Laurie Anderson: Live album review in the US
On January 25, 1983, Reagan delivered a rousing state of the Union to a country hit by a recession. He asked for inspiration. âAs sure as America’s pioneering spirit has made us industrial giants of the 20th century,â he said, âthat same pioneering spirit is opening today on another huge front of possibility, the frontier of high technology.â He had, he said, ânot just a vision of what the world around us is today, but also what we as a free people can make of it tomorrow. ” Six weeks later, at the premiere of his blockbuster “Evil Empire Speech,” he said to an audience of the newly rising Christian right: “Any objective observer must have a positive view of American history.” It was, he said, “a story that was the story of hopes and dreams fulfilled”. Much of the country loved its shiny hair and authoritarian character. They believed what he said.
In between those two speeches, performance artist Laurie Anderson hosted an opening night of a new show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on February 7, 1983. She dabbed her hair with petroleum jelly and pulled on a suit like she was ready for business. The overall effect was somewhere between Albert Einstein and Grace Jones. She took her trusty violin – really different states of the violin, some with neon in it and some with prerecorded tapes that the bow could activate – and a vocoder and other mechanical marvels, many of which were made by her own hands. She had thousands of slides and videos and a crew editing them. A small group of greats from the downtown scene, including Peter Gordon and David Van Tieghem of the Love of Life Orchestra, were ready to accompany them. An audience inspired by current theater episodes like Philip Glass’ Einstein on the beach sat ready to be amazed. You believed in her. Anderson took the stage in the darkened auditorium. She pointed to a map of America projected behind her. She asked, “Can you tell me where I am?” Then she turned to a microphone connected to a harmonizer that pulled her voice deep into what she called her “voice of authority.” Her male voice said, “Do you want to go home?”
And so began Laurie Anderson’s own state of union. The record for that eight-hour, two-night show – the 1984 four and a half hour boxing set, USA LiveâIs a total work of art, a courageous amalgamation of handicraft and scientific magic, sound sculpture and rock music, gender and social sciences, philosophy and linguistics. With features on a par with Gipper’s, Anderson Reagan untangled the knots of technology, hope, and power, weaving an alternate form of patriotism, one that centers disorientation and finds authenticity in the imagination. On the way there, she created an American masterpiece.
âI grew up in the Bible Belt and spent much of my childhood listening to these stories in Bible school,â Anderson once said. âAdults who mostly did the most mundane things one could imagine (mowing the lawn, throwing potluck parties). They all believed in these wild stories. And they sat around discussing it in the most matter-of-fact way possible. âBorn in suburbs of Chicago in 1947, an eye-catching child of eight, wearing red blazers to tour Europe with Talented Teen USA about life in America to speak. She studied biology for a year at Mills College, then fled to New York to study art at Barnard College and then Columbia University. She taught for a while, often writing art history and doing her own work: 1973 Institutional dream series, in which she fell asleep in night courts and library baths and then documented the effect of public places on her dreams. For the following year Duets on ice, she buckled on ice skates that were embedded in a block of ice and played with her “self-playing violin”, which contained a loudspeaker, until the ice was a puddle.
She had success in the downtown minimal and conceptual art circles, rubbing up with Philip Glass and Arthur Russell, and touring the country. But in the late 1970s, even the most high-profile performance art was still a poorly paid gig. In the American artistic tradition, she moved to Europe. âI was basically an expat,â she said recently. “[There were] more job opportunities, especially in Germany and Italy. Those were the places we went and we would sit around after a concert, usually in an art gallery … and people would go, how could you? dwell in a country like the USA? How you do that?”
One answer was to get famous. New York indie label 110 Records used an NEA grant to press 5,000 7 “of a track Anderson made with friend and collaborator Roma Baran, singing a song about the future of Doo-Wop on a vocoder -inspired robo-bummer, his upbeat harmonious nuclear winter than the endless summer of the Beach Boys. With lyrics like: “The track was a perfect complement to Reagans Father knows best Strongman Schtick.
To Anderson’s surprise, it became a hit, eventually making it to number 2 on the UK charts after John Peel played, and was later sampled or covered by everyone from El-P to Booka Shade to Moses Sumney. Because of this, Warner Bros. offered her a contract for eight records. Venues offered stages. Anderson returned to New York and rummaged through the work she had accumulated over the past decade. Several tracks, including “O Superman”, appeared on her first solo album in 1982 Great science. Hundreds more had circulated within their performances for years. The limits of USA Live were wide enough to welcome them all. How could she live in America? “It turned out to be an eight-hour answer,” she later laughed.
USA Live is operatic in design, but most of his 78 songs are three minutes or less long. In some of them, Anderson shows a bit of technology that she invented: In âSmall Voiceâ, a violin recorded on a cassette is modulated in the mouth via a loudspeaker. In âReverbâ she transforms her skull into a drum, amplified by a microphone that is stretched over Joe Cool sunglasses. As with much of the album, Anderson’s gag is missing, but the sounds stand on their own. She is in charge, both carnival screamer and star of the freak show. She’s Reagan, who promises ingenuity will save us, but she’s also Cassandra: In New York Social Life, she portrays a series of estranged hipsters who only have their answering machine shoulders to cry on. “Closed Circuits,” a love song about oil, expands and lingers a little longer as the voice of authority longs for “long black streams of that dark electric light” pumping out of the ground. The track ends with boasting and threats: âWe can turn the dark into light,â he purrs, âand vice versa.â The apocalypse is never far away and it is man-made. In the terrifying âFinnish Farmersâ she tells in a choppy, bureaucratic voice about a disgusting clatter that is worthy of Throbbing Gristle, a confusion between grain and missile silos. And a harrowing, over 11-minute version of âO Supermanâ slowly melts into a wintry flute and the chirping of birds.
Anderson keeps things moving like the end of the world is just a bad dream in a hotel room for a road trip. In a subdued but confident tone, she tells travel stories with the economy of a postcard: going to France and wondering whether the babies judge their fluency; going to China and watching another artist falsely tell locals that Americans regularly commute to heaven. But she cannot escape fate. In âThe Language of the Future,â the voice of authority rises on a plane that nearly crashes and meets a teenager who speaks âsome kind of high-tech jargonâ that he barely understands. It is the âlanguage of switching on / switching off again / futureâ, he states, âand it is digitalâ. In a moment that feels like hope, among other things, the girl doesn’t even notice that he doesn’t understand.
USA Live traces this uncertain digital future with analog tools. Even the only digital instrument, the Synclavier Sampler, which Ann DeMarinis uses to chop Anderson’s voice into soft percussion pads, is used more like a hand drum. Singing rehearsals rush over âBlue Lagoonâ as if the radioactive waves from âO Supermanâ had been washed in from the cool sea; an opera singer offers human reflections of them, while Anderson and her band build a bed to dream. Great science The highlight âBorn, Never Askedâ is an amniotic torrent of synthesizers and strings that seems to ricochet off clapping hands; Live it’s a freak-out, so groovy that you can understand why Spiritualized covered it over a decade later.
Even their most traditional pop songs follow strange rules. âLanguage is a virus from spaceâ, for example, starts with a chance observation – âI saw this guy on the train and he seemed to be stuck in one of those abstract trancesâ – which swells into alienation: âI wanted you … and I was looking for you … but I couldn’t find you. “Paranoia strikes:” Are you talking to me, “someone asks,” … or are you just practicing for one of your performances? “She escapes into pure sound, her band rises and falls through drum rolls and saxophone screams to a clip that feels out of sync but stays in your pocket. It is difficult music that is easy on the ears. Consistently, Anderson’s razor-sharp editing prevents the solos from outlasting their greeting. It also features jokes about a wooden stonehenge called Woodhenge grinning instead of moaning.
USA Live Highlights with a definitive version of “Big Science”. Anderson comes into town like a stranger with a song in his heart and a clippity clop beat and sketches what she sees. Like Reagan, she is a virtuoso with her voice that soberly tells wild stories. She sees a society and its reflection. âAnd everyone says: Hallelujah. Yodelayheehoo. âThe thrill of technology. The servant of faith. And the border spirit, civilizer and colonizer. America is impressive to Anderson. It arouses wonder and fear alike – which is perhaps the only equality one can find. Reagan’s awe was a weapon; for Anderson it’s fuel.
You can hear the awesome 1983 BAM. You can hear her powering the kind of techno genderfuck Prince used in his Camille phase that traveled across the water to Fever Ray and SOPHIE and Planningtorock. You can hear it in Anderson’s determination to simply, dryly speak her mind, a practice revived today by Cassandra Jenkins and Dry Cleaning. It can be heard in the ambivalent epics by Owen Pallett and the science fiction self-mythologizing by Janelle MonÃ¡e. Anderson’s American awe is world-building, an atlas and instruction manual, a book of fables, and a songbook of new American standards. It’s a saga that begins with patriarchy asking an artist if she wants to go home and ends with her saying she already knows the way. It’s an almost five-hour album that leaves you wanting more. And it offers an answer to how you live in America: to feel the awe. And thus something of use.
Get the Sunday Review in your inbox every weekend. Sign up for the Sunday Review newsletter Here.