The Landfill Chronicles, Part 3 of the 4-part chapter on Lou Reed
THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES: Lou Reed Part 3 of Chapter 1: Conversations on Music Elevated to a State of Art
By Dan Ouellette
THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES is the work-in-progress book on Medium that continues for several weeks with archival articles on rock stars such as Frank Zappa and jazz greats including Wayne Shorter. The writing originally appeared in print magazines and newspapers that have been relegated to the landfill.
THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES
CHAPTER 1. LOU REED
PART 3: THE RAVEN — CAREER ENDER OR MASTERPIECE?
Once again in 2003, Lou has people scratching their heads. On January 28, he releases his 19th solo album, The Raven, a double CD of music and spoken word inspired by the dismal, macabre world view espoused more than two centuries earlier by literary wordsmith Edgar Allan Poe. Sire issues it, and Hal Willner co-produces with Lou.
I return to Lou’s Sister Ray Enterprises office in SoHo to talk about his latest recording. It’s my third visit in three years. As Lou enters his high-ceiling loft office, he’s greeted by Lola, the frisky rat terrier he shares with his partner Laurie Anderson. Lou settles into his inner sanctum and immediately begins scarfing down a lunch of egg-white omelet and lox, leaving the pale green lettuce leaves behind in the tin. He peels off his brown flannel shirt. Clad in his typical all-black attire consisting of a T-shirt and leather pants, he explains that he ran late because of his appointment at his Chinese acupuncturist’s office. He tells me his latest attempt at kicking his lifelong cigarette habit now entails getting stuck with needles and drinking sludgy herbal tea for five weeks. As for the outcome of this latest workout, he says, so far, so good, but shrugs: “We’ll see.”
“I’ll go out on a high note by taking the high road”
We then begin our conversation about The Raven. Four years in the making, the album is the most ambitious project of Lou’s oeuvre. It clocks in at nearly two-and-a-quarter hours and encompasses a broad span of styles (from a lounge show-tune send-up to an apocalyptic furnace blast of electronic music). Co-starring with the rocker are such actors as Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Amanda Plummer and Elizabeth Ashley in addition to recording luminaries like ex-glam buddy David Bowie, jazz iconoclast Ornette Coleman, gospel legends The Blind Boys of Alabama and Laurie
“This could be a career ender!” exclaims the unusually effervescent Lou, leaning back in his desk chair while the window radiator hisses and the horns on Broadway blare on this cold-snap January day. “But I’ll go out on a high note by taking the high road.”
Is Lou indeed issuing the “nevermore” proclamation by Poe’s black bird of doom? He sighs and concedes, “I expect even less than I normally do, which is not much in the first place. The album is geared for doom. It requires concentration. It’s so contrary to everything out there now that I figure this one could well sink.” In a soft voice, he whispers, “It’s too good,” then, in a burst of mock melodrama, he booms, “It’s too good for them!”
Lou laughs heartily at his disparaging sentiment toward record companies that he insists have lost touch with serious — and at times comic — art released in a pop music setting. But Poe? Is the 19th century poet and short story writer — whose grotesque fantasies and paranoia continue to capture the imaginations of junior and senior high students everywhere — the protagonist of a 21st century creative endeavor?
“Obviously, I’m fascinated by Edgar,” Lou says, then admits, “It is the worst time in the world for something like this to come out, particularly with the record business the way it is.” He pauses then takes another swipe at the loss-accruing industry: “But the record companies are essentially getting what they deserve.”
However, there is a glint of hope that perhaps The Raven may buck the odds and fascinate both serious listeners fed up with vacuous pop and young adults hungry for a new twist. Lou reports that the October radio-only edited version of Dafoe reading “The Raven” met with favorable reviews during Halloween. “It went to number 12 on one alt-rock college station,” he reports. “Now, how’s that possible?”
The dark-bird highlight
“This is a compendium of all the music I’ve done in my career,” Lou says. “It is the result of everything I’ve done. There’s no way I could have made this when I was twenty or forty. This is the album that sums up all my experiences. I’m very happy with it. It’s exactly what I wanted it to be.”
In Hamburg, Germany three years earlier, Lou debuted his Poe-try commissioned opera collaboration with theater director Robert Wilson at the Thalia Theatre. The project reacquainted the native New Yorker, a college lit major, with the American author who also lived in Gotham. In the liner notes to The Raven, Reed argues that Poe, with his haunting and terror-stricken tales of the mid-1800s, is “peculiarly attuned to our new century’s heartbeat than he ever was to his own. Obsessions, paranoia, willful acts of self-destruction surround us constantly.”
The staging of Poe-try featured thirteen songs, an overture and libretto with spoken-word interludes that wove from biographical detail to liberal adaptations of Poe’s works including “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Three-quarters of the production was translated into German, a sticking point with viewers who attended its nine-day run at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn in late 2001. But by then, Lou was already at work converting the play into a recording.
Is The Raven Lou’s masterpiece?
Initially the German division of Warner Bros. wanted to make an album of the play itself. But as Lou began to record some guide vocals to set this in motion, it became, as he calls it, “a Lou project.” Then his label, Warner/Reprise in L.A., heard about it and wanted to release it. Lou says, “My first thought was, do they know what this is going to be?”
The album started small but quickly grew exponentially as Lou rewrote major sections of the play for the recording. He then enlisted his longtime band mates — guitarist Mike Rathke, bassist Fernando Saunders and drummer Tony Smith — and recruited several guest musicians and dramatic readers. In addition to the two-CD set, there will be a single CD issued with a focus on just the songs (in Lou’s words, the “petite” version of the “grand mal” Poe attack).
The first CD opens with an anguished rock overture, two readings (Dafoe as young Poe, Buscemi as old Poe), a cello-backed Prologue, then Lou and co. cranking up the rock spirit with the anthemic “Edgar Allan Poe” (with Lou comically wailing the chorus: “These are the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, not exactly the boy next door”). The rest of the disc includes soft-edged tunes, a rocking instrumental, a lengthy rendition of the morbid “The Fall of The House of Usher” (with eerie sound effects), a reworking of “The Raven” and two numbers Lou revisited from old albums, “The Bed” from Berlin and “Perfect Day” from Transformer.
“These songs both fit,” Lou says. “But I also wanted to bring back memories to fans who know my work.” As for the poetic license he took with the “mournful chaos” of Poe’s works, Lou says, why not? “In Willem’s reading of `The Raven,’ he recites the line ‘arrogant, dickless liar.’ And someone asked me, did Poe really say that? And I replied, ‘No. Lou said that in a Poe way.’”
The second CD is the stronger of the double album. The pacing is better, the tunes weave into the mix with more fluidity and the spoken-word sections are highly dramatic and conversational, especially in “The Tell-Tale Heart” suite that brims with exclamatory utterances and distorted guitar fury. “Hop Frog” is another brilliant multi-song section, beginning with Bowie singing the straight-up rocking theme (backed by Lou’s obliterating guitar) and ending with “Fire Music,” a three-minute surge of electronic effects of annihilation.
Lou cites this piece when asked how Poe is relevant to today’s world. “Just think of the twin towers, which I saw fall from my loft [in the West Village],” he says. “‘Fire Music’ was recorded two days after September 11. People ask me my reaction. Words can’t describe it. ‘Fire Music’ does.”
Lou’s been on the record for saying that he rarely listens to his work after the studio sessions. But during our conversation, he notes that he’s listened to The Raven several times. When asked about that, he cites “lousy” sound quality on past releases and says, “Why listen to your own stuff anyway?” But with The Raven, he’s not only proud of the sonics (mastering the music to his high standards) but also of the performances of his Poe troupe.
Is The Raven his masterpiece? Lou hints that it may be. “This is a compendium of all the music I’ve done in my career,” he says. “It is the result of everything I’ve done. There’s no way I could have made this earlier in my career. This is the album that sums up all my experiences. I’m very happy with it. It’s exactly what I wanted it to be.”
The Raven takes flight on the road
In 2004, a year after The Raven release, Lou went on the road and taped his show for Sire/Reprise that was released as Animal Serenade. Recorded live at L.A.’s Wiltern Theater, the two-CD collection covers a breadth of historical and stylistic ground. From thrust to caress, the New York bard and his band crunch through four-chord rockers (“Dirty Bvld.”) and flow with elegant lyricism through gentle numbers (“Sunday Morning”).
Lou revisits his gritty Velvet Underground repertoire (a slow-to-burn “Heroin” that’s both a rush and a lament) and his last, tragically off-the-radar disc The Raven (the hushed “Vanishing Act”). Underneath the gruff/droll, tough-guy demeanor, Lou is a romantic, evidenced by “Tell It to Your Heart.” Cellist Jane Scarpantoni excels on her dark-toned, grace-and-fever solo on “Venus in Furs,” and primo vocalist Anthony flies high on “Candy Says.” Talking to the crowd, Lou says the tune was always too difficult for him to sing. But what’s missing from this song’s performance is the raw gloom of Lou’s distinctive voice and his powerful primal authority.
Later, Lou engaged in several projects, but never returned with a new full-blown studio recording of such poetic mastery as Ecstasy and The Raven. But of note, he did not go silent, engaging in two contrasting recording projects. Four years after The Raven in 2007, he again collaborated with Hal Willner on Hudson River Wind Meditations, a new-age meditational journey that was deliberately hushed. He wrote in the liners: “I composed this music for myself as an adjunct to meditation, Tai Chi, bodywork, and as music to play in the background of life — to replace the everyday cacophony with new and ordered sounds of an unpredictable nature.” He also drove into the opposite zone to explore more in the vein of metal machine music, including a 2011 collaboration with heavy metal rock band Metallica for the album Lulu.
Lou continued to tour, but liver illness forced him to cancel dates. He received a liver transplant in April 2013, but then recovered enough to promise fans more tour dates. But he lost his battle with end-stage liver disease on October 27, 2013 at his and Laurie’s East End house in Amagansett, NY.
In Part 4 of this four-part Chapter 1 of The Landfill Chronicles, to be published on Medium next week, Laurie Anderson weighs in on Lou’s creativity and wisdom. The week after: a multi-part Chapter 2: Moments with Wayne Shorter.