Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Difficult Listening Hour: An Introduction to Laurie Anderson

About this time last year, an editor of this site and I were emailing back and forth about fun things to maybe write. (The formula was basically: negligible numbers of comments + high degree of personal satisfaction = let's rock.) Along those lines, he proposed a column: "Also do you want to write about weird music in general??? Stuff that editors are like 'Ha um NO THANKS.' Difficult Listening Hour with SCW. Heh." This was the first time anyone had proposed, to me, a recurring feature based on a piece from smack dab in the middle of Laurie Anderson's 7-hour performance work "United States I-IV". (The clip of "Difficult Listening Hour" above comes from her out-of-print film Home of the Brave.) But then Shared Laurie Love–that's the kind of thing that makes you want to write for free.

US I - IVI was about 10 years old and the crazy librarians in my small town–all of whom will anonymously, collectively hold a spot in my heart until I die–actually bought the 5-LP version of "United States Live" and put it out next to, well, an awful lot of Wings records. I picked up "United States Live" one day while browsing with my dad. The cover showed Anderson with a hot, yellow-ish light emanating from her mouth. "Who's this?" I asked. My dad responded with something like a proto-Wikipedia entry: "Important downtown NYC artist, collaborated with Burroughs, I don't know her stuff that well, but check it out it if you want."

We only had one turntable in the house, in the living room, so I played it there. I didn't know what to expect at all, but was intrigued by opener "Say Hello," a spoken word piece in which Laurie proposed–based on a religious sect's calculations–that New York City had been the Garden of Eden, and Upstate New York the locus of pre-Flood civilization. Then she spun it out to a weird parable about the head-spinning, Babel-like impossibility of understanding language qua language, with a vocal filter that made her sound like a bemused, middle-aged car salesman dude. Then came "Walk the Dog"–more odd voices and jokes. (This song was also the b-side of her surprise British hit "O Superman.")

A solo piece for her specially prepared violin followed. But it was really "For A Large and Changing Room" that made me think "I'm actually going to listen to this whole thing." It had woodblock percussion, keyboards, and gorgeous violin on top that danced between long-bowed lines and minimalistic ones. (Many of the same melodic themes crop up again in "Born, Never Asked.")

Later (of course), I'd learn that the Warners recording of "United States Live: was just excerpts from the even-longer stage piece. They only released it after Anderson's first two studio albums proved solid enough sellers. Which is why her 1984 live audience was clapping at the opening synth-saxophone strains of "From the Air," which, along with "O Superman," had both been on "Big Science already." To me, as a pre-adolescent starting off with "United States Live," it just sounded like people spontaneously clapping. Happy for the weirdness and the smartness and the humor. Happy for the difficult listening hour.

Laurie lost her media buzz in the 90s. People still came out to BAM for her new stage pieces, but the record industry's niche-game had been figured out to the point where "alternative" was maybe big business. Performance art simply could not compete with nu-grunge as a loss-leader that might actually go platinum. During college, one of our deans took a bunch of art students out to see her Moby Dick piece, and almost nobody seemed to care. I tried to cheer him up by talking about "United States I-IV" on our walk to the subway.

But now Laurie's back. "Homeland," her new record for Nonesuch, is, at the moment, my third favorite album of 2010 (behind Erykah Badu and Big Boi). The song that has confused the youngs today, after her appearance on the David Letterman show, features Lou Reed on guitar and Kieren Hebden (better known as Four Tet) on keyboards. It is not to be summarily dismissed–as it is one of the best singles of the year. You may hear it in its 7-minute plus entirety below:

Laurie Anderson, 'Only an Expert'

She and her husband, Lou Reed, recently recorded a live-improv jam with John Zorn, as a benefit for the latter's quite-awesome and artist-friendly club, The Stone. It's also worth your time, if you like instrumental screaming. But even if not, there have been more gentle collaborations between Laurie and Lou of late, like this interesting song from a 2008 performance:

I talked to Laurie at my day job recently, and told her that I thought she was more intense now than she's ever been–that whereas she once preferred to react to contemporary provocations with cool bemusement, now she was opting to burn at a higher temperature. I think that's a pretty good look for an artist kicking off her fourth decade of relevance. And it's surprisingly easy to listen to, as well.

Seth Colter Walls has a day job.

21 Comments / Post A Comment

Art Yucko (#1,321)

-blinks, smirks sardonically-

[Translated for Youngs from Oldspeak: -GUIDO FISTPUMPS-]

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

-raises one eyebrow and nods-

Annie K. (#3,563)

I normally listen only to Bach and Mozart, Seth, but she's addictive and annoying and seductive, and I don't blame you a bit for following her around for years.

roboloki (#1,724)

i love this woman. i discovered her at the perfect time for me and she taught me that i should seek my own path regardless of what others may think. this was an epiphany that completly altered my life and for that i am eternally grateful. i bought her music on vinyl, upgraded to cassette, reverently purchased cd's when i made that conversion and she is now on my ipod.

roboloki (#1,724)

just read my post and realized i sound all rainbows and butterflies. what i meant to say is; yeah, she's cool.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I was giggling a little at "one of the best singles of the year," after hearing the minimalist Letterman version.

Then I listened to the studio version and kindly shut myself the fuck up.

First Matt Cherette went to New York City.

Now, he can read this post and learn about Laurie Anderson!

Mindpowered (#948)

If I ask nicely, can we get a difficult listening devoted to John Zorn?


Pretty Please?

Lord knows he makes Song X Ornette Coleman sound like

mickeyitaliano (#2,202)

How bout Pete Zorn?

"Yes" to one of these requests.

djfreshie (#875)

Zornin' it!

Mindpowered (#948)

Like something that makes me post without completing.

Baroness (#273)

Laurie moments:

-That student work of hers in the early 70's, where she stood playing violin, wearing ice skates embedded in a block of ice, on a downtown sidewalk. The concert only ended when the ice melted. In a picture, she looks like a young Sissy Spacek, long hair, very intent.

- Seeing her as a kid on Entertainment Tonight when "O Superman" was a surprise hit. Bought the cassette shortly after, it was a revelation in its odd beauty.

-Getting cheap student tickets to see "United States" live at BAM with a bunch of school pals. We were so fur up in the rafters we couldn't see the top of her screens, but it was cool and memorable.

-Reading in the late 90's that she had taken a job for 8 weeks at a McDonald's on Canal St. Dutifully showing up at 6am, working the fry shift, etc. She said she just wanted to experience that. Now that's avant-garde, I thought.

- There's sort of a great scene in Terry Castle's notorious "Desperately Seeking Susan" love-hate essay about Sontag. Castle blanches in fright when Susan takes her to a small dinner party at Marina Bramovic's loft, and sees Lou Reed is there. With Laurie, who does not come off especially nice to Castle, the nobody in the group.

Really admire Anderson, glad she's still doing interesting things.

Yawn (#4,506)

She taught me that Language Is A Virus.

eleusiswalks (#6,082)

is exactly like
where you are right now
only much

eleusiswalks (#6,082)

Seriously though that live performance of "O Superman" after 9/11 makes me cry every time.

HiredGoons (#603)


I could smug out about how she's "too mainstream," but I like her too. Still not as challenging as Went or Galas…

*crosses arms, smirks*

SCW, I felt swoony reading your brief history of Laurie Anderson. I object only that I don't find her difficult to listen to, but then again, I also like Penderecki and a lot of the other stuff you've covered so I'm hardly the average Buble-obsessed oldster.

Patrick M (#404)

I got into her because the public radio station in Dallas used to play whatever music they wanted (~1988) and one time they played 'Sharkey's Day', which I recognized from the ad bumpers on Lifetime (which I watched because I was working my way through 'Thirtysomething' while dogsitting one summer), and I went to Sound Warehouse (!) and bought Mister Heartbreak on tape, and listened to it whenever I was in my '82 Civic, and I'm certainly not saying that's the last time I was happy, lots of happy things have happened since, but it's true that that was a pretty good time.

Bittersweet (#765)

I still get happy listening to Mister Heartbreak, even when bugs are crawling up my legs.

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