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.