Song Versus Song–Street Hassles Edition

In Song Versus Song we take two songs that are somewhat linked (by tittle, appropriation, or theme) and let them battle for supremacy.

“Street Hassle” versus “Ode To Street Hassle”

Lou Reed’s curious story of a street corner is filled with manic energy, paranoid fallout, and vivid drug references. It’s a depraved story, fitting nicely with Reed’s other portraits of hustlers and users, yet wildly different than the rest of the album it comes from, 1978’s Street Hassle. Some may recognize the track from the end of 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, which used the song’s intro to great effect. First-time listeners may be taken aback by the juxtaposition of the song’s lyrical content and its utterly unforgettable string riff.  Reed’s ten-minute epic is segmented into three main sections: “Waltzing Matilda” hires a male prostitute, Matilda OD’s, and the third section– usually referred to as “Slipaway”– delivers biting commentary on songs about “tramps like us” as sung by Springsteen and his peers, before Reed caps the song with one final verse that begins, “Love is gone away.”

While “Street Hassle” like so many of Reed’s songs suffers a bit from these story-structured lyrics, Reed wrangles gut-wrenching and life-affirming madness out of his lurid tale. The final section provides the song’s emotional fulcrum. Reed (or Reed’s character) is an observer, and the sadness of his observations are categorized, rationalized, and otherwise dealt with.  It’s an emotionally exhausting song, both beautiful and haunting in ways many never achieve. “Street Hassle” emerged as one of the strongest and most profound songs of Reed’s post-Velvet Underground career.

Spacemen 3’s “Ode to Street Hassle” borrows the riff and melody from Reed’s original, subduing them a bit to create a song filled with hazy drug epiphanies. The song, for Christ’s sake, involves a conversation with Jesus himself: “And as we sat there talking / Jesus turned to say to me /”You’d better learn and love this life ’cause there’s things / There’s things that are hard to see.” Here the repeating string riff that on “Street Hassle” moved into different sections like a mini symphony is situated into Spacemen 3’s signature use of drone and repetition. The scope is less epic and more personal. The Perfect Prescription, the album on which “Ode To Street Hassle’s” appears, is supposedly structured around the arc of a drug trip, complete with a spacey middle and comedown section. “Ode to Street Hassle” arrives at the moment just before or just as the high settles in, and everything is calm and serene. By  taking Reed’s manic epic and relaxing it to fit their own concept, the members of Spacemen 3 imbue their song with “Street Hassle’s” poignancy and sense of humanity.

The Winner:

Spacemen 3’s appropriation whittles Reed lurid epic into a more manageable four-minutes, yet the easy, relaxed, eyes-half-closed vibe of the song suggest that it go on longer. Spacemen 3 (and its offshoot Spiritualized) are not afraid of long, drifting drug songs. What both “Street Hassle” and “Ode to Street Hassle” share, other than name and similar theme, is poignancy in their depictions of drug use. The consequences are clearly laid out in Reed’s epic song, while the come down doesn’t come until later in Spacemen 3’s concept album. Yet in “Ode to Street Hassle” there is still melancholy, which comes partly from the calm vocal delivery and lines like “Well some people never listen /You know some people just won’t see /But I can see and hear these things /These things have got to be.” As for a winner, both songs are utterly fantastic, but I’ll go with what came first.