the pursuit of happiness
It’s just an illusion says LAURIE ANDERSON, as she discusses hermit huts, 11 September and vegetables. Words: Neil Cooper
‘ ello . . . 1" says the lady at (‘anal Street Studios. H sounding like an answering machine. ‘(‘an I help you'." So I say: ‘ls Laurie Anderson there'."
'llello!‘ I say louder. so it’s sure to reach New York.
Then. eventually: ‘l.og-way what." comes the reply. like I might be one of those. you know. crank callers. Or perhaps it was: long wait out'." Who knows'.’
‘No.' I say. ‘l.aurie. Laurie Anderson.”
‘()h.' she says eventually. ‘()K.‘ Then: ‘Who's calling." and she puts me on hold.
As communication goes. it‘s a strangely appropriate third party introduction to the woman who might jtist he the most famous performance artist on the planet. and who arrives at trip'l‘ych this week with her new show. Happiness. All those hi-tech disembodied niceties jtist to say ‘hello' or ‘hi'. But then. as Anderson herself once pointed otrt in a quasi-
classical interlude. language is a virus from outer space. Of
course. she was quoting William Burroughs. one of the Great American Novelists. whose own work so leant itself to what came to be known as ‘spoken word‘.
Anderson isn't a writer in same the way as Burroughs. But then. he never had a hit single with ‘0 Superman' like she did. even if he did lay the groundwork. What's more. you can't picture the old shootist ever making lunch the way Anderson is doing while we talk.
‘Big greens!~ she says. live and direct from the Big Apple. When Laurie Anderson speaks. it‘s so gorgeously warm and deep and sing-song natural and clear. swooping up and down the scale with little up-tilts of amusement punctuating every sentence. that you picture the crinkling of a nose. It’s a nose belonging to a knife-wielding liftysomething. standing beside a chopping board full of fresh vegetables on the other side of the world. possibly wearing a headset. and it’s a marvel how it transmits so well. and how the image is so deliciously. unexpectedly apple pie.
America. after all. and New York in particular. has been at war as much with itself as any weapons of mass destruction lately. liver since two planes ploughed into the sides of two very tall buildings. with a single bound. the world took a leap. Strangely. this was how Happiness was born.
‘()ne mintrte it was just the next project] she says. sounding like she‘s even surprised herself. ‘that was a very long story of inter-related short stories about “how we are" [and you can imagine her bracketing the phrase with her fingers] which I happened to be writing round about September ll. but after that there was quite a switch. It really did change my thinking. Suddenly we’re supposed to be victims. New Yorkers don't even think of themselves as Americans. but as a huge subculture. and we‘re certainly not going to be victims. So then this huge llipside came out of this.
She pauses. ‘How can I say this without sounding trivial." But answers aren't expected. ‘lt was a very positive thing for a lot of people. It was like [her voice goes tip an octave. into character] “we won‘t panic — we'll look after one another" land down again]. It cracked a lot of people open in tenns of their emotional ties. in that there was zero need for revenge. but just everyone knew it was so bad.‘
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Anderson cuts herself short. thinks she's babbling. ‘l'm not trying to add my personal opinion to what's become a shrill and very obvious argument.‘ she quantifies. 'hut in some ways. Happiness is a complicated work.‘ And the voice of America has spoken.
Such sense of place is inherent in Anderson‘s work. Blowing in from (‘hicago to the burgeoning downtown-NY experimental scene of the 7(ls. Anderson was found at an early performance playing her violin while wearing skates atop a block of ice. By the time ‘0 Superman' didn‘t quite top the charts as a one hit wonder novelty record in I‘lxl. she’d written and performed the mammoth ('nilml States. in which the technology of the future allowed her to play with narrative. Then came the video age and Home oft/iv Bl'rll‘r’.
More recently. Anderson adapted llerman Melville's Moby Dick. and composed a piece based on the life of Amelia liarhart. which was performed at ('arnegic llall. She even hitched tip with Lou Reed. whose own New York state of mind is an altogether grtiffer affair than Anderson’s kooky elder stateswoman.
Like every good beatnik should. Anderson has just spent ten days up a mountain in a ‘hermit hut'. just to get some space to think about how her country’s conducting what some might think of as its latest Vietnam. and the ‘incredible glee' of how it's being reported 'like a football game'.
Somewhere in the midst of all this - despite her avant roots and a tendency to be reclusive. in which she has to force herself ‘to get ottt in the world and have fun‘ Anderson is at the centre of some kind of tradition. As much literary as visual. she is a pioneer. adventurer and storyteller. absorbing and decoding each experience enough to turn it into a kind of bostmodern stand-up.
‘.\1y self-image.‘ she says. ‘has always been a gadfly. Why"? Because I'm a snob from the art world. and so I naturally think I have a better idea of otrr culture than everyone else. That‘s a really nice place to be. because I don't have to pretend to be a pop culture phenomenon or anything like that. so I can say what I like.‘ Which she does.
Yet. as personal as Happiness is. it is no nostalgia fest. 'I would never write my memoirs.’ she insists. ‘lmagine only being able to process your life through the past. 1 like to live forward.‘
liven so. in a very American way. Laurie Anderson has been writing her memoirs all her life. ‘Maybe'. she concedes.
And happiness? ‘Well.’ swoops the voice down the line. anxious to get back to her big greens. 'it's just one more illusion. and I hope I never find it. because that would be so unbearably claustrophobic. and such a big disaprmintment to me like you wouldn‘t believe.’
Here come the planes.
Laurie Anderson plays the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Fri 25 Apr and Tramway, Glasgow, Sat 26 Apr.
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l Barbara Morgenstern I Buck 65 I Talvin Singh See listings on page 49 for full details.