Lou Reed has never been one to do the obvious, so the ambitious nature of this cutting-edge rock icon's latest endeavor shouldn't be surprising. The project in question is POEtry, a thematically and compositionally ambitious stage production that Reed wrote with revered avant-garde theater veteran Robert Wilson. The duo previously collaborated on the 1996 production Timerocker.
POEtry, which made its U.S. debut in November 2001 as part of BAM's Next Wave Festival in New York, following runs in Hamburg, Paris and Amsterdam, is a surrealistic meditation on the work of legendary American author and poet Edgar Allan Poe, incorporating elements of the texts of eleven Poe classics, including "The Raven," "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," and 13 new Reed compositions, whose distinctive arrangements feature an array of instrumental textures, incorporating piano, cello, flute, digeridoo and hurdy-gurdy, in contrast to the raw, guitar-based rock for which the artist is best known.
Reed - whose most recent rock album, Ecstacy, was released in 2000 - admits that he was initially skeptical when Wilson approached him with the idea for a theatrical piece based on Poe's works. "I saw it as a can't-win situation," he recently told the New York Times. "I knew people would say 'How dare he rewrite Poe?' But I thought, here's the opportunity of a lifetime for real fun: to combine the kind of lyricism that he has into a flexible rock format. I really like my version of it. It's accessible, among other things. And I felt I was in league with the master. In that kind of psychology, that interest in the drives and the meaning of obsession and compulsion - in that realm Poe reigns supreme."
As Reed told the New York Daily News, "I realized that when I was younger, I had really missed out on Poe - the subtleties, the nuances, the psychology. You can't just say he was macabre and had a sense of dread. He was interested in psychology - why you do things."
Reed and producer Hal Willner have also been working on an album of the songs from POEtry, which is slated to include guest appearances by David Bowie, Ornette Coleman, The Blind Boys of Alabama, and actors Elizabeth Ashley, Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe. Reed describes POEtry's recorded incarnation as "a radio play on steroids."
POEtry is the latest installment in a three-and-a-half-decade career that's earned Reed a reputation for consistently pushing the envelope. In the late '60s, as leader of the seminal Velvet Underground, Reed merged literary tradition with unflinching explorations of the human soul's darker regions, while the band's precedent-setting mix of raw minimalism and melodic craft permanently altered the face of rock and helped lay the groundwork for the punk explosion that would blossom in the following decade. Since launching his solo career in 1970, Reed has maintained high standards of unflinching lyrical forthrightness while continuing to test the sonic boundaries of the electric guitar.
Although Reed's early lyrical evocations of drug use and deviant sex - subjects that were completely alien to popular music when the Velvet Underground released its 1967 debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico, which Universal will reissue in March in an expanded Deluxe Edition - were considered shocking and transgressive at the time, he recently asserted that his lyrics had precedents in other branches of the arts.
"There are great old blues songs that cover so much of it," stated Reed, who studied literature under the famed poet Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University. "There are novels that have been covering it forever. I come with a university background in English, so naturally it's not shocking to me. . . . Drugs? Sex? Murder? Hello? Let's go back to Greek tragedy. Or look at the end of Hamlet."
The Velvet Underground's seminal sound is documented on the recently released three-CD set The Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes, which Reed claims he hasn't heard. "I don't listen to anything I've ever done," he said, adding, "I was there, I know what was going on. It's a version of what I'm doing now, and it was there from the get-go, as they say. The Quine Tapes have the power of youth and not worrying at that point about your ears being hurt. But that particular sound, that idea, that approach, runs through everything I do. I've just tried, as I've gotten older, to refine it."