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Waiting on Lou Reed is no hassle

Looking back at a memorable record store day


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Most people anticipate meeting Lou Reed with the same dread zoologists reserve for coming into contact with the Mucaque monkey. Piss him off and he not only spits in your eye, but a month later you drop dead from the Herpes B virus. I guess I was lucky.

In the late '70s, I got to meet the Great Rock Poet. We talked. I walked away without having been gobbed on. I gather, this is rare. Like a sighting of Kohoutek or a week in which Donald Trump doesn't post a nasty Tweet. That day, Lou was as nice as the ultra-cool, shades-adorned, former-founder of The Velvet Underground is capable of.

First, some history. It was fall 1978, and I was working at a "record store." Now, for many of you, such an antiquated venue needs to be explained. Right after I tell you about the Nickelodeon and those joints in Rome where people went to see chariot races. See, before the Internet, you had to leave the house in order to steal music. So, you went to something called the "record store," wearing a really large coat. Depending on your financial situation and its relationship to your morality, you bought one "album" and then stuck several more up the back of this coat.

My particular store was in Times Square and we had very rough customers. So, no mention was ever made of such stolen items. Because, if you did, the customer might take great offense and decide to shoot you.

Aside from such inconveniences, working at this "record store" was an enjoyable gig. You got to talk about music all day. You got an employee discount when you wanted to buy an album. And, it being the old Times Square, when you took your break, you had your choice of many colorful ways in which to spend it. You could go off with a prostitute, say, buy hard drugs or, if you really wanted to risk your life, you went next door and ate a Nathan's hot dog.

Plus, since we were in the heart of New York City, we had any number of famous clients. On any given day you found yourself waiting on Ashford and Simpson, Ali McGraw, members of Blondie, Iggy Pop. I actually got to help Ms. McGraw look for a particular album and I only had to knock down three of my fellow salesmen to do this.

Then, one day, with no Sweet Jane-like power chords announcing his arrival, in walked Lou Reed.

It was difficult to believe at first. If there's any man in rock 'n' roll who embodies Manhattan, it's Lou. As quiet and unassuming as he was, wearing his raiment of jeans and motorcycle jacket, it was like New York City itself had just walked into our little store. I don't know how he fit inside.

Immediately, I was struck by two salient but deeply contrasting impulses. I wanted to rush up to Lou, tell him how big a fan I was and that I fully-appreciated how he changed songwriting as much as Dylan. Bringing, dark, selfish characters into music, plus an urban photorealism that hadn't been there before.

But he had a reputation for dealing with fans with the same warmth and good cheer as Dick Cheney. Would he say something so sarcastic and withering to me, that, my self-esteem trashed, I'd have to start therapy and anti-depressants? Or would he simply hit me in the eye? Mumble some words from "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" and walk away?

None of the scenarios I had in my head were reassuring. But, unable to resist a challenge, I again shoved several of my fellow salesmen into walls and garbage cans and went to wait on Lou.

"Can I help you find anything?" I asked, trying to be as low-key and cool as a member of The Velvet Underground. But probably sounding more like Don Knotts after too much coffee.

"No," Lou mumbled, not rudely, just honestly, and began to go look at records by himself.

As you might imagine, I was disappointed. But all my limbs and vital organs were still intact. You take the good with the bad. I went off to do some important work in the International Records section. If memory serves, I had to organize singers from Bulgaria that week. And separate them into Pro and Anti-Communist groups. At least that's what my manager Matt had said. But he was trying to be a standup comic. So, I never knew when he was kidding.

I was deep into this important task, when, suddenly, standing next to me was Lou Reed. There had been no apparent sound, or even movement on his part. He just appeared. It was no more unnerving than, say, watching Gary Oldman slither up a wall in Dracula. Shades still on, in that low, uninflected Street Hassle voice, Lou said, "Can you help me find something?"

Since I was talking to one of my rock heroes, I wanted to shout out that I'd find a woolly mammoth, Sasquatch or D.B. Cooper, if he wanted me to. But I stayed (relatively) cool and said, "Sure."

We walked back to the Rock section and Lou said, "I'm looking for a copy of that song by Exile. But I can't find it."

I had been drinking a cup of tea. And came as close as I ever hope, to doing a spit take. Did I hear Mr. Reed correctly? He didn't want an album of free jazz by Ornette Coleman? A blues record by Howlin' Wolf? Some of his beloved Doo Wop?

Just to make sure I wasn't having a psychotic episode, I had to say it out loud. "You actually want a copy of "I Want To Kiss You All Over"?" I asked.

I expected that Lou would suddenly burst out laughing. Except, Lou does not laugh.

Still, I'd been forced to listen to that shingle-inducing, smutty little song for days now. I had to ask. "Jesus, Lou. Why on earth would you want to buy that?"

There was a pause that seemed to last as long as the Crucifixion. Our sound system was playing Andy Gibb's "Shadow Dancing," which wasn't helping anybody.

Finally, with the poker-faced wit of Dirty Harry, Lou said, "Because I like it."

I later learned that although Reed was best known for his sharp, lyrical vignette's of New York's demimonde, he was also something of a sound geek.

Don't forget, this was one of the first guys to record in binaural. Who later cut a track for the execrable movie White Nights, because he wanted to work with the great sound engineer, Phil Ramone. He didn't care that Exile was an execrable band that featured a lead singer who affected lace-up boots and a Prince Valiant haircut. And who, lyrically, seem to revel in the new soft-core smut that was being bruited about everywhere in the swinging '70s.

Lou didn't care that "kissing some gal all over," was about 200 million miles away from his own twisted tales of loveless sex and emotional violence. He liked the hook, the sound and the production of the song. So much so, in fact, that he bought the 12-inch version.

We chatted amiably for a few more minutes. I managed not to gush about my lifelong love affair with The Velvets. I did make one mistake however, as I was ringing up Mr. Reed's purchase. I asked for his autograph. It's not that he said no, or gave me the sort of glacial stare that could freeze glass until it cracked. Nope, with no visible irritation, he asked if I had something to write on. I produced an old receipt that was sitting near the register. And then he began to write. "Hi Eve- Love Lou Reed." You see, I'd asked him to sign something for my girlfriend at the time. I mean, I was all of 20.

I was being courtly. What were the chances Eve and I would break up? And I never see the girl or the autograph again? Several months later, we called it quits.

Still, it was OK. Around that time, sad as I was over losing Eve, within days, a familiar, monotone voice wisdom whispered in my ear. They were lines from Street Hassle that made me feel better. One afternoon, as I was walking the streets of my beloved New York, I was sure I heard, "Sha la la man/Why don't you just let her slip away?"

Clearly, it was Lou Reed. Come back, somehow, to comfort me. Which he did. And I thought then, what I still think now. What's an autograph? When you've got something like that to lean on?


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