Lou Reed Rewrites Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” See Readings by Reed and Willem Dafoe

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Christo­pher Walken, Iggy Pop, Deb­bie Har­ry & Oth­er Celebs Read Tales by Edgar Allan Poe

Lou Reed — Vel­vet Under­ground Front­man, Influ­en­tial Solo Musi­cian — Dead at 71

Watch Red Shirley, Lou Reed’s Short Doc­u­men­tary on His Fas­ci­nat­ing 100-Year-Old Cousin (2010)

Nico, Lou Reed & John Cale Sing the Clas­sic Vel­vet Under­ground Song ‘Femme Fatale’ (Paris, 1972)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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