I listened to ‘Street Hassle’ for the first time when I was 14. I remember dismissing it back then as too depressing and at times profane. I didn’t understand it. When I heard it again at 16, I couldn’t help but be enthralled at how brilliant it was. It wasn’t a song; it was a portrait.
‘Street Hassle’, Lou Reed’s 11-minute rock epic, is a saga in three parts. The song doesn’t hesitate to stir the deepest of emotions when talking about life on the streets, and loss on the streets. Part I tells the story of Waltzing Matilda, who picks up a male prostitute. He lifts her “boldly out of this world” and at the end of the night, “neither one regretted a thing.”
Part II gets darker as a drug dealer requests a client to take his companion – a girl who has died of an overdose – out of his apartment. In Part III, named “Slipaway”, Reed sings about love, life and death. Springsteen gets a cameo in this part of the song. He plays on his own lyrics here – “tramps like us, we were born to pay,” he says.
This isn’t a song you play in the background while getting on with other things. There’s something about the strings at the start that gives way to that low and persistent guitar that makes you want to sit back in your seat, or lie down on your bed and truly listen to the song.
Listen to the instruments, listen to Lou’s words and listen to your own heartbeat. You feel for these characters, you feel their loss even if they don’t feel it themselves. That’s what Reed does so well, he sketches these characters as they are.
Waltzing Matilda and the prostitute are comfortable with their transaction; the drug dealer doesn’t want to have to explain a dead girl to the police. There is no romanticism here, just the truth.
“But 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 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.”
That’s what I love about Lou Reed. He was one of the best songwriters out there. ‘Street Hassle’ isn’t just a picture of life on the streets. These characters, they mean something. If not to anyone else in the world of the song – they mean everything to us listeners.
When they go about their lives not truly feeling loss, pain or guilt – we feel it for them. We feel it through that guitar that Reed strums away at, through that constant refrain “Sha-la-la-la-la”, which illustrates their apathy but is also one of the most poignant things about the song, and finally, we feel it through the words in ‘Slipaway’.
Lou Reed was a writer. He said in Animal Renegade: “I wanted to write 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. You mix it all up and you have ‘Street Hassle’.” Lou Reed was a guitarist. He was a singer. He was a filmmaker. He was honest.
“Love is gone away
Took the rings off my fingers
And there’s nothing left to say
But, oh how, oh how I need him, 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.”