Lou Reed's Poem to Poe

January 31, 2003



From his earliest days with the groundbreaking Velvet Underground through his long and storied solo career, Lou Reed has been fascinated with merging the worlds of literature and rock ’n’ roll.

With his new album “The Raven,” Reed has attempted his most audacious literary project yet—a two-CD set that reworks an earlier stage production, “POEtry,” by recontextualizing the work of the great American poet and horror writer Edgar Allen Poe in an aural setting incorporating music new and old with contributions from actors such as Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, and Amanda Plummer.

I spoke with Reed by phone from his office in New York City five days before the album’s release last Tuesday.

Q. When I interviewed you circa “Magic and Loss” in 1992, we talked at length about what you saw as a new form of making albums. You called it “bio-rock.”

A. That was because of [1990’s Andy Warhol tribute album] “Songs for Drella.” I thought, “What a great way of learning about somebody.” Like “Songs for Drella,” you could learn about Warhol, and you could do Malcolm X or anybody and learn by listening to music that you love to listen to in the first place. It’s a really painless, fun way of doing things. And that’s certainly, if I get your drift, what applies here to Poe.

Q. Exactly. Do you think you’ve perfected this form?

A. I didn’t know I was doing it! It’s kind of like an afterthought.

Q. So that wasn’t in your mind when you were writing “The Raven”? It was more of a theater piece?

A. Well, it started out as a theater piece. It was [director] Bob Wilson’s idea. He said, “Why don’t you write a play about Edgar Allen Poe?” So one of the things you notice here is it’s only Poe’s work; there’s nothing autobiographical about it. It’s only his work rewritten. With Wilson I did it for the stage, but for this, I rewrote the entire thing so it’s for a CD. It’s for the ears, not the eye.

Q. Having grown up, like you, in New York, I remember “CBS Radio Mystery Theater,” which ran well into the 1980s and was dedicated to doing horror stories along the lines of the early radio dramas. “The Raven” reminds me of that, where you’re telling a story, using sound effects judiciously, and treating the actors almost as musical instruments.

A. Oh yeah, but we’re way past that technically because we have sounds that you’ve never heard before, and the placement of the sounds—things coming back, things coming from odd angles, you know what I’m saying? It’s like a radio play compared to this is pretty barbaric.

Q. That’s two-dimensional and this is in 4D.

A. Yeah, exactly. I mean, it was really, really fun to do it. It was a lot of fun to do it and it’s a lot of fun to listen to. And anybody can listen to it; you don’t have to know anything about Poe. It’s not like a scholarly kind of thing—god forbid! But I think it’s far more true to the real Poe than the movies have been, for instance. And also speaking of that, you go to a movie and you pay nine or ten bucks in New York…

Q. I paid eleven bucks the other night to see Spike Lee’s “25th Hour.”

A. No [kidding]! Well, it’s supposed to be good.

Q. Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman were good. Speaking of Hoffman, did you see him as your old rock-critic nemesis Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous”? Do you think he pulled it off?

A. Oh yeah, sure, I saw it. It was a very sympathetic portrayal. [Laughs] I mean, how can you go wrong having Philip Seymour Hoffman portray you? [Bangs] could be a BIG [jerk], but he was also passionate about music. He was honest about that, and he was as close as it got to someone who could write rock—rock ’n’ roll writing, that’s what I would call it. Lester definitely had his place in the sun. He was great fun to read; he really was. That he was [a jerk] some of the time, that’s no big deal. He was a lot of other great things, too. It’s like, “Who isn’t [a jerk] at some point?” I can’t even imagine.

Q. Poe certainly seemed to be capable of being [a jerk].

A. Yeah, well, it killed him. I don’t know if it was being [a jerk] as much as a drunk. They didn’t have the 12-step then I guess. It didn’t help him. But he’s a genius. He’s an out and out genius. And kind of morphing with him has been quite an experience, and I’m really glad Bob Wilson thought of it.

Q. I started my career as a beat reporter across the Hudson River from Manhattan in Hoboken, N.J., and Poe wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” there after he was inspired by a case in which the woman’s body was found in a cave along the Palisades. He just moved the locale from Hoboken to Paris.

A. Paris is a long way from Hoboken, but not if you’ve got a great imagination! I had this great book when I was doing this that [arranger] Hal Wilner gave me that was about everything Poe wrote, what was going on at that time that might have made him write it, and the influences, etc. Why “Hop Frog,” what he was satirizing, a trial in the newspaper that week—things like that. Somebody probably just like you, like really obsessed, went back and did all that.

Q. I’ve seen those kinds of books about James Joyce, and they’re really helpful. You need a road map through something like  Ulysses .

A. Absolutely. I’ve read it, but I didn’t just sit down and read it: I had a guide, and a dictionary. And  Finnegan’s Wake —whoa! I’ve always done best when it was read to me by somebody who really understands it.

Q. Do you think this album will do that in way for Poe?

A. I hope that people have fun listening to this. It should be fun. And some of it is a little scary, but straight through it’s got great electronic music, it’s got rock, so it should be this great experience and a lot better than being forced to read “The Raven” in high school.

Q. What strikes me when you read it in high school is that it’s always very sing-songy.

A. What’s sad about the sing-song is that I rewrote it—we have less verses, you can compare—but I followed rhythmically and syllabically, because that rhythm is so fantastic, and to reduce it to song-song is like a great ass-holeian accomplishment.

Q. It’s like when Steve Allen used to read Little Richard lyrics: He just didn’t get it.

A. You know, for a smart guy, Steve Allen is awfully stupid! I mean, they’re meant to be sung! What the [heck] is wrong with you!

Q. It’s just like you never understand William S. Burroughs until you hear it read.

A. I love Burroughs, because of all those great [Beat] writers, he really would write certain sentences that were just golden, they were amazing. And Poe does, too. I didn’t read everything he’d ever written, but I certainly read a lot and took a lot of different things. Like in any given story, there are things floating around from something else. What I was searching for were those golden sentences—those very beautiful, rhythmic, exquisite words put together where somebody who likes words or meaning or sounds would go, “Whoa! Who is that? What is that?” I tried to fill the album with that. But you know, it’s for people who like sound. You would hope that is what a CD would be, but this is like all different kinds of sounds, but it’s also a record. God, it’s got all these great players on it. And I might add the strings are real.

Q. I know; your new cellist, Jane Scarpantoni, is an old friend of mine.

A. Oh, OK! She did some amazing string arrangements. She’s our downtown cellist.

Q. I’m curious about why you decided to include parts of “Berlin” and “A Perfect Day” on this album. You were just talking about going through Poe and finding those golden nuggets. Were you thinking, “This is something I’d written in a completely different frame of mind but it has the vibe I’m looking for here. It fits the Poe project”?

A. Yeah, plus, if you know me, it brings these other thoughts to the table. It reminds you of something.

Q. Right. And the other thing that is not referenced here but which I was thinking about when listening to “The Raven” was the Velvet Underground’s “Murder Mystery.” It seems like three decades ago you were already moving toward something like this new album, telling a literary story in a rock song.

A. You know, “Murder Mystery” and “Metal Machine Music,” those are attempts at certain things. Last year “Metal Machine Music” was performed at the Berlin Opera House. Times change and people catch up a bit, I would say.

Q. I have to say “Metal Machine Music” doesn’t sound as good on CD as it does on vinyl.

A. Did you get the one from Rhino or Buddah?

Q. I have both.

A. The one from Buddah, I mastered that with Bob Ludwig. That one is pretty good in my opinion. That we got as close as being able to rework master tapes for a CD. Because prior to that the CD was frightening—very, very scary. It was like missing one entire side. It was terrible.

Q. And you don’t get the lock groove on CD, of course.

A. [Laughs] You know, if we did that to a CD, they would be returning them!

Q. I thought that was the whole point! It all built to the lock groove!

A. No, the idea was you would have to physically get up and stop the record. You had to interact with it. The originator of that idea was Warhol. We had tried to do that in the Velvet Underground on a single. I think it was “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” So it would be [sings], “I’ll be your m… I’ll be your m… I’ll be your m!” It was just a way to let you know we’re there. But the mixes on “The Raven,” they’re like what you’d call musicians’ mixes. They’re not supposed to be perfect.

Q. Are you enjoying the new digital technology? Is the studio today where you always wanted it to be?

A. I use [the computer program] Logic, and if we didn’t have Pro Tools and Logic, I couldn’t have done this album. We record analog, but then we dump it to digital. The manipulation, like you want to put the sound effect or a door slamming or this or that, you do it and then you say, “It should be a tenth of a second earlier or later,” well, now you can do that! Or, “Let’s take it out of there and move it to this other speech.” You can do that! We bitch and moan and call it “Slow Tools,” but the reality is if you were doing that with a razor blade [and analog tape], you’d be there for 10 years. It’s impossible. It would have been impossible to do this album this way; it’s out of the question.

Q. What would “Metal Machine Music” have been like if you had digital technology at that point?

A. It would be like the thing on “The Raven” called “Fire Music.” Literally. That’s a direct descendent. I spent more time than I care to think about, because I wanted to be able to do in a digital domain what I did in an analog domain for “Metal Machine.” And how could I do that, how could I get those speed changes in real time? That was the problem. And it went through, “Well, you could go frame by frame, changing it,” but then that changes the power of the sound. It got very, very complicated—I won’t bore you with it—but I figured out my own way of doing it, and that’s what you hear in “Fire Music.” And that’s played in real time, by the way, it’s not looped. When it stops is when I couldn’t do it anymore.

Q. Are you going to tour with this album?

A. We’re going to go out and do a little tiny tour in the States and Europe.

Q. I’ve never seen you play better than the last time you were at the Chicago Theater; it was amazing. And I stood in line for four hours at the Bottom Line when you debuted “The Blue Mask.” I was in college and it was about ten degrees outside, I was frozen, but some bouncer took pity on me and when a record company exec left after about four songs, I wound up with a table right next to guitarist Robert Quine.

A. I’m sure it was the record company president who left! [Laughs] Probably the marketing rep. “That’s it, I heard four songs, that’s enough.” That makes me feel good! But I want to do something different this time. I want to go out with Jane and Antony—they did the strings and background vocals. We’re gonna go out and I want to act out or read some of the stuff, so it’s gonna be different than before, because I change.

Q. That’s the definition of being a vital artist, isn’t it?

A. I think so! I wrote a song called “Change”—“Your balls shrivel up in their sack.” I thought that was so funny!

Q. I don’t think the critics get that one. I’ve seen some odd references to that in reviews.

A. How could you not get it?

Q. Maybe they don’t have balls, I don’t know.

A. In my mind I wanted to do a Little Richard vocal, but I can’t, so it’s my version of that. But it’s supposed to be funny.


Lou Reed, “The Raven” (Sire/Reprise) * * *

When word first surfaced that legendary rock curmudgeon Lou Reed was working on an album based on the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, the outlook wasn’t promising: In recent years, the singer and songwriter has spent entirely too much time standing onstage like a rock ’n’ roll professor, reading his words from a lectern. Despite his aspirations toward literary immortality (remember his hardcover collection of lyrics,  Between Thought and Expression), he’s always been at his musical best when he’s been the loosest and most spontaneous, letting his guitar speak as eloquently as his lyrics.

But while the two-CD set “The Raven” is far from an unqualified success, it is much less pretentious than it might sound on paper, and there are more than enough moments of startling power and gut-wrenching beauty to satisfy any longtime fan.

As much as he has always focused on his lyrics, Reed has also used music and sound to tell fascinating stories (go back to classic Velvet Underground tracks such as “Murder Mystery” and “Lady Godiva’s Operation”). During its best moments (“The Conqueror Worm,” “Fire Music,” “Annabel Lee/The Bells”), “The Raven” presents the perfect merger of Poe’s haunting words with driving, moody, and moving music by Reed and his core band (searing guitarist Mike Rathke, ultra-musical bassist Fernando Saunders, and hard-hitting drummer Tony Smith), which is nicely augmented by strings and special guests such as Ornette Coleman, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

As might be expected, reliably frightening actors such as Willem Dafoe and Steve Buscemi give perfect voice to Reed’s well-chosen (and sometimes reworked) snippets of Poe. More surprising but just as effective are vocal turns by guests such as Elizabeth Ashley, David Bowie, and Reed’s significant other, Laurie Anderson. And of course there is Reed himself, delivering what remains one of the most distinctive (albeit gruff and monotone) voices in rock history.

Not entirely a rock record nor purely an audio drama, “The Raven” ultimately demands to be heard on its own terms as something new and different—a true hybrid of rock and literature. But Reed loyalists are used to the artist throwing them serious curve balls, and in the end, the album is one of the most ambitious and intriguing gifts that he’s given us since the indelible concept album “Berlin.”