Monday, September 27, 2010

Laurie Anderson's Delusion: Living,Waking and Dreaming

Photo credit: Leland Brewster
“I love the stars because you can’t hurt them.”

On Saturday Sept, 25, 2010, Tony and I attended “DelusionLaurie Anderson’s most recent multi-media work that received its world premier at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Many of the stories recounted are from her newest release Homeland, and deeply explore themes of how humans cope with the realities of everyday existence, including the distrustful nature of memory, the blurry lines between waking and dreaming states, and the delusions we engineer to navigate love and loss, life and death.

Delusion unfolds at the BAM Harvey Theater, (an acclaimed Majestic Theater renovation by Hugh Hardy in 1987) a fitting surrounding for this show, since the grand building is more decayed preservation then renovation; the old columned and arched interior looks to have been heavily shellacked in the moment just before collapse.

As the performance begins, a small window high on a wall allows a glimpse of autumn leaves blowing across a grey sky, while an Arabic woman chants and wails (a lament of grief over death?).
Laurie enters dragging her bow across her violin, adding to the sorrow. “I want to tell you a story/about a story…”, she begins, and we soon learn her life of accomplishments is based on her internal construction of tasks and rewards, a carrot and donkey system that served her well. “Then one day, my donkey died”.

Photo credit: Tim Knox
This trademark dry humor is really just a cover for the death and loss that reoccurs throughout the performance: With her ear-opening debut, O Superman, she made mom and dad central themes, and they  have remained there 30 years later as Delusion covers the death of Mom, Dad, America, farms and farmers, personal identity, even the truthiness of her ancestral history. This show is not a depressing experience, but it is a thoughtful one. It is also introspective and wistful, but her soothing, matter-of-fact voice draws you in close and makes you want to listen, even when she’s not saying anything of note. The big questions have been asked so often that they have all become clichéd, but Laurie is not afraid to ask them, then to ruminate on them, and, without ever providing her own conclusions, to remind us all why they are the big questions after all.

As one story ends, the music swells, Laurie plucks her violin, the lighting shifts and video projections swirl. Behind the video scrims, the silhouettes of the accompanying musicians and their instruments appear, while chalkboard scribbles rush by in a constantly changing flicker of images. “The prettiest girl in high school” says one of the circled and prominently legible scrawls. Then the music calms, Ms. Anderson takes a seat, and another story begins.

“When my mother died”, she starts, and as we scan the video clues we are subtly aware that reality has taken the back seat and delusion is driving. The video is of a room where a woman lays motionless on the floor of a darkly lit room, like a study or laboratory. A man with a camera stands mostly still on a raised platform, occasionally snapping a photo, while a dog slowly circles the body, moving close to lick it or just nibble some food lying near. All while the back of Laurie’s head, silently peering into the room and taking in the bizarre scene, dominates the foreground. She narrates her mother’s voice whose cries, as she expires, sound like the deranged ramblings of a latter-day Norma Desmond, “Thank you so much for having me…where do I stand…which way do I face?”

As the stories went on, I thought that those lush and wonderful musical breaks could not come frequently enough. Anderson, the masterful storyteller is also Laurie, the accomplished, innovative musician, and I found myself continuously wanting more of that musical side. There were also times when the sound mixing made parts of the stories hard to comprehend, particularly when she employed her “voice of authority” drag, her pitch-altered live voice dropping down in register to become “Fenway Bergamot” as recently named by husband Lou Reed.

“How do we begin again?”, she asks, while lamenting an America that purports to value “freedom of speech and sex with strangers”. And later: “Sleep is where you learn to let things go…a vanishing act… but so is life.”

There is a popular New Haven-based NPR radio show host (Faith Middleton) who’s tag line is “exploring the richness of life”. Laurie Anderson explores the deep significance of the tediously mundane. “How alone I am in the hugeness of the world.”

Beginning with an aside to the absurdity of corporations as individuals, Laurie leads us to the thought that women have an advantage in that they are allowed to publicly cry. But why do women cry? She thinks it’s because they have no identity, their given names are taken away and replaced with new names. They divorce and remarry and they then have new names and new identities. She then helpfully points out that the lack of permanent identity is taken to its zenith in today’s world of necessary sign-in passwords where a mother’s maiden name becomes the ultimate “secret”: that name that no one else should or would know. Then, in a typical Andersonian twist, after having set up the premise that women have no identity, she puts the power back in their hands, since without that secret name, YOU have no identity.

In a final story, she asks Robert Mapplethorpe’s “priest”: “My Mother is dying and I don’t really love her. What should I do?” He tells her: “Bring her some flowers and tell her that you care.”
Laurie continues “And since it wouldn’t feel right lying to someone on their deathbed, I did just that.”
While at the hospital, in perhaps the ultimate tribute, Laurie helplessly echoes her mom’s previous deathbed ramblings, questioning “Which way do we go… where do we face…where do I stand?” and addresses the audience with what must be her biggest question “Did you ever really love me?”

She must have heard my silent pleas for more music. For the encore, the three musicians returned, with no one obscured by scrims or video projections or silhouette red lighting, and played a straight-forward, melodic, swelling-chord soul-stirring 3 minute electro-stomp. Though it was still wistful and melancholy to match the night’s theme, she sent me home happy.

The capacity crowd was extra-heavy on the 40-plus demographic. This makes some sense based on the 63 year old Ms. Anderson’s 40 year career and period of original influence, but where are today’s young musical innovators and appreciators?

For full understanding, enjoyment and appreciation of her work, one must slow down and pay attention. It's ironic that in today's world of crack-berries, ring-tones, texting and twitter, the woman who originally helped computers and music become so closely intertwined forces you to stop, listen, contemplate and ponder. After all, a seven-minute story has no impact at all if you listen for two minutes, then move on. O Superman cannot be reduced to a tweet.

Her autograph on the cover of my notebook
If you've made it this far, congratulations, you are one of those people who can focus on a single subject for longer than two minutes. Perhaps you'll find this following link, this portal to another time, as fascinatingly necessary as I did, and listen to all 45 minutes, even though it is audio-only.

Back in 1980, when New York's downtown arts scene was still centered in the evolving, rapidly changing SoHo neighborhood, Laurie Anderson held her O Superman (for Massenet)/Walk the Dog single release party at The Kitchen (not yet moved to its current spot on far west 19th street).  Recorded in a single, unedited wandering-the-room recording, the KPFA Radio DJ Charles Amirkhanian brilliantly captured this New York collision of art, music, history, and gentrification for our enjoyment 30 years later.

Included are Laurie Anderson, Bob George, Jon Gibson, Phill Niblock, Roma Baran and Ken Friedman.


  1. Sweetheart,
    What an intelligent review. It brought me to places that I didn't get to on my own. I loved the show and talking with Laurie Anderson afterwards was very revealing. When I asked her if time was speeding up for her, she pulled out a book she had with her. It is called "How To Be Idle" by Tom Hodgkinson. I almost think I don't need to read it. But you should.

  2. Lori you need to work things out with randy.YOU have devastated randy lor. So lori lou anderson get back with randy.Forget the facts of why you left.Forgive lori.

  3. Lori come back to earth and get back with randy.