Lou Reed Street Hassle

‘Street Hassle’: The Ethics, Attitude, and Sound of Lou Reed

On Street Hassle, Lou Reed shaped a thrilling poetic narrative focused through the prism of 1970s New York, using three chords, punk energy, street language, and Samurai ethics.

Street Hassle
Lou Reed
February 1978

Lou Reed‘s Street Hassle captures the sound of an artist searching for authenticity through the human experience of love and loss. A clue to the album’s rich poetic depths lies in the sun’s image on its front cover, setting menacingly over New York’s streets while rising in symbolism from the Japanese flag. Punk aggression from downtown New York mixed with Samurai ethics from Japan produce a sophisticated field of reference that characterizes the record’s ambition. Reed’s shades reflect back to us from a camera flash’s “sunburst gleams”, a star “newly emerging” 18 years before Reed’s “Set the Twilight Reeling” would seek to capture a similar moment of “new found” identity. Reed’s adam’s apple bulges, lips slightly parted – less of a smile and more the coaxing promise of worlds to be spoken of within. The leather-jacketed Lou Reed of Street Hassle had something important to tell us. “How about that?”

This year marks the 45th anniversary of Street Hassle’s release in 1978 and the tenth anniversary of Reed’s death, an apt moment to reprise the significance of one of Reed’s most compelling works. At a time in the UK that draws comparisons with the social disintegration of 1978 New York, Street Hassle’s questioning of human authenticity strikes home as highly relevant. This explains why a charity stage show in London this April will explore Street Hassle to illustrate the experiences of young people standing up to disadvantage in society today. Many others have sought inspiration from its title track – such as Simple Minds’ 1984 cover on Sparkle in the Rain or the soundtrack to the 2005 film The Squid and the Whale. But it would be a mistake just to focus on “Street Hassle”, the song. This is an album where all the tracks matter, connected through a common theme similar to Reed’s infamous’ film for the ears’ Berlin. Indeed, in his 2008 SXSW Keynote, Reed suggested that Street Hassle would be a good candidate if he wanted to bring to life another record in its entirety on stage following his successful Berlin shows. 

When Arista released Street Hassle in February 1978, it came with a sticker warning, “this album contains material which may not be suitable for airplay.” Lou Reed was working under enormous pressure. His relationship with Rachel Humphreys was disintegrating; his record label Arista was annoyed after the commercial failure of Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart the year before; and his former management was fighting to hold on to his earnings. The rise of punk and downtown New York bands (who arguably stole Reed’s riffs & swagger) saw Reed written off as an irrelevant “Godfather”, a has-been at only 36 years old. Reed’s diet at the time – “a tremendous amount of Scotch and a tremendous amount of amphetamines” – probably didn’t help matters (Damien Love, 2016, “Babe, I’m on Fire: The Making of Lou Reed’s Street Hassle“. “Despite all the computations,” he once sang about on “Rock ‘N’ Roll”, Reed was still intent on showing that he could pull off his rock persona better than anyone. To street hassle by taking action – with attitude to spare. Or, as he put it in his Take No Prisoners live show of 1978, “I do Lou Reed better than anybody, so I thought I’d get in on it!?”

The secrets of Street Hassle’s leather-clad truths lay in Reed’s growing fascination with Eastern culture. Reed practiced Tai Chi from the 1980s onwards. It is not recorded what inspired him first to take up Tai Chi, but it likely stemmed from him witnessing its growing popularity during his first tours to Japan in 1974 and 1975. Tai Chi is a unique martial art form from China that connects the physical and spiritual. It represented an experience that Reed yearned to explore at a deep level, something he writes further about in the posthumous Art of the Straight Line. In a telling quotation from the “Caught Between the Twisted Stars” New York exhibition over 2022-2023, Reed declared: “I want more out of life than a gold record and fame. I want to mature like a warrior.”

Before taking up Tai Chi, Reed sought out the same spirit of authenticity discovered in Japan through the poetry of Street Hassle’s songs. From Tokyo, Reed returned in 1975 with a warrior mentality to initiate a new form of “Affirmative Action”, the name for the original version of the album’s title track. For Street Hassle’s songs, Reed shaped a thrilling poetic narrative focused through the prism of 1970s New York, using a combination of three chords, punk energy, street language, and Samurai ethics. However complex its themes, the music always remained democratic. Reed kept it real. As Punk News concluded, Street Hassle was “Lou taking the back of his hand to all of the poseurs and wannabes and saying, ‘This is how it is done.'”  

“Passion – REALISM – realism was the key.” So Reed claimed in his memorable liner notes to 1975’s Metal Machine Music. Looking back, it is still hard to fathom the artist’s obsessive determination to experiment with an innovative binaural sound system that required Street Hassle’s tracks to be recorded using strange head-shaped microphones and played back through specialist headphones to sound as “real” and “in the moment” as possible. Street Hassle was the first major record to be recorded this way. For Reed, at least, the 360-degree sound binaural technology promised was worth the painstaking technical hassle. More than just binaural, though, Street Hassle also mixed fragments of live recordings from West Germany with studio production in New York, further diversifying the layers of reality and competing voices it sought to capture. The result might have sounded “muddled” to some critics, such as Robert Christgau in the Village Voice, but the raw intentionality was more critical to Reed’s art. This is what his passion hunted for. Reed disclosed in a 1978 interview with Allan Jones that “whatever else it might be, it’s always real. That’s the thing. And a lot of people are frightened of that. They’re actually frightened of people like me because we’re too fucking real for them.”

Whatever the shortcomings then, Street Hassle’s sound is the genuine Lou Reed 1970s article. The suffering required to produce it found its match in the authentic voice of experience that Reed’s artistry sought to replicate. The album’s sound perfectly captured the attitude emanating from its cover, with the iconic Mick Rock photograph reflecting a street image that sparkled in intent. On the reverse side, Lou holds up a lit cigarette in defense, almost as though he is offering it to us. But just as there is no smile, neither is there any smoke. Both his lips and cigarette imply the nature of a voice waiting to speak to us within. “It’s been a long time since I’ve spoken to you,” Reed confesses on track two’s “Dirt”, with the sharp poetic kudos at the heart of Street Hassle’s resonance.  

Street Hassle’s title is the final signpost: this is the poetry of the street that observes and is part of the hassle of life and death with a stamp of reality. Recorded over a tumultuous period of New York’s history, in a year that saw widespread looting after a city blackout, a financial crisis, rising poverty, and inequality levels, the social context to Street Hassle is as disturbingly relevant to today as the subject matter of its songs. Aware that the street as a place of lived experience is removed one step in threat from a listener’s safe existence, the use of binaural sound attempted to bring Reed’s subject matter and voice closer to us.

Drawing from his time in Japan, Lou Reed deliberately evokes a Samurai spirit throughout Street Hassle’s conflict, stressing its eight virtues, known as “Bushidō”, as a moral code to understand the album: justice, courage, compassion, respect, integrity, honor, loyalty, and self-control. Reed would later joke that listeners of his music should “stay away if you have no moral compass”, but Street Hassle is the one work in Reed’s canon that signposts a compass to follow. While the young Tottenham poet Giovanni Rose notes that the fight of today’s youths is “over streets we don’t own”, Reed’s work reclaims the street as a source of authentic being, where the depths of human nature and morality are revealed, wholly owned through the poet’s voice.

Street Hassle consists of eight tracks: “Gimmie Some Good Times” (Bushidō’s courage); “Dirt” (Bushidō’s justice); “Street Hassle” (Bushidō’s compassion); “I Wanna Be Black” (Bushidō’s integrity); “Real Good Time Together” (Bushidō’s respect); “Shooting Star” (Bushidō’s honor); “Leave Me Alone” (Bushidō’s self-control); and “Wait” (Bushidō’s loyalty). Each song acts as a connected voice to dig into the “hassle” of authenticity, surfacing Bushidō virtues alongside emotions and insights that guide the listener through the album’s blend of darkness and light. 

“Gimmie Some Good Times” immediately introduces us to the challenge of working out which voice and attitude is the genuine article in Street Hassle. Is this the Lou Reed “standing on the corner” in the memory of the Velvet Underground‘s “Sweet Jane” at the album’s start? Or the sharp deprecating voice accusing him of being a “faggot junkie” – a voice who demands to do more than just ‘see that’ particular pose. But the very nature of this opposition between what’s authentic and what’s false is undermined in the song’s definition that “good times” and “pain” both “look the same” from a position of negative extremity. The realization that “me, I’ve got nothing to do” introduces us to the punk nihilism of Street Hassle’s world. It is an authentically ugly place where only others get to “ride the city in the big cars” Thus, “good times” are displaced to exist in the desperation of our desire for them ever to appear. 

Despite the punk attitude, Reed’s ‘street’ had a strong moral code, mirroring that of the Samurai, to distinguish between good and pain. The second track, “Dirt”, introduces four elements from this code – integrity, respect, loyalty, and its primary Bushidō focus on justice. The emphasis on a moral code might seem ironic given the song’s title is “Dirt”, but the elements are spiritually evoked in the image of “principles baptized” whose “lack of conscience and … lack of morality” is the ultimate sin worthy of the label “Dirt”. While the song’s target was allegedly Reed’s ex-manager, its broader meaning embraces all those whose values are defined by money: “Who’d eat shit and say it tasted good / If there was some money in it for ’em.”

Those who, in the social universe of Street Hassle, are more likely to be “uptown dirt” than downtown life on the street. The primitive darkness of Street Hassle appears to have more principles than its fake-worldly opposite uptown. After all, “There’s a justice in this world,” Lou Reed warns us, reminding that anyone inauthentic will ultimately be found out as the “pig of a person” they really are. Reed digs further into the nature of justice through a ride into musical history for the story of Bobby Fuller, who scored a top ten hit with his influential cover of “I Fought the Law” in 1966. A few months later, Fuller was inexplicably found dead of asphyxiation in a vacant parking lot. Fuller’s suspicious end reminds us that justice is not always so predictable, something that Reed deliberately references through his use of “I Fought the Law”. In Street Hassle’s universe, “there’s a justice in this world” points far beyond the powers of the judicial system to the ‘principles baptized’ that mark a deeper code of poetic Samurai justice.

The movement to the record’s title track builds further on this theme. What is more authentic and sincere? The feeling of pleasure from a sexual encounter that cost $80 in which “neither one regretted a thing”? Or the emotional regret of a partner who feels the intense loss when “love has gone away”? What is more real? The voice of the pleading lover, asking their partner not to “slip away”? Or the voice of a party host stroking us with mock-friendliness to ask if we wouldn’t mind carrying our partner outside to leave their dead body dumped in the street rather than bother with the “hassle” of calling out emergency services?

In “Street Hassle”, the laws of nature are described in a cruel but honest street language of “a universal truth” where “that cunt’s not breathing’. Life is reduced to a crude stereotype of oppositions in which ‘it’s either the best or it’s the worst”. The most rational voice is also the coldest, but it presses its case as more authentically wise than the over-emotional lover with his “heart on my sleeve”. The emotionally detached narrator carries more genuine intent and empathy when he reminds us that some people with no voice end up following “the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be”. Which turns out, like Bobby Fuller’s demise, as another case of “bad luck”. Not all that glitters can be trusted. The insight strikes home as a place on the street that is all too real in its injustice, giving Reed a moral urgency to bring voice to its experience. 

The authenticity of love in “Street Hassle” lies in its pain – a “real song that she didn’t even admit to herself”, we are told in the third segment of the song. As if to emphasize the emotional truth we hide from ourselves, Lou Reed distances himself in the next part behind the unexpected voice of a Bruce Springsteen cameo performance for “a story lots of people moan”. The question here is whether the “pain” looks the “same” as the “good times” experienced by the couple in the first segment. It is certainly a hundred times more authentic as something lost than trivially enjoyed as the “sun rose and he made to leave”. After leaving Springsteen’s voice to playfully conclude that “tramps like us are born to pay”, Reed moves the song to end with a different sun – the sunset of loss, when things slip away even though we desperately seek to hold onto them. 

Reed’s voice in the final segment seeps with hurt – honest and vulnerable in the spotlight with the emotional covers stripped bare after the breakup of his relationship with Rachel Humphreys. As he later admitted to Rolling Stone, “That person really exists. He did take the rings right off my fingers, and I do miss him. They’re not heterosexual concerns running through that song.” In the end, love has “nothing left to say” when it’s gone and the “rings off my fingers” removed. The only authentic thing left is our “need” for “loving so bad: which feels far more sincere in meaning than the “gimmie some good times” plea of track one. 

Within the interplay of stories, voices, and pronouns that make up Street Hassle’s title track, it is easy to miss the significance of Lou Reed’s own Samurai courage to introduce the first graphic account of anal sex in music history, raising the authenticity stakes further to show love in all its forms. Such examples justify Michael Stipe’s description of Lou Reed as “the first queer icon of the 21st century 30 years before it had even begun”.

After the sexual drama of “Street Hassle”, we move on to side two of the album into the racist critique of “I Wanna Be Black”, which points its finger at white culture’s desire to appropriate black cool. That desire is revealed to be nothing more honest than “a fucked up middle-class college student” trying to gain false credibility, underlined through the language of crass racism that wants to “have natural rhythm”, “shoot 20 feet of jism too”, “be a panther and run a stable of foxy whores”. Shoutouts to “Martin Luther King” and “Malcolm X” are just “fucked up” aspirations on a base cultural shopping list that includes “a big prick too”.

This is a song dangerously close to being confused as racist, but for the signpost to an ironic distance in the fact that its stated wish to “fuck up the jews” is being sung by someone who, as Tim Gross emphasizes, was proudly Jewish. Again, we are being asked to go deeper to discern where the genuine voice lies. Not in the racist surface of the song’s lexical slurs but its criticism of white culture’s misunderstanding of what has real meaning in the black experience. It is another uncomfortable mirror to the “lack of conscience and … lack of morality” in the “uptown dirt” of Street Hassle‘s Samurai worldview.  

Indeed, while “I Wanna Be Black” is aimed at 1970s Blaxploitation, it is as much about the absurd belief that cultural coolness – racial, class-based, or any other form of lived experience – can be appropriated as a commodity for the privileged, given their lack of authentic connection with the actual lives of the subject matter. The lessons in “I Wanna Be Black” echo down the ages, from our fake fetishization of working-class heroes to celebrity lectures on climate change delivered from private jets.

The promise to have a “Real Good Time Together” in track five sounds more like a threat at this point of the record. One can see Street Hassle’s treatment of a “good time” as something that is, at best, hard to define – if not downright dangerous. No wonder Lou Reed’s voice sounds more sinister here than the promise of the song’s title. Street Hassle keeps investigating the meaning of “what’s good”. Like Aristotle, for Reed, any attempt to create good is a serious undertaking that demands a Samurai’s respect. But the song transitions into a glorious live finale, showing that a “good time” can still be trusted from the authentic Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, regardless of whether he is a “faggot junkie” or not.

Track six (“Shooting Star”) returns us to question Street Hassle’s narrative voice. Its hold on the moment is criticized as no more than “shooting”, for there is another story  – “You know that it’s true” – behind the promise of “win, lose and glory” that is reduced in morality to the greed of a contract demanding “a Cadillac metallic car”. The song’s conclusion, “You’re just a shooting star”, is not a compliment. Our modern hero’s glory is no more than a “dis-illusion”; a star burning out in ‘confusion’ through selfish excesses lacking any respect.

“Leave Me Alone” is Reed’s self-prescribed remedy to the uncertain truths of Street Hassle’s drama. It is a place of righteous isolation from a world where people: “tell you what to do”, “always let you down”, and, worst of all in Street Hassle’s moral code, cannot be trusted to distinguish “the floor from the ceiling or the top” when they have gone too far. Even in excess, there still must be some principles to live by. “Leave Me Alone” turns the pain of loss from the album’s title track into an appreciation for isolation as a place of honor to defend against the corruption of the world around us.

Finally, the uplifting riffs of “Wait” offer a gentler alternative to conclude the album. Like much else in Street Hassle, it is played out through two contradictory voices: one coldly criticizing in the background  (“Disgrace… Really such a waste”); the other, showing emotional respect in the foreground  (“But still I really wish that you’d wait”), asking for more time to decide on saving a relationship. “Wait” is a coda to loss, answering the threat of slipping away with an order to wait for love. It is a hard-fought decision to “hesitate” in the face of pain, violence, and discrimination. Reed turns standing still into a courageous act to stand true to yourself as the world falls apart around us. But the sophistication of “Wait” lies in its background vocals referencing the Shirelles 1958 pop song, “I Met Him on a Sunday”, playing out to the tragedy that by Saturday it will be “bye bye baby”. Loss is inevitable. To wait, in the hope of holding onto love, is a romantic battle for loyalty from the spirit of Samurai. That is the real poetic truth behind Reed’s rock ‘n’ roll defense.  

Street Hassle’s critique of the human condition tackles the great artistic themes of love and loss in a search for truth that extends from Lou Reed’s choice of lyrics to how the album’s sound was recorded. Importantly, Reed asks us to understand the “loss of innocence” in our world as a “loss of authenticity” – and to fight like Samurai warriors against it. As Damien Love concluded, “In Street Hassle, he crystallized the moment.” Street Hassle, in its essence, is an act of love and belief. Reed’s love for New York’s hassle, and his belief in the Samurai-like ethics of its streets, shines with unstinting clarity. Far more than just a song, Street Hassle, the album stands as a lasting testament to Reed’s artistic brilliance.