One night in the early eighties I was lying in bed listening to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's late night show "Brave New Waves." The announcer came on, and I can remember as if it were yesterday what she said: "Laurie Anderson played in town tonight." That was it, nothing else, because from then until her sign off at 4:00 a.m. she played United States the recording of Laurie Anderson's stage show.
In an era when New York City was spitting out experimental musicians and artists, Laurie Anderson was not just another face in the crowd. Of all those claiming to be "performance artists, she was one of the few with a completely realized vision. Deceptively simple; one woman, a keyboard, a violin, and a microphone; her performances were part concert, part storytelling, and part visual presentation that utilized the most modern technology available to examine society's reactions to technology's quick development and sudden availability to the general public.
Remember in the early 1980's we were just starting to enter the era of the personal computers – does anybody else remember buttons saying I Love My Commodore 64? Or tape drives for your computer, or having to lay your telephone's handset into a cradle like what came with your phone to connect to the Internet?
By some fluke of nature Big Science, an album made up of excerpts from her stage show, placed her squarely in the public eye. The song "O Superman (for Massenet)" climbed to the top of the charts in Britain and performed almost as well in North America. Listening to the promotional copy provided by Nonesuch records in advance of their re issuing the album on July 17th, I'm as puzzled now as I was then at the widespread popularity it enjoyed.
There's absolutely nothing about it that says "popular" no matter what era of music we're talking about. Brilliantly crafted compositions using tape loops, found sounds, voice, live music and vocal overdubs run through processors and voice machines that openly question the values of society and mock some of the most popular icons of mass consumerism don't normally equate to hit music.
But there is something about Laurie Anderson's voice that sounds so very comforting. At times she may be very acerbic and scathing, and at other times barely even human, what with some of the effects she uses on her voice. But then you hear her untreated voice and you feel that she could understand anything you'd have to tell her.
It's not like she promises she has answers to questions or anything silly like that, but you know that she will actually listen to what you tell her. Nobody can tell stories with such humanity and sincerity, and yes, humour, the way she does without being an amazing listener.
That's of course what makes her art so successful, that ability to listen and observe and report back to us clearly on all that she has seen. Viggo Mortensen described his photography and writings as a means of keeping a record of everything he saw. Laurie Anderson goes a step beyond merely preserving what she has seen, and actively communicates it to us.
Whether we listen to her singing on a CD, watch her in a video, or see her live stage show it's her direct involvement that makes the piece. I can't honestly imagine anyone ever "covering" one of her pieces from Big Science any more than I can imagine anyone but Vincent Van Gogh painting his infamous "Self Portrait".
It's not that the pieces are about her, far from it. In fact they usually address universal themes, but without her they don't exist, any more than Mr. Mortensen's poetry would exist without him or Van Gogh's paintings would without Van Gogh. Instead of paint or words Laurie Anderson uses Laurie Anderson to communicate with us. Much as we read a book of poems or go to an art gallery to see paintings, we listen to, or watch Laurie Anderson in order to appreciate her art.
All the things she does on stage, or in the recording studio, combine to make a piece of art that includes her as the central medium of expression. Unlike typical performers in bands or singer songwriters, there is more to what she is doing then singing a song. She creates small performances that communicate a thought or idea, and those performances in turn are linked together by a common theme.
In the case of Big Science the theme is our relationship to technology and each piece is a different scenario that addresses that. Even her performance itself is a reflection of that theme as she makes full and effective use of the technology available to her at the time as enhancement.
But technology isn't the be all and end all, and in the end her work is so effective because of her; not any tools she uses or machine she plugs in. A computer can only carry out the tasks we are able to program it to do, and there is a very real human behind her machinery with thoughts, opinions, and emotions.
Ultimately that is what makes Big Science such a great collection of work – the fact that Laurie Anderson understands the human condition and is able to comment on it so effectively. Any art that has the ability to strike a chord of recognition with its audience will achieve some level of distinction. The real test of art is the test of how well it stands up to the passage of years.
Some of you might make noises about how primitive the technology is on Big Science but that is irrelevant. Listening to it for the first time in more then twenty years I was struck again by how intelligent and insightful her lyrics are, and how all the pieces on the disc fit together. Big Science is not the work of a pop musician or rock star, it is a work of art as much as any painting hanging in a museum or poem in a book. It just comes in a different package than most still aren't accustomed to.
Get used to it, because Laurie Anderson is back with a brand new collection being released in 2008 on Nonesuch Records called Homeland and will be touring across North America in support. I hope she comes to my town.
The edition of Big Science that is being released on July 17th is what's known as an enhanced CD. So if you pop into an optical drive on your computer, or a DVD player that can handle that type of disc, you'll get a couple of special extras. The original video for "Oh Superman", which is brilliant and still blows anything else ever made since for a song out of the water, and the original "B" side track to "Superman," "Walk The Dog." You have to hear that one to believe it, I'm not even going to attempt to describe it.