The first time I heard the song Street Hassle, by Lou Reed, I was sitting at the bar inside the Pocket in Santa Cruz, after hours, with vicki next to me. I was talking to Jerry, the bar owner and my very good friend. We both love Lou Reed, so we were talking about that, and then Jerry goes to the jukebox and puts on a song that swings and rocks in a jazzy lounge sort of way, and for some reason, although I've never heard the song before, I know that it's Lou Reed singing "I Wanna Be Black." Don't ask me how I know that, I just do. I ask Jerry, "Is this 'I wanna be black?'" And he nods, and proceeds to sing along with the track, which is offensive and racy and sharp and clever; punk rock in a swinging jazz suit. And then, after the song ends, Street Hassle, the title track of the album comes on, and my life changes.
There's the looping circular motion of the cellos, the emotional modern classical hypnotizing feel of the staccato cello notes, and the warm tone of the guitar, whirling in a soft storm of art. In the bar, with my arm around vicki's waist; vicki, who I am really into at the time (and for only a short time), I am enraptured by this new song. The symphony continues for a while, and I'm taking it all in; it's pure to me, amazing. Lou's voice begins to sing/talk in the hybrid style that I've come to easily recognize, but this song is new. And it's long. It's a story, and I am immersed in the beauty of this track. Reed's voice remains cool throughout most of the song, but by the third part, it's vulnerable and beautiful, sad and poignant, deeply moving. It's a totally different side of Lou Reed.
The song is divided into three parts: "Waltzing Matilda," "Street Hassle," and "Slip Away".
First, it's a one night stand love story, lust and sex and New York nights, set to the hypnotic chorus of the cellos. And then the song fades away into the dark and haunting voices of the backing singers, beautiful black girls that bring the song to a standstill in a moving yet short acapella break. And then the cellos start in again, and I'm brought back into the flow of the song.
The story turns dark: an overdosed girl in some house in the city; she took too much, and she's a goner. Lou's monologue is hip street poetry; he's talking to the guy who brought the girl over to the house:
"Hey that cunt's not breathing, I think she's had too much, or something or other, hey man, do you know what I mean? I don't mean to scare ya, but you're the one that came here, and you're the one that's gotta take her when you leave. I'm not being smart or trying to act cold on my part, and I'm not gonna wear my heart on my sleeve. But you know people get all emotional and sometimes, man, they just don't act rational; they think they're just on tv.
"I'm glad that we met, man -- it really was nice talking, and I really wish that there was a little more time to speak. But you know it could be a hassle trying to explain yourself to a police officer about how it was your old lady got herself stiffed. And it's not like we could help her, there was nothing no one could do, and if there was man, you know I woulda been the first. But when someone turns that blue, it's a universal truth, and you just know that bitch'll never fuck again.
"By the way, that's really some bad shit that you came to our place with, but you ought to be more careful around the little girls. It's either the best or it's the worst, and since I don't have to choose I guess I won't, and I know this ain't no way to treat a guest . . . but why don't you grab your old lady by the feet and just lay her out in some darkened street and by morning she's just another hit and run.
"You know some people got no choice and they can never find a voice to talk with that they can even call their own. So the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be why they follow it, you know it's called, bad luck."
In the monologue part about the chick od'ing, Jerry is speaking along with the song, eyes closed. I watch him as I listen, trying to take it all in, drunk and stoned, knowing that I will have to get this album soon -- it's one of the few Lou Reed albums that I don't have at the time. Earlier in the spring, when I first came back up from LA, I went on a Lou Reed binge. He had just died the year before. I'd been an obsessive Velvet Underground fan since age twenty, but I was slow getting into Reed's solo stuff. I had Transformer, sure, the David Bowie produced album with "Walk on the Wild Side" and all that, but that's surface level Lou Reed. Mainstream, if you will. And with Lou Reed, there's so much more than Transformer.
Now that I was back in Northern California, I got The Blue Mask, Coney Island Baby (my favorite right off the bat; it was bright and tightly mixed and a good time of an album), and Berlin. Also, Live in Italy, Animal Serenade, Ecstasy, and Metal Machine Music. All of these albums came from the public libraries as I scavenged around like a kid in a candy store, bulking up my iTunes music library. But I had never been able to find Street Hassle, and I just wasn't sure about it from the iTunes samples that I had gotten online; it didn't do the album justice. I knew that I would get around to getting it, but I wasn't sure what would move me to get the album.
And now here I was, in the Pocket in Santa Cruz, after hours, drinking Coors with the owner, sitting next to my semi-girlfriend at the time, completely entranced, hypnotized and euphoric at the discovery of this new song, this new album. The song Street Hassle reminds me of Santa Cruz, when I would wake up next to vicki, a beautiful poetic-looking brunette, hungover and a little sick, then sit out in the sun on her house porch and smoke a cigarette and read in the sun, my shirt off and my shades on. We went to the beach one day after breakfast, this must have been in July or even late August; the waves crashed onto the little children and I jumped in the water, briefly, in my underwear, then came out to rest in the sand and sun next to vicki. I remember feeling salty with the ocean and the sex that we had just had earlier. I wrote her some letters during this time, and for some reason, I never capitalized her name, which is why I don't here, either.
The first morning after I stayed over with her she took me to her work; a bed and breakfast near downtown Santa Cruz, where I stayed in the back room and slept some more. I woke up slowly, in quiet secrecy, because vicki wasn't necessarily allowed to bring in one night stands to her work to sleep in after a long night of drinking and cocaine and sex. vicki was a one night stand that lasted about a month. It was good, passionate and fun. Nothing lasts, especially with me. At the time, I was reading White Noise, by Don DeLillo; I sat in the lobby and read for hours until vicki was off of work. Before that I had raced through the Drive-In Trilogy, by Joe R. Lansdale: a raunchy gore-filled romp of sci-fi horror in east Texas. Great books, given to me by Jerry at the Pocket. All these memories connect with the song, emotions and experiences aligned in a single tune.
Street Hassle has the ability to take me to another place each and every time that I hear it. The album itself is so-so for me; half the songs I dislike, although the songs "Wait", "I Wanna Be Black", "We're Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together" -- those are good. But the title track is the one, man. It takes me there. It is one of my favorite songs, ever.
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