Obsessed with punk in my early teens, the Velvet Underground's music was gradually administered through something like osmosis. I harbored an ignorant delusion that '60s rock was all gushing hippie idealism, but the tributes from so many punk-era heroes and older friends of mine made the Velvet Underground feel like a group to be revered. When I dove in -- deluxe CD editions of the first four albums in one shopping spree to start -- I found that reverence was too simple. The Velvet Underground & Nico shattered my assumptions about the 60s, White Light/White Heat awoke a love of noise that flung me down a rabbit-hole of NYC avant-garde, and the eponymous third album drew me into Lou Reed's lyrics. The scuzzy romantic befuddled by indulgence, he rendered beauty inseparable from the human stain.
The Velvet Underground's discography is relatively accessible. Four proper studio albums (yes, I'm excommunicating Squeeze), a handful of supplementary collections, live albums and you're all set. Lou Reed's solo career is much more daunting, but my first record store job provided a vantage point into his several decades of restless evolution. Every coworker took part, citing The Bells as Reed's masterwork one week but trading it for Berlin the next. Disagreements flared up, and jewel cases were flung -- flippantly dismiss Songs for Drella, and you'd incur the wrath of vindictive scheduling. Though far from Reed's best solo album, we returned most often to 1978's confounding Street Hassle.
Street Hassle is a bitter reaction to Reed's semi-stardom throughout the '70s that manages to exceed all of the promises of his own career. He opens with a butchered take on the "Sweet Jane" riff and auto-cannibalizes most of his repertoire in a sneering jumble of lyrics: "Hey if it ain't the rock 'n' roll animal himself... suitcase in my hand... fuckin' faggot junkie!" In this deluge of self-deprecation, Reed sounds more feral than during his earnest Rock 'n Roll Animal posturing of 1975.
The 11-minute title track finds Reed flatly recounting an overdose, the ensuing psychodrama, and ultimate casual disposal of a corpse. In the end, it's just "bad luck" -- the anticlimax of a familiar drug narrative he'd honed for years (note the uncredited Bruce Springsteen voice over towards the end.) Reed's delivery is at a feverish pitch of mania and frustration on "Leave Me Alone," making its oft-repeated sentiment depressingly straightforward, without a hint of irony. Meanwhile, the chorus, "You're just cheap, uptown dirt" on "Dirt" is similarly redundant, except female back-up singers bizarrely reinforce his reflexive critique. "I Wanna Be Black" opens with the cringe-worthy line "I wanna be black / have natural rhythm / shoot twenty feet of jism too!" and the desperate plea, "I don't want to be a fucked up middle class college student anymore!" It's Reed gone several steps too far, challenging every hip devotee of his taboo lyrics to chew on something in truly bad taste.
Reed is rightfully praised as a gritty realist, but Street Hassle trades embellished sketches of the raw scenes unfolding around him for what feels more like a voyeuristic peak into his own life. The album plays like a purge of identity for Reed, who is flagellating himself in public, parading his prior personas, and dumping them in the gutter like a self-loathing egotist at once proud and disgusted by his life. By looking into himself, Reed drew out the most visceral, uncompromising and ugly work of his career.
The morning Reed died, I went to work at a record store and combed the shop for every album of his in stock. I put on Berlin, amazed that the 1973 opus could sound even more depressing, and paused in between sides to temper the session with different versions of the beatific "Lisa Says." Settled in for a day with Lou, I thought of my old coworkers, who, years ago, brazenly explored the man's myriad career with me, and gave the store a call. They were listening to Berlin too, but we talked about Street Hassle.