Lou Reed 2003
“…I certainly think everybody knows what it’s like to desire something that is bad for you. Cigarette smoking. Heroin. My ex-wife.”
January 16, 2003
By phone from Reed’s New York home
Release of “The Raven,” Reed’s last solo studio album
I thought Lou Reed might hang up on me before this interview ever got going.
It wasn’t the first time I’d spoken to him. That was back in the ‘80s. Reed was notorious for being ornery during interviews, but on that day I found him easy to talk to and we had a terrific conversation. I figured his difficult reputation was the creation of ignorant journalists who irritated Lou with their dumb questions.
I shouldn’t have flattered myself.
The next time I talk to Reed it was in 1992, around the time of the release of his “Magic and Loss” album, and he wasn’t nearly so nice to me. So I didn’t know which Lou to expect — sweet Lou or cranky Lou — when I got him on the phone a couple of weeks prior to the release of “The Raven,” his take on Edgar Allan Poe. Well, things went south fast. How fast? As soon as he heard my voice.
At this stage of his life, Reed was obsessed with sound quality, particularly the tone of his guitar. He quickly let me know that his concern with quality sound extended to the quality of our phone conversation. He didn’t like the way my voice sounded on his end and demanded to know what sort of set-up I was using. I explained that I was wearing a phone headset with an earpiece and microphone. He told me it was unacceptable and he didn’t know if he could stand to do the interview. I then fiddled around with the microphone, moving it various distances from my mouth until I found a spot that made my voice tolerable to him. Barely. He was pissed off at me before I asked him my first question.
After digging out this interview after Reed’s death last week, I was surprised to realize that “The Raven” was his last official solo studio release. But it wasn’t a Reed-and-band recording, not at all. It was a collaborative venture with producer Hal Willner that included a cast of actors and musicians: Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Elizabeth Ashley, Amanda Plummer, David Bowie, Ornette Coleman, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Antony and the Johnsons (virtually unknown at the time) and Laurie Anderson (Reed’s wife-to-be).
Even so, “The Raven” was very much Reed’s vision. It’s not hard to understand why he was drawn to Poe: both were fascinated by the dark side of human nature and driven to understand its role in our lives. As Reed wrote in his liner notes to “The Raven,” “I have read and rewritten Poe to ask the same questions again. Who am I? Why am I drawn to what I should not?…Why do we love what we cannot have? Why do we have a passion for exactly the wrong thing?”
Questions with no easy answers.
Lou starts rocking at 1:25
Who got you into [Edgar Allan] Poe first — Hal Willner or Robert Wilson?
Robert Wilson had suggested I write something about Poe for the stage and I did [“POEtry,” which had its premiere in Brooklyn in 2001]. Later on there was an idea to record it. And that idea grew into something else I was doing with Hal Willner. And then it became something to completely rewrite for an audio experience.
Worth staying with even if you don’t speak Dutch
[The Raven]’s two CDs [two hours long, 46 tracks, only 13 with Reed singing]. And there’s a single CD version coming out too [21 tracks]?
Right, there’s the abbreviated version of the whole thing.
So is the idea that the single CD will focus on just the songs and have less of the spoken word material?
Right. I don’t think of them as spoken word by the way. It’s an expression I wish you wouldn’t use. It sounds like a biography of Winston Churchill or something incredibly dull. These pieces are acted out with great sound effects and all kinds of interesting audio and spatial relationships that play with the imagination and make things a lot of fun. It is not spoken word by any stretch. Spoken word is Fox News. It reminds me of school.
Is it just coincidence that you, Hal Willner and Robert Wilson are all interested in Poe?
One of the reasons I got interested in Poe again in the first place is that Hal puts on these Halloween shows at St. Ann’s here in New York. I’ve been in them. And they revolve around Poe. Different people brought in to do Poe. The first one I did, I did “Tell Tale Heart.” I read it out loud for an audience, acting it. It was when I felt I first understood the story. That was an epiphany, big time. I had moved beyond a Roger Corman level of understanding into deep psychological obsession and insight. That was really fascinating. That was when I really started taking to Poe. As far as Bob, he’s into so many things it’s not at all surprising that he would be into Poe. He just thought I was the perfect person to put Poe for the stage. But keep in mind that what you’re hearing on the CD is not the same as what went onstage. Onstage you see things. here you’re listening.
So what is the relationship between the stage and CD versions?
That which works without having to be seen is on the CD. That which isn’t has been rewritten. So it’s a hearing experience.
Isn’t making a hearing experience in the MTV age asking a lot of an audience, especially an audience that may not be familiar with the original works?
I think it is asking a lot. I’m aiming at an audience that I’m hoping exists. This is for an audience that wants to sink their teeth into something, wants something that’s longer than three minutes, wants something that has really good sound, wants something that has integrity and requires thought and attention. That’s what this is.
How does the record company [Reprise/Sire] respond when you tell them this?
The president of the record company told me he thought it was very important that his company be able to put out records like this. Initially he thought it should really be in bookstores. Hah! In fact, actually, the text and libretto are going to be published by Grove Press, I’m told. We’re going to have a book. [Published in August, 2003, it includes Reed’s lyrics and photographs by the artist/director Julian Schnabel. In 2011, a second book based on Reed’s “The Raven” lyrics was published with illustrations by cartoonist Lorenzo Mattotti.]
How does your text differ from Poe’s?
If you really want to do it, the perfect place to do it is with the poem “The Raven.” Just sit them side by side. The original has more verses. I’m matching him syllabically, syllable by syllable really. The only thing really similar is the first verse. Then he’s rewritten. You can see exactly how he’s rewritten if you want to know. I mean “sweaty arrogant dickless liar,” that’s not Poe. That’s not what you heard in high school. And it’s a lot more fun than what you heard in high school. Some of poe is very difficult. He’s a real scholar. He’s got a huge vocabulary. You would have to sit with a dictionary to read him. And I did that. And translated him. And took out things that don’t matter, like words that were arcane when he used him, architectural terms about different kinds of balconies and blah blah blah. That’s gone.
[Here’s an example of a verse from “The Raven.” Poe’s original version:
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
`Surely,’ said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore –
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; –
‘Tis the wind and nothing more!’
And Reed’s rewrite:
Back into my chamber turning every nerve within me burning
when once again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before
“Surely,” said I, surely that is something at my iron staircase
open the door to see what threat is,
open the window, free the shutters,let us this mystery explore
oh, bursting heart be still this once and let this mystery explore
it is the wind and nothing more]
Reed writes Poe, Willem Dafoe reads Reed
But clearly you think his work is relevant to people today?
More than ever.
You write in the liner notes that Poe is more attuned to our century than he was to his own.
I think that we can relate more to him now than then. Recent world events seem to have a real Poe turn to them.
You also write about how you are drawn to what you call “the impulse of destructive desire — the desire for self-mortification”?
Anybody in a 12-step program ought to figure that one out. It didn’t help him any.
Isn’t this something that we see around us in pop culture? Like the movie “Jackass,” for example?
Everybody I know who saw that movie said it’s fantastic, don’t miss it. That’s what I was told. Naturally I did miss it.
So is that destructive desire? Would flirting with bodily harm be an example of destructive desire?
Poe isn’t talking about flirting. It’s not the same at all. One is jokes and for laughs. The other is really serious and your life is at stake. It’s not a joke and it can’t be taken back.
But isn’t the impulse coming from the same place?
I don’t think so. Joking around is one thing. Doing something for real is another planetary system. Playing around is not the same. His people are not playing around.
So how do you relate this impulse to your own life?
Well, I never answer personal questions. All I’m doing is rewriting Poe. But I certainly think everybody knows what it’s like to desire something that is bad for you. Cigarette smoking. Heroin. My ex-wife.
Must it be that serious? Or could it be undertaking an artistically risky project like “The Raven”?
I never thought of it that way. No, I can’t imagine thinking of it that way. That’s crazy. And on that level, you’re that way. But no. Not at all. Doing a creative artistic act that may or may not reach an audience is not playing with fire. Playing with fire is murdering your best friend, burying him under a floorboard and then inviting the cops in and having them sit over a table with you over it.
But that’s such extreme behavior.
Well, it’s fantasy behavior.
So is the point that such fantasies and potentials lie within us all?
I personally don’t know anyone who doesn’t have them. But perhaps you do being a journalist and all. You meet so many different people.
Isn’t it the ones who deny having such thoughts who are the ones most troubled by them?
Psychologically that’s often the case.
You have to know that you are going to be criticized for what you’ve done on “The Raven.” Any second thoughts about the wisdom of rewriting Poe?
No, I pretty much think of it as a can’t-win situation. No one is going to say that my version of “The Raven” is better than the original. I know that. But I’m doing it cause it’s a great thing to do. And I don’t care what anyone else has to say.
You make Poe himself a character in several of the stories.
What you probably noticed is that there’s nothing autobiographical about Poe in any of this. It’s all his stories. In the stories, because I felt there was a similarity between the protagonists in everything, I decided to call him either the Young Poe or the Old Poe. That way there was one protagonist we were keeping an eye on and watching him, keeping the focus on him. It made things thematically easier without betraying the character. And like I said, we’re not remotely talking about Poe’s real life at all. I just made him a character in his own stories.
And is there a narrative thread in “The Raven”?
I would think of it as thematic. You’re on your last question, my friend.
You write in the liner notes that Poe was forefather of William Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr. Would you say he’s the forefather of the Velvet Underground too?
Well, sure. Absolutely. There’s a family tree of sorts.
In the end, do you want people to listen to your “Raven” and then go and read Poe?
Oh, I don’t have hopes about anything that has to do with that. My hope is that it finds an audience that will enjoy it. My hope is that they’re out there — people who would like something with some depth to it.
Lou finds salvation with the Blind Boys of Alabama