Laurie Anderson was the final guest in this year’s City Arts and Lectures “Talking Music” series. Last Fall, I bought season tickets to “Talking Music” in a valiant attempt to get myself and friends up to San Francisco on a more regular basis for something other than a concert. I was so excited by the lineup: Stephin Merritt, Amy Tan, Stewart Wallace, Michael Tilson Thomas, Neko Case, John Darnielle, Laurie Anderson. Of course reality soon hit: when the actual night of the lecture would arrive, I’d end up with a sick kid, a cold of my own, or a husband out of town and no babysitter in sight. I ended up punting on half of the lectures. When I did attend, I wasn’t able to convince a single friend to accompany me despite the lure of a free second row center ticket. Hmpf.
The good news is that each of the four times I did venture up to the Herbst for a lecture, I was really glad I made the effort. Last night’s conversation between Laurie Anderson and Michael Azerrad was no exception.
I’ve had encounters with Laurie Anderson in the distant past. I saw her in concert in Florence Italy back in 1988. I also had an impromptu dinner with Laurie and husband Lou Reed after an MIT Media Lab symposium “Digital Expression” back in 1994 when I was a user interface researcher at Apple’s ATG East. I’d kind of lost track of Laurie Anderson’s work over the past 15 years. It was great to catch up and hear her thoughts on technology, narrative, and what it was like to be ten years old growing up in the midwest.
Michael Azerrad seemed distracted during most of the conversation, reviewing notes, scanning the audience, but that didn’t phase Laurie Anderson in the least. She clearly was at home with nothing but the spoken word between her and the audience. I was captivated by her speaking voice. She speaks slowly (but not methodically) with a certain roundness that’s very comforting and relaxing. It should have come as no surprise to me that she’s aged (haven’t we all!) since I’d seen her 15 years ago. But it was uplifting and inspirational to see a woman in her 60’s looking so modern in a completely non-cougar way.
Last night Laurie discussed her love-hate relationship with technology at length. She was refreshingly ambivalent, playing devil’s advocate with her own opinions on several occasions. She also recounted what it was like to be 10, how she’s always been a “skygazer.” She confessed that after all these years she still centers herself as she did when she was a child, by gazing skyward and then inward. It was great to hear her dig through her memory real-time to recall details of her time at art school when she dressed up dozens of chickens and created a chicken puppet theater. While this tale may seem absurd, there was plenty of good food for thought. For me, her most thought provoking statement of the night was how the role of poverty has changed in our country. She talked of how all of the people coming out of the art scene in New York in the 70’s came from poverty, and that was considered a noble and good thing for an artist. She argued that today, most of society can’t see anything redeeming about poverty. This gave me pause as I drove back to the suburbs in my Volvo SUV.
We also got a glimpse into her time working with Andy Kaufman in the early days before his fame. She spun wonderful tales of her adventures with Andy at Conney Island, playing the straight man to his always obtuse and unexpected real-time performance art.
It was also great to hear Laurie Anderson describe her encounters with ghosts of her heroes, such as Herman Melville. My favorite story of the evening was her recounting of her experience with examining Herman Melville’s family Bible. It seems that Shakespeare and The Bible were Meville’s primary inspiration for Moby Dick. A friend of Laurie’s purchased the original Melville Family Bible through Christie’s Auction House, and loaned it to Laurie. Melville had scribbled copious notes and circled many words in his family Bible as he wrote Moby Dick, but his wife disapproved of desecrating a Bible in such a way and had attempted to erase all the marks. Laurie described her excitement at pouring over the Bible with a magnifying glass looking for remaining stray marks and leftover impressions that remained after 150 years. It turns out there were quite a few! It was great to hear of her obsession with Moby Dick and the Bible, as well as her Japanese-school-girl-like admiration for Melville. It helped to remind me that there is some form of obsession/passion that drives the artist within all of us.