Thank you, and good night

It was September 10, 2001 and this guy Bill who I found aloof and brittle but who served as a makeshift friend during a pretty lousy year asked if I wanted to go see Laurie Anderson the next evening. As you may have heard, some shit went down the next morning, and we both decided we weren’t really in the mood for multi-media performance art, so I didn’t see Laurie Anderson then. It was a retrospective show including her one something-like-a-hit, O Superman* and I’ve always wondered what the collective mood in the room was when she sang “here come the planes/they’re American planes/made in America.”

The Laurie Anderson thing starts a lot earlier for me, though. Will B, the one out homosexual in my high school and already quite the aesthete, told me in German class one day that he was driving to Bloomington with this other queerish guy who turned out to be only ish, to see Laurie Anderson. Who’s that, says I.

So she signified some kind of sophistication I didn’t have, and it kept me going to see her shows through two I didn’t quite know what to make of (The Nerve Bible, which I sort of like now, and the Moby Dick thing, which I can’t imagine I would, though I haven’t heard anything from it since.) And finally I liked her organically. Then, years later, I started seeing her around New York, because it turns out she and Lou Reed 1) move around in public and 2) go to some of the same musical events I do. I sat behind her at Die Soldaten at the Armory and just about walked into him at the 20th century thingy at City Opera. It made me feel like the sophisticated guy 17-year-old me wanted to be, despite the fact it was purely a spatial relationship.

Dave and I took in her latest show, Delusion, this weekend. I had seen it before, and really loved parts of it, and found parts of it indulgent and not entirely convincing in about the way you’d expect from a performance artist a decade or two past the moment when what she did was edgy and new.

I mean, content isn’t the big thing with Laurie Anderson anyway, or not from my vantage. That’s probably sort of insulting, but she’s not reading, so ok. (I don’t even mean that like “aw gosh, she wouldn’t read little old us/me.” I’m pretty sure I’ve read that she thinks blogs are ridiculous so she is factually not reading.) For me the unique and appealing part of her storytelling is all in the one totally shtickish thing, the musical contours of her speech–the intonation and the artificial rhythm of her utterances.

There are sentences in her shows that are clever or revelatory and there are those that are like tenth grade poetry. There are those where I’m not sure which they are. “I had no plan and very little dynamite left” was one that jarred me a little, in a good way, in The End of the Moon, though it may have been context-dependent. “When I cry, tears fall from my right eye because I love you. And they fall from my left because I can’t bear you.” That’s from Delusion and I’m pretty sure it’s tenth grade poetry.

But she delivers all of it in this lilt, as you may know, with a hesitation between important words, and one things this does to me is it makes me want to use that intonation for the rest of the night (“I’ll have the handmade fettucine…with…bolognese sau….ce.”) and the other thing it does to me is it makes me feel like an old friend with familiar mannerisms is telling me stories, and I know my friend makes up a lot of shit and some of her stories are better than others, but there is intimacy there, the intimacy of an old shared joke, and something appealingly vulnerable in the evidence of her aging, and the easy agreement old friends have to say “I know exactly what you mean” when, in fact, you do not.

*subtitled “For Massenet” in a reference seemingly aimed directly at my forehead, but someone had to explain it to me years later. The first words “O superman, o judge, o Mom and Dad” are a reference to “O souverain, o juge, o pere” from Massenet’s El Cid. There’s no further referentiality that I can detect.

[I wanted to include some links but a bad caffeine reaction has me too jittery to futz with it.]

12 responses to “Thank you, and good night”

  1. Thorn says:

    As a pretentious 18-year-old I had the “Hi / I’m not home right now. / If you’d like to leave a message, please start talking at the sound of the tone.” part on my answering machine. (Probably through the next lines about “this is your mother / are you coming home?” and so on but I don’t remember that year clearly. There are definitely lines (maybe not so much from that one) that stick with me and seem deeply meaningful or true, and I think that makes it easier for me to forget the bad-poetry ones.

  2. josh k-sky says:

    it makes me want to use that intonation for the rest of the night

    I love this.

  3. I mean I’m also leaving out all the other things her shows are about–the visuals for example (Lane will have a conniption if he’s reading and accuse me of writer brain) but in this show in particular the visuals had their clunky moments. I still love to watch her play violin though, even if it isn’t music I’d like outside the context of a show. She has this particular posture in putting the bow on the string that’s another gesture of a friend.

  4. LP says:

    “So she signified some kind of sophistication I didn’t have…” Yeah, that makes two of us. Laurie Anderson might as well have been from another planet for an Indigo-Girls-loving, Gap-clothes-wearing young twenty-something like me. But then a much older woman (27? 28?) gave me a tape of “Strange Angels,” and I found to my great delight (and something akin to relief) that I really liked it. I’ve had a soft spot for her ever since, though I haven’t followed her career very closely at all. It’s probably residual fear that that first flush of love was a one-off, and she’ll go back to being this completely out-of-reach supercool New York idol and I’ll still be that girl who cuts her own hair and didn’t know you could eat fish any way other than fried.

  5. A White Bear says:

    To be fair, Lou Reed is also basically 10th-grade poetry performed in a cool and imitable style. I saw Laurie Anderson perform at BAM last year, and while I think I enjoyed the show, I wasn’t convinced there was much *there* there.

  6. A White Bear says:

    …and it’s possible that the reason I love Lou Reed so much is that I encountered him first when I *was* in 10th grade. 31 is too late for meeting Laurie Anderson.

  7. Tim says:

    I obsessed over LA when she first made a splash. I remember hearing “O Superman” for the first time and just being amazed that songs didn’t really have rules, that a writer could do as she pleased and still create a masterpiece. I read and re-read accounts of her appearances at BAM, performing _United States_. To a kid from an upstate burg it seemed like an impossibly cool avant-garde creation. A friend in college had a copy of the five-record set; I taped it and listened to it again and again, entranced by how she wove together music, rhythm, sound, poetry, narrative, etc. (even without the visuals) into a seamless piece that could have seemed disjointed but somehow didn’t. After _Mister Heartbreak_ I didn’t pay too much attention, however. I did like _Strange Angels_, but it didn’t really move me like previous material had.

    I finally got the chance to see her a couple times, once doing a sort of greatest hits show in 1997 and then a couple months after 9/11, when she was touring for _Life on a String_. The first of these was great, and yes, FPS, your description of her mannerisms as those of an old friend telling a story is spot on. It was like re-visiting some of my favorite old friends (in the form of songs) and finding that they were still entertaining but hadn’t really developed beyond what they were previously. Though that wasn’t shortcoming enough to reject the songs, it also wasn’t enough to get me to re-visit them more frequently. The second time I found her sort of tepid throughout, with the occasional burst of wit and humor. I don’t think I’ve listened to her since, but I’m glad to know that she’s still at it.

    P.S. FWIW, I guess I never even glanced at the subtitle for “O Superman” and had no idea of the reference.

  8. Tim says:

    P.P.S. The wiki for “O Superman” has an embedded version of the Massenet aria, sung by Caruso. It is divine, at least to my untrained ears.

  9. J-Man says:

    I love that Massenet connection! Who knew!

  10. J-Man says:

    “some shit went down the next morning”

    I think this is the best reference to 9/11 I’ve heard yet. FPS, you’re so clevah!

  11. FPS says:

    LP: Yeah, I was a badly dressed, classical-music-listening foreign language geek in suburban Kentucky. Same story, essentially. Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed were way, way outside my world.

    Tim: It’s a stirring aria. I have to wonder how exactly it led, in her brain, to O Superman, though. I hate Q&A sessions but I should have stayed around for the one after The End of the Moon and asked that, only the question wouldn’t occur to me for a couple of years.

    J-Man: Hee, it’s just so hard to tell a story that takes place on and around Number/Other Number and not get all “It was a clear day in Chicago, but right away I knew that something, somewhere had gone terribly wrong.”

  12. Trixie says:

    Wow- fun post.
    Laurie Anderson was actually the very first concert I went to without a grownup. My friend Annie and I went to see her at Constitution Hall in DC. It was her tour to support the album Mr. Heartbreak. I think it was spring of 1984. I was almost 14.
    It was pretty cool. Afterwards Annie and I snuck around back because I wanted to get a glimpse of Laurie off-stage. We saw her through a window. That was thrilling.
    My favorite single is probably “Big Science”, though pretty much every song off the albums Big Science and Mr. Heartbreak (her first two) are winning for me. I think age 13 is a good time to get exposed to Laurie Anderson.