The life of Poe, his habits, his manners, his physical being, everything that makes up the totality of his character, seem to us both obscure and brilliant. His personality was unusual, charming, and, like his writings, marked with an indefinable stamp of melancholy. Moreover, he was remarkably endowed in every way. As a young man, he had shown a rare aptitude for all physical exercises, and, although he was short, with the feet and hands of a woman—all of his being, as a matter of fact, had a feminine delicacy—he was more than robust and capable of miraculous feats of strength. In his adolescence, he won a swimming wager which went beyond the usual measure of the possible. You might say that Nature gives an energetic temperament to those from whom she intends to extract great things, as she gives a powerful vitality to the trees appointed to symbolize mourning and grief. Such men, at times of sickly appearance, are cut out as athletes, good for orgies and work, quick to excesses and capable of surprising soberness.
There are a few points concerning Edgar Poe on which there is unanimous agreement, for example, his lofty natural distinction, his eloquence and beauty, from which, as was said, he derived some vanity. His manners, a singular mixture of haughtiness and exquisite gentleness, were self-assertive. Facial characteristics, gait, gestures, the toss of his head, everything pointed him out, especially in his good days, as a chosen creature. His whole being gave out a penetrating solemnity. He was truly marked by nature, like those forms of passers-by who hold the attention of the observer and preoccupy his memory. The pedantic biting Griswold himself confesses that, when he went to visit Poe, and found him still pale and ill from the death and sickness of his wife, he was unduly struck, not only by the perfection of his manners, but also by the aristocratic face, the perfumed atmosphere of his apartment, which was quite modestly furnished. Griswold does not know that the poet has, more than other men, that marvelous privilege attributed to the Parisian and Spanish woman, of knowing how to embellish his life with nothing, and that Poe would had discovered the art of transforming a thatched hut into a palace of a new species. Didn't he write, with a most original and curious wit, of projects concerning furniture, plans for country houses, gardens and landscape reforms?
In the stories of Poe, there is never any love interest. At least Ligeia and Eleanora are not, strictly speaking, love stories, the leading idea on which the work centers being something quite different. Perhaps he believed that prose is not a language sufficiently elevated for that strange and almost untranslatable sentiment; his poems, on the other hand, are abundantly saturated with love. In them the divine passion appears magnificent, starry, and always veiled with an irremediable melancholy. In his articles, he speaks at times of love, and even as of something whose name makes the pen tremble. In The Domain of Arnheim, he affirms the four basic conditions of happiness are: life in the open air, the love of a woman, detachment from all ambition, and the creation of a new Beauty…His portraits of women are, so to speak, haloed; they shine from the center of a supernatural cloud and are painted in the robust manner of a worshiper. As for the little love episodes, should one be surprised that so nervous a man, whose thirst for Beauty was perhaps his principal characteristic, cultivated at times, with passionate ardor, gallantry that volcanic mush flower for which the ardent mind of poets is a soil of predilection?
His conversation was most remarkable and essentially enriching. He was not what is called a fine speaker—that is a horrible thing—and moreover his words like his pen detested the conventional; but vast knowledge, a powerful linguistic sense, advanced studies, impressions gathered from several countries turned his words into lessons. He eloquence, essentially poetic and methodical, and yet moving beyond any known method, an arsenal of images drawn from a world only slightly frequented by most minds, a prodigious art in deducing from an evident and absolutely acceptable proposition secret new intuitions, in opening up amazing perspectives, and, in a word, the art of charming, of eliciting thought and dreams, of rescuing people from the mire of routine, such were the scintillating faculties which many still remember. But it happened at times—at least, it is said—that the poet, indulging in a destructive caprice, abruptly recalled his friends back to earth by a distressing cynicism, and brutally demolished his work of spirituality. It is noteworthy that he was not difficult in the choice of his auditors, and I believe that in history the reader will find with difficulty other great and original minds for whom any company was welcome. Certain minds, solitary in the midst of a crowd, and who delight in monologues, ignore delicacy concerning the public. In a word, it is a kind of fraternity based on scorn.
We must say something about his drunkenness—which is famous and is criticized with an insistence that might make us believe all writers in the United States, except Poe, are angels of sobriety. Several versions are plausible, and no one excludes the others. In the first place, I am forced to say that Willis and Mrs. Osgood affirm that a very small amount of wine or alcohol was sufficient to upset his organism completely. Moreover, it is easy to suppose that a man so truly solitary, so profoundly unhappy, and who was often able to consider the entire social system a paradox and imposture, a man who, tormented by a pitiless fate, often repeated that society is only a mass of wretches (it is Griswold who repeats this, and seems as scandalized as a man who can think the same thing, but will never say it) – it is natural, I repeat, to suppose that this poet, hurled as a child into the risks of a free lie, his brain encircled by harsh continuous labor, at times looked for the voluptuousness of oblivion to be found in drink. Literary quarrels, dizziness of aspiration, domestic suffering, the insults of poverty. Poe fled all this in the darkness of intoxication as in preparatory tomb. But however sound this explanation appears, I do not find it sufficiently broad, and I distrust it because of its deplorable simplicity.
I have little to say about the works of this unusual genius; the pubic will show what it thinks of them. It would be difficult for me perhaps, but not impossible to unravel his method, to explain his procedure, especially in the part of his works whose principal effect lies in a very contrived analysis. I might introduce the reader to the mysteries of his composition, expatiate at length on that aspect of the American genius which make him rejoice over a vanquished difficulty, over an explained enigma, over a successful feat – which incites him to play with a childish and almost perverse pleasure in the world of probability and conjecture, and to create hoaxes to which his subtle art has given an air of likelihood. No one will deny that Poe is a marvelous juggler, and I know that he prizes especially another part of his work. I have a few more important comments to make, which are very brief.
It is not through material miracles, which however have brought him fame, that he will win the admiration of thoughtful people, it is through his love for Beauty, through his knowledge of the harmonious conditions of beauty, through his profound and plaintive poetry, very carefully written nevertheless, transparent and precise as a crystal jewel – through his pure, strange and admirable style – compact as the meshes of armor – agreeable and detailed – and of which the slightest intention serves to impel the reader gently toward a desired goal – and finally, above all, through that very special genius, through that unique temperament which allowed him to paint and explain, in an impeccable, extraordinary and terrible way, the exception in the moral order. To make one example from a hundred, Diderot is a sanguine writer; Poe is a writer of nerves, even of something more – and the best I know.
With Poe, the introductory part of each piece is attractive without violence, like a whirlwind. His solemnity surprises and keeps the reader's mind alert. At the very start you feel it is a question of something serious. And slowly, gradually, a story unfolds whose interest depends upon an imperceptible deviation of the intellect, on bold hypotheses, on an imprudent dosage of Nature in the amalgam of the faculties. The reader, held by dizziness, is forced to follow the writer in his fascinating deduction.
I repeat that no man has narrated with more magic the exceptions of human life and nature – the excitement of curiosity in convalescence – the seasonal endings laden with enervating splendor, warm humid foggy weather, when the south wind softens and loosens the nerves like the strings of an instrument, when eyes fill with tears which do not come from the hear – a hallucinations at first making room for doubt, and then convinced and reasonable as a book – the absurd taking over the intelligence and governing it with terrible logic – hysteria usurping the place of the will, contradiction established between the nerves and the mind, and man at variance to the point of expressing suffering by laughter. He analyzes the most fleeting thing, weighs the imponderable and describes, with that minute and scientific manner whose effects are terrible, all the imaginary world floating around a nervous man and leading him to harm.
The very ardor with which he throws himself into the grotesque for the love of the grotesque and into the horrible for the love of the horrible is useful to me in verifying the sincerity of his work and the harmony between the man and the poet. I have already noticed that, in several men, this ardor was often the result of a huge vital unoccupied energy, at times of a stubborn chastity, and also of a profound repressed sensitivity. The supernatural pleasure man can feel in seeing his own blood flow, sudden, violent, useless impulses, great cries hurled into the air, when the mind does not control the throat, are phenomena to be allocated to the same order.
At the heart of this literature where the air is rarefied, the mind may feel a vague anguish, a fear easily tearful and a nausea which inhabit vast unusual places. But admiration is the strongest, and moreover art is so great! The backdrops and the props are suitable for the sentiment of the characters. The solitude of nature or the turmoil of the cities, everything is described nervously and fantastically. Like our Eugene Delacroix, who raised art to the height of great poetry, Edgar Poe likes to move his figures against violent and greenish backgrounds when the phosphorescence of rottenness and the smell of storms are revealed. So-called inanimate nature participates in the nature of living beings, and like them trembles with a supernatural and galvanic trembling. Space is sounded by opium; opium gives a magical meaning to all colors, and makes all noises vibrate with a more significant resonance. At times, magnificent vistas, drenched in light and color, suddenly open into its landscapes, and you see appear on the extreme of their horizons oriental cities and architectures, vaporized by the distance, where the sun throws down a golden rain.
The characters of Poe, or rather the character of Poe, the man of very sharp faculties, the man of relaxed nerves, the man whose ardent, patient will challenges all difficulties, the man whose glance is fixed with the inflexibility of a sword on objects growing large as he looks at them – this is Poe himself. And his women, all of them luminous and ill, dying from strange maladies and speaking with a voice which resembles music, are also Poe; at least by their strange aspirations, by their knowledge, by their incurable melancholy, they participate to a marked degree in the nature of the creator. As for his ideal woman, his Titan woman, she appears in different portraits, or rather in his way of feeling beauty, whom the writer's temperament joins and mingles in a vague but perceptible unity, and where lives more delicately than elsewhere that insatiable love for Beauty, which is his great glory, namely the combination of this claims on the affection and the respect of poets.
"Everything leads to Poe."
Allen Ginsberg was cooking me one of his trademark meals just last February when he made this remark, referring to the album then in production. It was a typically insightful thing for Ginsberg to say, but I wasn't really paying strict attention. The recent knowledge that a never-ending parade of macrobiotic food was about to pass before my face – food I couldn't refuse – was distracting me. The plan was when Allen's back was turned I would drown the food in soy sauce to make it bearable. The basic TASTE of that food makes me crazy. I admit that I always felt great after eating that crap, but...
"Everything leads to Poe," Allen repeated, blissfully unaware of my eating plans. "That's what the liner notes should be. You can trace all literary art to Poe's influence: Burroughs, Baudelaire, Genet, Dylan…" The list went on. "It all lead back to Poe."
Allen's theory makes a lot of sense. One could easily keep adding to that list, and take it even further. Nearly everybody has had Poe enter their lives in some way. My own acquaintance started when I had to memorize sections of "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee" at the age of eight or nine. During the same period I listened to simplified versions of "The Tell-Tale Heart" around Cub Scout and summer camp campfires. I remember a ton of distinct unauthorized versions of that famous short story, complete with ghosts walking around looking for their missing leg or something. I hated the counselors at these soirees (and vice-versa) and I wasn't exactly the ideal camper in any case, but my memories of those poems and stories are wonderful. No matter the circumstances of the telling, they were great vehicles for fantasy and escape.
I kept encountering Poe's work as I grew, mainly through interpretation of this work in movies like the Roger Corman series, the films of Bela Lugosi (especially "The Murders In The Rue Morgue"), and, most notably, in the "Spirits of the Dead," with interpretations by Vadim, Malle, and Fellini, whose "Toby Dammit" (based on "Never Bet the Devil your Head") made a very strong impression on me.
When I started producing records I discovered that Poe had influenced a lot of the artists I admired. Once, while recording "Strange Weather" with Marianne Faithfull, Marianne and Terry Southern regaled me with an account of an evening when Allen Ginsberg gave a magical reading of "The Bells" to an audience in which everyone was high on acid. (This was in the Sixties, of course.)
Oddly enough, none of this leapt to mind when Michael Minzer first suggested that we produce an album on Poe. Michael has a sort of mystical sense for these things. About ten years ago, when popular interest in the Beats was at a low ebb, Michael insisted that we make an album with Ginsberg, which led to "The Lion For Real," which helped to spark the revival of interest in the Beats and has been reissued twice since 1989. Afterwards we discussed making albums devoted to the works of great writers for which we would apply that approach I'd previously employed on albums devoted to composers like Thelonious Monk Kurt Weill, and Nino Rota, namely, inviting an unusually wide variety of contemporary musicians to grapple with the work of these older giants. Minzer thought Poe would be a wonderful choice for this kind of treatment.
I would love to say that I immediately jumped on his suggestion, but I didn't, so Michael hooked up the first two sessions and led me by the nose into the studio. We recorded Christopher Walken reciting "The Raven" and Gabriel Byrne reading "The Masque of the Red Death." Both were extraordinary. Listening back, it occurred to me that we were on to something. As far as I knew, previous spoken word recordings of Poe had almost always featured male actors associated with the horror genre: Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and the rest. Now, I love all those actors, but Walken and Byrne brought something new to Poe. Their subtlety has the paradoxical effect of amplifying Poe's darkness and making him even scarier. Next we enlisted artist from the music world. A session with Marianne Faithfull reading "Alone" and "Annabel Lee" worked perfectly.
The project was starting to take shape, but we felt the need to experiment a bit, so we put together a Halloween concert as St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn. It turned out to be an "anything goes" type of show, kicked off by a recording of Doris Day's "Secret Love," and followed by a mixture of rehearsed readings, never-rehearsed readings, uninvited artists walking on to the stage, and a lot on noise – not to mention Gregory Corso's mad introduction of "Annabel Lee," which is beyond description. In all, the show ranged from brilliant beyond anyone's expectations to absolutely awful beyond belief. Now that a couple of years have passed and Janine and Susan of St. Ann's are both speaking to me again, two performances from that night are represented here: Marianne's reading of "Alone" and an excerpt of Abel Ferrara's arch-hipster reinterpretation of "The Raven." Diamanda Galas and Ken Nordine, who both read that night, later reprised their performance in the studio.
The rest of the making of the recording went smoothly and quickly. On my previous concept records, the artist had tended, in effect, to bring the composer into their world. The opposite happened with the Conqueror Poe, the feverish atmosphere of whose work enveloped every reader.
When it came to the musical accompaniment for the readings, we planned on taking an old-time radio approach, meaning that we'd rely a lot on sound effect and sampling. But during production this project inspired the composition of some original music. The Jazz Passengers' Roy Nathanson wrote music for "The City in the Sea," which Deborah Harry had read unaccompanied at the St. Ann's show. Poet Ed Sanders already had music for "To Helen" and, at Minzer's suggestion, wrote more for "The Haunted Palace." Dr. John, who is unquestionably one of the last of the breeds of "otherworldly" artists (Rahsaan Roland Kirk Sun RA, Ornette Coleman, and William Burroughs also fit this category) read "Berenice," which is beautifully supported by the background music arranged by Marc Ribot, music appropriately reminiscent of "Gris Gris" and "Remedies," Dr. John's very Poe-ish early recordings. Guitarist Wayne Kramer was engaged to spray some lurid feedback onto the wall of the Walken and Byrne readings. Gavin Friday read the obscure and very eerie "For Annie" as only he could, and Jeff Buckley read the haunting and beautiful "Ulalume," which I first heard when James Mason recited it to Sue Lyon in "Lolita." Iggy Pop's reading of "The Tell-Tale Heart" will not disappoint you campers.
We recorded the last performance for this album – by Gavin Friday and Jeff Buckley- on the evening of February 13, 1997. Jeff was moving to Memphis the next day. Allen Ginsberg, a friend of both Gavin and Jeff, came by to visit and ended up coaching Jeff. The result is a beautiful reading, full of innocence and discovery. Within a few months both Allen and Jeff would be gone – events that I have not really accepted yet. The were both rare creatures of earth and the memory of the two of them working together that night will remain with me forever. I miss then terribly. This album is dedicated to Jeff and Allen.
By the way, the title of this set reflects the recent findings that when Poe died in 1849, it was of rabies and not of drink. We crammed this little bit of knowledge into the syntax of the great W.C. Fields movie "It's A Gift." After Baby Leroy spills molasses on the floor of Fields' grocery store, the greatly vexed proprietor hangs out a sigh that read "Closed on Account of Molasses." Likewise, we took our subtitle for the first CD, "Burglars Singing in the Cellar," from a scene in Fields' "The Man on the Flying Trapeze," and our subtitle for the second CD, "The Devil's Brew," from Fields' "The Temperance Lecture." What does all this have to do with Edgar Allan Poe? I don't know, but I'm sure there must be something…because everything leads to him.
I'll be seeing you.