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Lou Reed's "Street Hassle" and the Challenge to Post-Modern Poetry

 

 

by

 

 

  Adam Fieled  

   

 

When rock and roll established itself as an entertainment business phenomenon in the 1950s, few perceived rock and roll music as a genre that could develop, expand, and take on consonance as a major (and sometimes high) art form. After Elvis joined the army, Buddy Holly died, and Chuck Berry and Little Richard retreated, several years passed in which rock and roll seemed to have been effaced. With the emergence of the Beatles and other British Invasion bands, a revitalization took place that again placed rock and roll at the forefront of the entertainment business. The combined influence of Bob Dylan and the Beatles in the mid 1960s (along with the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Byrds, etc.) pushed rock into a new territory; those who wrote rock songs established new contexts, began to view themselves as artists, and rock music became pertinent to poets, sociologists, and others working in seemingly higher milieus and forms. As the 1960s continued, rock songwriters became more ambitious, more intent on establishing the cultural relevance of rock music. Suddenly, there were “concept albums,” featuring interlocking songs meant to fit together like puzzle pieces to form coherent wholes, “rock operas” that attempted to contain and develop entire narratives, and, eventually, “progressive rock,” designed to widen the scope of rock music and tie it to previously hegemonic cultural forms of expression. The great rock writers of the 1960s did, however, flourish the most when not tied to longer formats. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, widely lauded upon its release as a nouveau attempt at sustained narrative, is, in fact, a hodgepodge of individual songs in varying styles. Likewise, the Who’s Tommy, the first “rock opera,” falls down in many places because the characterizations are superficial, the storyline is incoherent, and the whole piece stumbles in search of a unifying direction.

 

The 1960s rock writers also tried their hand at collages. The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away,” the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” the Rolling Stones’ “Midnight Rambler,” and the Doors’ “When the Music’s Over” all attempt the artful cuts, rapid switching of scenes,  time/space leaps, and phantasmagoric viewpoints that made the best Modernist literature so compelling. These four pieces are all more or less successful, but each lacks the sharpness, specificity, coherence, and narrative strength that make T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land the masterpiece that it is. The 1970s were not so experimental or as phantasmagoric as the 1960s were; but it is not until 1978, when Lou Reed released Street Hassle, that rock produced a collage to stand with the Waste Land. Reed had done some of the best songwriting of the 1960s as the leader of the Velvet Underground; an urban realist, and certainly the only American to rival Ray Davies’ own brand of realism, Reed had addressed drug addiction, deviant sexuality, social marginality, and even metaphysics in the context of the songs he wrote. The 1970s were up and down, commercially and artistically, for Reed; as a solo artist, he continued to explore more or less the same themes he had in the 1960s. By 1978, he had enough ambition to try his hand at a collage, and in doing so produced a single song that effaces almost everything in the rock canon. Because rock critics seem not generally well versed in literature, not much has been written about Street Hassle as an individual piece; it may be because it is situated more between Eliot, Joyce, and Woolf than it is between Dylan, Springsteen, and Young. It is worth noting that neither Eliot, nor Joyce nor Woolf were as gritty as Reed; what is consistent between them is the dedication to a certain kind of form, whereby fractured pieces, streams of consciousness, and competing forms of coherence form solid wholes.

 

The leaps that Reed makes in Street Hassle are not necessarily thematic; he is still creating, as he did in the 1960s, urban vignettes that depict social contexts, different forms of debauchery, levels of desire, death, fear, decay, despair, present-mindedness, and bleakness. The three parts that constitute Street Hassle, “Waltzing Matilda,” “Street Hassle,” and “Slip Away,” do the damage they do specifically because their coherence isn’t overt, and because, unlike the 1960s attempts at collage, Reed leaves the mystery in. What is the mystery? In the first section, “Waltzing Matilda whipped out her wallet/ the sexy boy smiled in dismay/ she took out four twenties cause she liked round figures/ and everybody’s queen for a day/ well, baby I’m on fire and you know that I admire your body/ why don’t we slip away/ although I’m sure you’re certain it’s a rarity me flirting/ sha la la this way.” As the interaction progresses, Matilda takes the gigolo back to her apartment and has sexual intercourse with him. Two important thematic elements stand out about this interaction, which become key to Street Hassle as a whole: contingencies, the sense that arbitrary scenarios play themselves out in an urban context; and what Reed calls, in the eponymous section of this piece, “bad luck.” The two characters in “Waltzing Matilda” are unlucky in different ways: the male prostitute “smiles in dismay” because the woman (we guess) is sexually unattractive, and thus forced to pay for sexual intercourse; that he needs her money allows her to take charge of the situation. His materially destitute circumstances allow extremely unpleasant contingencies to dominate his existence. Matilda’s bad luck hinges on her knowledge that this transcendent (for her) sexual experience (“he made love to her gently/ it was like she’d never, ever come”) probably won’t be repeated, and if it is it will be because she pays for it. That neither of these characters expresses regret (“neither one regretted a thing”) doesn’t efface the artificiality of the situation, or the realities that facilitate it— he’s a whore, she’s unattractive, both are just objects to each other and can never be anything else. It’s worth noting that the ephemeral characters watching the scene unfold make fun of it: “people’s derision proved to be more than diversion/ sha la la la later on.” These two are beneath the status of anti-heroes; their interaction places them into a mosaic that dwells in a nocturnal realm where bad luck dominates all interactions, and personal intricacies are subsumed beneath basic, crude power drives. This particular interaction covers the space of one night; it ends as day breaks. Street Hassle is, in fact, in its entirety, shrouded in darkness. 

 

In the second segment of Street Hassle, a protagonist emerges, a street philosopher, who understands the streets, the darkness, why people behave the way they behave. In the context of this segment, he appears as a kind of philosopher-king; the segment takes place at his abode, a guest has come equipped with a too-potent, possibly toxic narcotic for the delectation of the rest of the party— “that’s really some bad shit/ you came to our place with…it’s either the best or it’s the worst/ and since I don’t have to choose I guess I won’t.” In this manner, the philosopher king puts his minion in his place—he can withstand the influence of the narcotic, while also iterating that this is his place, and that this person approaches him, rather than vice versa. However, the situation is a drastic crisis; the dealer/guest’s female escort has collapsed into a comatose, possibly fatal state, so that action must be taken. This philosopher is a pragmatist, who suggests “why don’t you drag your old lady by the feet/ and just lay her out in the darkened street/ and by morning she’s just another hit and run.” The philosopher demonstrates the existential realities that make street hassles what they are; the incredible brutality and crassness of the street is just something that happens; you can’t make the rules, you just live by them. The crux of the matter, the hinge of the monologue, follows: “you know some people have no choice/ and they can never find a voice/ to talk with that they can call their own/ so the one thing they see/ that allows them the right to be/ why you know they follow it/ it’s called bad luck.” There are mysteries left in this: does the street-philosopher, king or not, count himself among the luckless? Does his heightened, totalized perspective exempt him from the terrible fates he sees around him? The fact that his most trenchant utterance is issued in the third person plural suggests that it does. “They” might get killed; he doesn’t. That’s the streets— you either get killed or you don’t. Ruthlessness and brutality become part of one’s daily business. Bad luck is (or seems to be) the fate of the ones who choose to get killed. Why you make that choice doesn’t matter that much, nor is anyone else obliged to care if you do. One interesting thing about this narrator is that, despite his brutality, his bluntness and directness make him easy to trust. He doesn’t cut corners or make suggestions; he issues commands. But his sense of command soars above the sordid circumstances that surround him, into a place of objectivity, a height from which he can view the streets. He stands on a mountain of experience, and he isn’t seeing anything new as he watches these scenes unfurl before him. The ultimate reason we trust him is because he offers no solutions; he just shows us why the same things happen over and over again. And why theirs’ no way out of them.

 

The second half of the “Street Hassle” section is given over to a little monologue spoken by none other than Bruce Springsteen. The way Street Hassle is structured, the character Bruce plays could be the unlucky guest the street-philosopher was conversing with; it appears he is (or may be) talking about his recently-deceased lady-friend. Because this miniaturized monologue doesn’t make much literal sense, it could reflect this character’s state of intoxication, which creates an obvious comparison to the steady, sober street philosopher, who can ingest narcotics without losing his head. In Bruce’s inchoate state of bereavement, he attempts to imitate the philosopher’s pragmatic profundities; its’ an unsuccessful imitation, which ends with a paraphrased quotation from Bruce’s “Born to Run” (“tramps like us/ we were born to pay”). This bleeds into “Slip Away,” the least substantial segment of Street Hassle, which expresses further bereavement from a male protagonist who may or may not be “Bruce” continued, but doesn’t add anything to the narrative, nor any philosophic heights of insight. But by this time the piece has built enough momentum to let the music carry it. Musically, Street Hassle is extraordinary for its mixture of simple and complex elements. Based on a two-chord riff that weaves through the entire piece, it calls to mind Sister Ray from Lou’s Velvets days, but extends Lou’s range through the use of female voices, strings, and a rock-solid tempo that neither changes nor shifts. The musical primitivism on display here makes clear that each element of musical accompaniment is meant to bolster the effect of the various usages Lou makes of words, narratives, characterizations, in the context of what for rock is an outrageously extended collage.

 

The strange thing about Street Hassle is that it remains one of Lou Reed’s least talked about major accomplishments. Perhaps because it relates so much more readily to literature, perhaps because proper appreciation of the piece requires a good amount of cognition, the rock cognescenti prefer to talk about the Velvets, who approached but never equaled the scope, multi-dimensionality, and philosophical import of this piece. Ultimately, what this piece offers is not dissimilar to what Ray Davies’ offers in “Big Sky”; an account, via a synecdochic situation, of the Fall of Man, owing to both impersonal and personal circumstances, and into squalor, incoherence, and death. Davies offers redemption via acceptance; Reed offers no redemption except lowly-wise wisdom, knowledge of other humans, of one’s own position, and of how to maintain it for as long as possible. If a poet has pulled something this overarching off since T.S. Eliot, I haven’t seen it. Post-modernism, in fact, argues against doing this much damage through its insistence that narratives, however intricate, and however many compete with each other in one context, can be ditched in favor of attempts to create incoherent coherence and nonsense sense. Between 1943 and 2000, did the serious rock writers and their masterpieces take the place of what serious poetry could have done? I not only believe that this is the case, but I am almost certain that it will be de rigueur to designate the great rock songs written between 1965-2000 as the highest form of poetry being produced in that time period. For all that so much of popular culture is dross, when high art degenerates, sometimes popular art can become elevated, and do major high art damage. Lou Reed, in the context of Street Hassle and elsewhere, certainly does, and with a handful of his peers created great narratives (fractured or not) that the poets would, or could not create. 

   

 

 

copyright © Adam Fieled

 

 

 

 

Adam Fieled is a poet, critic, and musician currently based in Philadelphia. He has released three print books: Opera Bufa (Otoliths, 2007), When You Bit... (Otoliths, 2008), and Chimes (Blazevox, 2009), as well as numerous e-books, chaps, and e-chaps. His work has appeared in journals like Tears in the Fence, Great Works, Upstairs at Duroc, Cake Train, and in the &Now Anthology from Lake Forest College Press. A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he also holds an MFA from New England College and an MA from Temple University, where he is finishing his PhD.