By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
She has become associated with technology because she conveniently employed so much of it: UCLA Performing Arts' Susan Martin, who in the '70s co-produced Anderson's first Los Angeles appearance at Otis Art Gallery, remembers her asking for only one thing: "a projector with a dissolve unit" -- which, in 1974, was a big enough deal. "But then the techie guy arrived, and he and Laurie got to talking, and the next thing I knew he was running down to Venice for six or seven more devices. I think she used every piece of electronic equipment he had."
But if it's true that "the mysterious thing you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive," as Anderson wrote in her remarkably lucid program notes to Moby-Dick, machines have also fed her frustrations and nightmares. She has questioned technology as rigorously as she's exploited it. And in the 21st century, it turns out, machines have disappointed her profoundly. Life on a String, the record that evolved when she abandoned the idea of committing Moby-Dickto a static recording, is lyrical and melodic in a way that her earlier music wasn't; co-produced by Hal Willner, it was recorded on mostly analog instruments, including her own violin, which she played on a record for the first time since her debut album, Big Science, in 1982. As a character tells it in "Dark Angel," a song set to a flamboyant orchestration by Van Dyke Parks, "I can't stand all the new machines/It's supposed to be all brand new but it all looks the same." ("What I sent him was really gloomy, in lyrics and keyboards," says Anderson of her work with Parks, "and he gave me back -- bluebirds!It's mad!") In Happiness, her discontent runs even deeper: "Technology," she declares,"is the most sophisticated marketing campaign of the 20th century."
"I went to Europe with the Life on a String tour in October," she tells me, "and it was really shocking what was going on in terms of information. It looked like all we cared about was what was going to happen to our investments. People were saying to me, 'How can you stand to be from a country like that?' And I was saying, no, you've got it sowrong; don't believe what you're hearing. But they did anyway, and it was insulting. Really, I was insulted.
"What good are all the wires if nothing gets through? Or if the only thing that gets through is a distortion? We are suffering from mainstream media. It's not expressing what we're doing or thinking or how we're acting. This is real suffering."
IN THE FOUR SEASONS' AIRY CAFé -- the closest you can get to plein air without actually being plein -- I find us the warmest spot in the chilly hotel: a small alcove off the side of the bar where sunlight gets trapped between windows and walls. Anderson is rushed and distracted. The French people producing her museum show have been sending her 50 e-mails a day, "each one of them with a very exotic, very specific bizarre request," she says. "So it's really maddening. I haven't done a museum show in a long time, so I forget how much trouble it is." Stirring and sipping a cappuccino, Anderson stares out at the shimmering afternoon ocean. "I really should get out there before I leave," she says, "even if it's only for five minutes."
Anderson is a little like the white whale of "Pieces and Parts," her delicately beautiful anthem from Moby-Dick -- "a fountain, fins, a speck on the horizon" -- a creature that can never quite be comprehended whole. "I like interviews that are cut-up, short answers, changing the subject a lot," she says, "don't you?" Other interviewers have remarked on her free-associating conversational style, and I learn quickly that when Laurie Anderson talks, you interrupt her at your peril. Or, rather, at the peril of the story or fragment of a story she may be wandering through, which, left to evolve without interference, will almost inevitably uncover some startling jewel, some observation you think you should have thought of but didn't -- some interpretation of the mundane that alters the way you see television, or skyscrapers or lunch.
"Tom Paine," she says of her uncanny ability to unearth the essential illogic of society we take for granted. "My ambition is to be Tom Paine. Common Sense -- what an incredible book! Here were these guys -- soldiers fleeing the military during the war, going, 'What am I here for? This is a dirty fight, I don't even care, I'm going to go back to the farm.' Then they read Tom Paine. He said, 'Does it make sense that an island should rule a continent?' No, it doesn't! And they all signed back up for the war. It's a very, very beautiful book. Two-thirds of the Americans in his time owned a copy of it.
"Now, I'm not serious that I want two-thirds of the people to know my writing." But if Anderson had wanted that kind of notoriety, she probably could have had it: "O Superman" got the attention of the A&R men at Warner Bros. in the era before the label merged into a conglomerate that could no longer take risks on oddballs like Anderson and Prince. She signed a record contract when the art world considered such things terribly outré. "When I started out as an artist we were all total snobs and felt pop culture was so moronic," she admits. "I got so much flak for signing a record contract; people said, 'You sold out! How could you do that? Only teenage boys with angst make records like that.' And I thought, 'No, not necessarily, maybe that's another cliché too.' But I can see it played out. Pop culture in America is dreadful."