Perhaps You Are Made of Glass? Laurie Anderson, Zellerbach

It’s been 26 years since I last watched Laurie Anderson perform (“Big Science”). I was much younger, and so was she. The audience at the time was composed mostly of new wave/punkers with a literary bent – young adults into Fripp and Eno and William S. Burroughs. I remember a raft of white violins descending from the ceiling – with tape heads installed where the  bridges should have been – followed by a  dozen or so white violin bows  lowered into place, strung with reel-to-reel tape instead of horse hair. Each bow harnessed a different sound clip or spoken word recording, and she “played” each one back- and forwards, at any speed or in any staccato word rhythm.

Fast forward to 2012, Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley. Now 65, Anderson has dispensed with most of her avante-garde gimmicks and boiled it mostly down to pure storytelling , ensconced in more “traditional” violin playing backed by sequencers playing strange loops (a porch swing creaking, compressed air escaping in a repeating cycle with one timing mark off just enough to make you feel vaguely uncomfortable). The stage atmosphere  a sea of votive candles peeking out through mellow fog machine vapors, a giant screen filled with solid colors, a smaller one reserved for displaying the paw-scratch “paintings” of her dog (and a few entertaining clips of same dog playing piano – who doesn’t love animals on keyboards?)

She still pulls out a few of the old tricks – her digital vocal octave dropper completely changes the tone of her amazing poem/stories (a technique she calls “audio drag”), and she did take time to pop a pillow speaker into her mouth and play a short wah-wah improv, the shape of her mouth and breath conditioning the sound source. But for the most part, her presence is more minimal, more grounded now. At one stretch, she just sat in a big black comfy chair and talked. But the maturation of the performance seemed completely tasteful, appropriate.

Langue d’Amour, from Mister Heartbreak (1984)

Her poem/stories are still bizarre, but in a more grounded way – she weaves political observations about Battleground America into meditations on why the coloration of the peacock’s tail drove Darwin batshit crazy. And throughout, little zen zingers like:

“Of all the things that ever could have happened… most of them didn’t.”

She has the ability to deliver lines like this with such matter-of-fact precision that you feel like she’s pierced the veil of evening fog into something deeper. She takes you beyond without even trying.

Perhaps you are made of glass /
Should a dog strive for Buddha Heart?

(I’m paraphrasing from memory here). In fact there were many Buddhist references peppered into the performance – she’s been practicing, and that practice is reflected in the relative minimalism of the vibe. Laurie is aging like a good cheese, not like Jagger.

Performance art, by definition, always has the immediate potential for pretentiousness. But Anderson avoids it like the plague, mostly by being funny. Not comedienne funny, but “Isn’t life weird?” funny.

Via Wikipedia: In “The Cultural Ambassador”, a piece on her album The Ugly One with the Jewels, Anderson explained some of her perspective on the character [“Bergamot” – with the lowered voice]: (Anderson:) I was carrying a lot of electronics so I had to keep unpacking everything and plugging it in and demonstrating how it all worked, and I guess I did seem a little fishy — a lot of this stuff wakes up displaying LED program readouts that have names like Atom Smasher, and so it took a while to convince them that they weren’t some kind of espionage system. So I’ve done quite a few of these sort of impromptu new music concerts for small groups of detectives and customs agents and I’d have to keep setting all this stuff up and they’d listen for a while and they’d say: So uh, what’s this? And I’d pull out something like (Bergamot:) this filter, and say, now this is what I like to think of as the voice of authority. And it would take me a while to tell them how I used it for songs that were, you know, about various forms of control, and they would say, now why would you want to talk like that? And I’d look around at the SWAT teams, and the undercover agents, and the dogs, and the radio in the corner, tuned to the Super Bowl coverage of the war. And I’d say, take a wild guess.

I keep waiting for news about some upcoming collaboration between Anderson and her husband Lou Reed (file under “The most unlikely pairing ever that makes perfect sense”) but it never happens.

About Scot Hacker

Scot Hacker is a web developer, teacher, and blogger living in Northern California. He is the author of Can You Get to That? The Cosmology of P-Funk and Understanding Liberace: Grooving With The Fey Heckler. He works by day as webmaster at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Knight Digital Media Center, and runs Birdhouse Web and Mail Hosting on the side. Hacker is the author of The BeOS Bible and MP3: The Definitive Guide, and posts near-daily on random stuff at Scot Hacker's foobar blog. He's ecstatic that we're sitting on 100 years of recorded music history. How I Got Stuck When was the last time you bought a record because of the cover? 25 years before MP3s, I used to make a weekly pilgrimage to Cheap Thrills in San Luis Obispo with friends, where we'd surf through dusty wooden bins, de-flowering ourselves in a mist of vinyl, grabbing piles of cut-outs about which we knew virtually nothing. Junior Samples, Temple City Kazoo Orchestra, The Buggles, Paul Desmond, Instant Chic, Smithsonian collections, Robert Moog, Dream Syndicate... didn't matter. If the cover was cool, we assumed there was a good chance the music would turn us on. And we were often right. In that humongous wooden warehouse, between around 1977 and 1984, my musical universe bloomed. There were also duds - dumptruck loads of duds. The lesson that a great cover doesn't tell you jack about the music inside was a long time coming (the inverse correlation - that great music was often hidden behind terrible artwork - came much later). But it didn't matter, because cut-outs never cost more than a couple-three bucks, and all the good shit we uncovered made it worthwhile. In high school, I (for the most part) ignored the music going on around me. The jocks and aggies could keep their Rick Springfield and their Jefferson Starship - we were folding papers after school to The Roches and Zappa and Talking Heads and PiL. But inevitably, some of the spirit of that time stuck with me. ELO and McCartney wormed their way (perhaps undeservedly) into my heart. No one escapes high school without an indelible tattoo on their soul describing the music of that time. When I went away to college, the alt/grunge scene was being born, and getting chicks required familiarity with The Pixies and Porno for Pyros. I couldn't quite figure how these bands were supposed to be as interesting as Meat Puppets or Cecil Taylor or Syd Barrett, but I went along for the ride for a while, best I could. But I never quite "got" alt-rock. Never understood why The Pixies were elevated in the public imagination over a thousand bands I thought were so much more inventive / rocking / interesting. What exactly was Frank Black offering the world that Lou Reed had not? In general, I like music carved in bold strokes - extremely rockin', or extremely beautiful, or extremely weird... I like artists that have a unique sound, something I can hang my hat on. I love Mission of Burma and The Slits and The American Anthology of Folk Music and Devendra Banhart and Bowie and Nick Drake and Eric Dolphy and Ali Farka Toure and Marvin Pontiac. If you were to ask me who was the last great rock and roll band, I'd be likely to answer "The Minutemen." I know it's not true, but I'd say it anyway. And yet, in a weird way, I totally believe it. Today while jogging, I listened to a long interpretation by the Unknown Instructors: "Punk Is Whatever We Made It To Be" - half-spoken / half-sung sonic collage of some of D. Boon's best stanzas. Boon's powerful words rained like hammers and I felt like I was back in 1980, careening down the highway in a green VW bug with The Stooges blasting. It was that spirit of amazement that I used to live for - the one I never got from the 90s indie scene. And then, just as quickly, I thought "God, I'm living in the past. I suck." I'm stuck. I have vast collections of LPs, CDs, and MP3s. I listen to music for hours each day, and yet I'm completely out of it, musically speaking. I confess -- I've never listened to Guns-n-Roses or Pearl Jam or Prince, and I've only recently heard "Nevermind" in its entirety. If it weren't for Twitter, I wouldn't even know Lady Gaga existed. I'm oblivious to the stuff that supposedly matters to "music people." It's not like I'm totally unaware of pop music. I just have a finely tuned ability to tune out whatever doesn't interest me. I don't quite know how to explain it. I can only say that my friends register shock when they learn that I've never heard of Elliot Smith. And yet I do not feel thirsty. I'm always open to being turned on. But I learned long ago that, unfortunately, you can't trust beautiful cover art to promise great music, and you can't always trust your friends to push your music buttons. I'm happy to listen to damn near anything. And every now and then, that "anything" will turn into something that will become important to me over time. Something that will last. I like music with staying power. Belle and Sebastien have a certain appeal, but I don't think they're going to occupy even the tiniest slot in my consciousness in 20 years. But the power and inventiveness of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Fahey, Robert Wyatt, Can, The Carter Family, The Clash, will never dissipate. I have little interest in the "new" factor. I could not care less whether this year's model is the baddest thing going on in Atlanta or a rare gem rescued from 78 rpm oblivion by Robert Crumb. It's all the same to me. Just squeeze my lemon / 'till the juice runs down my leg. Please. A friend once said that he felt lucky to have been born so late in history, because the later you're born, the more history you have to work with. I don't think I really understood what he was saying until I was about 40. It's not about being born late, it's about this massive archive we're sitting on - the entire history of recorded music under our butts, which we can either choose to ignore or to mine for all it's worth. Every hour I spend checking out the flavor of the month is an hour I haven't spent with David Thomas or Richard Hell or Shuggie Otis. Life's too short. I'm going to use this site to drift back and forth through musical history, modernity be damned. You turn me on, I'm a radio. Let me know what I'm missing. shacker's station at

5 thoughts on “Perhaps You Are Made of Glass? Laurie Anderson, Zellerbach

  1. Sounds like you saw pretty much the same performance as she gave in Sheffield earlier this year, and you’ve nailed it, she’s like a good aged cheese. I think what made it so special for me was that there was an intense, albeit stripped-down, theatricality to the piece, which created a reverent environment, but then she wasn’t too proud to step out of that frame and be a funny, eccentric old woman once in a while.

    I particularly appreciated her musings on death (“death is a way of bringing more love into the world”). And the jazz dog clips :)

    [PS. not sure what sort of strange styling you’ve got going on in this text field, but it’s almost impossible to type into in Android – some sort of weird kerning going on that makes the cursor appear about 5 letters away from where it actually is]

  2. Really well said Dan. I’d love to be her neighbor, or to hear what her and Julian Schnabel talk about over the back fence. I have a feeling she and Amy (my wife) would get along great.

    That’s bizarre about Android and the textarea. Are you seeing the site via the mobile plugin, or the desktop view?

  3. It is using the mobile theme. Weirdly enough, when I started writing this comment, it seemed fine again. I tried a few things that might trigger the strange behaviour – entering multiple lines, moving focus out of the text box & back in again – and after a little while the cursor seemed to shift by about half a character, but nothing like as misplaced as it was yesterday.

    [Shrugs] one of those things.

  4. I HATE intermittent tech problems. Things should work, or they should not. Anything else is a mystery. This is no place for mysteries.

    I’m going to choose to blame Android rather than the mobile theme.

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