Interview with Lou Reed (03/03)

Lou Reed’s The Raven (Sire/Reprise) began its life onstage as POEtry, a collaboration with director Robert Wilson commissioned by the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, Germany, in 2000. Now, featuring dramatic readings by the likes of Willem Dafoe, Elizabeth Ashley, and Steve Buscemi; notable musical contributions by Laurie Anderson and Ornette Coleman; and songs by Reed and his band, the piece, produced by Hal Winner, has been made over into a double CD. With songs as rock ‘n’ roll rough as “Edgar Allan Poe” sitting alongside Reed’s own rewrites of Poe’s greatest hits, and with dramatizations that in moments seem like nightclub acts, the work is also a modern dream.

[Listen to The Raven]


GREIL MARCUS: I have to tell you–I had a dream last night about this interview. In this dream we did the interview, it was good–and after I left I realized I had never asked you a single thing about Edgar Allan Poe.
LOU REED: That’s very funny.

GM: So I thought maybe I should ask you a few questions. I want to ask you about this whole idea of rewriting. Rewriting Poe.
LR: I don’t know if “rewriting” is really the word.

GM: Well, there is stuff in the pieces that wasn’t there before. A lot of it is obscene, a lot of it is scatological. Stuff that you can imagine Poe might have wanted to say but couldn’t.
LR: Wait, wait, wait–I don’t think of it as obscene, as scatological. I think it’s very much in the spirit of Poe. I’m shocked that you think that.

GM: I’m using “obscene” as a generic term. If you use the word “shit” in Poe, we’d call it an obscenity. That doesn’t mean it’s obscene in a moral sense.
LR: One of our actors [in the play] hadn’t realized that I’d rewritten “The Raven.” He turned to someone else and said, “I don’t think Poe said ‘arrogant dickless liar.'” That’s what you mean.

GM: That’s what I mean. When I heard Willem Dafoe recite “arrogant dickless liar” in your version of “The Raven,” I thought, This is so perfect. But did you hesitate over the notion of rewriting Poe, of putting in words that weren’t already there?
LR: No. And reading him out loud makes a big difference, I discovered. I think I had a superficial understanding of, say, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I’m sure everyone says they understand “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but when I did one of [producer] Hal Willner’s Halloween Poe celebrations at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn, and I read it out loud, that was the first time I understood it, and it had a big effect on me. Then I realized just how much I could relate to Poe.

GM: How do you mean you understood it? Understood it emotionally?
LR: Emotionally, what exactly happens at the end. I hadn’t really understood it before. I thought I had, but I hadn’t. Why does the murderer admit his guilt? Why does he do that? I mean, there’s a whole bunch of reasons. But there’s one really great reason, and it’s when Willem says, “Do you not hear it? Do you fucking mock me? Do you mock me? Do you think me an imbecile? Do you think me a fool?” It comes under the general heading in Poe: the idea of being drawn to things we know are bad for us.

GM: When I first heard the reading of “The Raven” on the CD, when it started, “Once upon a midnight dreary”–it was like listening to somebody do Hamlet’s soliloquy: You’ve heard it so many times. Did you ever think, “We can’t revise this”? “We can’t make this fresh”?
LR: Not only did I think that, but the corollary thought: This is a can’t-win situation. On one hand you’ve mauled the classic, and butchered it, and made it barbaric. Or you’ve put everybody to sleep–and you’ve mauled the classic. But the other way of thinking about it was… amazing. Fun. Why have this thing with Poe and then leave “The Raven” alone? No, I wanted to touch that. I wanted to put my paw print all over everything, but [in Germany] we ran out of time. But I kept at it, and when it came to New York it was ready.

GM: I love the way Dafoe gets rid of the first line so quickly.
LR: He’s a New Yorker. [laughs] He’s acting it the way a New Yorker would. It’s fast.

GM: Why didn’t you do any of the readings on the record yourself?
LR: We thought about that. Now I’ve started doing it, just not on the record. I wasn’t up to it at the time. I was too deep into the writing end of it. I could tell people how to read or give them an idea, but I didn’t want to do it.

GM: But you do sing the songs.
LR: I did guide vocals for the songs, and Hal said, “Why do you want to replace them [with other singers]?”

GM: A couple of songs you do with a very growly vocal.
LR: “Burning Embers.”

GM: It’s as if your throat is encrusted with hundreds of years of rocks and moss. Why did you do it that way? It’s incredibly effective.
LR: Oh, I’m so glad you liked that–and noticed. That vocal needed someone who could sing that way, at least initially. Then I did a whole bunch of not singing it like that, and Hal said, “Why are you doing it normally when you have this over here? Every time you do it this way, it sounds great–and that way is really boring.” And that was it–it got into howling.

GM: When Ornette Coleman makes his one appearance on the set, when he comes in on “Guilty,” there’s something so refreshing and alive about that alto sax sound. You’re hearing another intelligence in this whole project. Another moment struck me the same way: when Laurie Anderson is playing Rowena in “Call on Me.” I felt her performance and Ornette’s threw everybody else into a shadow. With both of them you could feel the presence of a body, and it revealed a staginess, a distance between the actor and the role, on the part of everybody else.
LR: I don’t feel that way. I mean, that’s a heavy, heavy criticism.

GM: Sure it is.
LR: But, I mean, you’re talking about listening to people act out a set piece. That’s what they’re doing–surrounded by sound effects and different music–but they are acting. And you either like their acting or you don’t like their acting.

GM: I want to go back to questions of language, of reading Poe, of writing Poe.
LR: I would sit there with a dictionary, first so I could understand before I could even think about joining forces with him. Some of the words he was using were very, very, very specific terms, some little-used architectural terms. What a vocabulary! And I knew if I kept it that way, no one would understand.

GM: It’s always seemed to me that one of the reasons Poe used words like that, words that were already archaic when he was using them, is that there’s a profound sense of decay and rot all through his stories. It’s most obvious in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” But it’s really everywhere. And there’s a corresponding sense of decay in the language–a sense as you read that the language has outlived its time. The words are like the walking dead. And that’s really all through the album of The Raven, that sense of things falling to pieces. You get a sense of people losing their footing all through the set.
LR: That’s an interesting theory, that he’s using arcane terms to demonstrate decay. I don’t particularly agree with you. I think he’s just incredibly specific in his descriptions. I don’t think he’s doing that to show decay because the word is old. He’s using the word, usually, because it’s so specific and there is no real contemporary version for some of these phrases.

GM: One thing you stayed away from and I think a lot of people would have jumped at is Poe’s life; you don’t interweave his life and his writing.
LR: What would I do that for?

GM: I think a lot of people would. They’d use the sensationalism of Poe’s life and show his self-destructive tendencies. Your staying away from that strikes me as not only good but unusual. Most people think a work has no meaning unless it’s somehow validated by the life of the person who created it.
LR: How does that apply to Hamlet?

GM: It doesn’t apply at all. But your perspective is not common. It’s not ordinary, and it’s the only way you could do something like this. Most people would want to swallow up Poe and say, “Well, I’m going to give you Poe!” And by Poe they mean some guy named Edgar Allan Poe who walks around and degrades himself.
LR: No, this is Poe’s work. The female characters are essentially the same, the male characters are essentially the same, and essentially the same things are going to happen, one way or another. It really goes back to “The Imp of the Perverse”: “Why are we drawn to that which we know is bad for us?” I’m rephrasing it clumsily–it’s much better than that. But why are we drawn to that which we know will destroy us? I love him. I just love that he does it over and over: confess, jump off a cliff, suddenly the heartbeat, footsteps approaching…
Now, anyone who has experienced anxiety has got to relate to that. I don’t know one person in the world with a pulse who hasn’t been anxious. That’s one of the reasons he’s universally acclaimed to this day.

GM: Who is Jane Scarpantoni? Her string arrangement on “Vanishing Act” is one of my favorite things on the whole set.
LR: How would I describe her? She’s a downtown cellist. She’s played with Sex Mob. She’s played with a lot of downtown people. Originally there was a guitar solo. I said, “Jane, can you take this guitar solo and make it a string arrangement?” And that’s what she did.

GM: There’s something so acerbic about it; it’s warming, but it’s like movie music–from a German movie.
LR: It’s so moving when you hear that stateliness of [Friedrich Paravicini’s] piano [on “Vanishing Act”). You never get to hear what a piano really sounds like on records. People are in such a rush. I love listening to that track. I love listening to a long track, a long record. You know, you can go to a movie for two hours; you can listen to a record for two hours. It might even be more interesting to you because it’s in your head. I’ve always thought that’s incredible. Someone puts on headphones (and they’re) one on one with the artist. “Vanishing Act” is like a song version of this theory, the theory being… let’s not have everything be a quickie.

GM: It’s over way too soon.
LR: Oh, I’m happy to hear that. I mean, there’s a lot to connect here. But Poe’s understanding is so–I hate to use this word, but it was profound psychology–and it is so easy for me to understand him. It wasn’t even a matter of understanding him. It’s like he’s right there. For me–there was nothing to understand.


Interview, March 2003


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