Lou Reed Jay Cocks - Essay

Jay Cocks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Danger is what Lou Reed's music has always been about. And that makes it classic, vital rock 'n' roll.

Beginning with Reed's tenure in the Velvet Underground more than a decade ago, he has been fashioning some of the strongest music you can hear anywhere…. Street Hassle is one of his very best, bitterest and most adventurous records, prime rock unconditionally guaranteed to give you the night sweats….

Reed constantly recalls old rock songs, phrases lifted from ancient hit parades, but his images evoke Céline masquerading as an all-night FM deejay….

In the mid-'60s, [Reed] became the generative force behind the Velvet Underground, a band notable in the era of peace, posies and good vibes, for laying down rock music that virtually throttled the listener. Some of the Velvet's music is still among Reed's finest work, including a lengthy threnody called Heroin that is as devastating a drug song … as anyone has ever written.

There has never been anything polite about Reed's music, then or now; not a laid-back note or a smug lie….

[Tunes] in the album include a denunciation of a former associate called Dirt and, best of all, Street Hassle, the album's centerpiece, an eleven-minute kaleidoscope of destruction compressed into three separate dramatic vignettes and linked by a single musical phrase. Tough stuff, often outright scary….

What keeps these excursions along the wild side from being slumming expeditions is Reed's own rapt sympathy for the grifters, freaks and crooks who populate much of his music. Many of his songs are shot through with the kind of dead-end romanticism that would stir Bruce Springsteen…. If Lou Reed gives no quarter in his music, neither does he yield to sensationalism or condescension….

[Listen] to his nightshade music enough, and if distinctions do not actually start to disintegrate and boundaries blur, you will at least know there is one mean street where such things happen. And you will have a taste of what it is like to live there.

Jay Cocks, "Lou Reed's Nightshade Carnival," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1978), Vol. 111, No. 17, April 24, 1978, p. 79.