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.