Near the beginning of this brilliant new album, Lou Reed sings: "It's been a long time since I've spoken to you." The line has a resonance far beyond its literal meaning. In the years following the breakup of the Velvet Underground, Reed's bizarre and half-baked semistardom became a travesty of his art, as one of the most magical raw nerves of our time coarsened into a crude, death-trip clown.
Whereas Reed with the Velvets had once broken our hearts with a compelling vision of sin and redemption, he now broke them by turning his post-Underground LPs into floating freak shows. While much of Reed's solo work was far from bad, one has to remember that his admirers expected him to surpass Bob Dylan, and the Velvets' LPs had promised nothing less. So each comeback failed — not so much as rock & roll but as myth — and the repeated failures only compounded the problem. As he says in "Street Hassle," not defending himself but simply explaining what went wrong:
You know, some people got no choice
And they can never find a voice...
That they could even call their own
So the first thing that they see
That allows them the right to be
Why, they follow it
You know what it's called?
While a less vulnerable artist might have been able to resolve these contradictions, the salvation-obsessed Reed wasn't even a very adept or convincing sellout. Because he was so sensitive, his posturing as the Rock & Roll Animal was too painfully cruel to be valid even on its own slumming terms. It's possible total dishonesty could have made Reed a commercial success, but the partial and intermittent dishonesty he practiced marred even his good records almost beyond repair. Still, we waited. If he couldn't produce the expected masterpiece, he could at least give us a dignified admission of failure.
Street Hassle, oddly enough, is both: a confession of failure that becomes a stunning, incandescent triumph — the best solo album Lou Reed has ever done. Side one begins with an electrifying, Promethean challenge. As the hauntingly familiar chords of "Sweet Jane" lurch into focus, they are abruptly slapped down by Reed's sneering commentary: "Hey, if it ain't the Rock & Roll Animal himself.../Fucking faggot junkie." "Sweet Jane," that incalculably beautiful hymn to human endurance, has become the emblem of Reed's decay, a sleazy, crowd-pleasing rocker. By trashing the song so completely at the outset of this record, Reed deliberately raises both the stakes and our expectations almost impossibly high.
He delivers, too, with an ease close to casualness. Of course, every trick and technique Reed has ever learned is present here, but Street Hassle doesn't advertise its virtuosity. Instead, it's completely uncluttered and unexpectedly direct.
When an artist down on his luck aims high and connects, one expects to hear hymns of reaffirmation, but Street Hassle does not celebrate a resurrection. Its premise is to accept being damned as an irrevocable condition, and then speak as truthfully as possible about what that might mean. So Reed's vocals are raw, vulnerable and filled with an urgency that is anything but self-congratulatory. Confusion, fear and uncertainty are the touchstones of the singer's emotional landscape, and the jagged distortions of the music cut like broken glass across the skin. When Reed quotes the Texas singer Bobby Fuller ("I fought the law, and the law won"), he is acknowledging the odds and underlining his determination finally to tell the story right, no matter what it takes.
Deliberate bad taste is probably the artist's last means of defiance. In his trashiest LP, Sally Can't Dance, Lou Reed turned his own poetry into graffiti; on Street Hassle, he turns street graffiti into poetry, with all the telephone numbers left in. Now when he revisits the Rock & Roll Animal persona, its ugliness and obscenity seem almost justified. (The album's structure, a mixture of live and studio recordings, underlines his double vision.) In context, the crass jokes of "I Wanna Be Black" — "I don't want to be no fucked-up, middle-class college student anymore/I just want to have a stable of foxy little whores" — work dramatically to reveal the suffering that forces such dehumanization. "Dirt" seems at first to be no more than another vengeful put-down in the "Vicious" mold. But when Reed sings, "You're just dirt.../That's the only word that hurt," he's talking about himself, and it's clear he felt the pain of his betrayal even more than the fans who became his harshest critics. "Some people/They don't know when to stop," he snarls on "Leave Me Alone," and all the self-pity is gone. Reed sounds angry now, and at last he has the right to be. The recognition of his own self-destruction has been made integral to Street Hassle's concept, and the effect is doubleedged: as we respond to the album's excellence, we are never allowed to forget just how much it cost.
The title cut is a real tour de force. Eleven minutes long, it's built entirely around one musical phrase, which is introduced by a cello, picked up by the guitar and continued on electric bass until the phrase becomes as hypnotic as a rhythm from Ecclesiastes. Over this repetitive passage, Reed delivers three brief narratives — no more than fragments, really — with little overt connection except their common themes of loneliness, sexual anguish and death. Here, the erotic images, cynicism and beautiful moments ("Love has gone away/Took the rings off my fingers/And there's nothing left to say") are all made equal and lifted to the level of tragedy by the terrible transience of the "Street Hassle" motif. For the most part, Reed murmurs the lyrics almost offhandedly, increasing their poignance by his own understatement. But, at the end, delivering the elegy for a lost lover, his voice suddenly rises into a lament that brings everything together in a catharsis of overwhelming sorrow.
Unlike the more sentimental, nostalgic material on Coney Island Baby (much of which seems, in retrospect, like a preliminary draft of Street Hassle), the self-referential concept at the center of the new album broadens Reed's vision instead of limiting it. When he slows the Velvets' old anthem, "Real Good Time Together," to the tempo of a dirge and then chants it in an eerie, dissociated manner, the song comes across as a bitter revelation: no one knows the full meaning of "good times" better than those who are forever exiled from them. The song's unexpected, soaring climax shifts the tone again, from bitterness to a prideful affirmation of survival.
Street Hassle closes with a supremely graceful kiss-off, a throwaway masterpiece. Over an irresistibly shabby little jazz riff, a female chorus repeats, "Disgrace.../Really such a waste/Of such a pretty face," while the pretty face himself pleads with them: "Please wait.../I know the time is getting late.../But still I really wish that you'd wait." Placed immediately after the tortured nihilism of "Leave Me Alone," "Wait" at first seems like cheap irony. But the song, like the whole of Street Hassle, transcends that, and doggerel is again raised to grandeur. Lou Reed is shrugging off everything that's gone by as temporary and inconsequential, yet reminding us just how much those temporary, inconsequential moments have come to matter.
After all this time, he still cares. How stangely moving that is.