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:

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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.