I first encountered the audio CD Closed on Account of Rabies: Poems and Tales of Edgar Allan Poe in the autumn of 1999. My friend Evan dropped by my dorm room and told me that he had something that I had to listen to; as we had been swapping music for the better part of the semester, I had a feeling it would be good. What he gave me wasn’t exactly music – many of the pieces are readings of Poe’s poetry and short stories. Naturally, it was love at first listen.
Closed On Account of Rabies takes its name from one of the speculated causes of Poe’s death. Much like the insane genius of Poe’s poetry and prose, his death mirrored that same sense of fervor: delirium, wearing someone else’s clothing, crying out for the forgiveness of god, and a lost death certificate. As such, we’re left to ponder what got him in the end: was it syphilis? Cholera? Heart disease? Or, as the title suggests, rabies? One must admit that the rabies angle is rather perfect for Poe; after all, its hallmarks in human manifestation include paranoia, insomnia, severe anxiety and delirium. A fitting passing for someone who birthed some of the greatest Gothic literature of American history.
The collection – brought to us by Hal Willner, who also produced works by William S. Burroughs, Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams and Allen Ginsberg – boasts an impressive group of readers and performers. Deborah Harry and the Jazz Passengers perform “The City in the Sea.” Marianne Faithfull reads “Alone” (a personal favorite of mine) and “Annabelle Lee” with a slightly wicked narrator’s voice, lulling us into a type of calm sadness as we drift off to sleep. Hell, we even get Christopher Walken reading “The Raven,” and Gabriel Byrne reading “Masque of the Red Death.” This is some impressive stuff, folks.
The prize for crowning glory, though, is a bit of a tie between two of the most unlikely opponents: Jeff Buckley and Iggy Pop. Even just typing that, it sounds like the strangest version of Celebrity Death Match to ever hit claymation, and yet the two offerings of these artists each embody the tradition of American Gothic. Buckley’s soft reading of “Ulalume” – a piece Poe composed with the intention of reading aloud, as an exercise in elocution – is haunting when paired with a low-tuned string background. It doesn’t have to be showy, and it doesn’t have to be dramatic, because Buckley’s soft recitation means that we’re feeling the loss of a beloved partner with each word. It makes us feel melancholy, as though we’ve lost something dear. And feel we do: Buckley’s “Ulalume” will leave you quiet and contemplative, much like reading the poem silently on a quiet night when you’re left with your thoughts and a storm outside. Iggy Pop’s “The Tell Tale Heart” invokes just as much emotion in a similar fashion, but strikes the chord of dread rather than longing. I have to admit, Pop has the most perfect voice on the block to read this piece: it’s gravelly, hard and just a little bit crazy. Whereas Buckley’s “Ulalume” benefits from a well-arranged string section, Pop thrives on a synthesizer that stops *just* shy of the theatrics associated with 80’s summer camp slasher flicks. It boarders a fine line between madness and mania around the campfire. While Buckley will make you feel lonely, Pop will make your skin crawl.
The bad news: this disc collection is out of print. The good news: for the most part, you can find everything on YouTube. It’s perfect for a stormy summer evening. My only regret with this one is that the producers didn’t get Christopher Lee to read “The Pit and the Pendulum” – now that would have been delicious.
The most important aspect of Closed On Account of Rabies stems from the fact that it embraces the tradition of American Gothic. It’s dark. The voices are lived-in, tired and wounded. And yet there is extraordinary beauty in each piece, from the voices to the strings that tug and pull at our own memories of that which we can no longer claim as our own (if it ever even was). That is truly the heart and soul of Poe’s brand of American Gothic: the tortured yearning for a loved one, the inability to conquer death to retrieve something priceless which has been lost. So go find it.