Sharps and Flats: Closed on Account of Rabies

Published December 4, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Writing that's great on the page doesn't necessarily sound good read aloud, as anyone who's tried to stay awake driving to Henry James books on tape knows. Fortunately, the reverse can also be true. Reading Edgar Allan Poe is often a little, well, embarrassing; his stories and poems are meticulously crafted, but usually bombastic and overwrought. All that alliteration! All that Gothic horror! Speak his words, though, and they can come alive -- suddenly, they're liquid, musical and powerful.

"Closed on Account of Rabies" is a collection of Poe's classics, read by an unlikely crew of vocalists assembled by producer Hal Willner. Willner has made his name putting together a string of surprising tribute albums -- to Thelonious Monk ("That's the Way I Feel Now"), Kurt Weill (the amazing "Lost In The Stars" and this year's not-as-amazing "September Songs"), music from Disney flicks ("Stay Awake") and others. This time, the music is mostly low-key, and mostly put together by Willner himself and engineer Eric Liljestrand. There are a few moderately well-known guitarists -- Chris Spedding, Wayne Kramer; Deborah Harry is backed up by her occasional collaborators the Jazz Passengers, and Dr. John is accompanied by an eight-piece ensemble of Downtown New York City experimental types. But most of the two-CD set's work is left to the voices. And then there are the sound effects.

Which are generally not as bad an idea as they could have been. It's hard to fault Christopher Walken's reading of "The Raven" for the melodramatic thunder-crashes in its background: If you can't handle melodrama, you probably don't want to get anywhere near "The Raven" in the first place. (A fragment of a second version, played for laughs by Abel Ferrara, closes the set for no especially good reason.) The problem with Walken's rendition, actually, is that he's trying to do a dramatic reading of the poem, and it doesn't need interpretation; the music of Poe's poetry is such that it simply needs to be read as written, enunciated carefully. The sounds of the words are as important as their meanings.

Maybe for that reason the readers who are normally singers generally do better by Poe than the actors. Iggy Pop's broad Midwestern vowels sound a little strange wrapped around "The Tell-Tale Heart," but he gets such a kick out of going into histrionics at the end (as lub-dub heart sound effects rise up, of course) that it works out fine. Willner regular Marianne Faithfull, who reads two poems here, "Alone" and "Annabel Lee," has a torn-up weariness to her voice that suits them well.

And Diamanda Galas was born to read the centerpiece of the first disc, "The Black Cat." Slowly, with near-parodic meticulousness, she spits out every word with shuddering contempt. At first, her guttural Brahmin accent sounds a little bit like Cruella De Vil, but as her voice keeps sinking into a whisper and she bites down on the circumlocutions of the murderous narrator, she draws real blood. Listen to her hissing Poe's self-lacerating line, "But my disease came upon me -- for what disease is like alcohol?" You won't want to drink for days.

Dr. John's "Berenice," which takes up a big chunk of the second disc, is a lot less successful. For one thing, it doesn't have the merciless momentum of Poe's best stories -- momentum that it needs to get around the books-on-tape problem -- and the music doesn't make up the difference. For another, Dr. John's down-and-dirty vocal persona is at odds with the story's diction, which is Poe at his most highfalutin ("the wretchedness of birth is multifold"). And as for ex-Fugs guy Ed Sanders' rock settings of "The Haunted Palace" and "To Helen," well, just because they're ballads doesn't mean they were meant to be put to tunes.

The printed page has been a walled-up sepulcher for
Poe's work for a while: His writing is too earnest and gaudy to bear much close reading these days. But he returned again and again to the idea of voices calling out from hidden crypts, and for all its inconsistencies, "Closed ..." works as a reclamation of Poe for the world of sound: the croak of an insistent, dark bird that won't go away.

By Douglas Wolk

Douglas Wolk is the author of the books "Reading Comics" and "James Brown's Live at the Apollo," and has contributed to a variety of periodicals, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, and The Believer.

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