My Pop Life #233 : Big Science – Laurie Anderson

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Big Science   –   Laurie Anderson

Ooo coo ooo coo coo it’s cold outside
Ooo coo ooo coo coo. Don’t forget your mittens

Hey pal! How do I get to town from here?
And he said:
Well just take a right where they’re going to build that new shopping mall
Go straight past where they’re going to put in the freeway
Take a left at what’s going to be the new sports center
And keep going until you hit the place where
They’re thinking of building that drive-in bank

You can’t miss it. And I said: This must be the place

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March 24th 2020.  Brooklyn, New York.  Covid-19 shutdown.  I receive an email from Town Hall, a public treasure, a concert hall in midtown with a storied history of suffragettes and civil rights where we’ve seen Ry Cooder, Utopia, Taylor Mac and others and where I was due to see The Chieftains last week before we all got sent to our rooms.   Lovely venue.

The email announced – like so many these days – that we could now watch STUFF online.  There aren’t enough hours in the day believe me, but this one caught myne eyne.  It was a premiere of a Laurie Anderson show there from 2018 called ‘Things I Lost In The Flood‘.  I fancied it and checked with Jen – so did she.   Then as 7pm started to roll around her two sisters Mandy and Lucy Face-Timed and since they are each other’s sanity and joy I donned the headphones and watched alone, at a social distance 😉

*

Golden cities. Golden towns
And long cars, in long lines and great big signs
And they all say: Hallelujah. Yodelayheehoo
Every man for himself. Ooo coo coo
Golden cities. Golden towns. Thanks for the ride

*

It was astounding of course.  She always is.  She told us a true story of the Hurricane Sandy event in New York 2012 when Laurie’s basement in downtown Manhattan was flooded by seawater and when she went to examine the damage a few days later as the water subsided, pretty much everything down there – projectors, slides, film, photographs, paintings, screens, books, instruments, tapes, technology of various kinds, ways of producing electronic noise including changing the sound of the human voice, files, sculptures, notes, ideas, operas, plays, computers and printers – were destroyed.  Salt water will do that.  After a couple of days she realised that having a list of everything that was there – which she had in another location – was actually better than having the things in the basement.  So she read the list and made a show.  It covered her entire career pretty much, from O Superman which she discussed as being permanently prescient

This is the hand, the hand that takes
Here come the planes
They’re American planes. Made in America
Smoking or non-smoking?

through to Habeus Corpus, a project at The Armoury in 2016 in collaboration with British human rights charity Reprieve.  I’m a member and supporter of Reprieve and meet occasionally with the founder Clive Stafford-Smith when he comes through New York on his way to Guantanamo to meet clients.  He and Reprieve have been responsible for the release of more than 80 Gitmo detainees to date, one of which was Mohammed el Gharani who featured in Habeus Corpus. As he sat in his house in Africa a camera recorded him and the image was beamed back to The Armoury where it was projected onto a huge, Lincoln Memorial-sized statue.  Laurie described how people who visited the exhibit would realise that there was a camera in the ceiling looking down at the statue so that Mohammed would be able to tell if he should move a hand slightly and so on.  They would stand in the light at the feet of the statue and look up at where they felt he could see them and they all mouthed the same thing

I’m sorry

Laurie told us it was the most moving moment of her artistic life so far.  She also talked a little about her husband Lou Reed (who died in October 2013 while Jenny was doing Julius Caesar at St Anne’s Warehouse in Dumbo) and how he would name her male characters.

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Lou Reed & Laurie Anderson in New York 2008

For example,  ‘Fenway Bergamot‘, one of Laurie’s signature male alter-ego creations who told us in a deep bass voice that a woman’s name is her first name, because she is liable to lose her second name and get it lopped off if she gets married.  Or divorced.  And your mother’s maiden name is so forgotten and hidden that it becomes a password to all of your information.

Is this Fenway Bergamot ?

Then Laurie told of how she worked in Greece on the opening ceremony of the Olympics there trying to find meaning from the ceiling and pieces of the Parthenon.  How she did a performance of Mister Heartbreak in Tokyo and learned phonetically her entire performance in Japanese, then discovered after the first show that the guy she had learned it from had a stutter.

All of this is presented deadpan, with electronic interludes and accompaniment.  I always find it mesmerising, funny, and intriguing.

The concert is here on YouTube in the Town Hall Archive.  Even long-time fans like me can’t keep up with her output so impossibly fecund is she, so there’s always more to discover. It is two hours long, no interval, but she explains why, and there is a pause button.

Oh and here is Laurie talking about her relationship with Lou Reed published in Rolling Stone just after he died:

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/laurie-andersons-farewell-to-lou-reed-a-rolling-stone-exclusive-243792/ 

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My first exposure to Laurie Anderson was the alarming single O Superman which was championed by DJ John Peel (see My Pop Life #205) and astoundingly reached number 2 in the UK Charts in 1981.  Inspired by the Iran hostage events in 1979-80, the over-arching theme of the piece and much of her work is violence.  American violence.

‘Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice
And when justice is gone, there’s always force
And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi Mom!

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I bought Laurie Anderson’s LP Big Science in 1982 and played it a great deal.  That year I was still with Moving Parts Theatre Company about whom I wrote in My Pop Life #18 but who certainly deserve another chapter or two in this blog.  I’d been working with them since autumn of 1981 and already done two tours.  The company was formed by Ruth McKenzie & Rachel Feldberg as a radical idealistic vehicle to reach the young.  The summer of ’81 remember there had been riots in Brixton, Liverpool, Southall, Birmingham.  Margaret Thatcher milk-snatcher was waging war on the workers and after her actual war in Las Malvinas won her a second term she would take on the Miner’s Union (see My Pop Life #185).  It was a violent time.   A time for taking sides.

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I shaved my head and bought braces for the racism show. Of course I did.  But see the tell-tale Roxy Music tee

*

You know, I think we should put some mountains here
Otherwise, what are the characters going to fall off of?
And what about stairs? Yodellayheehoo. Ooo coo coo ooo

*

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Saffron Myers and Anita Lewton summer 82

That summertime I was on a tour of the drop-in centres and youth clubs of the UK (once the World Cup in Spain had finished he emphasised in italics) with a musical play about racism in our country called The Empire Strikes Back co-written by myself and Anita Lewton, a broad-brush-stroke punchy slapstick history of the United Kingdom in the style of 7:84 Theatre Company or one of those early 80s angry gangs.  We drove to Leicester one day in our white Transit van, did the show in a school in the morning, had lunch then did it again at a drop-in centre in the afternoon.  From being a white socialist-feminist theatre company run by women, we had become a multi-racial socialist-feminist theatre company run by women by drafting in two black actors.  Fodder.  Tokenism.  Genuine attempt to do the right thing.  We all had a vote because it was, like Joint Stock a few years later, a genuine Collective, but like all collective activity some voices carry more authority than others.

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In Yorkshire on tour, with Courtney the drumming accountant

Courtney wasn’t even an actor.  He could do it all right.  No, he was an accountant who could play the drums who’d answered the ad.  Big Chas’N’ Dave fan.  He had a really sweet temperament and he needed one.  We got a pretty hot reception in some towns, and our reaction was always the same :

let’s sit down and talk…

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Ken, Saffron, Rachel, me in rehearsal 1982

Ken was a rasta african Londoner, and was also phlegmatic about other people’s ignorance.  But how did these fellas feel inside?  I can guess.  Scarred.  My wife Jenny toured a few years later with Red Ladder (then run by Rachel Feldberg!) and Theatre Centre and got chased out of clubs in Newcastle and other areas because of the multi-racial nature of their company.  It goes deep.  And there’s no excuse for racism.  And I do not forgive it.  It is a choice in the end.

So there was a show, followed by a discussion -“Thank you very much, now, don’t move, because, er, we’d like to come and talk to you about what you’ve just seen and what you feel about it so if you’d just get yourselves into six small groups and we’ll go one to a group“….and this way the social workers and teachers LOVED US and we got booked up and down the country, and we all got our Equity Cards.  Earned our stripes.  So anyway, that evening we all (?) went to see an experience (a play) by the local youth.  Who were we?  Saffron, Ken,  Courtney, me and Rachel probably.  And Ruth?  We had to get on a mini bus in the centre of town and were driven to a dark street where we were hustled by masked security past barbed wire down into a basement.  A small ‘theatre’ with rows of seats – we were given a wrapped sweet as we entered and found on unwrapping it that it was raw meat.  Then ‘Born, Never Asked’ (track 5 on Big Science) pumped out of the speakers

It was a large room. Full of people. All kinds
And they had all arrived at the same building
At more or less the same time
And they were all free. And they were all
Asking themselves the same question:
What.     Is Behind.     That Curtain?

*

Cue electronica

and the show began.  I think it was The People Show number 78.  Pretty mad, pretty great.  The folks who’d done it were memorialised in my diary so impressed was I with this event.  Brendan, Liam and Robert “etc”.

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The name Mike Figgis at the top there, who went on to be a top film director after working with The People Show, the diary written in my childish 25-year old hand

I was particularly obsessed with Laurie Anderson at this time and had a chance to exercise that obsession when she came to London later in 1982 (or was it 1983?) and performed live at Hammersmith Odeon – a show called United States I-IV which was simply astounding and remains one of the top live musical live experiences of my life.  The original multi-media experience, it includes all of Big Science in slightly different forms.

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Laurie showcased her vocal effects box on O Superman and other songs like From The Air and Let X = X.   Also unforgettably a she played a glowing violin with a bow made of tape on which was recorded a phrase.  She could play it fast or slow, pitch high or low.  It was both funny and astoundingly good at the same time.  Was that Blue Lagoon?  Can’t remember.  I must have gone with dear Mumtaz.  Laurie is a genius raconteur – part of her multi-media brilliance – and she also told a story in her matter-of-fact-yet-faintly-amused voice about how Washington D.C. is the capital of the United States.  At the time the English colonial army were headquartered in Philadelphia, but in the British Empire at that time, soldier’s pay was according to lines of Latitude.  The officers realised that if they moved their base camp 125 miles south into the marshes of the Potomac River, their wages would increase.

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Here’s a man who lives a life of danger
Everywhere he goes, he stays – a stranger
Howdy stranger, mind if I smoke? And he said:
Every man, every man for himself
Every man, every man for himself
All in favour say aye

Big Science. Hallelujah. Big Science. Yodelayheehoo

As a result of this mind-bending, hilarious show I stayed faithful to Laurie across the years, but never managed to catch another live show.   At some point in the 80s I made an ansaphone message on a cassette (oh those cassettes were so cool!) which would click on with Laurie’s pre-computerised semi-automatic delivery :

Hi. I’m not home right now
But if you want to leave a message
Just start talking at the sound of the tone 

which cut into Fats Domino singing Ain’t That A Shame.  Yes, I bothered to do that.

The follow-up LP to Big Science was called Mister Heartbreak and had songs like Sharkey’s Day and Blue Lagoon (which I A-listed for Songs Which Quote Shakespeare on the Song Bar a few weeks ago), then United States I-IV was released unbeknown to me, then Home Of The Brave which I did know about and bought.  Homeland with the Kronos Quartet is the most recent work that I’m aware of. Never disappointing.

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I was invited, via Reprieve, to see Habeus Corpus at the Armoury in 2016.  Dagnabbit turns out I was working in Virginia on ‘Turn’ that day.  So Jenny took our nephew Thomas the singer and they met Laurie afterwards.  Apparently she is really lovely.   I knew she was.  She inspired Tom to write a song.  Before I forget, here is a link to Reprieve’s website on their work getting folk out of Guantanamo.  Most of them have been there over 18 years without charge, taxi drivers, kitchen workers, all sold to the US Govt by agents of darkness.  None of them terrorists.

https://reprieve.org.uk/topic/guantanamo-bay/

I keep going back to this Big Science LP though.  It was played up the wazoo in 1982 and beyond, especially the title track.  Yodelayheehoo.  But live Laurie is the thing.  If you ever get the chance, buy the ticket.  And hey.  Look after yourselves out there.

So hold me, Mom, in your long arms
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms
In your automatic arms. Your electronic arms
In your arms
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms
Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms
In your electronic arms