On Saturday Paul and I went to see one of our favourite artists perform at the Barbican Theatre - Laurie Anderson. She was bringing her show Happiness to London as part of the European leg of an international tour. The show was a sell-out and we estimated the audience was about 50% gay - split roughly 50/50 poofs and dykes.
As regular readers may know I am a long term fan of Anderson's work dating back to the early 1980's concert United States I-IV and the studio album that followed, Big Science. Big Science itself spawned the 'novelty hit' O Superman - written as a response to the failed US hostage rescue attempt in Iran in the late '70s.
Big Science is a masterwork. The tracks are skeletal, sometimes minimalist, but utterly moving. These days you can get pretty jaded with some electronic music, but listening to Anderson's early work again you can't help but be surprised all over again by the sheer creativity of her sounds. It makes bad background music, because it demands your attention. The music was made to go with the original concert, which was a performance art piece with film, photographs, special effects, spoken text, lights and hand gestures. Anderson once said that when she listens to Big Science she thinks, "where are the pictures?" I never felt the album was missing anything.
Albums such as Mister Heartbreak (1984), Home Of The Brave (1986), Strange Angels (1989), Bright Red / Tightrope (1994) and The Ugly One With The Jewels And Other Stories (1995) were all to follow further establishing Anderson as not only one of the premier performance artists in the world but also as a successful recording artist too.
And over the years Anderson has worked with such luminaries as Lou Reed (her long term partner), Bob Dylan, Robert Wilson, Marianne Faithful, William Burroughs, Brian Eno, Adrian Belew, Peter Gabriel, Bobby McFerrin, Bill Laswell, Philip Glass, Tony Levin, Phoebe Snow, Wim Wenders, Spaulding Grey, Jean-Michel Jarre, The Roches, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jonathan Demme, John Cale, David Byrne, Ray Phiri, Bhakithi Khumalo and Tony Levin. Quite an impressive list of names I think you'll agree for the maker of a 'novelty hit' back in 1982.
Her more recent album Life On A String (2001) got much critical acclaim and many feel it is her best work. Last year Anderson released a live album of a concert performed just a few days after the 9/11 disaster. Recorded in Town Hall New York it is simply called Live In New York (2002).
So we come to her present tour. Happiness is like much of her work; through the telling of stories it looks at contemporary culture, through various filters: synthetic, language, love songs, animal communication and techno burn out.
She describes it thus, "Happiness is my way of looking at some of the things that both interest and trouble me: the evolution of behavior, how we learn and what we remember, expectations, the meaning of justice and the effects of increasing speed; colored by the darker elements of doubt and fear."
We found it to be a stripped back and flexible experience which encompassed a variety of Anderson's personal experiences, including two weeks in McDonald's, a zen rafting trip through Iowa and time she spent living with an Amish family. All very thought-provoking, witty, moving and at times darn right funny. She had a great sense of timing and was a master of delivery. She also tells a great joke about Jesus that I simply can't repeat here.
The show over, we sat in our seats for a few minutes mesmorised. Stirring only to amble toward the fast growing queue to meet her afterwards. When we finally got to the front I confided in her that "I loved your dancing". "But there wasn't any dancing", she replied. "There was for me". So she drew a little picture on my album cover of her feet dancing and put a reference to her song Let X=X by adding "Let X=everything". "Why do you have such a strong gay following", I asked. She looked genuinely surprised and a little disbelieving. "Do I? Really? Hmm. Well, maybe it's because my show is intelligent". She had a point. She's one clever lady.
Perhaps unsurprisingly Anderson is one of the first artists-in-residence for NASA.