It occurs to me I’ve given pretty much every ‘important’ artist an honest try over the years. Not intentionally, it just happened. I liked Hendrix, so I sought out Jeff Beck. Steve Earle mentioned Townes Van Zandt, so Townes sold another record in New Zealand. And God knows every word written in 1992 seemed to insist I listen to Sonic Youth. It’s the natural tendency of the curious music fan to follow these prompts, and every now and then you open a door you’ll never want to close.
Of course, not everything sticks. That would be expensive, and unnatural. It’s one thing to do your homework, but quite another to convince yourself Eric Clapton’s solo output is anything other than a sleeping aid. Still, everybody of note has had a fair hearing at least.
Well, everybody except for Lou Reed I guess. Despite my love for almost every other pillar of the New York pantheon, I’ve just never bothered with Lou. I have a Velvet Underground best of somewhere, but I never really dived in to his catalogue, because every time I touched upon it, it left me cold. I like clever lyricists, and I’m more than comfortable with non-singing singers and story-telling songwriters, but at no point have I ever felt inclined to dig in. Not even upon his death.
That staid footage of The Velvet Underground reuniting their way through Sweet Jane in 1993 didn’t help, and neither did the slick sound of his solo output from that era. Beyond that though, everything he did just seemed so calculated, the man himself so distant and detached from his music.
And speaking of the man, he did himself few favours in any interview I ever read. Too cool for school. Smug, judgmental, and the self-perceived smartest guy in the room. Kind of a prick when all was said and done. At least that was my impression. Certainly, Nick Kent’s less than flattering profile in The Dark Stuff was read at an early age and always stuck with me, always dimmed my interest. Kudos for turning James Hetfield into a table though – that was amazing at least.
And so it was until a couple of months back. I was fresh off the last two Chuck Prophet records and looking for something new. They’re fantastic, those Prophet albums – at once clever and goofy, swaggering and sensitive. Rock n roll in other words. And while he’s a San Francisco native, to me Prophet’s streetwise narratives just reeked of New York City for some reason.
And so I was casting around for something to hit the same spot Prophet was, when it occurred to me: Lou Reed.
But where to start? It had to be the 70s, of course… And not that one experimental album, or the one with Wild Side on it… How about Street Hassle? I’d heard it before in passing. Couldn’t remember it at all, but it had a good title and an eleven-minute title track… Done.
And that was that for the next week. Not sure I listened to much else. It was a little like finding a $20 note tucked in the pocket of my jacket – set aside, forgotten, and then discovered without even realising I was reaching for it.
From the self-referential swagger that opened Gimmie Some Good Times through the biting invective of Dirt and the biting humour of I Wanna Be Black, I was sold. It was exactly what I was after. The band was all grinding groove and saxophones, and Reed a vocal Houdini throughout, flaunting and then escaping his limitations, leaving me none the wiser as to how he made it work. This was what I always assumed Lou Reed was meant to sound like, or how other people must have always heard him anyway. Just when I couldn’t be more pleasantly surprised, I hit upon a brief Springsteen cameo on the wonderful three-part title track. Bruce’s earnest melodrama should by rights have sat awkwardly in Lou Reed’s world, but like so much else on the album, it just worked.
And of course, everything was happening under the shadows of the New York City skyline. Few places are more romanticised in rock n roll, either by me, or by the esteemed order of real music writers. I’ll forever be convinced that The Strokes’ middling debut got a good chunk of its attention courtesy of critics looking to rekindle their romance with the city, thrilled to have a chance to reference its bands and the lore that goes with them. But, cop-baiting lyrics aside, The Strokes were Rudi Giuliani’s New York, not Lou Reed’s New York. Not the vibrant, desperate, callous place you can feel in every line of Street Hassle. The Strokes offered the gentrified New York I’ve visited, but Street Hassle captures the New York of the 70s – the version that has been fetishized ever since. It makes the album feel like something of a time capsule, but in the best possible way.
So Street Hassle’s fantastic, and I’m a convert, right? A Lou Reed aficionado in waiting, surely?
Well, maybe not exactly.
The album is fantastic, both for the reasons I’ve mentioned and for the always more important reason that it just is. But it doesn’t bring me closer to Reed – he still feels detached from the events he portrays, still feels, to me, like a slightly snide observer. And most of all his work still feels calculated in a way that enables me to appreciate it, but never lets me quite lose myself in it. This doesn’t stop me loving this particular album, but it does leave me a step or two shy of diving into his catalogue with abandon.
I’ll still be digging deeper at some point for sure, but I can’t imagine Reed will ever be an artist that incites a real passion in me. So many of the reasons I’ve had for not enjoying him previously are still present in this record, and still legitimate in my mind. But Street Hassle hit me at the perfect moment, and I have been enjoying it greatly, in part, perhaps, because I didn’t really expect to.
Radio Nowhere is a new initiative here at Off The Tracks – a fortnightly guest column by Michael Ross. Record-collection reflection and other stray thoughts associated with music purchasing, collecting and listening.