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Reed wanted to give audiences a Poe that wasn't the lit-class ghost whose shadow hung heavy over every dreadful and serious word. You likely won't recognize "The Pit and the Pendulum" or "The Fall of the House of Usher," if you remember them at all; they're here but not, not really. They've been made modern by a guy who spent night after night with a dictionary in one hand and a copy of producer Hal Wilner's Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe in the other; never did Poe write of the "sweaty, arrogant, dickless liar."
Reed will tell you he did not particularly care for, and certainly did not truly understand, the work of Edgar Allan Poe until Halloween 1995, when Wilner asked him to read "The Tell-Tale Heart" at St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn. Wilner, the only man to make tribute albums that actually honor their subjects (including Kurt Weill and Thelonious Monk), began staging the October 31 events, at which famous people would read famous Poe, because "Halloween is one of those things a lot of us have these strange connections to," he once said. Poe, he insisted, is "very healing, incredibly magical and spiritual."
In 1997, Wilner put together Closed on Account of Rabies, a spoken-word tribute album to Poe that featured such old friends as Christopher Walken, Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithfull and Gabriel Byrne. The NYC happenings would continue 'til '99, when Wilner was forced to abandon the church (the heathen!) and move to Los Angeles (those heathens!), where he would continue the events on the UCLA campus. By that point, the bug had bitten Reed and put the virus deep in his blood, and Warner Bros. had given him the okay to round up his cast and head into the studio. Whether it'd be his next New York or his next Metal Machine Music, his next hit or next shit, didn't much matter to the label, which Reed couldn't believe.
NT: What didn't you get about "The Tell-Tale Heart" that you understood after St. Ann's?
Reed: In "The Tell-Tale Heart," as far as I'm concerned, the guy's not going crazy when he's hearing the beating of the heart of the guy he killed and buried underneath the floor. What's making him nuts is that he thinks the cop hears it but is making believe he doesn't hear it, and that the cop, therefore, is making fun of him. He says, "You fucking mock me? You mocking me? You fucking piece of shit, you think I don't know you hear that?" That's what it's about, and that just lays me out. I said, "Oh, man. Wow. There you go. I know what that's like." And not just me. Are you mocking me? I mean, you could do this with interviews all day, with any question an interviewer asks. "Are you fucking mocking me, you piece of shit?" I mean, there you go -- Poe, off and running.
NT: I'm going to apply that rationale to everything anyone says to me from now on and see just how quickly that drives me crazy.
Reed: Yeah. I mean, the minute you open that door, you're gone. You know, pull into a gas station and the guy comes over and he's not doing your windshield. You could say, "What is it with you? What the fuck is wrong with you? I'm not good enough to do the windshield?" You know, you can just go off and running. It's really easy. Once you go in there, it's nonstop.
Maybe at the end of the day, Reed relates to Poe because they're always talking about the same thing: what Poe referred to as an "overacuteness of the senses." Both men account for those who see things that aren't there, smell things that aren't burning, hear things that aren't breathing, fear things that were never even there. Reed and Poe obsess over obsessions, get maniacal about mania. There's always a bit of romance in their work, but broken hearts are seldom repaired, and the desperate are seldom satisfied. These men like their protagonists bent, if not completely broken.
That overacuteness of the senses was what Reed wrote about in the Velvets' "Heroin," what he wrote about on New York, what he meant when he wrote about the satellite that went up to the skies and "things like that drive me out of my mind." Rehabs and 12-step programs are overrun with people who suffer from overacuteness of the senses; so are Reed songs, so are Poe poems. At the end of the day, The Raven sounds like a Lou Reed record, just more of one: It's cockamamie and brilliant, too long and too sprawling and too much of too much. (A single-disc version, composed mostly of songs, serves to rectify that. It's due out at the same time.) But it works because it's such a mess: You're compelled to listen and wonder what kind of madman would attempt such a thing in the first place. Then you remember: Yeah, Lou Fuckin' Reed!
NT: I'm assuming you'd like to do The Raven as a full-blown stage production. It sounds like an album awaiting the production to go along with it.