1978 was a transitional year for Lou Reed. It had been almost a decade since he had left rock’s greatest cult band The Velvet Underground. Reed had also established himself as a solo artist with the hit album Transformer as well as one of the most panned albums in rock history: the ear-splitting feedback that is Metal Machine Music. Also by 1978, the punk movement, of which Reed was a precursor, had attained a widespread audience. Lou Reed was almost 40, and had released his “Greatest Hits” the year before, and so seemed to be perfectly poised to be swept into the pile of 60’s rock-and-roll has-beens, joining the likes of The Beach Boys and The Band. Instead when the going got tough, the tough got poetical.
Lou Reed’s answer was “Street Hassle”, his most ambitious song yet. It spans 10 minutes 53 seconds and tells the story of a girl called Waltzing Matilda who picks up a male prostitute, dies of an overdose and has her body abandoned in the streets. The instrumentation is predominantly without a drum beat, but instead is supported by strings, (previously utilised in Reed’s classic “Perfect Day”) playing a simple C scale, which then submit to a guitar and bass playing the same scale.
The narrative is split into three scenes containing four monologues. Reed said in his live album Animal Serenade “I wanted to write a song that had a great monologue set to rock”, and it is these monologues that make the song stand above his other works. For the urban theme is certainly not uncommon in Reed’s music, for example “Waiting for the Man” describes a junky’s anxiety in waiting for the dealer. Also the abused heroine had already been portrayed such as in his song “Caroline Says II”: “Why is it that you beat me? /It isn’t much fun”. But in “Street Hassle”, for the first time, Reed creates a community of monologues.
“Waltzing Matilda”, the first chapter, is narrated by an omniscient observer who starts singing a beat late, which introduces urgency in his voice to catch up with the driving perks of the cellos. The lyrics are rhythmic and playful, and seem to find new energy and new emotion after each string undulations. The playfulness is in Reed’s “sha-la-la-las”, which undercuts the whole seedy atmosphere, as well as the explicitly detailed coitus: “he entered her slowly, and showed her where he was coming from”. However, the scene ends with the line “Neither one regretted a thing”, which causes a total reinterpretation of the scene that it was not a symbol of modern lust, but perhaps a celebration of modern love. Indeed the scene may be a stand of defiance, that in mingling “sha-la-la-las” with a sexual scene, it proves that innocence can exist next to lust, and that even love could exist; or as the narrator insists “Despite people’s derision/ proved to be more than diversion”. Furthermore, Reed’s voice maintains a strained sadness, which may highlight his struggle in exalting this kind of love. Or it may signify his awareness of Matilda’s fate…
At 3 minutes 17 seconds, the song ends and there are three seconds of silence, and then the distant moan of a female voice, mourning Matilda’s death. The same strings return, as if to start the song again, but are quelled by a heavenly cloud of female vocals perhaps harking the ascension of Matilda. But, Reed marks the reality with startling contrast. Matilda’s herald is a drug dealer who begins the scene saying “Hey that cunt’s not breathing, I think she’s had too much, or something or other, or hey man you know what I mean”. The speaker has the drawl of Bob Dylan, except without any of the poetics. He speaks throughout his scene, and sounds like the kind of person who would keep speaking until you left. Yet Reed manages to beautifully weave the dealer’s superfluous language into the rhythm, thus fusing with the scenery that the strings maintain. Most of all, the romanticism is sucked dry. Matilda’s memory is classed into sexual submission; her epitaph is “that bitch will never fuck again”. And when the dealer repeats the childish “Sha-la-la man”, the innocence is gone, and seems to have just been some cheap trick all along. Most of all, the scene highlights the vital contrast between lust and love: responsibility. The male prostitute is told to abandon the dead girl who he had just “made love” to, and emphasises that though something was shared, nothing was surrendered and thus clarifying the streets were always selfish.
While the drug-dealer scene is the revelation, what entail afterwards is the delayed reaction and its ensuing hysteria. The first sign of instability is the faint jangling out of a bar piano, then a flat guitar solo, slowly introducing the streets’ true primal state. Then Bruce Springsteen (who was on a break from recording Darkness on the Edge of Town) speaks a few lines as the weathered urbane man. He talks about Matilda’s delusion that she didn’t know the “real song”. He also concludes with the line “tramps like us we were born to pay”, which would become better known as the chorus to “Born to Run”.
Then Lou Reed’s first persona returns in the final chapter, “Slipaway”, except now he is even more strained and it becomes more apparent that the speaker was intrinsically attached to the event, for the narrative turns to 1st person. Also the line “took the rings off my fingers” and Reed’s higher pitched voice, may imply that the speaker is female: perhaps a similar person to Matilda, or even the fated Matilda herself looking back at her error. This scene marks the revelation that “love has gone away”. Yet the speaker cannot reflect on it with the detachment of the dealer or Springsteen. Because she was the one who had to go to the streets in order to find communion, someone to lean on, and the song ends with this pleading for this heart’s ultimate need. Yet on Reed’s streets this pleading is only a hassle. And so by penetrating a feeling deeper than any contemporary punk rocker would dare, Reed proves that he is still a main contender on the scene and that it is not what you reject that matters in music, but what you embrace. In “Street Hassle”, Reed embraced a delusion.