Lou Reed has survived art-, glitter-, and punk-rock; drugs, alcohol, and electroshock; obscurity, invective, and a Top 20 hit. His greatest challenge, though, may be conceptual theater.
Reed’s latest album is The Raven, which is based on POE-try, a piece he created with director Robert Wilson for Hamburg, Germany’s Thalia Theater. In recent years, the Thalia has served as a frequent base for the American-born Wilson, who invented a style of postmodern pageant with such non-narrative spectacles as Einstein on the Beach and the CIVIL warS, both with music by Philip Glass. Although it substitutes video projections for actors, a recent Wilson-Glass opus, 1998’s Monsters of Grace, is characteristic: It combines cryptic images with the verse of Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi and Eastern-tinged music in the vain hope that they might add up to something.
Beginning in the ‘90s, Wilson turned to less-abstract scenarios and song-oriented scores, working with veteran rockers like Tom Waits and Reed. While big-name composers (John Adams, Steve Reich, Louis Andriessen) and directors (Peter Greenaway, Peter Sellars) emulated Wilson’s style of thematic rather than storytelling theater, the director joined with Waits to create The Black Rider, based on the legend of William Tell, and with Reed for Time Rocker, derived from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
That pairing of an earnest Edwardian and a hard-boiled contemporary decadent seemed incongruous, but Reed apparently thinks that he and Poe are a good match. Co-produced by Hal Willner, The Raven is a hodgepodge of songs and spoken-word pieces, with such well-known Poe poems and stories as “Annabel Lee” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” read by Willem Dafoe, Elizabeth Ashley, Steve Buscemi, and others. It also serves as a sort of career summation for the recently elegiac Reed, reworking some of his previous music and featuring guest appearances by such old collaborators and inspirations as David Bowie (who co-produced that Top 20 hit, “Walk on the Wild Side”) and Ornette Coleman. The album is available and in one- and two-CD versions; the former skips most of the spoken-word material, although it keeps Dafoe’s reading of the title poem.
The single-disc set is, of course, easier to take. Listening to music is a different, and more repeatable, experience than listening to readings. Yet the abridged version misses the connections Reed has forged between Poe’s art and his own. The poems and stories provide the basis for the songs, including a six-part suite based on a lesser-known tale, “Hop Frog or the Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs.” Reed also credits Poe with the album’s overarching theme: “the impulse of destructive desire—the desire for self-mortification.” This actually suggests Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground more than “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but Poe does have a pulp-fiction side that parallels Reed’s own.
As a member of the Velvet Underground in the 1960s, Reed wrote many elegant lyrics, including deadpan narratives like “I’m Waiting for the Man” and sophisticated love songs such as “Pale Blue Eyes.” His current specialty, however, is a plainspoken, seemingly offhand idiom that favors street-level rancor over literary grace. It worked pretty well for New York, a 1989 album of rants about subjects derived from CNN and the New York Daily News. But the style clashes with Poe’s florid language and sometimes just seems lazy. (Few people who have written about The Raven have resisted quoting this clunky introductory couplet: “This is the story of Edgar Allan Poe/ Not exactly the boy next door.”) Just because Poe drank a lot and married his 13-year-old cousin doesn’t make him one of the hustlers and rogues that Reed is so fond of examining.
Reed is a published poet, the winner of a Literary Council for Small Magazines Award presented to him by a reputedly bemused Eugene McCarthy. One of his college instructors was Delmore Schwartz, and he’s written two songs that invoke him. But Reed’s principal literary models are Hubert Selby Jr., William S. Burroughs, Lenny Bruce, and New Yawk trash-talk. When he refashions some of Poe’s lines, it’s to insert contemporary taunts that don’t exactly harmonize with the words of a 19th-century romantic. Reed’s update of “The Raven” includes this jarring transition: “Tell this soul with sorrow laden/ Willful and destructive intent/ How had lapsed the pure-heart lady to the greediest of needs/ Sweaty arrogant dickless liar!” And his version of “The Cask of Amontillado” has its narrator brooding, “By neither word nor deed had I given cause to doubt my good will/ I would punish with impunity/ I will fuck him up the ass and piss in his face.”
Curiously, Reed is willing to rewrite Poe but not himself. He juxtaposes “The Bed” (from his generally unloved 1973 song cycle Berlin) with “The Fall of the House of Usher” but without altering his song’s account of a suicidal woman to link it to Poe’s tale of Roderick Usher, a man obsessed with the corpse of his dead sister. 1972’s “Perfect Day” gets an odd remake featuring high-pitched singer Antony, and Reed’s notorious Metal Machine Music, a 1975 album of nothing but roiling feedback, makes a brief comeback as “Fire Music,” the climax of the “Hop Frog or the Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs” cycle.
After a particularly ostentatious album, Reed’s pattern is to give interviews in which he protests that he’s just a rock ’n’ roller. Thus it was no surprise when he turned up in Rolling Stone recently, proclaiming his eternal fealty to Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man,” Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby,” and Billy Riley’s “Red Hot.” Despite its doo-wop backing vocals and punky guitar, however, The Raven is an art project. Reed, whose voice is heard on only about a third of the double album’s 36 tracks, is featured primarily not as a performer but as a conceptual impresario—Robert Wilson in a leather jacket and shades.
Wilson is probably not the only influence. Reed is the longtime companion of Laurie Anderson, a performance artist who does her own brand of free-associative art theater. Like Wilson’s and Anderson’s work, The Raven jumbles the strange and the banal, and new, classic, and recycled material. (In addition to “Perfect Day” and “The Bed,” the album includes “Vanishing Act,” originally written for Time Rocker.) The result is a grab bag of old musical and conceptual riffs, closer to a Wilson extravaganza—without the visuals—than to a well-made rock album.
“Sometimes I wonder/ Who am I,” Reed sings toward the end of the album. In taking Poe as his mirror, however, he doesn’t seem to have discovered anything new. What The Raven reflects is just the same Lou Reed, older and not particularly wiser. This raven quoth not, “nevermore,” but “more of the same.”