Hear Lou Reed’s The Raven, a Tribute to Edgar Allan Poe Featuring David Bowie, Ornette Coleman, Willem Dafoe & More


It’s not imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent that Lou Reed and Edgar Allan Poe would have that much in com­mon. It’s true Reed inher­it­ed a goth­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty (though one could argue that this ele­ment in the Vel­vet Under­ground came main­ly from Nico and John Cale), and he worked in a self-con­scious­ly lit­er­ary vein. But in almost every oth­er respect, he spoke a total­ly dif­fer­ent idiom. Drawn to the seedy bars and street cor­ners rather than the great hous­es, lab­o­ra­to­ries, and scholar’s nooks of Poe, Reed inclined his ear toward the com­mon tongue, in con­trast to Poe’s care­ful­ly com­posed Roman­tic dic­tion.

But while it’s hard to imag­ine Poe think­ing much of Reed’s rock and roll, the themes of sex­u­al obses­sion, mad­ness, ter­ror, and mor­bid reflec­tion that Poe brought into promi­nence seem to find their fruition over 100 years lat­er in the work of the Vel­vets (and the thou­sands of post-punk bands they inspired), and in much of Reed’s sub­se­quent solo work—up to his final album, the crit­i­cal­ly-reviled Lulu with Metal­li­ca, which his long­time part­ner Lau­rie Ander­son declared full of “fear and rage and ven­om and ter­ror and revenge and love,” and which David Bowie pro­nounced a “mas­ter­piece.”

While we know where much of Reed’s per­son­al angst came from, we can also hear—in the vivid shock of his imagery and the extrem­i­ty of his emotions—the echo of Poe’s crazed pro­tag­o­nists. Leave it to Reed, then, to take on the task of inter­pret­ing Poe in the 21st cen­tu­ry, in his 2003 album, The Raven, a col­lec­tion of Poe-themed musi­cal pieces (“This is the sto­ry of Edgar Allan Poe / Not exact­ly the boy next door”), with such col­lab­o­ra­tors as Ander­son, Bowie, Ornette Cole­man, the Blind Boys of Alaba­ma, Antony, Eliz­a­beth Ash­ley, and Willem Dafoe, who reads a Reed-adapt­ed ver­sion of the poem at the top (track 9 in the album below), over a video trib­ute to B hor­ror actress Deb­bie Rochon (for some rea­son).

What did Reed seek to accom­plish with this con­cep­tu­al project? As he him­self writes 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?” These are time­less philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions, indeed, which tran­scend mat­ters of style and genre. Again and again, both Poe and Reed pur­sued them into the dark­est recess­es of the human psyche—the places most of us fear to go. And per­haps for that rea­son espe­cial­ly, we are pere­nial­ly drawn back to their work.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Raven: a Pop-up Book Brings Edgar Allan Poe’s Clas­sic Super­nat­ur­al Poem to 3D Paper Life

Famous Edgar Allan Poe Sto­ries Read by Iggy Pop, Jeff Buck­ley, Christo­pher Walken, Mar­i­anne Faith­ful & More

Meet the Char­ac­ters Immor­tal­ized in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”: The Stars and Gay Rights Icons from Andy Warhol’s Fac­to­ry Scene

Edgar Allan Poe’s the Raven: Watch an Award-Win­ning Short Film That Mod­ern­izes Poe’s Clas­sic Tale

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

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