Me & "Street Hassle"

I only cut one* significant exchange out of my Noah Baumbach interview, because it didn't lead anywhere and I knew it wouldn't interest many people beside myself. I don't have the exact wording, but in brief, I mentioned to Baumbach that my first exposure to Lou Reed's song "Street Hassle" came from the Simple Minds cover version on the band's best album, Sparkle In The Rain**. Baumbach responded that after he decided to use Reed's version in The Squid And The Whale, Wes Anderson introduced him to the Simple Minds version, which was the one that Anderson knew first.

I mention this not to boast that Wes Anderson and I have something in common--though I'd be lying if I said that I didn't think it was kind of cool--but because it reminds me of how shocking it was to me when I finally heard Reed's original "Street Hassle," after roughly a year or more of digging only the Simple Minds cover. I found a used copy of a Lou Reed best-of cassette, which included "Street Hassle." I don't know what was most shocking: the length of the song (about twice that of Simple Minds' take), the guest vocals by Bruce Springsteen (unhinted at on this liner-note-less cheapie tape) or the long, profane spoken-word section in the middle. Ah, who am I kidding? It was the profane spoken-word section that rocked my 16-year-old world. All that business about the dead junkie girl and Reed rapping, "You know that bitch is never gonna fuck again."

When you're a teenager, stumbling on something dirty is like finding a twenty-dollar bill laying on the ground. You just can't believe your good fortune. I have equally fond memories of checking Danny Peary's Cult Movies out of our local library when I was in high school, and marveling at the still photos from Behind The Green Door and The First Nudie Musical. It's not that these things were turn-ons, per se–and it's not like I didn't get to see nudity or hear naughty words in all the expected places, like R-rated movies, porno mags and pretty much every lunchroom conversation at school. But there was still something encouraging about discovering independent confirmation that sex existed, and that adults of substance talked about it.

Even now, explicit language in pop music is more flustersome than it is in movies or books, but it's especially exciting for a kid, when you can't be sure if you heard what you thought you heard. Did Frankie Goes To Hollywood really mean "come" ? Did Lou Reed just sing about "giving head" ? Is Prince for real?

With 'Street Hassle," it wasn't so much the frank talk about sex--including the line "it was like she'd never ever come," which I think Simple Minds "sha-la-la"-ed over--but the whole grimy New York druggie milieu, which included sex and death and all kinds of nasty business. A lot of Reed's vaunted sophistication is actually pretty crude--remember the "suckin' on my ding-dong" stuff in "Sister Ray" ?--but it sounded pretty honest and even profound to a boy from the Bible Belt, in much the same way that tough-talking Vertigo-line comics are made to impress arrested adolescents everywhere.

Recently, in a town near where I live, a concerned parent asked that a handful of books in the high school library be put on a special "parental permission only" shelf, because of their explicit sexual content. The school board initially planned to comply, but then the woman started adding more books to her list (including award-winning works by Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez), and after a series of torturous meetings and newspaper editorials, the school essentially told the woman to go screw. The local paper's letters page is still crammed with comments from people saying things along the lines of, "I haven't read these books, but they sound like pornography to me, and I don't see why my taxes should pay for handing out porn to kids."

As for me, I know that if I were a high school kid in that town, I'd be trying to get my hands on as many of those almost-banned books as I could. This is the way the world is supposed to work: Adults hide the raunchy stuff in plain sight, and teenagers go looking for it. It's how we grow up.


*There was another minor exchange I cut. At one point Baumbach mentioned "my wife Jennifer Jason Leigh," and as a joke I said, "Who?" Baumbach didn't laugh.

**A close second: New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84. No other Simple Minds album is anywhere near as good as those two, but those two are essential.

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