Reed's 'Raven' Reinterprets Poe

By his own admission, "The Raven" is the most ambitious project undertaken by Lou Reed in a recording career that now spans four decades. The new Sire/Reprise album by the former lynchpin of the Velve

By his own admission, "The Raven" is the most ambitious project undertaken by Lou Reed in a recording career that now spans four decades. The new Sire/Reprise album by the former lynchpin of the Velvet Underground sees him celebrating the fiction and poetry of the great American writer Edgar Allan Poe across two discs that contain a mixture of rock, classical music, and spoken dramatization.

Poe (1809-1849) is famous for both his prose and his verse. Among his acknowledged classic stories are "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Fall of the House of Usher," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." He is considered a pioneer in the fields of both science fiction and detective stories. His verse, meanwhile, was frequently beautiful. "I think he's a timeless, masterful writer," enthuses Reed. "That's the foremost thing: he's a really great writer and his interest is in obsession and compulsion and attraction towards things that are bad for you and I found that very, very interesting in a contemporary way."

Many will see parallels between Reed's notoriously decadent past and the life of the author, whose chronic alcoholism may have led to his death at the age of 40, but Reed says this played no part in his motives. "I'm not really a Poe scholar and I'm not that familiar with his life," he says. "I was writing about his work."

Reed admits that he paid scant attention when he was taught Poe's work in school. "I really got into Poe much later than that," he says. "In New York and the [United] States, you read a little bit of Poe in high school but you don't really get it and it's not that much fun." The mistakes he feels were made by his educators are something he has tried to rectify with his interpretations. "I think the outstanding characteristic here is that it's been made for the ears, not the eye, and that it's fun and you certainly don't have to know anything about Edgar Allan Poe to enjoy this."

As the man who is, due to the groundbreaking gritty subject matter of the songs he wrote for the Velvet Underground, widely considered to be the godfather of punk, Reed's own oeuvre seems at odds with that of Poe, who evokes a more genteel sensibility. Yet Reed expresses what seems to be genuine surprise when it is put to him that his name is not one that would normally be considered a natural association with Poe. "God, I thought they were," he says. "I'm shocked. I can't even imagine that this is true. Seriously. If you joined me up with Coleridge, maybe, that would be stranger." And of the suggestion that literature and rock'n'roll aren't things that are thought to go naturally together, he retorts, "Who said that? You don't have to be stupid to f***."

"The Raven" project first began to take real shape after Reed collaborated with director Robert Wilson on "POEtry," a sort of primitive, live version of the current album which debuted in Hamburg in 2001. Reed explains, "The idea originated in Germany in relationship to the play, then things started changing and the American [record] company took it over and it became a different record and a different everything but the original impetus was from the company. Amazingly enough."

Before Reed could even think about recording, he had to first work out how to distill Poe's body of work -- substantial despite his premature death -- into the approximately two-hour timespan of a double-CD set. "I immersed myself in Poe," says Reed. "I was living, breathing, reading Poe and I just had fun with it. And I want the listener to have fun." How long did this immersion take? "Longer than I'd ever care to admit. Or put it another way, this project started four years ago. It went through a lot of permutations 'til it turned into this," he says, adding, "We were still re-writing in the studio."

The actual recording process involved a far longer time in the studio than Reed is used to: "We are talking about lots of months. I think it took us about four months, maybe longer. I know we went past when we were supposed to get out of there. We were begging, groveling for time."

One of the reasons Reed hasn't attempted this kind of thing before is that he couldn't: "Without modern technology, this record couldn't be made, because of all the instruments and the sounds being manipulated and the placement of it and stereo distance, etcetera, etcetera. I won't bore you with details." He adds with a trace of weariness, "It's a very complex thing to put together. I won't do this again."

Some tracks feature the abrasive rock sounds that are Reed's trademarks. These alternate with cuts that are a world beyond anything many would ever expect him to tackle, what with their sumptuous classical accompaniment and spoken word dramatizations and readings.

Among the thespians to be heard on "The Raven" are Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, and Elizabeth Ashley. Reed and his co-producer Hal Willner knew precisely what qualities they wanted for their roles. "The requirement was be very talented, very smart, very sensitive, and have great voices, since we'd only hear them [and] not see them, so it didn't matter what they looked like. We had a wish list and we actually got everybody we wanted. Kind of astonishing. Once in a while, things like this happen. Usually not to me, but in this case we lucked out."

The plush classical parts that accompany these dramatizations were mainly the work of Jane Scarpantoni. Nonetheless, Reed points out, "I worked very closely with Jane. Some of it is an orchestral arrangement of guitar solo." The album also features musical and/or vocal cameos by David Bowie, Ornette Coleman, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Laurie Anderson.

Asked if he was tempted to set those poems to melodies rather than have actors read them, Reed avers, "That was not ever a thought to do that. That's not what he meant to have done with them. We were faithful in our own way." The last few words will probably be an important qualifier to many, for Reed has taken the liberty of amending Poe's original lines in places. Many Poe fans will inevitably be horrified by the way the author's distinctively elegant style has been made to sit cheek-by-jowl with phrases like "sweaty dickless liar."

"It's been re-written a lot," concedes Reed. He justifies himself by saying, "If you read Poe, you have to sit there with an Oxford dictionary looking up these incredible arcane words -- words that were arcane when he used them, [much] less now. That's one of the reasons people don't understand 'The Raven,' don't really get it when they read the original, because of the language there. They're usually just going by the context and what I was doing was really looking at it, really looking things up, changing it, and making it intelligible to a contemporary sensibility, because you don't want to sit there with a dictionary listening to a record."

The aforementioned poem -- the recounting of a man's haunting by the loss of his lover and by a raven who would seem to represent his dark, grief-filled destiny -- is one whose intricate structure fills Reed with admiration, despite his tamperings: "That masterful rhythm. No one's ever duplicated that. I suppose because it's so original. He created a dynamic form. It's very, very exciting."

In addition to the two-disc set, there will also be a truncated single-CD version of "The Raven." Explains Reed, "The one-CD is mainly the music and only two or three of the acted things. We thought, some people want the big version and some people might want the shorter one, depending on your taste." However, he denies that this is because the average Lou Reed fan might find the non-rock tracks a bridge too far: "I think the 'Lou Reed fan' will definitely like the big version just because there's more great things, more bang for the buck."

Though complex, Reed will be taking this work on the road. "[I'm] still trying to figure out how to present this but we will be appearing in Europe," he says, perhaps superfluously adding, "But it won't be a normal rock show."

Summing up "The Raven," Reed says, "You could go to a movie for two hours but this you can take home with you. It's your imagination and you can listen to it with your beloved or you can get stoned and listen to it. You can do anything you want. It's yours." And though he may be a literary as well as rock man, the punk in Reed surfaces when he concludes, "If you have a car, it's great in the car -- and if you don't have one you should steal one."