You write in the liner notes [to The Raven] that Poe is more attuned to our century than he was to his own.
I think that we can relate more to him now than then. Recent world events seem to have a real Poe turn to them.
Lou Reed, to Larry Katz, January 2003.
Sometime in December 1966, David Bowie heard the voice of Lou Reed for the first time. Bowie put on an album that his manager had brought back from New York. First came a sweet, haunting “Sunday Morning,” then, out of nowhere, another voice breaks in: flat, unimpressed, working up the details. Up to LEX-ing-TUN: ONE-TWO-FIVE. Hey WHITE BOY. Here he cooomes..he’s all dressed-in-BLACK. Everybody’s pinned you but NOBODY caaaares.
Entranced, Bowie decided to devote the rest of his life to the song.
In August 1972, Bowie produced a record for Reed. At the brink of exhaustion (he was rehearsing with the Spiders From Mars in his downtime), Bowie had to contend with an icy Reed, barely talking and taking in the whole enterprise as if he was a critic silently watching a faltering stage act. Reed had offered some skeletal songs on acoustic guitar. Mick Ronson dressed them up, Bowie did vocal arrangements. There was a delicacy to Bowie’s work that belied the strain he was under: the little dancing motifs in “Satellite of Love,” the girl-group “spoke spoke” in “Wagon Wheel,” the acidic queen harmony in “New York Telephone Conversation.”
At last, despite the occasional public dust-up, the two settled into being friends, living within walking distance of each other’s NYC homes. In the months after 9/11, Reed was working on an album based on Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems, and he asked Bowie if he wanted to sing on a track. Bowie chose “Hop Frog,” a little rant under two minutes long.
“That’s him, not me,” Reed told Venice magazine in 2003. “He chose that part. I was pretty astonished myself, because I thought he would have picked one of the other parts. I thought he would go for one of the power ballads, but it turns out that he was a perfect Hop Frog. I realized that David wanted to have some fun, and have some fun just being Bowie. He did the kind of background vocals on this that I really like, all the way back to my Transformer record when he did those kind of things. I liked it then and I still love it now.”
It would be their last collaboration.
Reed had been asked to write some Poe-related songs by the stage director Robert Wilson for a show, “POEtry,” which played in Hamburg and Brooklyn. “Bob thought this is something that could occur easily, without any weird rubbings going on,” Reed told the New York Times. “I saw it as a can’t-win situation. I knew people would say, ‘How dare he rewrite Poe?’ But I thought, here’s the opportunity of a lifetime for real fun…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. Particularly now, with the anxiety and everything else that’s permeating our lives right now.”
He turned the project into an album, realizing it would also serve as a grand Viking funeral for his recording career. One last enormous folly: a 2-CD, 36-track album of rewritten Poe and reconfigured Reed, guest-starring Ornette Coleman, Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Laurie Anderson, Antony Hegarty, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Bowie.
“Can you imagine what it took to do that?” Reed asked Uncut. “I mean, I’m serious. Imagine! Even now I can’t believe that we’ve done it. This might be a nice way to say ‘Goodbye’, a good way to go out…it’s like ‘Pheww!’ Really. Anyway, I don’t think you’ll get a chance to make records like this with people downloading their music… unless you take the viewpoint that there’s only one good track on it.”
The Raven was also a farewell and tribute to the late 20th Century “pop” bohemian New York, the NYC of The Performance Group and The Knitting Factory, the Kitchen and St. Ann’s Warehouse. Reed cut “Fire Music,” a piece of extended feedback, a few days after the WTC attacks. On the album, it’s preceded by Amanda Plummer screaming “Burn, monkeys! Burn!” (why? see below).
Reed’s “Hop Frog” has little to do with Poe’s story, a lurid revenge piece in the line of “Cask of Amontillado.” (The following tracks, “Every Frog Has Its Day,” “The Courtly Orangutans” and “Tripitena’s Speech,” are the narrative). Hop-Frog, a dwarf who walks with a limp, is the slave of a cruel king, for whom he’s the long-suffering court jester (you get the idea George R.R. Martin may have read this story). Offended by the king throwing a drink in the face of fellow dwarf Tripetta (renamed “Tripitena” here), Hop-Frog devises a scheme in which he has the king and his ministers dress up as escaped orangutans for a masked ball. Their costumes are made of pitch and flax, the “orangutans” are chained together to further the illusion. Hop-Frog sets them ablaze, leaving the king and his party as torched ape-men corpses. He escapes after announcing “I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest.”
Reed’s “Hop Frog” essentially plays off that last line. It’s a strut, a boast, savoring the clash of “ahp” and “ahg” sounds in the title. Its backdrop is a vein of feedback, a vicious, cycling Reed rhythm guitar and Tony Smith’s heavy-mixed drums. Bowie holds back a bit in the first verse, creeping in to echo, then top Reed’s voice. Then he sets about taking over the song.
Now dominating over Reed’s voice, Bowie devised a set of background harmonies, a funfair ride of rising and falling phrases (“I love David’s background parts that he does, when he goes up really high: I love his voice,” Reed told Australian DJ John Faine) and outfitting an army of Bowies for the final verse. Bowie’s having a whale of a time. You can see me in the ballroom! You can see me in the BED-room! You can see me in the WOODS! Hap!-HOP FROG! He closes with a last, plummeting trademark “wail” note. Reed pays him homage with a fanfare on guitar. Exeunt omnes.
Everything ends. Reed and Bowie went out with a noisy nose-tweak of a track starring a vengeful, murderous Poe dwarf. Sounds about right. See you, Lou.
Recorded October-early November 2001, New York. Released 28 January 2003 on The Raven (released in single and double-CD versions. If you have Spotify, unabridged version’s here.)
Top: Julian Schnabel, “Lou Reed,” 2002; Bowie and Lou, approaching the end of the game, 2007; Arthur Rackham, “Hop-Frog, Trippetta, the king and his councilors,” 1935.