’ve called the number three or four times
already, only to find it engaged, and so
slip into that process ofjust continually
re-dialling; waiting for the engaged tone;
pressing the receiver down and redialling
until it becomes an automatic ritual. I’ve stopped expecting an answer. The disjointed sounds of touch-tone bleeps punctuated by the engaged signal begin to form a strange, soothing little rhythm throbbing right inside my ear, allowing my mind to drift. . .
Then, following the dialling pips, instead of the expected tone a voice emerges from the ear-piece: ‘Damien? This is Laurie.’ Just like that, and, without an introductory ‘hello’ to break the flow, for a second it’s just like listening to her records. One of her records in particular, actually.
This is Laurie Anderson whose I981 ‘novelty hit’ was ‘0 Superman (For Massenet)’. which featured the minimal,
sighing beat of answerphone messages that were both poignant (‘This is your mother. Are you coming home?’) and ominous (’You don’t know me, but I know you. Here come the planes’). She is also probably the most famous performance artist working today.
Fourteen years on, Anderson brings ‘The Nerve Bible Tour’ to the UK. Inspired by her recent retrospective book of fragments and stories documenting her life and twenty-year career, it’s her first major performance piece in ﬁve years. With it comes the opportunity for Anderson’s publicists to over-use the phrase ‘multi-media’, because the other thing Laurie Anderson is famous for is her obsession with technology.
The promotional literature for the show is packed with references to web sites, lasers, emulators, screens, projections, video walls, cyberlights, appropriated and morphed images and ‘35ft high computer characters acting as backing singers’ (35 dwarves or a couple of giants? Who can say?)
‘It’s a kind of very high-tech thing and a very no-tech thing,’ says the humanoid performer at the centre of it all. ‘It goes between the two. Mostly because when I do these kind of multi- media things I feel a little bit like an electronic salesman, in away, going “look at all this stuff — it really works!!” and, y’know, wowee. So what. I mean, every car company does a ‘multi-media’ show, never mind every rock ’n’ roll group and fashion designer. So, I’m trying to use it so that the images and the sounds support each other, rather than . . . illustrate each other, for example.’
With this concept — images and sounds being mutually interdependent — in mind, it would be interesting to know if Anderson regards her recorded work as somehow incomplete. Are the records whole in themselves, or simply
‘In the car, on a dark night, on a long road. That’s my ideal listener, somebody who’s kinda drifting along.’
documents of the larger performance pieces? In short, how does Anderson envisage people listening to her tnusic?
‘In the car,’ she replies. ‘In the car, on a dark night, on a long road. That’s my ideal listener, somebody who’s kinda drifting along. That’s a good way to listen to the Bright Red album. Something like “Mr Heartbreak”. that would be a good record for . . . a vacation . . . The CD- ROM (Puppet Motel) I think would come closest to what I’d consider a complete piece. in the electronic sense. because it takes about twelve hours to move through it, and . . .’
At this point Anderson launches into a description of the joys of CD-ROM for what seems like about twelve hours. Referring to herself at one point as ‘a wire-headed computer nerd happy to just sit home with my eleven computers’, Anderson’s conversation becomes almost evangelistic when she starts enthusing about the potential of communication technology (particularly the Internet). Her ‘clcctronic salesman’ persona would certainly shift a few personal computers in Dixon’s of a
‘Pettorming in Italy this tour taught me a lot, because they don’t get all the language stuff — but they get the feel of it, which is what I hope people get more than anything.’
Saturday afternoon. This. coupled with the strangely serene, depersonalised, almost sterile quality of her music, makes it all the more
bizarre to remember that Anderson has been ’
stepping out with Lou Reed since the end of 1993.
That’s Lou Reed, the archetypal New York art—punk, heroin-scoring, rock ’n’ roll animal par excellence, whose wild-eyed years of dissipation are the stuff of legend. OK, so he’s cleaned up these days, but individually this celebrity couple’s art could hardly be more different. Whether it be fragile or brutal, Reed’s canon — from the Velvet Underground, through the likes of Coney Island Baby and to the
LAURIE ANDERSON FEATURE
meditations on death which make up Magic and Loss — has always been visceral, personal, human stuff. In comparison, Anderson’s electronic noodlings are definitely head music.
Essentially, while Reed shares Anderson’s obsession with sound technology, at the end of the day it’s easy to imagine the former kicking back and listening to The Shangri-La’s, but not the latter. So does Anderson feel that their relationship will influence the way they work? ‘Well I think in some ways he’s a much more direct writer,’ says Anderson. ‘So, if I’m writing something, he goes “Why are you using that code? Why don’t you just say what you mean?” and I’ll be like “Oh, good point”.
‘Also, we play a lot of music together — and fortunately have no plans to do anything with it, which is really so much fun for both of us —- I haven’t jammed with somebody since, like, high school, just sat around and played for fun. And that’s actually why I’m playing a lot of violin in the show, because we’ve been playing together. I’ve really hopped on the violin, ’cos it’s harder to play louder than Lou. I’ve really had to crank it up.’
About a quarter of a century ago, Laurie Anderson made her living as an art reviewer, so it’s hard not to wonder what the critic inside thinks of some of the work she’s produced. So, objectively, what are Laurie Anderson’s worst aspects? ‘A very unfortunate tendency to be clever,’ she responds. ‘There was this long sidewalk of light I’d made once, and you’d walk along it and there were all these triggers and speakers, and you’d walk in one direction and you’d hear the word “Tone” and then, if you went backwards you’d hear the word “Note” and I’d thought “Oh, audio palindromes — how interesting!” I look back at that piece and I think what’s the point. It was kinda “clever” and technological and whizz- bang, but it meant absolutely . . . nothing. It was pretty reductive really, pretty boring. But I’ve learned.
‘Performing in Italy this tour taught me a lot, because they don’t get all the language stuff— but they get the feel of it, which is what I hope people get more. than anything. One of my favourite performers is Caetan Veloso who sings in Portuguese, and I don’t understand a single word — but I feel as though I do, there’s something in his voice I just identify with. I appreciate that actual contact with another person -— not just telling or showing them something . . .’
Stop the press! High priestess of hi-tech virtual communication in ‘touched by simple sound of human voice’ shocker! 0 Laurie Anderson is at the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow on Saturday 3 June. Her live album ‘The Ugly One With The Jewels And Other Stories" is on WEA.
The List 2-l5 Jun l99515