INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
New York Times FEBRUARY 5, 1995 - by Stephen Holden
TO THE MOUNTAINTOP AND BACK
When the performance artist Laurie Anderson set out on a hiking trip through the Himalayas two summers ago, she had no inkling how profoundly the experience would affect her work. "I hadn't been in a crazy place for a while and wanted to go on an adventure," she says, explaining her journey.
A self-confessed workaholic, she had just completed Stories From The Nerve Bible, a retrospective in book form of her twenty-year career told in fables, pictures and diagrams. At an arts festival in Munich, Germany, she had also recently met Lou Reed, the rock singer who would change her life in other significant ways.
Perched in a corner of her studio in her lower Manhattan loft, Ms. Anderson smokes cigarette after cigarette. The studio, in which she recorded her recent album, Bright Red, is densely packed with state-of-the art equipment, including eleven computers, a recording booth and several stacks of sound equipment. The forty-seven-year-old performer darts from machine to machine, showing off the stage designs and sound effects for her Nerve Bible national tour, which starts tomorrow in Seattle and comes to the Nederlander Theater on Broadway for a week in April.
In this tour, as in previous Anderson performances, she presides as a kind of high priestess of multimedia technology, conjuring eerie pictures and strange voices in collages of music, speech and powerfully metaphoric images.
It is hard to imagine this urbane woman, who jokes about sounding like an electronics salesman, roughing it in a pup tent on a desolate Tibetan mountainside. "There were twelve trekkers, eight Tibetan guides, who are known as sherpas, and twenty-seven yaks," she recalls. "We were going to see a lake way up in the mountains where the next Dalai Lama's name was said to be written in code on the surface of the water."
The party had reached a height of twenty-two thousand feet when Ms. Anderson began suffering from acute altitude sickness. For five days, she had a fever of a hundred and four degrees accompanied by hallucinations and a headache so severe that she imagined that her head had been sliced open.
The decision was made to take Ms. Anderson to a lower elevation as quickly as possible. She was put into a body bag, strapped onto a donkey and sent down the mountain with a sherpa and a young American mountaineer.
"By then, it had been two days in which I couldn't hear anything except the ringing of huge bells on the horizon going boom, boom, boom," she says. "During those two days I was just laughing. I was very, very happy. Once I got beyond the pain, I saw the most beautiful pulsating lights." Only later did she learn that the rest of the party had been told that she would probably die during the trip down.
The young mountaineer accompanying her was a Stanford University student named Lee Eastman. "He was a very shy guy who up until then had said probably ten words," she recalls. "As we were going down at an almost vertical angle, I was slipping in and out of consciousness, and I asked him to talk to me. He kept saying, 'Look at the stars. Look at the rocks.' By giving me some little thing to hold on to and concentrate on, he saved my life."
It took three days to descend to an altitude of fifteen thousand feet, and once there, Ms. Anderson quickly recovered. "I was never terrified of death," she says. "I was lucky to see how beautiful it is. The whole time I thought, this is so fabulous. This is such an incredibly beautiful, freeing, fabulous thing to be able to see."
Ms. Anderson's brush with death runs to the heart of Bright Red, her first album in five years, which was released in November. In Freefall, a song dedicated to Mr. Eastman, the narrator imagines losing her sense of direction while drowning in the ocean. In Tightrope, she dreams that her life is a theme park in which her relatives operate various concessions. In the dream, Ms. Anderson stands above them on a tightrope, trying to keep her balance. The only thing connecting her to those below is "this tightrope made of sound / This long thin line made of my own blood."
"Remember me is all I ask," she cries softly to those below. "And if remembered be a task, forget me."
The image of the tightrope has many meanings. One of them, Ms. Anderson acknowledges, is her family bloodline. "But it's also a lifeline that someone else is holding on to," she adds. "For me it was Lee who was holding on to the other end. We were literally using ropes to get down."
With its bare musical textures, featuring stark drum rolls, lyrics that evoke mortality and apocalypse delivered in a cool, measured speech-song, Bright Red is a majestic, if somewhat forbidding, album. In addition to intimations of mortality, its songs touch on the gulf war (Night In Baghdad), the toll of AIDS (Love Among The Sailors) and a world taken over by computers (The Puppet Motel).
Ms. Anderson recorded Bright Red in her studio, with Brian Eno, the English producer and composer of ambient music. In her early discussions with him, Ms. Anderson says, Mr. Eno envisioned composing music in a semi-New Age style he called "late-twentieth-century vernacular classical," but the sound he came up with didn't mesh with her words. The two eventually decided upon the lean keyboard- and percussion-dominated arrangements that allowed her voice to be front and center.
The album's sparest song, In Our Sleep, is a collaboration with Mr. Reed, who sings with her. A repetitive chant that goes "In our sleep as we speak / Listen to the drums beat," it finds a comfortable space between their minimalist styles and can be read as a deadpan love song evoking the depth of a relationship that both describe in glowingly romantic terms.
"I'm very happy," Ms. Anderson declares. Mr. Reed, fifty-two, who is usually reticent about his private life, calls her "the kindest person I've ever met," adding, "She's also incredibly sexy, vibrant and beautiful." The pair have become so visible around New York recently that they have begun to acquire the aura of a kind of First Couple of downtown Manhattan.
Although they lived only eight blocks apart in lower Manhattan, Ms. Anderson and Mr. Reed had to cross the Atlantic to meet each other at a music festival in Munich in 1993. A year later, Ms. Anderson, who had for decades lived and worked in the same space, moved in with Mr. Reed.
"I had been a kind of loner all my life," she says. "Because most of the people I've been with have lived in other cities, I wouldn't see them for months at a time. It's been an incredible and wonderful change. Ever since we've met, we can't stop talking. Lou is the funniest person I've ever met. Like me, he is a computer nerd."
It was at a festival event produced by John Zorn that Mr. Reed was introduced to Ms. Anderson and invited her to sing A Dream, a selection from Songs For Drella, the 1989 suite he composed with John Cale as a tribute to Andy Warhol.
"I was astounded when she did it exactly the way I would do it rhythmically, with just the right pauses," he recalls. Since then, in addition to collaborating on In Our Sleep, the two have been working together on a possible album of duets, with Mr. Reed on guitar and Ms. Anderson on electric violin. Mr. Reed calls the style of these tracks "Lou and Laurie music."
"Laurie is the most astonishing musician," he says. "Not to mention her knowledge of effects, not to mention that she can also engineer the track."
Just because Ms. Anderson and Mr. Reed have found a way to collaborate, don't expect them to become the Steve and Eydie of the avant-garde. As Ms. Anderson's Nerve Bible show tours the country, Mr. Reed may join her briefly on the stage here and there, or he may not.
Much of the imagery of the show was inspired by Ms. Anderson's Himalayan adventure. Ms. Anderson makes her stage entrance hanging upside down from a rope. A crucial image in the second act is a red laser tightrope that lengthens and shortens.
Instead of real-life backup singers, Ms. Anderson will be supported by two computer characters named Bruce and Agnes who act as guides and whose images appear on a thirty-sex-foot screen. The characters, whom Ms. Anderson drew and created voices for, reflect her immersion in computer technology. Her tour is being sponsored by Voyager, the New York software company for which she has created a CD-ROM called Puppet Motel that offers six hours of music and talk.
Although Ms. Anderson often has the manner of a benign, all-knowing instructor, giving lessons on life, she is uncomfortable with the idea of herself as a teacher. "I work so I can feel my own freedom," she says.
In her preoccupation with mortality and the limits of human consciousness, Ms. Anderson has begun to explore some of the same territory that Mr. Reed broached in his 1992 album, Magic And Loss.
"When that album came out and people called it Lou Reed's 'death album,' it was the kiss of death," Mr. Reed recalls. "Please don't call Bright Red Laurie's death album, because it will keep people away in droves. Why in the world do you have to go back and listen to Bach to have music that asks what does it all mean when these are the major themes of our lives?"