Striking a Nerve

Laurie Anderson riffs on fame, death, and the political landscape

There's a moment on Laurie Anderson's most recent album, last year's portentous and unnerving Bright Red, when her velvety sage's voice breaks out of its cool, ironic mode and challenges the very universe. In "Love Among the Sailors," a funereal piece about the devastation of AIDS, Anderson declares: "If this is the work of an angry god/I want to look into his angry face."

While the rage and frustration behind these words isn't particularly groundbreaking, their expression, in the name of an embattled HIV community too often eviscerated in public arenas by the damning rhetoric of the Religious Right, is typical of the melancholic restlessness that has descended over Anderson's most recent work like a caul. Anderson--the woman who both embodied and rendered obsolete the title "performance artist," and a technological obsessive whose dabblings with the latest in computer communication innovation has only reinforced her place among classic American cynic-stylists like Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker--is no longer content to be "a techno-ice queen observer," as she recently referred to herself.

Although she still offers her indispensable brand of gentle but exasperated critique on late 20th century American culture, this time she doesn't want you to consider social absurdities so much as confront the hard truths most of us ignore as long as we can. Death, deterioration, romantic betrayal, the heartless sweep of time--these are the issues addressed in her latest multimedia national tour The Nerve Bible. And, at the same time, Anderson's brooding over mortality still manages to be wittier than most of our comic personalities, and wiser than all of our politicians.

"I'm not only conscious of every detail of everything I do, but the reasons why I do it--but the process of working [on The Nerve Bible] was very different," Anderson says during a break in the tour, munching a sandwich and smoking a cigarette as she speaks over the phone. "It was eerie. I found myself writing about certain experiences that I didn't even realize, until later, I was writing about. Much of (the new) stuff seems to have been written in code--to myself."

The material was prophetic, to boot. She'd already laid down the tracks and finished most of the mix on the haunted Bright Red when, in 1993, she took a vacation to the Himalayan mountains--and was struck seriously ill. Anderson suffered a malady referred to as "altitude sickness." Her temperature climbed to 104 and she began to slip in and out of consciousness. During a three-day trip back down the mountainside to seek medical care, she experienced hallucinations and a strange kind of thrill she now refers to as "the rapture of the deep."

"The sensation, from what I've read, was very much like what drowning people go through," she explains. "The further you drift to the bottom, the more you think you're swimming towards the surface. You feel yourself rising. I guess it's a natural impulse, the brain protecting you from certain realities."

Her voice gains an unexpected measure of enthusiasm. "But, wow, if you've got to die, what a place to go! Tibet--where they wrote The Book of the Dead."

Although Anderson disagrees that her recent recorded work is "somber," she admits, "I'm probably not the best judge." Then, a few minutes later, she concedes, "There are plenty of party records out there. I didn't feel the need to make another one."

You can only appreciate the full resonance and complexity of Anderson the artist when you see her live, where she strides back and forth across the stage from keyboard to violin to background screen like a maestro on crank. Her productions are a marvel of choreography and spontaneous self-pacing--one arm shoots up, a fist unfurls, and the projected image behind her changes or starts to move; her voice plummets to a synthesized masculine bass (what she has called "the voice of authority") just in time for the brief punchline phrase to some slowly unwinding observation.

Her countless side projects--six quasi-musical albums released on the Warner Bros label, one 1986 feature-length film (Home of the Brave), numerous video ventures, and film score duties (most notably for Spalding Gray's monologue movies Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box)--have been intermittently dazzling. But more often than not, the breadth of Anderson's muse is trivialized when she's dependent upon only one medium to convey herself.

Hiring ex-Chic frontman and dance-rock whiz Nile Rodgers to co-produce her 1984 album Mister Heartbreak caused an inappropriately funky mix that crushed her spare acerbic soulfulness; the 1986 soundtrack Home of the Brave attempted to turn a handful of rag-tag musical and verbal riffs from her 1985 five-album Brooklyn Academy of Music performance United States Live into hit-single format, with miserable results. And while Strange Angels, her 1989 debut as a singer, wasn't the musical disaster some had predicted (the album's highlight, "Beautiful Red Dress," skillfully transformed the menstrual cycle into a radical political manifesto), much of it was unfocused, too dependent on songwriting structures Anderson seemed uncomfortable handling.

Bright Red is the most cohesive, effective album since her 1982 debut Big Science, and the two works share a number of strengths--a disciplined focus on the development of one theme; a lean arrangement that emphasizes Anderson's voice, lyrics, and keyboards over the contributions of studio sidemen; and eloquent moments of sublime empathy that remind us she's driven to express her concerns less by ego than by a powerful humanistic impulse.

Still, neither approaches the mythic heights Anderson scales in The Ugly One With The Jewels, her spoken-word collection of reminiscences to be released next week. If Anderson fanatics suspect their idol would be a brilliant conversationalist, The Ugly One proves it. This one-woman show recorded live in London last year covers a sad-scary-funny lifetime of experiences--everything from the zealous missionary efforts of her evangelical Christian grandmother, to Anderson's early '70s visit to a tiny Pacific island where a herd of dogs are killed for a mass funeral ceremony ("their bodies turned, still breathing, on spits"), to her travels in Israel under the sponsorship of a promoter who was also a part-time bomb expert. ("Terrorists may be the only true artists left," Anderson breathes, "because only they are capable of surprising us.")

When asked about the personal direction her work seems to have taken, Anderson explains she's at a crossroads. "I see it more in my live performances than anywhere else," she says. "Everything around me is so personal now. Really profound issues like 'What constitutes a family?' get played out in the public arena. Politics is personal, the media concentrates on stories that used to be considered private, off-limits."

A pattern emerges even in a short conversation with Anderson--question her about the motives behind her multilayered work, and she slips, seemingly by reflex, into the role of cultural commentator. For her, a sense of community seems to be inextricable from a sense of identity. Without prompting, she riffs on a number of current American obsessions--the O.J. Simpson trial, public funding for the arts, a national swing towards the right prompted by last November's mid-term elections.

Her biggest criticism--expressed with a profound diplomacy--relates to a certain debasement of universal concerns that used to be celebrated and explored with some sophistication in the popular arts.

"Take the O.J. Simpson trial," she offers. "What you have on display are a fascinating array of classical themes--revenge, the relationship between men and women, a fallen hero--but it's all being treated on the level of gossip. As you watch all these things unfold at a tabloid pace, you have to ask: in what direction are we headed as a culture?"

A related worry seems to be the stunted quality that characterizes American political debate in general.

"We have this grand controversy ongoing about the National Endowment for the Arts and PBS, but have you noticed there hasn't been much in the way of serious inquiry into the real issues? The scenario has stayed the same, only the players have changed. Newt Gingrich is just a preppy version of Strom Thurmond. Nobody has pushed it to the next level and asked, 'Why is art important? How does it relate to our everyday lives?'"

It is this question that fascinates and perhaps even disturbs Anderson the most, the way in which art reflects--and, perhaps finally, reduces--the individual's life. On Bright Red and The Ugly One, she is fascinated with the transcendent potential of myth, and when asked what she considers our most compelling contemporary mythology, she answers without hesitation, "Fame."

"So many people [in America] have been made to feel small and insignificant, they project their ambitions onto the TV and movie screen," she says. "We experience these actors living in the two-dimensional world, and when we see them in three dimensions, we think, 'Wow! The gods have come down to earth.'

"I was at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony a few weeks ago, when they inducted Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa, Al Green, The Orioles. Frankly, it felt like a conference of shoe salesmen, everyone pumping up their own deeds. There was only one surviving member of the Orioles, but he accepted the award very graciously for the whole group.

"Then they played a videotape Frank Zappa made at the end of his life. He said he'd known about many famous people who'd expended a lot of money and energy to ensure they'd be remembered forever. His message was: 'I don't care if you remember me. When I'm dead, I'm gone.'"

Anderson chuckles, savoring yet another contradiction that's fallen into her ever-curious sights. "Everyone looked really disturbed. They were like, 'But you have to care! This is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!' On the one hand, there were the deceased Orioles staring down from heaven, and on the other, there was Zappa, declaring his mortality for all time."

Laurie Anderson performs March 4 at 8 p.m. and March 5 at 7 p.m. in McFarlin Auditorium on the SMU campus.

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