Street Hassle was originally recorded live on tour in Germany, using a “binaural” system involving microphones placed inside a Styrofoam mannequin’s head. When Clive Davis supposedly balked at the result, Lou went ahead and overdubbed on top of the backing tracks, rendering the mix muddy, jarring, and a little sluggish. Compounding the effect was his latest vocal styling, a strangulated bleat used to illustrate both of his main emotions. Even with the standard rock combo, plus backing vocals and continual sax, the results were far from slick, occasionally vulgar, and fit well with the times.
“Gimme Some Good Times” begins with the first verse from “Sweet Jane” turned inside out, complete with Lou answering himself as a heckler, providing foreshadowing for his next truly live album. “Dirt” had been threatened for a few years; by now he was angry enough at his former manager to include it here, complete with discordant piano stabs and gunshot drums in between his bile, scatological accusations and Bobby Fuller reference. But smack dab in the middle of the album is the cinematic three-part title track, based around insistent bowed cellos. Here is proof positive that Lou Reed really was one of the literary greats of the century. “Waltzing Matilda” manages to make an encounter with a gigolo sound romantic, capped by angelic harmonies leading into the next section. “Street Hassle” is an in-character monologue by a lowlife giving advice on body disposal and ending with the perfect definition of “bad luck”. “Slip Away” is brought in by a bass solo played by the auteur(!) and upstaged by a vocal cameo by none other than Bruce Springsteen. When Lou returns to end the piece, he actually sounds vulnerable. Throughout it all, the same cello part weaves in and out of earshot, sometimes replicated on guitars, harmonium, and jangle piano.
Literary greatness is not something commonly ascribed to “I Wanna Be Black”, which attempts to torpedo the hypocrisy of stereotypes, but just becomes uncomfortable. As with most of the tracks on the album, we can just barely hear an audience cheering over the fade; perhaps it was best English wasn’t their first language. “Real Good Time Together” is the old Velvets tune, familiar to fans from 1969 Live, delivered here over a heavy tremolo, and with a vocal that doesn’t convey the sentiment of the lyric in the slightest. “Shooting Star” is delivered at a palatable pace, with a simple yet straightforward chorus, while “Leave Me Alone” states its demand with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Finally, “Wait” is something of a dopey pop song, an exercise to see how many words rhyme with the title, and girl group vocals pushing him along.
Street Hassle is a messy yet ultimately satisfying album, a return to form without retreading, notwithstanding the mild recycling. In his case, one great song can make a big difference, and “Street Hassle” does that.
Lou Reed Street Hassle (1978)—3