There's just something relaxing about the deep, nasal croak that drones on like a distant jackhammer smashing its last bit of concrete. It lulls you into a vague, uneasy stupor, but lulls you nonetheless. You could go to sleep listening to Lou talk. It's amazing that even he doesn't doze off, though from the way he answers an interviewer's questions -- like he's having them translated into his native tongue by some assistant on another phone line only he can hear -- it's hard to tell.
Maybe they should sell a series of audiotapes called Lou Reads; one longs for a copy of Lou Reads the Collected Hubert Selby Jr. and Judy Blume. Until then, we'll make do with The Raven, on which Lou gathers up a motley band of indie-grade actors (Steve Buscemi, Fisher Stevens, Amanda Plummer and the Pall Mall-voiced Elizabeth Ashley), off-Billboard musos (Ornette Coleman, the Blind Boys of Alabama and the single-named Antony, with a voice as high as heaven's third floor) and guys who actually sell (like David Bowie and Willem Dafoe) to interpret Edgar Allan Poe.
Put these things on your list of Things It Takes a Lot of Balls to Do: Rewrite "The Raven," about the only poem anyone recalls from junior high school or a Simpsons episode, and release in the midst of a music-biz depression a double-disc collection of spoken-word pieces fused together by random guitar outbursts, electronic belches and the occasional complete song (one of which is Reed's immortal "Perfect Day," which he doesn't bother to sing). Reed makes himself a guest on his own album, which is made up of 31 tracks either written or inspired by Poe, and he ducks backstage for long stretches, leaving the album in the sweaty hands of Dafoe and Buscemi and his longtime band fronted by guitarist Mike Rathke and bassist Fernando Saunders.
But that's Lou Reed and has been for decades: balls where there ought to be a brain, a brain where there should have been a dick. He's wired all wrong.
New Times: How much of the function of this album is to remind people that Poe didn't write horrific Halloween tales, but about much larger, much more personal and universal themes?
Lou Reed: It's an adventure of the mind and spirit, if you don't mind me saying so. If you have half a brain . . . (Ten-second pause.) I mean, to me, it's fun to have rock that engages the mind as well as goes on a real thrill journey. Why not? There're ideas floating out there, and you can put them to music without it turning into some kind of butt-dragging thing that's non-sexual, non-exciting and kind of dull and it's like someone's reading the Declaration of Independence to you in Sanskrit. I mean, you know, we can do better than that, I hope.
NT: I was wondering what it's like for you to do an album where you're a guest, not just because of the actors, but because it's an album by and about Poe and his various themes of paranoia and madness and heartbreak and . . .
Reed: I couldn't identify any more with this if it was a clone. This is perfect for me. What a thing to work from. This amazing map done by a master -- it's incredible. I can't believe that the only other real version of this is Roger Corman. Yeah, it's fantastic. No one's seriously done this? How is that possible? My God, it's unbelievable. Not to put down Roger Corman; everybody loves some of those things, but it's so superficial. I mean, that's fine when you're a kid, but what about now? There's no version of it now? How can that be? It's too good. I feel like I discovered America. Or the Antarctic. You know, a whole new continent, just sitting there.
NT: What does that feel like?
Reed: What does it feel like? It feels like when I first, with the Velvet Underground, wrote a song called "Heroin," 'cause no one else was doing anything. It was bullshit and bullshit. In many respects, things haven't changed, but there was a song about real stuff.
The Raven was completed late in 2001, after Reed debuted a version of it, titled POEtry, at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg and L'Odeon in Paris in 2000. He wrote the piece with Robert Wilson, the theater director and designer with whom Reed wrote Time Rocker in 1997. Together they sliced opened the Poe anthologies and gutted the old standards like bug-eyed revisionists. They tore away all those black-and-white stills of Vincent Price lit from beneath, and threw up on the gallery walls instead these Technicolor portraits of people drawn to things that are bad for them, that doom them to madness or eternal sadness. Reed wasn't much interested in the horror-movie Poe, but the religious Poe, the paranoid Poe, the stargazing Poe, the drug-sniffing Poe, the perverse Poe.