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.”