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Truth and Daring

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!'"

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.")

"Greenwich is my street," she says, "and one of the planes basically used it for a runway. And after that, I took a complete U-turn. It was staggering how much differently I saw everything, from the most mundane to the biggest things. For instance, there were a lot of phone calls I didn't return, because I thought 'I don't even like this person.' But I also found myself walking down the street noticing how I used to be so judgmental, like if I'd see someone coming toward me that I found unsavory or unpleasant, someone who before would make me cross the street, I'd be thinking instead, 'That person's innocent. And that person, and that one and that one and that one -- none of these people did this thing.' And before, when I'd fly into Boston, I'd think, ugh, Logan Airport, what an awful place. But after nine-one-one I was like, 'Look, look at this architecture! This civilization!' It was like that for me in Philadelphia and New York, too; I felt like, here they all are, these amazing cities, this beauty. Such beauty. Terror opens your eyes."

It also gets better art out of her: "I had a teacher once who said, 'I do my best work when I have a good personal relationship and my life is happy.' But for me I work best if my life is a wreck, if there's something that has really challenged me personally, that has shaken me up and I don't know what to do about it. I do my best work when I feel desperate."

Happiness is the seventh full-length performance work Anderson has created in the two decades since her first single, "O Superman (For Massenet)," became the Western world's unlikeliest No. 2 single in the U.K., with its odd, prophetic verses about coming planes and departing justice incanted over a breathy pulse. It's also the warmest and most accessible, even with its post-9/11 edge. Memories of watching the towers fall on TV -- "They fell in silence," she observes -- play against comic accounts of a parrot's existential torture, dreamlike urban legends and an utterly exuberant account of her brief but rewarding career serving Big Macs and fries under the golden arches. ("For the first time in my life," she says, "I was able to give people exactly what they wanted.") Standing alone before MIDI sequencers and digital processors -- a setup that allows her to improvise, but also seems to mediate her uneasy relationship with an audience -- Anderson seems less cool, less ironic and less steady than she ever has before: The night of the premiere, she even seemed a little bit scared.

WHEN ANDERSON WAS AN IMPOVERISHED ART STUDENT in her early 20s, she remembers, she would spend her last pocket change on two newspapers and a cup of coffee, and then proceed to cut the two papers into strips and weave them together in a physical manifestation of William S. Burroughs' cut-ups, "so you'd get The New York Times and the China Times intertwined, and read the news like that." She made sculptures then, but other things, too -- from the very beginning, labels have failed to adequately describe Laurie Anderson. "Performance artist" implies someone more limited and tendentious; "composer" seems too serious. Poet, musician, artist, writer -- all seemed inadequate to contain a woman whose first glimmer of notoriety came in 1972, when on the summertime streets of Manhattan she played her talking violin for an audience until the blocks of ice that had encased her feet had melted.

Since then, it's been a dizzyingly prolific career with sporadic bursts of mainstream visibility, including a 1984 collaboration with Peter Gabriel on the single "Excellent Birds," to which Alvin Ailey choreographed a work that remains in the company's repertoire; a stint as a host on the PBS series Alive From Off Center in the late '80s, on which Anderson introduced experimental video in the days when video itself was experimental; and 1999's Songs and Stories From Moby-Dick, Anderson's spare meditation on Melville's classic. To the general public, or record buyers, there would seem to have been lulls in Anderson's career. Warner Bros. considered her a â vanity artist and relieved her of the pressure to crank out records. Four years passed between Empty Places in 1990 and her collaboration with Brian Eno, Bright Red; seven more before she made her first record on Nonesuch, Life on a String. But those were not lost years. As a retrospective of her sound art scheduled to open at the Musée d'Art Contemporain de Lyon on March 6 will show, she has invented instruments, a jukebox and at least one mechanical parrot who now speaks bad French. She has consulted with software designers; scored films and plays; written books. Most recently, she wrote the music for Robert LePage's The Far Side of the Moon, designed a pavilion in Switzerland, and explained New York City in a blurb for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Perhaps the best way to describe Anderson is as a storyteller, one who has used whatever media and resources have been at her disposal over the years -- Ned Steinberger's digitized violins, synthesizers, video, a swirl of famous collaborators and her own human form -- to explain whatever needed explaining. When she found, while performing in Germany, that audiences responded differently to the authority of a male voice, she made a habit of distorting her own deep female sound with a vocoder. When it became possible in the late-'80s to use video to immediate, imaginative, inexpensive ends, Anderson used it to project her own cartoon-character head over the proceedings (or to reduce herself to a speck against the history of the United States, in United States I-IV). Because invoking the spirit of Melville required textures of sound beyond the capabilities of ordinary instruments, she invented a "talking stick," an aluminum tube grooved with the clanging of bells and the clicking of whales.

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-Dick to 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 so wrong; 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."

These days, she says, she's interested in creating a place for "useless art." Her contemporaries have come to view things differently: It's now almost beyond discussion that fine artists and experimental musicians collaborate with corporations; even Brian Eno -- the man who taught Anderson to embrace failure -- sold his gifts to create the "Microsoft Sound." Anderson doesn't hold it against them; not personally, anyway. "It's just that I love it when somebody resists," she says -- however futile that resistance might sometimes be. Anderson recalls in 1994's Stories From the Nerve Bible how in 1976 she walked into the Museum of Modern Art, where she was performing, and saw a big poster that said: "MOBIL OIL PRESENTS A PERFORMANCE BY LAURIE ANDERSON."

"I was shocked," she wrote. "I had signed a contract with a museum, not an oil company. This was when I first realized that no matter how hard you tried to avoid it, if you were in the art world, the big money wouldn't be too far away."

These days, it's even closer. "One of the reasons ad campaigns are getting so visually sophisticated," she tells me, "is that a lot of artists get out of art school and find it very hard to exist in the art world, because there aren't enough institutions to support them; there aren't places for young artists to come in and try to get their work done. So they join an ad agency and produce high-style commercials for dreary subject matter. Car commercials have great little movies, and a sense of humor, and beauty, because these people who are normally drawn to other ways of creating things are going there.

"But I want to work on and think about creating an area for useless art," she says. "You know, somebody asked me to do an Absolut Vodka ad, and I said no. And they said, 'Well, why? All your friends are doing it!' And I said -- 'I don't have any problem with them doing it, I just don't want to do it myself.' But they kept calling me, because this bothered them for some reason, and finally I told them, it's because of Mario Cuomo. And they said, 'Good! Because he's done one, too!'

''But what I meant by that was that I'd always admired Mario Cuomo, and then I saw him doing a Doritos ad. There he was -- known for his legal sharpness, his really fine mind, and he's peddling corn chips. And he had every right to cash in on his name, every right. But I would've been so happy if he hadn't. And so I said to the Absolut people, 'No, you don't understand. It's because he did it I don't want to do it.'

"I'm not interested in martyrdom. I'd just like to be one of the people who says no to things like that." Her own resistance, however, often forces her to spend more time than she'd like in Europe -- where institutions that support artists do still exist -- and to invent funding sources where none existed before. "When I got back from the tour in '95, I made a five-year plan: an opera, an electronic symphony and all this stuff. It had all the flaws of a Russian five-year plan -- too many carrots, not enough crude oil -- but I put all my work in a box, a distressingly small box, a bunch of books and some CD-ROMs and films and records, and I sent it to Paul Allen, who was Bill Gates' business partner. I said, 'I'm looking for a Medici.' And I thought, 'Good luck. I'll never hear from him.'"

But she did, and a few weeks later he invited her to discuss her plan over drinks. "I remember us standing at a bar, talking, and I'm holding a beer, and my hand is shaking so bad, I'm sweating and shaking. I'm really nervous, because it's so hard for me to ask people for things. And then the beer falls out of my hand and spills all over his white pants. And I thought, 'That's the end of your dream. You just can't do stuff like that and then ask for somebody's help.' But what he did was hook me up with a group called Integral Research, in Silicon Valley, which was a big think tank. He supported my little production company in exchange for my being a consultant. So I would go out there and largely, I have to say, bluff my way through these things, because these designers were very deep into their systems, and very, very smart. And so I became the art consultant.

"The art consultant," she repeats. "Who could hate anyone more than that? 'Hi! I'm the art consultant! How's it going guys?' And they'd say, 'Well, you're familiar with the QX23 system, right?' And I'd answer, 'Oh, sure, yeah, how's it, you know, working in this case?'" â

Pressed for details, she admits that "I was able to make, I think, some useful contributions, because I tend to look at the flip side, or turn something upside down, which when you're really deep into something you might forget to do. I know enough to do that. So it was very good for me, and maybe a little bit helpful to some of them."

"YOU KNOW WHEN THE EGYPTIANS built their steam trains they didn't have any fuel to burn," chants Anderson in "One Beautiful Evening," a song from Life on a String that also appears in an expanded form toward the end of Happiness. "But what they did have a lot of was old mummy rags lying around. So they gathered up all the rags, and they burned them in their trains. Yeah, they burned their ancestors for fuel."

The story adds another karmic dimension to the notion of "fossil fuel," but "One Beautiful Evening"'s oblique damning of our collective souls doesn't end there. Between snippets of silly children's songs ("I'm a little teapot short and stout") and "Hey hey nonny nay," an echo of Ophelia's half-crazed lament in Hamlet, are apocalyptic visions delivered not with dread so much as relish: "Funny how hatred can also be a beautiful thing/When it's as sharp as a knife."

It's part of Anderson's rebellion against this artificially shiny society in which darkness gets short shrift, against a general agreed-upon notion that art should be beautiful and people should always be nice, against a president who advises us to shop our way out of the post-terror blues. ("You kind of wish he'd say a few other things," says Anderson, "but I guess he's not that kind of guy.")

"I'm really scared," she says when the subject comes up. "I do generally fear for what's going on. I fear that people have been taught that the more stuff they have, the better it is. I fear for our spiritual life. And whenever I say 'spiritual life' people say, oh, God, gurus, crystals, all that. But I'm talking about intelligence. I'm talking about analysis. I'm talking about not believing the fake, propped-up version of what we're supposed to go for as Americans. There's a reason Buddhism has taken root in the United States, and of all places in the world found the freedom here to be extraordinary. There are reasons we get immigrants from everywhere, why in World War II we got Jews from Germany to come, which enriched us enormously beyond our wildest dreams. There's a reason we've been able to attract artists and intellectuals from a lot of different places."

Those artists have not all come to make art that cheered people up. Sometimes the most uplifting artistic expression is the kind that articulates the white noise of anxiety that runs in our subconscious, the anguish people in times of stress manage to keep to a low hum, but are often relieved to have brought to the surface. "If you bring forth what is within you," says the Gospel of Thomas, "what you have will save you."

"It's not that I'm trying to make work that is desperate, and that brings people down," says Anderson. "But on the other hand, what's wrong with a little bit of terror, a little bit of sadness, some sense of loss? We're human beings. We're not just about eating gourmet food and having a nice ride in an SUV, about making a good life for ourselves. That fits with the European version of who we are. But Americans are much more advanced than that. We're people who come from the transcendentalists, from Thoreau, from thinkers who had a real spirituality.

"And from what I know," she insists, "they're still with us."


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