Turning time around

And then Lou Reed says, "I love you."

It's his way of answering a question that could, in truth, be interpreted as a vague compliment--something about how his albums have never conformed to fad or fashion, something about how Lou Reed albums always sound like Lou Reed albums. (Guess he thinks that's a good thing--he's right.) Reed doesn't mean anything by it; only an idiot or a sycophant would read anything into those three words being spoken by a rock-star stranger. But it's just odd to hear them coming from Lou Reed, being spoken in that deadpan New York drone that survives intact even over a transatlantic phone line. I love you. Uh...me too?

His is, and has always been, a voice that reveals little emotion. Whether he's singing of "closing in on death" or being "the one who loves you in each and every way," Reed refuses to show his hand or, for that matter, his heart. It is there, probably: His friends have always insisted that despite the granite exterior--the lips that refuse to smile, the eyes that refuse to open--Lou's a hopeless romantic. He's in love with love, enamored of the idea that one can be reborn in a new relationship; it is, in fact, the theme of so much of his recent work. But Reed is also cynical enough to insist it never lasts. To him, love is but a fleeting notion in which only poets and fools believe.

Perhaps he speaks in an impenetrable whir so the listener--whether it's a concert-hall audience or a journalist on the other end of a phone call from London--can fill in the blanks, interpret at will, color in between the lines. After all, he's been portrayed over the years as so many things--death freak, smack poet, homo, husband, waste, guru, genius, jackass, prince, prick--that he exists as all those things to those who still bother to pay attention. Perhaps Reed plays to that when he gives interviews and when he performs. He knows you carry around his baggage, so he turns it up by turning off. Think what you want, write what you will. It doesn't matter. All that matters is that long after Lou Reed should have disappeared, he's still around--the junk punk who stuck it out long enough to be respected.

A few weeks ago, he released his second book of collected lyrics, titled Pass Thru Fire. But unlike 1991's Between Thought and Expression, a compilation of songs Reed believed held up without the musical accompaniment, the new book compiles every single word, punctuation mark, space. It is laid out like a collection of poems and like an art project, complete with sideways type, blurred words, warped and bulging fonts. The effect isn't so different than listening to his songs: You get lost, and not a little nauseous, trying to keep pace.

But the collection, which begins with 1967's The Velvet Underground & Nico and ends with the just-released Ecstasy, is a thrilling read. You don't need musical accompaniment to render more powerful a line such as, "The pain was lean and it made him scream he knew he was alive / They put a pin through the nipples on his chest / He thought he was a saint." No amount of feedback and fury could underscore those words; you don't read them so much as you feel them.

Pass Thru Fire allows the reader to transcend time, Reed's favorite phrase in the introduction--and a recurring theme through much of his recent work, this notion that even an old man can be born again every morning. It allows the reader to connect the dots, to tie together the themes that occur in all of Reed's work--the joy of suffering, the pain of happiness, the search for a love that will heal until it hurts. From "Heroin" ("When the blood begins to flow / When it shoots up the dropper's neck") to the new album's 18-minute epic "Like a Possum" ("Smoking crack with a downtown flirt / Shooting and coming till it hurts"), the links are obvious, there to be recognized and deciphered for the first time in a single sitting.

"Well, I talked to a lot of people since the first book," Reed says, "and they were saying, 'Well, why isn't this there? Why isn't that in there? How could you leave out so-and-so? You must be crazy. Don't you think it would be a nice idea just to have a full collection and let us decide? It's more fun in context.' And I just decided those were really valid points and redid the whole thing. And I think that's what they were trying to tell me--and I think it really is true--that you can follow growth and threads of interest, ya know, as it goes forward in time. But I was only aware of that after the fact."