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Truth and Daring 

Reconstructing Laurie Anderson

Wednesday, Feb 6 2002
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

THE NIGHT AFTER THE WORLD PREMIERE OF HER NEW PERFORMANCE WORK, Happiness, Laurie Anderson had trouble sleeping: Her room at the Santa Barbara Four Seasons Biltmore was just too cold. "You know, this seems like a nice hotel, but they don't have any heat. I called them every hour, and finally, at 3 a.m. they sent the engineer up." She mimes a man with a screwdriver and a look of consternation, fiddling with an imaginary thermostat. "And you know how much they charge for a cup of coffee?"

"I don't know -- two?"

"Two? Dollars? No. Sixteen. Sixteen dollars. I mean, that's room service, but then you tip, and so it's $20. No wonder the guys who bring it are so nice! They're looking at me like, 'You are such a sucker! You paid $20 for a cup of coffee!'"

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Last night, onstage at UC Santa Barbara's Campbell Hall, her features -- oversize blue eyes with their familiar droop at the corners, full-lipped half-moon of a smile and exaggerated dimples -- appeared to have responded little to the ravages of 54 years. In person, she looks tinier and even more miraculously ageless. It's hard to think of her as nearly the same age as a real live grown-up like Bill Clinton, who has been spotted in the Four Seasons' lobby this same day as he prepares to speak to a hotel and restaurant security conference. I wonder out loud whether he knows who she is, and Anderson looks a little miffed that I'd even ask. Of course he does. She met the former president back when Václav Havel credited the Velvet Revolution to her partner, Lou Reed, at an official White House dinner. "It was right when the Monica thing was really, really bad, and it was not a good time to be associated with a guy who wrote a famous song called 'Heroin,'" Anderson recalls. "But he didn't cancel. When I met him, he was very complimentary about my work, but I had the feeling he was doing a very good impression of Sensitive Man. You know what I mean? I'm really trying . . . I was almost totally convinced."

It's a recurring theme in her canon of obsessions, this notion of people impersonating other people or ideas of who they should be. In her 1986 film Home of the Brave, she pokes fun at "Laurie Anderson clones," those women of the '80s who gelled their self-cut short, spiky hair. Last night, she says, an 8-year-old girl in the front row "was doing a very good impersonation of the adults around her." There may even be a way in which Anderson has been impersonating herself, remixing her life history to cultivate a certain self-image. "The creepiest thing about stories," she says in Happiness, "is that you set your story and you hold on to it, and every time you tell it you forget a little more."

In Happiness, Anderson tells a story about how, as the second in a family of eight children growing up in an Illinois suburb, she'd do anything to get attention. So one day, when she was 12, she hurled herself off a high dive -- something she'd never done before -- and landed partially on the concrete. The fall broke her back, and she spent three months in traction, unable to talk or move. Her doctors said she'd never walk again. She never for a moment bought their prognosis. But onstage, she admits what she left out in recounting the story to friends over the years: the cries and screams of dying children that surrounded her at night.

She tells me she included the story in the show "because it seemed like a really good way of telling about how you fictionalize your life. I realized how much I'd edited it -- it was a story made to illustrate that I was tough, when in fact I was terrified. That's what was really happening. I was terrified."

Telling stories makes them untrue, Anderson suggests. "Writing them down makes them untrue. Michel Foucault believed that nothing was really true, and then used that idea to hide it from everybody that he had AIDS. And then you're like c'mon, pal. Some things are true."

HAPPINESS, WHICH COMES TO UCLA's ROYCE HALL SATURDAY night, started out as an experiment, a way of exploring the past year in which Anderson threw herself into unusual situations. She lived on a farm with an Amish family, she traveled down Utah's Green River on a silent canoe trip, she flipped burgers and dished up fries at McDonald's in Manhattan's Chinatown. But then came September 11. Anderson was in Chicago on tour that day, and watched the towers fall on TV. She wanted to be home in New York, she says, if only because of what her friends were going through without her. (Lou Reed lamented her absence in a song, "Laurie Sadly Listening," which was published in The New York Times Magazine: "Laurie if you're sadly listening/Know one thing above all others/You were all I really thought of/As the TV blared the screaming.")

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