Poe Lou

To a certain fan of a certain subgenre of rock and roll, and certainly to any rock critic, there are few things in life more agreeable than the disagreeably somnambulant snarl of Mr. Lou Reed. There's just something kind of relaxing about the deep, nasal croak that drones on like a distant jackhammer smashing its last bit of concrete. It lulls you into a vague, uneasy stupor, but lulls nonetheless. You could go to sleep listening to Lou talk. It's amazing he doesn't doze off, though from the way he answers an interviewer's questions--like he's having them translated into his native tongue by some assistant on another phone line only he can hear--it's hard to tell.

Maybe they should sell a series of audiotapes called Lou Reads; one longs for a copy of Lou Reads the Collected Hubert Selby Jr. and Judy Blume. Till then, we'll make do with The Raven, on which Lou gathers up a motley band of indie-grade actors (Steve Buscemi, Fisher Stevens, Amanda Plummer and the Pall Mall-voiced Elizabeth Ashley), off-Billboard musos (Ornette Coleman, the Blind Boys of Alabama and the single-named Antony, with a voice as high as heaven's third floor) and guys who actually sell (David Bowie and Willem Dafoe) to interpret Edgar Allan Poe.

Put these things on your list of Things It Takes a Lot of Balls to Do: Rewrite "The Raven," about the only poem anyone recalls from junior high school or a Simpsons episode, and release in the midst of a music-biz depression a double-disc collection of spoken-word pieces fused together by random guitar outbursts, electronic belches and the occasional complete song (one of which is Reed's immortal "Perfect Day," which he doesn't bother to sing). Reed makes himself a guest on his own album, which is made up of 31 tracks either written or inspired by Poe, and he ducks backstage for long stretches, leaving the album in the sweaty hands of Dafoe and Buscemi and his longtime band fronted by guitarist Mike Rathke and bassist Fernando Saunders.

But that's Lou Reed and has been for decades: balls where there ought to be a brain, a brain where there should have been a dick. He's wired all wrong.

Dallas Observer: How much of the function of this album is to remind people that Poe didn't write horrific Halloween tales, but about much larger, much more personal and universal themes?

Lou Reed: It's an adventure of the mind and spirit, if you don't mind me saying so. If you have half a brain...[Ten-second pause.] I mean, to me, it's fun to have rock that engages the mind as well as goes on a real thrill journey. Why not? There're ideas floating out there, and you can put them to music without it turning into some kind of butt-dragging thing that's non-sexual, non-exciting and kind of dull and it's like someone's reading the Declaration of Independence to you in Sanskrit. I mean, you know, we can do better than that, I hope.

DO: I was wondering what it's like for you to do an album where you're a guest, not just because of the actors, but because it's an album by and about Poe and his various themes of paranoia and madness and heartbreak and...

Reed: I couldn't identify any more with this if it was a clone. This is perfect for me. What a thing to work from. This amazing map done by a master--it's incredible. I can't believe that the only other real version of this is Roger Corman. Yeah, it's fantastic. No one's seriously done this? How is that possible? My God, it's unbelievable. Not to put down Roger Corman; everybody loves some of those things, but it's so superficial. I mean, that's fine when you're a kid, but what about now? There's no version of it now? How can that be? It's too good. I feel like I discovered America. Or the Antarctic. You know, a whole new continent, just sitting there.

DO: What does that feel like?

Reed: What does it feel like? It feels like when I first, with the Velvet Underground, wrote a song called "Heroin," 'cause no one else was doing anything. It was bullshit and bullshit. In many respects, things haven't changed, but there was a song about real stuff.

The Raven was completed more than a year ago, after Reed debuted a version of it, titled POEtry, at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg and L'Odeon in Paris in 2000. He wrote the piece with Waco native Robert Wilson, the theater director and designer with whom Reed wrote Time Rocker in 1997. Together they sliced opened the Poe anthologies and gutted the old standards like bug-eyed revisionists. They tore away all those black-and-white stills of Vincent Price lit from beneath, and threw up on the gallery walls instead these Technicolor portraits of people drawn to things that are bad for them, that doom them to madness or eternal sadness. Reed wasn't much interested in the horror-movie Poe, but the religious Poe, the paranoid Poe, the star-gazing Poe, the drug-sniffing Poe, the perverse Poe.

Reed wanted to give audiences a Poe that wasn't the lit-class ghost whose shadow hung heavy over every dreadful and serious word. You won't really recognize "The Pit and the Pendulum" or "The Fall of the House of Usher," if you remember them at all; they're here but not, not really. They've been made modern by a guy who spent night after night with a dictionary in one hand and a copy of producer Hal Wilner's Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe in the other; never did Poe write of the "sweaty, arrogant, dickless liar."

Reed will tell you he did not particularly care for, and certainly did not truly understand, the work of Edgar Allan Poe until Halloween 1995, when Wilner asked him to read "The Tell-Tale Heart" at St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn. Wilner, the only man to make tribute albums that honor their subjects (including Kurt Weill and Thelonious Monk), began staging the October 31 events, at which famous people would read famous Poe, because "Halloween is one of those things a lot of us have these strange connections to," he once said. Poe, he insisted, is "very healing, incredibly magical and spiritual."

In 1997, Wilner put together Closed on Account of Rabies, a spoken-word tribute album to Poe that featured such old friends as Christopher Walken, Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithfull and Gabriel Byrne. The NY happenings would continue till '99, when Wilner was forced to abandon the church (the heathen!) and move to Los Angeles (those heathens!), where he would continue the events on the UCLA campus. By that point, the bug had bitten Reed and put the virus deep in his blood, and Warner Bros. had given him the OK to round up his cast and head into the studio. Whether it'd be his next New York or his next Metal Machine Music, his next hit or next shit, didn't much matter to the label, which Reed couldn't believe.

DO: What didn't you get about "The Tell-Tale Heart" that you understood after St. Ann's?

Reed: In "The Tell-Tale Heart," as far as I'm concerned, the guy's not going crazy when he's hearing the beating of the heart of the guy he killed and buried underneath the floor. What's making him nuts is that he thinks the cop hears it but is making believe he doesn't hear it, and that the cop, therefore, is making fun of him. He says, "You fucking mock me? You mocking me? You fucking piece of shit, you think I don't know you hear that?" That's what it's about, and that just lays me out. I said, "Oh, man. Wow. There you go. I know what that's like." And not just me. Are you mocking me? I mean, you could do this with interviews all day, with any question an interviewer asks. "Are you fucking mocking me, you piece of shit?" I mean, there you go--Poe, off and running.

DO: I'm going to apply that rationale to everything anyone says to me from now on and see just how quickly that drives me crazy.

Reed: Yeah. I mean, the minute you open that door, you're gone. You know, pull into a gas station and the guy comes over and he's not doing your windshield. You could say, "What is it with you? What the fuck is wrong with you? I'm not good enough to do the windshield?" You know, you can just go off and running. It's really easy. Once you go in there, it's nonstop.

Maybe at the end of the day, Reed relates to Poe because they're always talking about the same thing: what Poe referred to as an "overacuteness of the senses." Both men account for those who see things that aren't there, smell things that aren't burning, hear things that aren't breathing, fear things that were never even there. Reed and Poe obsess over obsessions, get maniacal about mania. There's always a bit of romance in their work, but broken hearts are seldom repaired, and the desperate are seldom satisfied. These men like their protagonists bent, if not completely broken.

That overacuteness of the senses was what Reed wrote about in the Velvets' "Heroin," what he wrote about on New York, what he meant when he wrote about the satellite that went up to the skies and "things like that drive me out of my mind." Rehabs and 12-step programs are overrun with people who suffer from overacuteness of the senses; so are Reed songs, so are Poe poems. At the end of the day, The Raven sounds like a Lou Reed record, just more of one: It's cockamamie and brilliant, too long and too sprawling and too much of too much. (A single-disc version, composed mostly of songs, serves to rectify that. It's due out at the same time.) But it works because it's such a mess: You're compelled to listen and wonder what kind of madman would attempt such a thing in the first place. Then you remember: Yeah, Lou Fuckin' Reed.

DO: I'm assuming you'd like to do The Raven as a full-blown stage production. It sounds like an album awaiting the production to go along with it.

Reed: Yeah. Or a movie, or a TV thing, or HBO. Time Warner, hmmm. Hmm. Hmm. Does Time talk to Warner? Does Warner talk to Time? Warner, Warner, Warner...It's so huge there.

DO: This album, so mammoth and complex, is really an aberration in the industry. How difficult was it to get them to do this?

Reed: Big time, big time. This is big-time aberration. I mean, it's actually amazing it's even out, let me put it that way. I have to give the record company a lot of credit, because this isn't exactly what they're looking for, you know? They're just not. And I don't know if we'll ever get the opportunity to do something like this again. If kids download it, assuming they do anything, then there you go. Something like this, this took too long and too much to do, and if it can't find an audience that appreciates that, it will be pointed to as an example of something that doesn't work. That's just the way it is. So, there you go.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky