Poetry News

Lou Reed and The Raven

By Harriet Staff

Think back to 2001—do you remember hearing about Lou Reed's theater piece, POEtry? How about 2003—did you pick up a copy of his concept album, The Raven? It was produced by Hal Willner, and included guest vocalists David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, and Steve Buscemi, among others. It seems Reed has long been working with the inspiry of Edgar Allan Poe, and his latest is a graphic novel adaptation of the album, which can be previewed here. New York Magazine talks to the artist about his ongoing interest in Poe; what he thinks about a current popular offering on Broadway, The Book of Mormon; and his collaboration with Robert Wilson on Lulu (O Freiheit! this might be seeable only in Berlin), which inspired a not-yet-titled project with Metallica: "It’s maybe the best thing done by anyone, ever. It could create another planetary system. I’m not joking, and I’m not being egotistical." Huzzah! On The Raven:

It must have been daunting to take on Poe …
Do you know what it’s like to try to rewrite one of the most famous poems in the history of the world? It’s a can’t-win situation. No one is ever going to say that the rewrite is better than the original. That’s not going to happen. But it was a great idea from [director] Bob Wilson. He said, “We should do Poe, and you should rewrite Poe.” What an idea. The language is difficult, because there are a lot of arcane words that probably no one knew that they meant, even at the time — architectural terms and whatnot. So I spent a lot of time with the dictionary, to make it more contemporary, easy to read. Or easier, I should say.

Some of the lines are certainly contemporary — “You won’t need 3-D glasses to pass through here" — and others just seem more direct, with the swear words and drug references.
I think in his Raven, they were smoking opium anyway.

Yes, but you make it explicit: “Through the haze of cocaine’s glory” …
Don’t you think they had cocaine back then? [Chuckles.]

What made you think of Poe as being musical material in the first place?
It was a very underground, underground album. It had a lot of trouble coming out as a double CD, and it ended my relationship with the record company. It wasn’t their idea of a best seller: “I know, we’ll rewrite Edgar Allan Poe and make a fortune!” That’s why it’s nice to see them going under now and taking all their asshole A&R people with them. They’re getting what they deserve. They blew it with the Internet.

But it’s a lot easier if you hear the poems and stories read out loud. One Halloween, they had a Poe celebration at St. Ann’s Church. There was this reading organized by Hal Wilner of all these people doing Poe out loud, and that’s when I first really realized the genius of "The Tell-Tale Heart." It was an amazing experience. It’s not just the actual words. It’s the rhythm. It’s not like iambic pentameter in Shakespeare. There is a great rhythm. I tried to tune in to that meter. It’s really a songwriter’s meter.

Originally Published: July 6th, 2011