as live recordings from a performance in Munich, Germany. Ranging from sparse, drumless compositions to snarky, swinging songs, the album has a bit of everything, with Lou Reed's voice making the album a cohesive unit. Perhaps best known for his work with the band Rhinoceros, Michael Fonfara sits in on piano on a pair of songs on the album, while there are a trio of guitarists along with Reed scattered throughout the record. While nearly all of the songs are nothing more than guitar, bass, and (sometimes) drums, there are moments on Street Hassle were Reed gets experimental with the music. The aforementioned "Street Hassle" is an explosion of varied instrumentation, as Reed incorporates a full string section, which plays beautifully alongside a meandering bassline. The song also features an angelic choral arrangement, which helps to give the song its breathtaking mood. Whether it is the basic "rock configuration" or a whole lot more or a whole lot less, the music throughout Street Hassle is perfect in its simplicity.

As is the case with every song he's ever sung, it is truly impossible to mistake the voice of Lou Reed. Gruff and gritty, Reed is more often more like a poet in his delivery than the sound and style of a singer. Far more concerned with the meter and rhythm and attitude of the song as opposed to the melody, Reed's vocals are always overflowing with attitude and emotion. The true essence of Street Hassle can be found within the albums darkest and most self-hating song, "Dirt." The song itself sums up how disgusted Reed is with himself, and it is a clear sign that he realizes that he himself has almost become cliché. However, though countless others have attempted to imitate his style, the fact of the matter is, nobody has ever represented the somewhat vagabond, honest street poet as perfectly as Lou Reed. When one looks at Street Hassle as a complete album, it gives off an extremely confrontational tone, with songs like "Leave Me Alone" and the antagonistic "I Wanna Be Black" almost begging someone to take issue with the albums' content. This stays true throughout the album, as Reed's vocals and lyrics are as sharp and scathing as ever, and he truly sounds stronger than ever. One other interesting aspect is that, among the female backing vocalists from the live tracks, one will hear none other than singer and producer, Genya Ravan. As has always been the case, regardless of the music, once Lou Reed gets in front of the microphone, the songs go from "good" to nothing short of phenomenal.

Throughout his entire career, Lou Reed has always stayed true to himself, and made the records HE wanted to make, regardless of what his label or the general public thought. From his experimental days with the Velvet Underground to the glam rock blockbuster, Transformer, the style and sound of his music ranges greatly, with his voice and lyrics being the constant. By the time 1978 rolled around, the punk movement was at its height, and bands across the world were stripping the music down to basics and capping it off with an attitude-driven, rhythm-before-melody vocal sound. It is due to this underground popularity that the mood and approach that made Lou Reed a counter-culture icon become almost a copy of himself. However, it is moments like these where the true innovators of style find a manner in which to sound exactly like the others, yet simultaneously sound like nothing else at the time. With Street Hassle, Lou Reed is musically at his most creative and innovative in years, and the resulting album is a stunning musical masterpiece. Taking the ideas of straightforward, unelaborate musical compositions and harsh, emotionally driven lyrics, Lou Reed crafted one of the most brilliantly dark, yet intense and brutal albums ever with his phenomenal 1978 release, Street Hassle.

Standout tracks: "Dirt," "Street Hassle," and "Shooting Star."

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