In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re picking songs that saw an artist bounce back after releasing a dud of a record.
Lou Reed spent much of his post-Velvet Underground career in flux, perpetually rebounding from some disappointment or another, and always veering between dispassionate kiss-off and would-be masterpiece. Several of Reed’s albums could fit the parameters of this week’s theme: Depending on how you feel about his dissonant feedback screed Metal Machine Music, for example, it was either the welcome, cleansing fire that scrubbed away the pandering of Sally Can’t Dance, or it was the sneering piss-take that allowed Reed to get tenderly vulnerable on Coney Island Baby. But for me, Reed’s most dramatic bounce-back came with 1978’s Street Hassle, an album that, for all its inevitable flaws, served as a reminder that he was still a raw and uncompromising artist after so much limp, rock-star posturing.
Lester Bangs, who served as Reed’s confessor and spittoon throughout those rocky years, summed up the collective dismay at Reed’s slide into pop mediocrity thusly: “Lou Reed is the guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock ’n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide, and then proceeded to belie all his achievements and return to the mire by turning the whole thing into a monumental joke.” With several decades of perspective, Bangs’ assessment now seems a tad unfair. After all, Bangs’ open contempt began with Transformer, an album whose glam put-ons may have felt like phony trend-hopping at the time, but it’s not like listeners 35 years on really give a damn. It’s a little easier to see where Bangs was coming from in the records that followed, as Reed adopted his bleached-blond, icily androgynous proto-punk persona, then turned his aura of danger into a literal cartoon on the cover of Sally Can’t Dance—even sneering through cheesy TV commercials for it.
It was during this same mid-’70s period that Reed mutated into a full-blown “Rock ’N’ Roll Animal,” reworking his old Velvets dirges into arena-pleasing barn-burners on the live album of the same name, which led to him achieving a commercial success few had thought possible—and in the case of critics like Bangs, many found unlistenable. Again, that’s not an entirely fair assessment: For all his supposed watering-down during that era, Reed still turned out not only Metal Machine Music and Coney Island Baby but also Berlin, albums that were strangely derided for their pretentiousness and messy ambition, but that have grown with distance into acknowledged masterworks. (Besides, even Sally Can’t Dance had songs about meth-heads, electroshock therapy, and dead animals fucking, so it’s not like Reed fully lost his edge.) Still, there’s pandering, and then there’s Rock And Roll Heart, Reed’s banal, featherweight debut for Arista that (with a few exceptions) found him singing about love, good times, and—yes—rock ’n’ roll over lackluster, jazz-tinged arrangements, the onetime back-alley poet of New York now sounding more like a bar-band lifer of Albany.
Which brings us to 1978’s Street Hassle, one of the many intermittent comeback albums where Reed once again sounded like he gave a shit. That meant not only turning his legendary prickliness inward on self-excoriating opening track “Gimmie Some Good Times,” which simultaneously mocked the “Rock ’N’ Roll Animal” and “Sweet Jane,” or simply one-upping his nascent punk acolytes with smartly nasty tracks like “Dirt.” Setting aside its experimentation with “binaural sound” and its muddy mishmash of live recordings and studio overdubs—and hitting skip on “I Wanna Be Black,” whose irony doesn’t make it any easier to listen to—Street Hassle restored Reed as the underbelly’s most observant storyteller, most evidently through its 11-minute title track.
A seedy suite sprawled over three movements, “Street Hassle” tells a trio of tales connected by the same simple riff that rumbles ceaselessly forward like a subway car, all while a crooning Reed, a heavenly female choir, and a brief spoken-word interlude from a young Bruce Springsteen wander in and out of the sidewalk scenes he’s painting. Each scenario is Reed at his most beautifully scuzzy: A possibly trans “Waltzing Matilda” and a male hustler enjoy a fleeting hookup in a bar; a woman dies of a drug overdose, and Reed, in character as the remorseless owner of a flophouse, suggests just dropping her body out in the street; and finally, some anonymous lover agonizes over the man who left them behind. Reed connects each of these stories with the refrain “Slip away,” evoking the dispassionate, life-goes-on churn of the big city, where things like this happen on every corner at all hours of the night.
Musing on the poor decisions people make and the way they lead them down those dead ends, he also ends up explaining why his own paths have sometimes gone astray:
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
Like the best of his work, “Street Hassle” is a harrowing yet strangely beautiful listen, and it ranks among the most artistically realized of Reed’s entire career. Upon its release, it served as a reminder that Reed was an artist who, for all his poses or put-ons, and for all the “bad luck” he’d had with his own gambles, he was still deeply connected to the lost and lonely fringe-dwellers he sang about—himself included. And it signaled a return to Lou Reed albums that truly mattered. At least, until the next one that didn’t.