Yes, Halloween is behind us, and some people may desire a break from the Lou Reed tributes in order to mourn him silently. Fair enough. But indulge us once more, because Reed’s best music and the dark imaginative work of Edgar Allan Poe are always relevant, and when they come together, it’s reason to celebrate. And come together they did ten years ago with the recording of Reed’s concept album The Raven, a selection of musical and dramatic pieces put together by Reed. The album notably features actors such as Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Elizabeth Ashley, and Amanda Plummer and guest artists like David Bowie, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Ornette Coleman.
The collaboration, if you can call it such, between Reed and Poe makes perfect sense. As Mark Deming at Allmusic writes, “it’s no wonder why Lou Reed regards Poe as a kindred spirit.” Reed said as much in the liner notes: “I have reread and rewritten Poe to ask the same questions again. Who am I? Why am I drawn to do what I should not? … Why do we love what we cannot have? Why do we have a passion for exactly the wrong thing?” Despite its collection of seemingly mismatched parts, Reed’s The Raven worked, Deming writes, and Reed hadn’t “sounded this committed and engaged” in “over a decade” (Pitchfork had a decidedly different take on the album).
The Raven was originally a commissioned work for a stage production called POEtry, an adaptation of Poe’s work by Robert Wilson (who had previously worked with Tom Waits on The Black Rider). The title recording of Reed’s adapted “The Raven” (top) is actually read by a creepy-voiced Willem Dafoe. Ten years later, we have Reed himself reading his version of “The Raven” (above) at Cannes just this past June. He looks and sounds rather frail, but he’s mentally in top form. He breaks into his own reading to point out the fact that his version of the poem uses Poe’s “exact rhythm.” “If you don’t believe me,” he says, “you can check it line-by-line.” And so you can. Read Reed’s “The Raven” against Poe’s original. Of his modernization, Reed said:
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.
The Reed/Poe/Robert Wilson collaboration also produced a 2011 book, also called The Raven and illustrated by artist Lorenzo Mattotti.