A shorter version of this story appeared in Uncut magazine in October 2016. I’m running a much longer, unpublished version here, featuring additional interviews.
IN THE AUTUMN OF 1977, Lou Reed bunkered down inside The Record Plant studio a few steps off of Times Square. Outside, New York City was emerging from its long hot paranoid summer of blackout, disco and the Son Of Sam serial killings. Inside, he was dealing with troubles of his own, in a mood not helped by a steady diet of whisky and speed.
“Lou was going through some managerial problems at that period,” remembers his long-serving keyboard player Michael Fonfara. “And having a bit of a time with his drugs and Scotch.”
“Lou was going a mile a minute,” says guitarist Jeff Ross. “There was a tremendous amount of Scotch and a tremendous amount of amphetamines. And the combination could result in tremendous anger. Lou had a favourite amphetamine, Desoxyn, which is used to start your heart when you die, so you can imagine.”
Reed was at the studio working on his new album, an LP he had previously announced to the world would be titled I Wanna Be Black, and would feature a cover depicting Lou himself, in blackface, eating a watermelon. But he was facing numerous difficulties in getting it finished. For one thing, he had been forced to scrap his original intentions for the record, and was now labouring to patch new tracks together over those aborted tapes. For another, he had lost half of his band and his producer, who had all either quit on him or been fired. For a third, away from the studio, he was reaching the messy end of one of his most significant relationships, splitting up with Rachel, the transgender woman who had been his live-in companion and muse for three intense years.
For the moment, though, his biggest problem was The Heads.
They stood around the studio, drilling him with their blank stares. Replica human heads. Impassive sentinels moulded from strange grey material, The Heads dictated everything he did in this room. The Heads had particular demands. Nothing could be recorded until The Heads were happy.
“Weirdest thing I ever saw,” recalls singer Genya Ravan. “I get there, pretty late at night, walk in: there’s a head in the middle of the floor. I didn’t even ask.”
“That studio was a sight to be seen,” adds guitarist Ritchie Fliegler. “You had your amp, but instead of a microphone in front, there were…heads. Heads on sticks. It looked like Vlad The Impaler was making a record with his victims.”
Like this, under pressure, moving fast, surrounded by decapitated grey faces, Lou Reed would create his greatest song of the 1970s: “Street Hassle.”
“STREET HASSLE,” THE SONG, stands bruised head and shoulders above the rest of the tracks Reed pulled together that autumn for his obnoxiously brilliant Street Hassle album, a strange, schizoid, sleazing and stuttering collection of pieces, gathered like strutting maggots around this one sublime centrepiece.
Released in February 1978, the LP earned his best reviews of the decade – “a stunning incandescent triumph,” declared Rolling Stone – and was seen by many as the record with which Reed accepted a mantle others had been trying to pin on him for years: Godfather Of Punk. He would toy with that title mercilessly with the same year’s incredible double live album, Take No Prisoners, which, more than simply a document of the Street Hassle tour, is Street Hassle’s conjoined demon twin, its burning cartoon sequel: a Godfather II so scabrous in intent and execution that his own bewildered record company slapped a condemnation on the front before issuing it: THIS ALBUM IS OFFENSIVE.
At the heart of it all lies “Street Hassle,” an 11-minute, two-chord anti-symphony of lust and love, of bad drugs and sudden death, of male hookers, life on the margins, corpses in the street, fleeting transcendence, aching loss and the eternal pulse of the uncaring, sheltering city. It is a recording about which the fact that a spectral Bruce Springsteen shows up without credit halfway through is the least remarkable thing.
Simultaneously brutal and tender, emanating from New York’s darkest gutters then drifting heavenward, it is, above all, a song that only the Lou Reed of that 1970s moment could write. Arguably the greatest song he ever recorded outside of the Velvet Underground, “Street Hassle” doesn’t take a walk on the wild side. It lives there.
“Lou got New York into my skull in the late ’70s,” says photographer Mick Rock, Reed’s lifelong friend. “He showed me things nobody else could ever have shown me. Every den of debauchery and sin…I can’t even go into it. Lou knew underground clubs the like of which you certainly wouldn’t get in London. Lou knew priests. Lou knew criminals. Lou knew the gayest of the gay. I mean, forget punk. That was amateur hour.”
PUNK WAS MUCH on everyone’s mind when Reed started preparing Street Hassle in early 1977. From the CBGB’s crowd in downtown Manhattan to magnificent mutants like Pere Ubu in Cleveland, it was the moment that Brian Eno’s famous line – that the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one formed a band – exploded.
Reed himself watched semi-approvingly. In late 1975, his friend Danny Fields played him songs by a band he intended to manage: The Ramones. A product of the Warhol school, Fields had made a habit of recording his conversations, and he taped Reed’s enthusiastic reaction to the music: “That is, without doubt, THE most fantastic thing you’ve ever played me. It makes everybody else look so bullshit and wimpy, Patti Smith and me included.”
“Lou thought the punk kids were great,” says Michael Fonfara, who, as Reed’s bandleader from 1974 to 1980, would be his longest-serving musical lieutenant of the decade. “He appreciated anybody going against the drift. Rock’n’Roll was almost everything to Lou, and he thought one of its big essences was that it rebelled against society.”
On their night prowls of the city, Reed and his partner Rachel had become regulars in CBGB. When the editors of the fledgling Punk magazine cornered him at his table there for a hilarious impromptu interview they would use to launch Punk’s debut issue – published that December 1975 bearing a fantastic cover cartoon of Lou as Frankenstein’s monster – his totemic status for the scene was cemented.
At the same time, however, the music Reed was actually making himself had drifted far from anything any kneejerk Year Zero punk hardliner might choose to sniff glue to. 1975’s double LP of proto-industrial gnomic noise, Metal Machine Music, had become a hardcore legend, but reviewing Reed’s (excellent) 1975 follow-up Coney Island Baby for Creem, musician Peter Laughner – one of Cleveland punk’s prime movers – began, “This album made me so morose and depressed that I stayed drunk for three days,” then went down from there. Of 1976’s follow-up, Rock And Roll Heart (a fascinating thing, featuring at least one buried classic in the eternal “Temporary Thing”) the NME’s Nick Kent sneered, “Don’t bother with this record, unless, that is, you’re the sort of person that gets off on watching paint dry.”
“When he toured in ’76, it really wasn’t the Lou Reed sound that people were expecting,” says Jeff Ross, who served as unofficial guitar tech on that Rock And Roll Heart tour. “The Rock’n’Roll Animal sound, y’know that Steve Hunter/ Dick Wagner band – that was long gone. Lou’s band at this point was effectively a jazz band. I remember reviews commenting, ‘They looked like bank clerks on vacation,’ that kind of crap. But these guys weren’t even hippies, they were these…Off-the-grid lumberjacks. Who played jazz.”
Alongside the faithful Fonfara, the core of Reed’s group was the Everyman Band – saxophonist Marty Fogel, bassist Bruce Yaw, drummer Michael Suchorsky – an East Coast jazz fusion unit he had drafted en masse in 1975. As Fogel explains: “Lou’s band had all quit on him, apart from Mike [Fonfara]. When we got the call, Bruce Yaw and I were living up in New York State, cutting firewood and getting back to the land. We drove down literally after having cut firewood the previous day, walk into the rehearsal studio in our jeans and flannel shirts – and there’s Lou, wearing a clear plastic suit over his clothes. We’re thinking: here we go, this is different to what we’re used to…”
Reed was no stranger to jazz. As a Syracuse University student in the early-1960s, he made regular pilgrimages into Manhattan to catch Ornette Coleman’s quartet, and span free jazz alongside doo-wop and R&B as DJ on his short-lived college radio show, Excursions On A Wobbly Rail. Late in 1976, he would push his band’s jazz explorations further, by inviting Coleman’s genius trumpet player Don Cherry to sit in with them, after Fogel bumped into Cherry at LA airport. Cherry would subsequently become a satellite member of Reed’s group, playing frequently with them live between 1976-79, and guesting as a significant presence on Reed’s 1979 album, The Bells.
This outfit was a fearsome proposition live, jamming long, intense, velvety Bitches Brews, developing a tension between Reed’s primeval guitar and his sidemen’s scrabbling sophistication. “I’m basically an R&B, funk player,” says Fonfara, “and I always promoted it to be more musically advanced than what Lou was into. Lou was into the most primitive rock’n’roll he could get. But we did things the way Lou wanted.”
“There was a musical tension,” agrees Fogel. “We had to adapt to what his music was about: much simpler than what we’d been playing. And that band became a rock’n’roll beast. Still, at times our jazz elements really came through. And I always felt Lou really enjoyed what we did.”
All the same, as he prepared to begin work on a new album, Reed was reconsidering his approach. The lacklustre response to Rock And Roll Heart was particularly significant as, following a difficult relationship with RCA, it was his showcase debut for a new label, Clive Davis’s Arista, whose other big New York signing, Patti Smith, had just created a landmark with Horses. (Smith had adopted Reed’s unreleased Velvet Underground track “We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together” as her signature show opener; on the Rock and Roll Heart album, the song “Ladies Pay” reveals how closely he had been listening.)
“Lou was looking for something,” says Fonfara. “He definitely wanted Street Hassle to be a statement.” A clue to his thinking came when, after inviting Jeff Ross to dinner with him and Rachel, Reed went back to his young guitar tech’s apartment for a jam session that became an audition.
“Lou said, ‘Let’s play.’” Ross remembers. “I guess I was so bad he thought it was good. And I was in the band. My impression was definitely that he was looking for a younger, tougher sound, closer to his roots, more punk. I fitted. But, at the same time, I don’t think it was any deliberate ‘I’m gonna be Godfather Of Punk’ thinking on Lou’s part. My impression of Lou was, if anybody wanted him to be something, that’s when he’d tell them to fuck off. Lou’s essential attitude, to everything, was: ‘Look, what do you want from me?’”
Having added Ross, who pitched his guitar between Hunter/Wagner and The Clash, Reed next recruited a surprise producer: Richard Robinson, who had produced his underrated, self-titled debut solo album in 1970, and then been unceremoniously dumped for David Bowie and Mick Ronson on Transformer. With Robinson on board, Reed decided the best way to capture his band’s ferocious sound was to record the album live, out on the road. And, for a couple of reasons, the only place to do it was in Europe.
ONE OF THE REASONS Reed was keen to get to Europe was that he had a passionate new love in his life. Its name was Binaural Stereo.
Alongside his adoration of primitive rock’n’roll, Reed was also a committed audiophile, almost geekish about recording technology. He had recently developed an obsession with binaural recording, an attempt at capturing sound in 360-degrees, as experienced by human ears.
Binaural experiments dated back to the 1880s, but in 1977 its leading exponent was a German engineer, Manfred Schunke. Based out at his Delta Studio, a converted farm in the gingerbread-house setting of Wilster, in the north of what was then West Germany, Schunke had developed a new process of recording with “kunstkopfs” – eerie dummy human heads, computer-designed to replicate the dimensions of the average German adult male skull , with microphones placed inside each precision-tooled ear-canal. Writing and rehearsing his new songs en route, Reed’s idea was to tour his way toward Schunke, who would meet with the group in Germany and use his heads to record them playing live, creating the world’s first binaural rock’n’roll experience.
Reed’s European concerts in the Cold War 1970s could generate a particular intensity. Michael Fonfara captures something of it when he pinpoints the moment in 1974 that Reed first decided to make him his bandleader. “Lou and I were on the street in Stockholm, and these Russian sailors started giving us trouble. They called him some names – Lou had the Iron Crosses shaved into his head, y’know. I was a martial artist at that time, so I kinda saved the day. And after that, Lou said: ‘Everywhere I go, you’re going with me, from now on.’”
Marty Fogel’s first concert with Reed, in Rome 1975, became a full-scale riot of helmeted police battling local fascists and communists with tear gas. “We were ushered offstage, down into the bowels of the arena, locked in these rooms – then instructed to turn the lights off, because the fighting was by now right outside in the hallway. A pretty intense introduction to playing rock and roll in Europe with a major star.” Of another abandoned show, Fonfara recalls, “We had to hide out for, like, a week before we could get out of town. Thousands of people searching for us. It was weird…but Lou’s popularity was high.”
On the spring 1977 tour from which Reed hoped to produce his new album, the trouble erupted six shows in, at Aarhus in Denmark. “Basically,” says Jeff Ross, “the promoter was selling beer in bottles instead of in plastic cups. Someone threw a bottle. It sailed past Lou. And Lou essentially told the entire audience to fuck off.”
“They trashed the stage,” Fogel remembers. “Trashed the grand piano. The drums. The speaker columns, which were huge, were on the floor. Chairs everywhere.”
“And I feel like if there had not been a riot that night,” Ross continues, “we would have definitely had, within the next few shows, an extraordinary record for Lou. We were playing great rock’n’roll. It had all just started to come together. However, that riot derailed things. And then after that, well, one incident after another derailed things.”
Under pressure to write new songs, fuelling himself with over-the-counter European amphetamines, among Reed’s most intense concerns was money, or the lack of it, coming through from the record company. “The hardest part of being Lou’s bandleader was always trying to explain to the guys that they weren’t getting their pay right now,” says Fonfara.
Things came to a head at the London show, when Reed snapped and threatened his label’s local representative with either a switchblade or a can-opener (memories vary). “It was in the dressing room,” says Ross. “This guy was giving Lou a hard time about money or tour support, something. I wasn’t party to the conversation. But I was sitting right there. Lou was pissed off, he was on a tear – and he pulled a knife on the Arista rep.”
“I remember it as a can-opener,” adds Fonfara. “And I imagine we got what Lou wanted. He usually got what he wanted.”
Around this time, musical differences began to rear their heads. “Richard Robinson and Lou went out to hear some live music while we were in London,” says Fogel. “It was the punk era, and they came back, and Richard said that what they’d heard was the direction we should be pursuing. He said they’d seen some band with, like, a 14-year-old drummer, playing just noise, and that’s what we should be doing. My reply was, ‘Well, I’ve not spent my entire life learning to play just to play noise.’ And I quit the band at the end of that tour, because of that.”
In the midst of this, in Ludwigshafen, West Germany on April 24, before an audience Ross remembers as “American GIs, bikers, Hell’s Angels waiting for another Altamont,” Manfred Schunke arrived to record the bulk of Street Hassle’s basic tracks.
“Manfred came with his human heads,” says Fonfara. “He flew them by thin wires all over the concert hall. You’d look out and you’d see…heads. Heads floating in the air.”
THINGS CAME CRASHING to earth when Reed got the results home. The new songs he’d recorded in Germany had a tough, slurry, Dollsy drive, but they were only half-formed. Arista vetoed the idea of issuing the record as a live album. Entering a studio in New York with Richard Robinson, he resolved to overdub new work over the concert recordings. It would prove no simple task.
Fogel had quit the group (although, after Street Hassle’s studio work was complete, Reed would seek him out and persuade him to return to the band). He was soon followed by Ross and bassist Bruce Yaw, who both left over money issues. “Lou was immediately immersed in domestic, financial troubles,” says Ross. “He was pretty broke after that tour. I don’t think he took one minute off his Desoxyn habit, he started getting trashed, frustrated, fighting with Rachel. I demanded to be paid…and I basically screwed up that gig for myself.”
Simultaneously, Reed’s relationship with Rachel was coming to an end. It was a significant moment. Across the 1970s, his transgender partner, born Richard Humphreys, had become a half-glimpsed legend for fans. Rachel gazed out from the Sally Can’t Dance LP’s back cover; photographs of Rachel and Lou had graced his first compilation album, Walk On The Wildside; Coney Island Baby’s gorgeous title track closed with a straight dedication: “I’d like to send this one out to Lou and Rachel…”
He had first met her at a Village drag bar, Club 82. “I’d been up for days as usual and everything was at that super-real, glowing stage,” Reed recalled for Bambi magazine. “I walked in there and there was this amazing person…”
“When Rachel was in full make-up, she looked a little like Sophia Loren,” says Michael Fonfara now. Adds Marty Fogel: “My most vivid memories of Rachel are walking into Men’s Rooms, like at airports, in Europe in the 1970s. Guys at urinals doing triple takes.”
Around Street Hassle, Reed was identifying as gay – almost uniquely in rock’n’roll. As bass player Moose Boles, who was soon to join Reed’s live band, observes, “Lou and Rachel lived at 53 Christopher Street, and that was a very historic address: it’s where America’s gay rights movement started, at The Stonewall bar. It had since turned into a deli, but Lou lived right upstairs from the place.”
If Coney Island Baby celebrated their relationship, “Street Hassle” would catch its end, particularly the song’s yearning final “Slipaway” section: “love has gone away, took the rings from my fingers…” “That person really exists,” Reed told Rolling Stone. “He did take the rings right off my fingers, and I do miss him.”
“There were arguments I think maybe around Rachel making the transition to becoming a woman,” says Jeff Ross. “I may have been the last person to see Rachel. After they broke up, she seemed to disappear into the ether. But I bumped into Rachel on the street in New York in the late-1980s. There wasn’t much left…But she and Lou were extraordinarily close back then. There was a lot of love. Rachel took extraordinary care of Lou, despite all the histrionics that sometimes went on.” As the 1980s ended, Reed would look back to the period and commune with the ghosts of Christopher Street via the song “Halloween Parade” on his masterly New York album.
Meanwhile, back in 1977, producer Richard Robinson was the next to go, departing after a fight in the studio. “Lou was having…fallings out,” Fonfara puts it. “I’m not sure what happened in that studio. He kept me out of the production part on that record. I just showed up, played, and I don’t know what they kept and what they didn’t.”
Following Robinson’s departure, Reed determined to press on alone, and took the project to a place he knew well, The Record Plant, where he had previously worked on Berlin.
“I got involved in the record after Germany, when Lou came back to New York,” says Street Hassle’s engineer Rod O’Brien, one of the Record Plant’s core team, who would work by Reed’s side to finish the album, and is the best witness we have today to how the songs came together.
“I don’t remember what studio he went to first with Richard Robinson, but he had started it somewhere else in New York City – and, well, something had happened there. As it could with Lou. But he and Richard had a slight falling out. So, Lou came to the Record Plant. And by that time he had already done a good amount of overdubs on the record.”
Working over the live tapes from Germany, it soon became clear that Reed’s biggest problem was his biggest passion: the binaural recording technique. As Ritchie Fliegler, who was drafted in to overdub guitar in the studio, explains:
“That’s where the excitement ensued. Overdubbing – a simple thing with normal recording – became a herculean project. You see, the original binaural aspect needed to be maintained: when those live recordings were made, they’d set up Manfred Schunke’s recording heads out in the audience, and each had a certain perspective in time and space. So anything that was overdubbed needed to maintain that perspective, otherwise it wouldn’t fit. Lou and the engineer, Rod O’Brien, were having constant telephone conversations with Manfred in Germany, then going out into the studio with, like, tape measures: ‘This amp needs to be so many feet and inches away, and this head’s axis needs to be three degrees off, twenty feet away…’ It got pretty crazy.”
“I don’t think we had Manfred’s heads in the studio,” O’Brien says. “Or maybe Lou had one. But I remember we did manage to get a Sennheiser head, what the Sennheiser company was trying to do with binaural at the time. It didn’t sound quite the same. But Lou was very adamant that this – binaural – was going to be a complete change in how we did things, it was going to be a change in how the whole industry went about doing it.
“But the thing about binaural was, you needed two tracks for everything. Every time you wanted to try to do anything, you had to find two tracks on it. When I got these tapes, there was already a lot of stuff that had been recorded live, then there was other stuff that was recorded by Lou in some other studio, and then we were working on recording more, using only one tape machine. And if you were trying to do anything like that, it wound up taking up a lot of recording space.
“And eventually,” O’Brien continues, “it started to fade out a little bit: because one of the aspects of the binaural recording is that you don’t have a focal point. You have an ambience of a space that you’re in – which is really good if you want to catch that overall atmosphere. But rock’n’roll is very dynamic and pointed, especially Lou’s thing. Y’know: his guitar playing, he wanted to hear it, he wanted to feel it, but you don’t quite get all of that with the binaural by itself. So, eventually, we tried to combine direct mics with the binaurals. And one of the realisations that we came to was that even when we tried to mix it, there was a certain percentage of that ambience, that binaural stuff, that we couldn’t go past. Because if we did, it started to sound a little soft and mushy – and soft and mushy wasn’t what Lou Reed did. Lou, definitely, even on some of his softest stuff, he was right there. He wanted you to hear it right in your face.”
“It’s hard enough to remix,” says Jeff Ross, “let alone to try and add things, change the context. On Street Hassle, you hear two things: you hear us live; and you hear some really disjointed overdubs. You have to think: what’s going on? And my Jeff-Ross-centric explanation is, he was trying to bury me, after I’d left.”
Neither Ross nor bass player Bruce Yaw would be credited on the final album. Ritchie Fliegler’s contributions on guitar overdubs would also ultimately go without credit.
Yet Street Hassle’s disjointed quality becomes its fascination, part and parcel with its strange sound, simultaneously sharp and sludgy. “Lou was really into binaural,” says Fonfara of the process that could only be discerned by wearing headphones. “I thought it was an amazing concept – but I didn’t hear it in the final product. It was an odd, scattered-around sound. But Lou would go crazy over it: ‘Boy, it’s exactly what I wanted…’ Rather than admit that it wasn’t quite what he wanted, he would say the opposite.”
With songs assembled from cast-offs from previous records and patched-up new tracks, the album’s schizophrenic nature is made explicit from the opener, “Gimmie Some Good Times,” the equivalent of Reed scrawling graffiti over everyone else’s ideas of him. As the band vamp the “Sweet Jane” riff, two Lous appear, one singing the Velvets’ classic while being attacked by the other, a speedfreak snarling, “fuckin’ faggot junkie.”
A muddy multiple-personality crisis ensues. Lou takes back “We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together” from Patti Smith with a gorgeous, shimmering phased guitar, only to then deliver a lobotomised, juddering monotone vocal that sounds like Manfred Schunke’s robot heads have started singing.
Elsewhere come the outrageous-obnoxious (“I Wanna Be Black,” aimed mostly at Lou’s “fucked up middle-class college student” younger self); the stupendous (“Leave Me Alone,” Sister Ray meets Soul Brother Number One downtown); the squalid (“Dirt,” aimed at an ex-manager who would “eat shit and say it tasted good if there was some money in it”); and the sweet (“Wait” rinky-dink ramalama melting over The Shirelles’ “I Met Him On A Sunday”).
SET APART FROM them all, however, is “Street Hassle” itself. The one track created entirely in the studio, its roots lay buried in an abandoned song that Reed had played just once on the 1977 European tour, “Affirmative Action (PO#99),” a monster jam about seducing and killing cops on the beat, from which he retained only the chanted words “street hassle,” for his new song’s title.
Musically built from a simple, endlessly repeated phrase, arranged by Aram Schefrin for a string section that Reed would largely mute in the mix, leaving only the resounding, hypnotic cello, the track was originally only two minutes long. (Coincidentally, Schefrin had previously worked closely with “Street Hassle” backing singer Genya Ravan in the band Ten Wheel Drive. It’s a measure of the scrappy nature of these recordings that, when I mention to Ravan that it was Schefrin who conceived the famous string part, it’s the first time she has ever heard that he had any involvement in the song.)
Sensing a potential hit when he heard the short version of “Street Hassle,” Clive Davis prevailed upon Reed to expand it. Reed responded with an 11-minute suite in three movements, dashing Davis’s hopes of any radio play with a middle section depicting an OD death and the disposal of the body, beginning, “Hey, that cunt’s not breathing…”
The bleak scene depicted so matter-of-factly in this verse was drawn from reality, or at least from some real life rumours. In another of Danny Fields’s audiotape recordings of their late-night conversations, dating from November 1975, Reed refers to the incident that seemed to have planted the seed, involving the fatal overdose of a mutual friend, “Eric”:
DANNY FIELDS: Who else do you miss?
LOU REED: Eric. That really caught me. Couldn’t believe that it was so typical, about being run over and all that, and then it turned out that was bullshit, it turned out he actually OD’d at a party, and they took him outside, a friend of mine said…I can understand not wanting to ruin the party, they took him outside, but they could have put him on a sidewalk bench or something, but to put him in the middle of Park Avenue to get run over, like that’s a little…
Rod O’Brien remembers in detail how the “Street Hassle” track slowly came together:
“The original track was relatively short – just over two minutes. And it was a very difficult track to try to get a handle on. Lou would do things like, he would come in on any given day, and say to me, ‘Where’s that guitar that we recorded last week?’ And I would say, ‘Lou: you told me to erase it.’ ‘No I didn’t.’ “Yes, you did...” The first ‘story’ – as Lou liked to call them – in the song was the ‘Waltzing Matilda’ piece. Lou came in and said, ‘I’ve got lyrics for this…’ and so we did that vocal. But then, a couple of days later, he’d come in and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a different story, new lyrics, you can get rid of that other one we did…’
“Well: I didn’t get rid of them. I decided that, okay, guitar tracks, Lou can always replay them, but a lot of the lyrical stuff and the vocals he was doing were very spontaneous, and that was a thing about Lou that I never wanted to lose. So I ended up keeping a lot of that stuff. But I didn’t tell Lou that I had kept it all. I just kept it, because I figured that, someday, he’s going to come in and say, ‘Where’s that part about the girl lying on the floor…?’
“So, the day we started mixing the track, we could never really get the thing to play right. And I was listening to the strings on the basic track, which I think Richard Robinson had done in New York, and there was something about those strings. They just sounded so good, really nice. So I said to the assistant engineer, ‘Do me a favour, just hit record on the two-track, I just want to record this, I just really like the sound on these string parts.’ So I recorded them down, all by themselves, and then I played it back, just to make sure that I had got the tape okay. And as I was playing it back, Lou comes in, and says, ‘What’s that!?’ I said, ‘Oh, I was just fooling around with something…’ And Lou goes: ‘Let’s use it as the intro…’ And it went from there.
“We sat there working on it then for two-and-a-half, three days. And then Lou discovered that I had kept all three of his vocal pieces. And he’s like: ‘Oh, that’s fantastic. Okay. Let’s do it in this order. No, no, let’s move this bit to here…’ And so we had to figure it out, how to get from the acapella of the girls, to the bass riff, how to make all these sections and stories come together. And in those days, there was no computer, you literally had to cut tape, put it together, cross-fade it with two machines and then…‘Ah, nah, that’s not working.’ And then try it again. It was two-and-a-half or three days of this kind of stuff, where we just kept trying to make things gel and flow. And I think it came out pretty good. It was pretty bizarre. And at the very end of it, Lou paid me a very nice compliment. He said, ‘Y’know, you wrote this song as much as I did.’”
For a late spoken-word passage, fearing its sincerity would be taken for arch irony if he delivered it himself, Reed approached another singer and asked if he would perform it: Bruce Springsteen, who was holed up elsewhere in The Record Plant that autumn himself, working on Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Coincidentally – or not – Reed’s lyric had included a direct play on Spingsteen’s “Born To Run”:“Tramps like us, we were born to pay…”
“Yeah,” O’Brien recalls, “for that section, Lou decided he had another lyrical part, and so he records this thing, and I looked at him, and I hit the talkback, and I said, ‘Uh. You realise what you just stole?’ And Lou went, deadpan: ‘Whaddaya mean?’ And then he started to crack up laughing. But Lou says, ‘But I gotta use it.’ I said, ‘Okay, but let’s go downstairs’ – because Bruce was working downstairs. I said to Bruce, ‘Lou wants to play you something, he just wants to make sure that you’re not going to be upset.’ So Bruce says, ‘Okay,’ and he comes up, and we play him the piece, and he says ‘Oh, that’s fine that’s no problem…’ And then Lou looks at him, and I didn’t know Lou was going to do this, but he says: ‘Would you do it?’ And Bruce is like, ‘…what, me?’ Lou says, ‘Yeah.’ And Bruce says, ‘Okay, but you can’t put my name on it, because I don’t want to go through all the hassles that would mean…’ And Lou’s like, ‘No problem.’ So, Lou wrote the little part out, and as far as I remember, Bruce went out and did it one take.”
Springsteen’s blurry, boozy cameo would also go uncredited, but this time for good reason: undergoing his own legal battles with management, he was forbidden from releasing any recordings during this period.
Having contributed her own heavenly backing vocal to the song, Genya Ravan remembers her session ending in the wee small hours. “We left the heads, left the studio, and here we are: out on Times Square, New York City, four in the morning. I was drinking and drugging a lot in those days, and it’s that thing: if you remember too much, you weren’t there. But I do remember Lou seemed really happy.”
Why not? He hadn’t made the album he had originally planned to make. But, somehow, through the confusion, he had found his way to making a masterpiece. His speeding 1970s would soon end, and a very different, sober Lou Reed would emerge. But in “Street Hassle,” he crystallised the moment. More than that: in this song, uniquely, he brought all of the Lou Reeds – the tough, tender, minimal experimentalist of the Velvets; the decadent sensationalist of the 1970s; the mature future phantom who would step out a decade later on New York – together and into focus at once. Held there forever out in the streets, never to slip away.