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Lou Reed: Too legit to quit

Lou Reed: Too legit to quit — He walked on the wild side for 25 years, but now rock’s rebel is all business

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Are you Lou Reed?”

In the deserted restaurant of a Boston hotel, a twentysomething kid in a baby blue tuxedo approaches a table, and sure enough, it is Lou Reed — iconoclastic rock legend, spiritual father of alternative rock, and the man who gave degeneracy a good name. Not that Reed is hard to miss in his trademark black leather jacket, black motorcycle boots, and scowl. Reed quickly looks up and intones, in his most polite leave-me-alone voice, ”Nice to meet you.”

Not quite grasping his meaning, the kid continues. ”My sister’s getting married tonight and her name is Lisa, and she just loves that song ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’ If you could find it in your heart to go out there” — he gestures to the ballroom next door — ”I’d appreciate it.” ”Okay — okay,” Reed says flatly in a tone that further implies that such an activity is not in the cardsmeeting you.” A few more wedding guests approach and, getting the same treatment, also sheepishly retreat.

On this late fall day, Reed is not in Boston to make new friends. There is a new solo album, Magic and Loss (his 24th), to promote, as well as a boxed set due in April. More immediately, Boston is the start of a six-city signing and reading tour for his first book, Between Thought and Expression, which selects from 25 years’ worth of lyrics, from his days with the Velvet Underground (”Heroin,” ”Sweet Jane”) to the autobiographical gut spewings of his solo albums. ”It’s really interesting to me,” says Reed after the uninvited guests have beaten a retreat. ”A song like ‘Heroin,’ which was considered controversial, now can be printed like this. But then, it’s very funny to me that something like that could cause such controversy. They thought I was such a bad person for writing it.”

Of course, being bad is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Lou Reed. With the Velvet Underground in the ’60s, he introduced topics like nihilism, S&M, and transvestism into rock & roll; in the ’70s, he turned himself into a mordant joke, branding an Iron Cross on his forehead and reducing himself to self-parody by doing things like pretending to shoot up on stage. Beginning in the early ’80s, though, Reed underwent a transformation that must have stunned the faithful. He did a TV commercial for Honda scooters (”I thought it was funny,” he says in his own defense) and contributed songs to schlock films like Soul Man. He participated in Amnesty International tours. ”Walk on the Wild Side,” his 1972 hit, is played about 40,000 times a year on radio and television and can be heard as background music in department stores. And Velvet Underground anthems like ”Rock ‘n’ Roll” (1970) are stalwarts on classic-rock radio stations that probably never even removed his albums from their jackets when they were first released.

At the same time, Reed has maintained his uncompromising sense of integrity, so that now he can grimly laugh in the faces of those who said he’d peaked way back with the Velvets or on solo records like 1978’s Street Hassle. And the biggest punch line of all is that these days, Reed is a thorough professional, elder rock statesman, and dedicated member of a posh Manhattan health club. ”My career is in the best state it’s ever been,” he says. ”It’s been very hard for me to have that kind of focus over a 25-year period. I’m kind of at the top of my game. Not kind of. I am at the top of my game.”

You can’t help but admire the music Reed’s new professionalism has helped him make — like 1989’s scabrous, gripping song cycle New York or Magic and Loss, an equally ambitious work that deals unflinchingly and often movingly with the cancer-related deaths of two close friends. The man refuses to become a nostalgia act. It is often harder, though, to admire him. ”Now the time agreed upon was, what — an hour?” he says in the restaurant, setting the alarm clock on his watch. At 49, Reed’s face is gaunt and worn —his creased leather jacket looks fresher — and it’s framed by black, kinky hair so wiry you’d think you could use it to scrub your hubcaps. During interviews, he has two expressions — mild indifference and utter indifference, the latter expressed by making an elaborate art of clipping and lighting his cigars.

Reed won’t comment on the hulking security guard who stands near him during his New York readings (”What kind of answer do you expect? You tell me”). He has publicly come out against sampling, yet he allowed Marky Mark to lift part of ”Walk on the Wild Side” for his rap hit ”Wildside.” Reed’s only comment: ”I approved it.” Asked to elaborate, he snorts as if he’s talking to the village idiot. Inquire about where he lives and he points to the tape recorder and says, ”Turn that thing off and I’ll tell you.” (Reed, who in the ’70s lived with a transsexual, has settled with his wife, Sylvia, 33, who efficiently oversees his business affairs; they share an apartment in Manhattan and a farm in suburban New Jersey.)

The only thing truly worth discussing, he says, is the work. With the help of cigars and a bottle of Evian, Reed revels in the most technical aspects of record making — choosing the right recording tape or writing lyrics on his laptop computer. A convenient way to avoid talking about anything personal, these discourses go on for what seem like hours. The man who tossed off more than his share of shoddy and cynical albums now likes to say, ”The making of a record is this really exciting process where you can lose the whole thing, as I have many, many times.” He lets out a rare chuckle. ”You’re sitting there saying, ‘What happened?’ When you put it on record, it’s forever. You have to take it very seriously.”

”Lou is a control guy, and he’s into shutting the door and moving on,” says Jim Campbell, senior manager of artist and international marketing, BMG Music, Canada, who helped coordinate Reed’s boxed set. Due to what he calls ”major differences” over song selection, Campbell says, he and Reed didn’t speak for eight months.

”Son of a bitch better show up — we went to a lot of trouble for this,” mutters an employee of the Charlesbank Bookshops, a mall-like store at Boston University. It is 10 minutes before the start of Reed’s signing session for Between Thought and Expression and everything is in place — from the specific brand of pen and the extra security Reed requested to the line of several hundred fans that winds its way through the store. Everything, that is, except the author.

”I’ve always wanted to be taken seriously as a writer,” Reed had said earlier. ”’Cause I took it seriously.” Indeed, the employee needn’t have worried about the author shirking his duties. About 15 minutes later, Reed, sporting black sunglasses in addition to the de rigueur black leather, stalks in and quickly takes his seat behind a wooden desk. For the next 90 minutes, fans are led one by one into a roped-off area where he sits and dutifully signs one book after another, albeit with the same Grim Rocker facial expression. He complies with requests for autographs on battered copies of his albums and even consents to having his picture taken. (”Just don’t blind me,” he says.) ”He’s used to doing this kind of thing,” says Sylvia Reed, keeping two attentive eyes on the proceedings. ”He’s a professional.”

There is little debate about that. Moments later, Reed signs a female fan’s copy of his book. A small girl is standing next to the woman, holding a book of her own, and she asks Reed what he’s doing. Without blinking, Reed takes the child’s Winnie the Pooh book. And then he signs it.