Laurie Anderson: Strange Angels
When I first saw Laurie perform, at the Ritz (which is now Webster Hall) on 11th Street in New York in perhaps 1982, I thought I had seen the future of rock+roll. I even used that expression in polite conversation. Here was a person who could make a compelling and singular musical/theatrical event by rolling around and hitting herself while dressed in a jump suit having embedded percussion transducers (detectors which react to a physical shock with an electronic control signal which can be used to trigger anything from a sound to stage lights to a video clip). Or she might play with a violin bow that had magnetic tape in place of horse hair, on a violin equipped with a magnetic pickup instead of four strings.
Laurie’s use of simple, direct gestures in O Superman had paralleled the novel do-it-yourself simplicity of punk five years earlier. This person came from outside established pop music tram lines and spoke in a new, exciting way to the population at large, not some avant-garde minority. This lady was the Elvis of what would become known as new media, which in the early eighties was growing out of the loosely-defined zone of ‘performance art’. I went home inspired and bought every record that she subsequently released. You might consider doing the same thing. The woman was simultaneously from Mars and Venus (no, I haven’t read the book), yet she had a way of expressing American culture and issues which was special. Her music was simultaneously new and flawlessly, beautifully accessible.
It was a nice surprise to hear her voice on the answering machine, introduced by a mutual friend. At the time, her most recent album had been Home Of The Brave, y the soundtrack to her movie of the same name. It was much more musically ambitious than anything preceding it, even the three-album set United States Of America. (‘Just a little pretentious?’ she later half-joked, although I didn’t complain about the tremendous ambition of the theatrical-and-then-record project. You reach out for something big and you have to risk falling flat on your face. She didn’t, and her modesty was not false.) My favorite track on the album was the lead, Smoke Rings, with haunting singing and lines such as ‘que es mui macho…….’). This was free, fresh spirit, well worthy of her debut of seven years before, even though, with a major label release, this might be tending towards being a mainstream record album.
It would be easy to say that musical ambition restricted our collaboration on this album, but it would be more truthful to say that we found ourselves in an industry-defined situation which really didn’t, and still may not, accommodate her radical invention. Or mine, for that matter. Laurie is not a prefabricated pop star, and doesn’t fit established forms and processes. She builds her own public personality with tiny bricks, often painstakingly assembled.
xxxHowever, at that point she found herself in the machine and making a record which, as always, mattered. I was mechanized too, but my record-making adventures had been more in stretching a point, and others’ points of view. At that time, my job was often to open new avenues, to stretch adventurous artists. She didn’t need any of that, obviously. Laurie had worked completely outside such processes until she was, paradoxically, embraced by big media economics thanks to the excellence of her work outside them.
The record eventually took a full year to complete, mostly in Laurie’s own studio, where she would work for twelve hours a day and more. It was nice to see it included in the ‘Top One Hundred New York Records Of All Time’ in the February 1999 issue of Time Out New York. All credit to her. Several producers passed through during that time; after starting the album with her, I departed amicably after four months. Laurie’s processes don’t fit those of the rest of the larger record business, and I hope it continues fruitfully for her that way. It’s a very difficult trick to pull off. And it’s very strange for me, listening to the album now, hearing material which went through many transformations even during my time on watch. But there is no doubt whose recording it is, which is the ultimate justification for her year of painstakingly detailed work, as she put it ‘working pixel by pixel’.
So is she a pop star? That sounds like a PhD thesis for somebody. Perhaps we just listen.
– MT January 1999
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