"There are a million stories in the naked city. But no one can remember which is theirs."1
--Laurie Anderson, "City Song," United States (Part Two)
"I'm not really a professional anything," Laurie Anderson has claimed. "Well, maybe a professional storyteller. But all the music and the pictures are just ways to tell the stories." Somehow, "storyteller" doesn't seem an appropriate word to describe a career that's encompassed visual arts, music, photography, books, film, video, computer animation--not to mention stand-up comedy. Laurie Anderson has taken performance art to the mainstream and brought pop culture to the avant-garde. In fact, Anderson's entire career can be seen as one of breaking down barriers, reworking familiar objects into strange, new creations, and uncovering the extraordinary in the everyday. A contact mike attached to a pair of sunglasses makes Anderson's head a percussive instrument with its own distinctive sound. A simple question asking for directions leads into a surreal landscape that hasn't yet been built. A telephone-answering machine seemingly has a mind of its own. A performer plays the violin while wearing a pair of ice skates embedded in blocks of ice. When the ice melts, the show's over.
There is little in American culture that has escaped Anderson's questioning eye. Television. Celebrity. Sports. Mass media. Cowboys and Indians. And let's not forget those universal subjects--religion, politics, money, power, relations between men and women. And a large reason for Anderson's success is that while she loves examining a topic from innumerable angles (the more unexpected, the better), she rarely provides any direct answers. "I just want to make images that raise a lot of questions for people," she told Goldmine. "I'm not a moralist in that I bang on a desk and tell people what to do. That never works anyway. But I am real interested in this world and how it works. That's a lot of what my own art is about."
Anderson was born on June 5, 1947, in Chicago. After high school she moved to New York City, where she received a B.A. in art history from Barnard College in 1969 and an M.F.A. in sculpture from Columbia University in 1972. Anderson went on to teach art history at different colleges around New York, later confessing that when she'd forget the details of whatever subject she was supposed to be teaching, she'd simply make things up. But she added that the experience of "standing there in the dark, showing pictures and talking" also made her realize she might enjoy being a performer; at the time, she was writing for such magazines as Artforum and Art In America and was just beginning to exhibit her work in galleries.
As it happened, Anderson did have some performing experience under her belt. She had studied violin and piano as a child and later joined the Chicago Youth Symphony. In her book Stories From The Nerve Bible she describes her first performances, as a member of a high school troupe called Talented Teen USA, which toured Europe. Anderson's act, which she called "Chalk Talk," sounds not unlike her later performances, featuring her discussions about different aspects of American life, with her points illustrated by cartoons drawn by her on large pieces of paper.
The early '70s was a fertile time to be a budding artist in New York City. Anderson's description of artistic life in New York's then-dilapidated Soho neighborhood mirrored the musical happenings in the nearby Bowery and East Village, where Max's Kansas City, once home to Andy Warhol's denizens, was fast becoming a punk hangout, and a dive bar called Country Bluegrass Blues & Other Music For Underground Gourmandizers (better known as CBGB) had thrown open its doors to local bands. Artists worked on one another's projects, attended one another's shows and openings, and generally formed a supportive community, dreaming of greater things to come. "The boundaries between art forms were loose," Anderson wrote in Nerve Bible. "We were very aware that we were creating an entirely new scene (later known as 'Downtown')."
Many of Anderson's shows during this period had performance elements, whether that involved Anderson being the focal point of the piece or simply providing live accompaniment to a film screening by playing the violin. Performances that have little or no linear narrative, particularly those that involve mixed media (such as film or video), were dubbed "performance art" in the late '70s. But in She's A Rebel: The History Of Women In Rock & Roll Anderson points out that the genre is hardly new: "People think that performance art is some kind of new thing, when it's actually been around for . . . well, Bauhaus--they were doing it. But it's just that there aren't any companies, like opera companies, that re-present things. So people think that they're being invented all the time. I don't think of myself as working in a new art form at all."
Nor was Anderson entirely comfortable with the art community's snobbish attitude toward mainstream culture. "It's like anything that's not in the avant-garde is ridiculous, and pop culture is garbage," she said. "But that's a little extreme. I've always really hoped that American artists in particular would participate in their own culture." A 1978 performance in Houston, Texas, further illustrated to Anderson that "ordinary" people could be receptive to new art forms. Her performance was held at a country & western bar, and the mix of the bar's regulars with the "art crowd" intrigued her. "In the middle of the show I understood that the regulars got this perfectly well," she said in She's A Rebel. "'Cause it was also advertised as a country fiddling thing, which was a little odd, but I was playing the violin and telling stories, and the stories were a little bit weird, but Texas stories are extremely weird too." This realization was her first step out of the cloistered realm of New York's art scene, toward a larger audience.
In retrospect, it's not surprising that it was Anderson's music that would first break through to the mainstream; music, especially popular music, does not need to be "explained" to the audience in the way that visual art sometimes does. And though Anderson never regarded herself as a musician--her work was too diverse to fall into any readily identifiable category--music had long been an element in her work. Sometimes she utilized instruments and equipment in unexpected ways, placing drum-machine sensors on different points on her body or a pillow-speaker inside her mouth. Other times she experimented with sound; one early performance, Automotive, held on August 27, 1972, in Rochester, Vermont, had her conducting a "symphony" of cars, with the drivers honking their horns or slamming the car doors on cue. She also performed with such ad hoc groups as the Blue Horn File (a trio that included Peter Gordon on keyboards and sax and percussionist David Van Tieghem, both of whom would play on Anderson's subsequent albums) and Fast Food Band (which also included Gordon), playing in both art venues like The Kitchen or punk haunts like The Mudd Club.
But the instrument most associated with Anderson is the violin, which she refers to as her "perfect alter ego," given its similarity to the human female voice (her chapter about the violin in Nerve Bible has the revealing title "The Ventriloquist's Dummy"). Her growing interest in gadgetry, though, meant that even Anderson's violin was not left alone; among other innovations, is a violin with a turntable (played by a phonograph needle on the bow), a self-playing violin with an inside speaker so that she could accompany herself in duets, and her best-known device, the tape-bow violin (designed by Bob Bielecki), which comes equipped with tape heads on the bridge and is played with bows strung with audiotape.
In 1977 Anderson released her first single, "It's Not The Bullet That Kills You (It's The Hole)" b/w "Break It," in a limited run of less than 100, each packaged in an individually designed sleeve. Both songs had been featured in Jukebox, an exhibit at the Holly Solomon Gallery in New York. The exhibit included a series of photographs and accompanying text, with corresponding songs by Anderson on a jukebox. Some of the songs turned up in Anderson's later work, such as "New York Social Life," a satire of New York's self-important art scene ("Hi! How's your work? We should really get together . . ."). Anderson recorded the songs both at her home studio and ZBS Media, a studio in upstate New York, where, in 1978, she would meet a woman who was to prove very influential in her career: Roma Baran, the coproducer of five of Anderson's albums.
At the time the two met Baran was a staff producer/engineer at ZBS, having previously worked as a musician with Rosalie Sorrels and Kate and Anna McGarrigle and as a producer for the folk trio Huxtable, Christensen And Hood. "I thought she was a very wonderful, exciting performer and a very smart, articulate woman," Baran remembered in Goldmine. "I wanted to start working with her right away. I finally approached her and said, 'Would you like to do a record?' And she was not interested; she had a commitment to a performance artist's sense of time, where a performance was a performance, and when it was over, it was over.' And I said, 'Well, great, if there's anything else I can do, let me know.' And I started to do other things for her."
Baran soon evolved into a jack-of-all-trades for Anderson, playing keyboards, mixing live sound during her performances, and doing other jobs as needed. And in spite of her "performance artist's sense of time," Anderson did record an increasing number of tracks for compilations put out by NYC-based labels, such as Airwaves on 110 Records, and a variety of compilations released by the Giorno Poetry Systems label, including Big Ego, Songs From Americans: The Nova Convention, You're The Guy I Want To Share My Money With, and You're A Hook. The tracks ranged from instrumentals to simple spoken-word pieces to numbers such as "Closed Circuits," in which Anderson distorts her voice, something that would become a key element of her later work (another favorite voice was her male "voice of authority").
Anderson's first recording to capture wide attention was "O Superman (For Massenet)." She had used the number as a film soundtrack and in dance pieces, and the song might have remained largely unknown if it hadn't been for Baran's insistence on releasing it. Baran first heard the song during a sound check at Irving Plaza in 1980. "The first time I heard it I flipped," she remembered in She's A Rebel. "And I rarely have that feeling about an artist or a piece of music. I just thought it was wonderful. And I said to myself, 'Okay, now, that's it, I'm going to grab her and do this now!' So I said, 'Let's just take that one song and do a single.' And Laurie was, 'Well, let's see, after Christmas I'll get a studio and I'll raise some money . . .' And I said, 'How about right this moment?' I think it was Saturday and the stores were closed so we just did it on her home equipment with secondhand tape right then."
The song was completed in a few days, with Anderson on vocals, vocoder, and electronics; Baran on Farfisa and Casio; and Perry Hoberman on flute and sax. (Hoberman also worked as Anderson's projectionist and helped design her live shows.) The song reworked "O Souverain," an aria from French composer Jules Massenet's opera Le Cid, first performed on November 30, 1885. The aria, a plea for help, is addressed to "O souverain, ô juge, ô père"--"O sovereign, o judge, o father!" Anderson's version begins with a tape loop of her voice, a repeated "ah, ah, ah, ah," setting the stage for her own plea: "O Superman, o judge, o mom and dad." It's a delicate portrait of technology slowly going awry; the answering machine has a message, but it cannot be understood. No questions ("Is anybody home?" "Who is this really?") are answered.2 By the end, even mom doesn't seem like such a benevolent force; instead, she's brandishing petrochemical arms . . . military arms . . . electronic arms. In the early '80s electronic music was usually used to pump up the volume, especially in dance music. "O Superman" was a dramatic departure from this model, emphasizing restraint and maintaining a careful balance between something humorous and something sinister.
"Walk The Dog" was recorded as the single's B-side, and "O Superman" was finally released on 110 Records in 1981, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, with an initial run of 5,000 copies. One of those singles found its way into the hands of a British DJ visiting the U.S., who brought the single back to London and played it on BBC Radio 1. This sparked an immediate--and, for Anderson, unexpected--demand for the single. "The singles were basically stacked up in my loft," she said in She's A Rebel. "We were selling by mail order, and I thought, 'We'll never get rid of these things.' And then I started getting calls from England--'Yes, we'd like to order 40,000 of these records.' So I looked over at the stack--'Oh, no problem! Right away, I'll get back to you.' And actually Warner Bros. had been talking to me about doing records and I called them and said, 'Listen, can you just do this? 'Cause I really can't lick this many stamps.'"
But by signing with a major label, Anderson faced a dilemma common to every indie band who's ever done the same--being tagged a "sellout." Some of Anderson's colleagues in the art world were as intolerant of this notion as any reader of Maximum Rock & Roll. However, Anderson's reluctance about working with a large record company was quickly overcome. "It was actually a big relief, getting out of the art world," she said, "because the economics of the art world was never something I felt comfortable with at all. You know, you have a painter selling a work for five hundred thousand dollars, and then it just goes into somebody's stock portfolio for an investment and hangs in their living room. And pretty soon the artist has to go, 'Wait a second! Who is this for? What am I making this work for?' And I really love records 'cause they're cheap. And concerts, too, comparatively." A contract with a major label would also give Anderson a high-profile platform from which to introduce her work to a new and broader audience.
Anderson's first single for Warner Bros. was a reissue of "O Superman"/"Walk The Dog," released in the U.S., U.K., Japan, Spain, France, and Italy; the single reached #2 on the British charts and sold 300,000 copies overseas. Her first album, Big Science, was released in 1982. The album was a precise condensation of songs from her multimedia show United States (which Anderson referred to as a "talking opera"). "O Superman" was an obvious inclusion, but the album also displayed other sides of the artist's work. The opening track, "From The Air," kicked off the album with a jolt. The song, which contains lyrics from an earlier piece, "Song From Americans On The Move" (which had appeared on a Giorno Poetry Systems compilation), cast Anderson as a pilot who prepares passengers for an airplane crash by calmly delivering instructions from the children's game Simon Sez (the United States version of "From The Air" was simply an instrumental). Anderson's work is often described as "quirky" or "off the wall," descriptions that overlook its dark, disturbing elements.
The album's opening track also established what would become Anderson's trademark voice--a gentle, wry spoken-word delivery (though Anderson did sing on some of Big Science's songs, "Sweaters" and "Example #22")--as well as one of her music's dominant themes, travel to an unknown destination. Alienation was another theme of many tracks, including not only "O Superman" but also "Big Science," about a man who "stays a stranger" throughout his travels, and "It Tango," an ode to noncommunication between the sexes, in which a woman's attempts to start a conversation with her male partner only provoke the reply, "Isn't it just like a woman?" The song, and the album, ends with the disconcerting statement, "Your eyes. It's a day's work just looking into them."3 "Born, Never Asked" is essentially an instrumental; after Anderson's brief spoken-word introduction (which contains a mere 55 words) the song continues for nearly five minutes, during which time a simple instrumental lineup of keyboards, violin, marimba, and hand claps takes over and plays a repetitive musical phrase. Repetitive patterns, whether musical or lyrical, are found throughout her songs.
Anderson's next big project following the release of Big Science was United States. The show featured four different sections--"Transportation," "Politics," "Money," and "Love"--each of which had been performed on its own. The earliest section, Part One, was first performed in 1979 at The Kitchen. The complete work, which ran for eight hours, made its premiere in its entirety at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, February 3-10, 1983. (Complete performances were also given in London and Zurich; smaller performances were also held in England, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and the U.S. The Brooklyn Academy shows were recorded and released as a five-LP set [later four CDs], entitled United States Live, in 1984 [the set was dedicated to Bob Regehr, who signed Anderson to Warner Bros.].)
United States was an offbeat travelogue of contemporary American life (Anderson even poked fun at her signing to a major label), which combined film, projections of such images as telephones and airplanes, live music, and such new gadgets as a neon violin bow. Anderson presented herself as an everyman narrator, dressed in a simple, all-black suit (she later changed to all-white suits, when lighting crews told her the black clothing made it difficult to find her on stage). "Walk The Dog," "Cartoon Song," and "So Happy Birthday" are all from Part One of the show. On "Walk The Dog" Anderson showcases one of her favorite devices, using a Harmonizer to alter her voice, in this case to a giddy pitch, which is perfectly suited to this strange little story in which walking the dog becomes a means of escape from a relationship literally going up in flames. Anderson actually performed this song on Late Night With David Letterman in 1984, so flummoxing the host that, as she put it, "they cut to a commercial and never asked me back" (one of Letterman's cue cards with possible interview questions had the less-than-helpful suggestion "Ask about animals"). "Cartoon Song" is a short, sharp instrumental; the music provided the backing for the song "Example #22" on Big Science. "So Happy Birthday" links together disparate lines from "Walking And Falling," "From The Air," and "Born, Never Asked," recited by Blue Horn File/Fast Food Band member Peter Gordon (who'd also played on the Big Science version of "From The Air") and Geraldine Pontius (who'd appeared in one of Anderson's earliest films, DEARREADER).
"City Song," from Part Two, is a sound portrait of the "naked city," replete with barking dogs, jaunty saxophones, and snappy drums. Both "The Big Top" and "Dr. Miller" are from Part Three. The musical backing of the former was also used on "It Tango," but the lyrics concern Buckminster Fuller's thoughts on Canadian architecture. "Dr. Miller," cowritten with Perry Hoberman (who played sax on Big Science), is a matter-of-fact recitation about malfunction on the assembly line, backed by a single drum beat that unexpectedly explodes into a rush of keyboards and saxophones. "Lighting Out For The Territories," from Part Four, is another travel song, in which getting lost becomes a slow-motion, dreamlike experience, with soft keyboards and Anderson's quiet voice lulling the listener to sleep.
Nineteen eighty-four also saw the release of Anderson's second studio album, Mister Heartbreak. It was her only release to crack Billboard's Top LPs chart, reaching #60. The mood was upbeat and bright in comparison to that of Big Science and United States Live, and the album had a number of guest participants, including singer Phoebe Snow, musician/producer Nile Rodgers, and literary giant William S. Burroughs.
Anderson met Peter Gabriel when both were invited to appear on the 1984 Good Morning Mr. Orwell live broadcast, organized by artist Nam June Paik. Paik was also heavily involved in the album, performing on three of its seven tracks--"Gravity's Angel," "Langue D'Amour," and "Excellent Birds"--cowriting and coproducing the latter. "Langue D'Amour" is the track most similar to Anderson's previous work, being a spoken-word, reworked version of that first story archetype: Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Anderson's keyboards provide the sole musical accompaniment, conjuring up visions of a lush island paradise. "Excellent Birds" is the most Gabriel-influenced track, with a strong rhythmic pulse you'd expect from the man who wrote "Shock The Monkey" and "Sledgehammer. " The song neatly pairs Gabriel's high-pitched singing voice with Anderson's low-pitched speaking one.
On the surface, "Gravity's Angel" is a remembrance of a former love. But Anderson takes this premise and stretches it by making a lost love the subject of just one of a series of existential queries: "Why these mountains? Why this sky? This long road? This empty room?"4 The song is also one of three on which guitarist Adrian Belew appears, the other two being "Blue Lagoon" and "Sharkey's Day."
The latter piece is perhaps the closest thing to a pop song that Anderson's ever written. Sharkey, aka Mister Heartbreak, is one of her many everyman characters. His day is filled with rambling observations about dreams, planes, and mechanical trees, though his visions of nature, with talking insects that swarm up his legs, sound uncomfortably like a bad acid trip--at least until the girl-group trio arrives to bring the proceedings back to Earth. The song, which was released as a single in Germany, was coproduced by Bill Laswell, who also coproduced "Kokoku" and played bass on five of Mister Heartbreak's tracks, including the three on this collection.
It was during this period that Anderson decided to film one of her concert performances and asked various directors, including Jonathan Demme (who'd directed the highly acclaimed Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense) and Martin Scorsese, if they'd be interested in taking on the project. They suggested she direct the film herself. So over the course of ten days in July 1985, footage was shot of her performances at the Park Theater, Union City, New Jersey, for what would eventually become Home Of The Brave; the movie remains the best document of Anderson in performance.
The film's title is a loose translation of "Kokoku," a track on Mister Heartbreak, as well as a line in "Sharkey's Day." Anderson's band included Mister Heartbreak vets Adrian Belew, Bill Laswell, and Nile Rodgers (who also coproduced), plus David Van Tieghem, who played on each of Anderson's first four albums. Unlike most of Anderson's shows, her Home Of The Brave band featured a large number of musicians and singers onstage; her solo shows, on the other hand, relied on voice filters to create new characters as needed. The use of other performers allowed for more interaction, used to good effect on the game-show sequence of "Smoke Rings." The song also has some wonderful lyric imagery, as in the line "I'm thinking back to when I was a Hershey bar in my father's back pocket"; in the film Anderson's dance "conducts" the number.5 In "Talk Normal" the backup vocalists take on the role of Anderson's keyboards in her earlier numbers, singing a repetitive musical phrase while Anderson recites a series of non sequiturs regarding her own dreams, at one point sending up her own celebrity by describing an encounter with a passerby who looks at her and groans, "Oh no, another Laurie Anderson clone!"6
"Language Is A Virus"--its title taken from a line by William S. Burroughs ("Language is a virus from outer space")--was first performed in Part Two of United States. Anderson was not only struck by the idea of language being an illness communicated by mouth but also by its Buddhist implications: "In Buddhist thought, there's the thing and there's the name for the thing and that's one thing too many," she explained in Nerve Bible. "So language, well, it's kind of a trick." Anderson had first met Burroughs in 1978 at the Nova Convention, a New York festival of his work (the event also marked the first time Anderson used the Harmonizer to alter her voice). He recited Mister Heartbreak's closing track, "Sharkey's Night," and made a memorable appearance in Home Of The Brave, where he danced a tango with Anderson.
"Language's" propulsive rhythmic line made it an obvious choice for a single, and though only released as a promo single in the U.S., the track found a welcome home on alternative and college radio stations (a "Language" single was released commercially in Germany and Spain). As for "Credit Racket," the instrumental's in-joke becomes apparent when you watch the film; the number plays over Home Of The Brave's closing credits.
Following Home Of The Brave's release, Anderson went through a purging of sorts, throwing out much of her old work. "It was probably a 10 year itch," she told Goldmine, adding that it was also a reaction to the intensive work she'd put in on Home Of The Brave. "I'm such a workaholic, I just wanted to do everything. I finally realized if you make the first mistake, if you're going to take that many pictures of yourself, you should not sit around and look at them for months! One day, we had stopped on a certain freeze frame of my face, and I thought, 'If I ever see this face again, I'm going to kill myself.' So my reaction was to throw everything out and hope it would go away!"
It would be three years before Anderson released another album. She spent the intervening time touring and working on a number of projects, including writing the film score for Swimming To Cambodia, a 1987 film of her friend Spalding Gray's one-man show (she would also write the score for a subsequent Gray film, 1992's Monster In A Box). Anderson also began work on her next album, initially planning to finish it quickly. "When I started doing the album, it was just going to be some movie soundtracks that I'd been working on," she explained. "I had all this stuff around my house, and I thought, 'I'll take six weeks and put it together and that'll be that.' And then when I was listening, I thought, 'Well, maybe just one new song.' And then I said, 'Well, this is easy . . . one more song.' And then it got a little out of hand after that! It turned into something, two years later, completely different."
Released in 1989, Strange Angels was different on a number of levels. Most prominently, Anderson sang on all the tracks, using little or no vocal effects. Through voice lessons, she'd learned that instead of being an alto, she was actually a soprano. "I had this new voice and so, like with any new electronic gadget, I began to write things for it," she said in Nerve Bible, noting that many of the songs written for her new, more vulnerable-sounding voice were about women.
Inspiration for "Strange Angels" (as well as the underlying theme for the entire album) came from a more unexpected source. "I was in an airport going to Paris, and this guy came up to me and said, 'I really like your music,'" she told Goldmine. "And I said, 'Thanks,' and we had this very wonderful conversation, the kind of conversation that just jumps around and is real wacky. And at the end of this I said, 'It's been really fun talking to you and what's your name?' And he said, 'Wim Wenders.' And I said, 'Oh! I really like your movies . . .' And we became friends and we spent time in Berlin talking about angels and what they look like and if they really wear black raincoats and follow you to the library--he was working on Wings Of Desire. And then they just kept flapping into all the songs I was working on. I just couldn't keep 'em out" (Anderson would eventually write music for both Wings Of Desire and its sequel, Faraway, So Close!).
Strange Angels has the same pop feel evident in "Sharkey's Day" and "Language Is A Virus." The title track opens the album with a typically cryptic observation by Anderson ("They say that heaven is like TV/A perfect little world that doesn't really need you"), but the music is gentle, almost soothing, with a light touch of Spanish guitar and an accordion.7 "Babydoll" is one of Anderson's more energetic numbers, featuring a vibrant bank of Brazilian-flavored horns. The opening verse reworks a similar verse in the song "Talk Normal," though in "Babydoll" it's the bossy brain, as opposed to "Talk Normal's" "hackneyed" dreams, that calls the shots, making the song something of a lighthearted look at schizophrenia. "The Day The Devil" (cowritten with Peter Lawrence Gordon) is even more ambitious. The rousing gospel chorus makes the devil's arrival something to celebrate, not fear, while a little vocal distortion transforms Anderson into "the original party animal" himself.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are such songs as "The Dream Before," which harkens back to the minimal style of Big Science and United States. Anderson credits Baran with fine-tuning the song, eliminating virtually everything from the track except for Anderson's voice, Bobby McFerrin's backing vocals, and a keyboard part. "My Eyes" is a day in the not-so-ordinary life of another Sharkey, amazed by the world around him, though the comets, the ocean, and the "kerjillions" of stars fill the narrator with wonder, not anxiety, as sometimes happened in "Sharkey's Day."
The album's most atmospheric track is the spooky "Coolsville," with its brooding, ominous music and Anderson's skill in making the words coolsville and so nice sound like bird cries. The song was inspired by some film Anderson had shot in Tokyo of morning commuters. "I had digitized [the film], so you can see their expressions really clearly," she explained. "They looked like people going to work anywhere in the world, but with this combination expression of depression and desire. And I started thinking about why they're doing this, and set up this film loop, and wrote the song working from those images."
Strange Angels also features some outspoken political commentary, most notably in the song "Beautiful Red Dress," which addresses women's inequality in society. Anderson had previously shied away from making direct political statements. "I just don't think everything's political," she said in 1994. "I feel the same way about people's religious beliefs. And to have all of that become slogans trivializes." But by the end of the '80s, the fallout from the Reagan/Bush years was becoming clear. Unemployment, homelessness, and hate crimes were on the rise, contributing to an atmosphere of despair.
A wave of political conservatism had also extended into government funding of the arts, an area previously overlooked as the primary agencies concerned, the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities, received miniscule funding in comparison to other government agencies. The issue of government censorship peaked in 1990, when four artists had their NEA grants denied due to the controversial nature of their work, and Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, and the Center's director, faced obscenity charges for an exhibit featuring sexually explicit work by the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Though Anderson's work had never been targeted, the events nonetheless hit home; she had previously received NEA grants herself and had Mapplethorpe photograph her for the cover of Strange Angels. In 1991 the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings pushed the issue of sexual harassment into the national spotlight and helped mobilize women in particular; Anderson was a founding member of one of the best-known feminist groups to emerge in the wake of the Thomas/Hill hearings, the Women's Action Coalition, known for their media savvy and attention-catching drum corps that performed at their various public actions.
Anderson also began taking the stage as a speaker, not a performer, addressing various political issues, beginning with her keynote address at the 1990 New Music Seminar, a music-industry convention held in New York that discussed censorship. "So, who's really in control here?" she asked. "What's this morality play all about? Mostly it's about fear, and I'm here this morning because I'm finally afraid. Censorship silences the extreme, but it also makes way for a culture that's totally bland . . . I'm an artist because it's one of the few things you can do in this country in which there are no rules. You're totally free. And the idea that someone is busy writing rules makes me crazy." The positive response to her speech led Anderson to take it on the road, in a tour she called Voices From The Beyond, appearing largely on college campuses and revising her speech to address new subjects, such as the Gulf War.
Anderson's newly politicized outlook was seen in her other work as well. "Beautiful Red Dress" had been included in her 1990 Empty Places tour, which also featured part of her NMS speech. Her next show, Halcion Days: Stories From The Nerve Bible (which Anderson described as a work-in-progress to test new pieces in front of an audience), utilized images from the Gulf War and tapes of political speeches. Anderson later used Stories From The Nerve Bible as the title for her book, a retrospective of her work from 1972-92, published in 1994. She subsequently went on what she called a "low-tech" reading tour to promote the book, "limiting" herself to a violin, keyboards, digital effects, and a 24-input mixing console. The audience response, which was extremely favorable, excited her. "I've never felt so connected to people in my life," she told Billboard. "For the first time in my career, I actually felt like people got what I was doing."
Newly energized, Anderson quickly wrote and recorded her next album, Bright Red. "I really went on a writing jag," she recalled in 1994, the year of the album's release. "I wrote very very fast. And [the songs] are all very personal. Some of the things relate to political issues, but not very directly." In sharp contrast to the optimistic feel of Strange Angels, Bright Red is a dark, somber album. For the first time since United States Live, Anderson used only one other producer, Brian Eno, who also played on nine of the album's 14 tracks and cowrote four. And though Anderson did sing on the album, she also used her speaking voice to a far greater degree than she had on Strange Angels.
"Speechless," which opens the album, is another mini-road movie, with Anderson and her companion shooting out of town on a hot summer night, with a snare-drum tattoo initially providing the only accompaniment. Anderson uses the disturbing image of a weasel biting into an eagle's neck and hanging on beyond death as a metaphor of the couple's closeness, making the proclamation "Together/forever" sound like more of a threat than a promise. The "poison" in "Poison" (cowritten with Eno) is the narrator's own despair after losing a loved one to a neighbor in the apartment below, a despair that sinks into madness. The brooding music (featuring Adrian Belew on guitar) keeps the tension percolating just beneath the surface.
"Speak My Language," featured in the original Halcion Days/Nerve Bible tour, is a haunting number, which appears to have sparse instrumentation but actually has the standard guitar/bass/drums rock-band lineup, embellished by keyboards, accordion, percussion, and Anderson's violin. The song has Anderson in a sort of limbo between the living and the dead--death being another prominent theme on Bright Red--striving to make some connection, any connection, before the music rumbles off into the distance.
"Love Among The Sailors" and "Night In Baghdad" are the two songs on the album that most specifically address political issues--AIDS in the former and the Gulf War in the latter. In "Love Among The Sailors" Anderson uses the poignant sight of watching men drowning to illustrate the insidious spread of the disease, with keyboards providing the sole accompaniment. "Night In Baghdad" is told from the point of view of a reporter trapped in a hotel room, unable to see due to the gas outside. Eventually, thoughts of war fade, and memories of home rise and fall as if in a dream.
Another new presence on the album was Lou Reed, whom Anderson had met in 1992 when Reed asked her to perform "A Dream" (from his album Songs For Drella) at an arts festival in Munich. The two eventually became romantically involved, and their first collaboration was "In Our Sleep," which they cowrote and sang together (Reed also plays guitar on the track). "In Our Sleep" is a minimalist number that wouldn't have been out of place on Big Science, with its five lines and repetitive rhythms; though you can hear the guitar and keyboards, the dominant sounds are the drums and percussion.
Anderson's next album, The Ugly One With The Jewels And Other Stories, released in 1995, was drawn from her Nerve Bible reading tour. Unlike most of Anderson's performances, the reading tour used no visual imagery other than the equipment onstage. "It's really fun for me to do things where I'm just by myself using words," she told The Rocket at the time of the tour. "In something where it's just words, it becomes a kind of mental movie, and I find that making jump cuts is easier. Because people go, 'Okay, this is not narrative in the way that certain kinds of stories are; it's a different kind of narrative' and they are willing to go along with it. And that's really fun. Because then you can make word associations and jumps that really get a little bit crazy and people are kind of, 'All right, I'll take that little leap.' Of course, if it gets too strange, they kind of go, 'Well . . . maybe not that one.'"
Ugly One, produced solely by Anderson, was recorded at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London and was a more elaborate performance than other Nerve Bible readings, featuring five additional musicians (including Eno, who plays keyboards on "Maria Teresa Teresa Maria"). The title was the name given to her by the Tzeltal Indians, with whom she lived in Mexico--"ugly" referring to her appearance in contrast to the rest of the tribe, and the "jewels" being her contact lenses. Anderson's comments between the reading's pieces are as revealing as any interview; she explains that the term "nerve bible" has two meanings, referring both to her view of the human body and the bible stories of her childhood (which she calls "the first really strange stories I remember hearing").
"The Rotowhirl," which dates back to the 1986 Talk Normal tour, is Anderson's tribute to the late comedian Andy Kaufman. Anyone familiar with Kaufman's story will smile at this reminiscence, in which Anderson relates how she met the comedian and occasionally served as "straight man" for his comedy-club act (heckling and eventually wrestling him) and on his "field trips," where he wreaked havoc in public places like Coney Island.
"The Night Flight From Houston" offers a good example of how Anderson can take an everyday situation and transform it into something slightly surreal. Written in 1978, the story is simply about a woman who's never flown on a plane before and thinks the lights below are actually stars. The short piece lasts only a minute and a half, and the concise blend of Anderson's voice with an eerie keyboard line makes one feel that the incident just might be happening in outer space.
"The Ouija Board," from the Halcion Days/Nerve Bible tour, describes Anderson's brief encounter with the occult movement in California, in which she manages the tricky feat of unnerving the spirit who visits her during a Ouija board session. This collection ends with "The End Of The World," which is actually the first track on Ugly One. The piece is another holdover from the Halcion Days/Nerve Bible show and is a story of Anderson's highly religious grandmother, who, after a lifetime of spreading The Word, is suddenly caught off guard by her imminent death. Anderson's keen memory pinpoints the reason for her grandmother's apprehension: Should she wear a hat or not when Jesus arrives to take her to heaven?
It seems as though the rest of world has finally caught up with Anderson in the 21st century, with the Internet bringing more of us online every day, and the computer itself becoming as essential a home appliance as a television set. But while technology helped Anderson create innovative work in the '80s, she's mindful of the fact that an overreliance on technology can also lead to stagnation. "I've been to so many tech conferences all about how the future is going to be made better by computers," she told Goldmine. "And I'm kind of like, 'Oh, really? Hmm . . .' I think it's important that artists begin to think along some other lines other than just expanding techno things.
"I really do think it's so so so hard to be an artist now," she continued. "For a huge variety of reasons. Not just the lack of funding, but also that so much of this country is about entertainment. And it's got quite confusing what art is, what commerce is, and what entertainment is. And what information is. They're all sort of in the same multimedia package. I try to think about it a lot. What am I doing this for? Just to make something really speedy and beautiful and impressive? Usefulness is part of my criteria, in a way. Does anybody need this? It's a funny kind of question, because nobody really needs art, of any kind. But when you see a piece of art that means something to you, you know what it means, 'Oh, I did need that!' It's a little pretentious to say, 'I want to make art that people need.' But I do. Art that's useful to them in some way, or that gives them some slightly different angle to look at the world in."
Ugly One includes Anderson's apt description of her career: "I've always thought my main job was to be a spy." And luckily for those interested in her work, it's job she feels has yet to be completed. "I never think I've ever finished anything, that I looked at something and went, 'Boy, there's not a note to add to that! That is perfect,'" she told Goldmine. "I have never had that sensation. So I never feel like I've ever finished anything, ever. Which is okay. I guess."
--Gillian G. Gaar
2"O Superman (For Massenet)"