Tuesday, June 3, 2008


I’ve been reading a lot about the art world in the early ‘80s recently, so it’s fitting that Laurie Anderson, performance artist and sometime recording artist whose spoken word song “O Superman” was an improbable #1 hit in the U.K. in 1981, should come up now. In the summer of ‘82, Big Science seemed to illuminate the possibility of a real rapport between art and popular music, or, put another way, Anderson’s work, on vinyl, became a kind of symptom of that confluence: it seemed to both build on and comment on the sense of an “avant-garde” of rock music, a trajectory that runs from Andy Warhol’s collaboration with the Velvet Underground to the deliberate fetishizing (I guess the art critics would call it a simulation) of the New York Dolls’ glam to the punk sloppiness of The Ramones and the oracular guitar of Tom Verlaine and the gutter-Rimbaud posturings of Patti Smith to RISD dropouts Talking Heads and their characteristic danceable minimalism, produced by ambient music savant and studio wizard Brian Eno. In the art scene of the time, there were occasionally events where punk or new wave found its way into gallery spaces, and, with this record by Anderson, avant-garde performance found its way onto turntables generally devoted to rock rather than the likes of Philip Glass or John Cage. It was a crossover disc, in other words.

For me the title track has always been the standout. I have fond memories of one night when the night shift at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, myself included, were sitting around drinking and whatever, and my friend Paul Herman set up speakers (they must’ve been on hand from some lecture earlier in the evening) on the huge Frank Furness-designed staircase and blasted “Big Science.” It sounded incredibly eerie in that big echoey museum space. Anderson’s spoken voice modulates so minimally but effectively between lines of a kind of “readymade” or “found” conversational mode to lines that are clich├ęs but seem cryptic mantras, to lines that carry implications of the kind of art criticism as anthropology that was in the air at the time and in the slogans Barbara Kruger affixed to photos or that Jenny Holzer put on T-shirts or in Times Square. Add to that the strand wolf howling and a drum track that would be at home on Peter Gabriel’s Security (which arrived in the fall) and you’ve got a hypnotic, timely tour de force that never stands still long enough to let you decide its scene or setting or occasion.

Golden cities, golden townsAnd long cars in long linesAnd great big signsAnd they all sayAlleluiaYo-de-lay-hee-hooEvery man for himself

Since I was also a participant in the Philly poetry scene at the time, I was also mightily impressed by how Anderson was able to create a very simple sonic backdrop in “O Superman” (a looped voice hitting the same note over and over together with lots of musical or rhythmic effects, none of which could be called the basis for a tune) while on top of this is a voice that seems childlike, and for that very reason slightly mad, or a more robotic, “treated” voice that sounds sinister and disconcerting.

And the voice said:
Well you don’t know me
But I know you
And I’ve got a messageTo give to you:Here come the planes.

The album mainly stands on these two tracks, but there are moments in other tracks that still leap out at me, sometimes more effective for their non sequitur status or as lines that seem to drop into place with a kind of forceful inevitability, such as the “all in favor say aye” in “Big Science” or “So pay me what you owe me” in “Example #22.” The opening track, “From the Air” features a kind of gleeful paranoia about being trapped on a plane that certainly hasn’t lost any of its resonance in our even more paranoid-about-planes era. All in all, the album could be considered “a novelty,” but because it unites things I cared so much about in 1982 -- spoken word performance, “avant-garde rock,” and ideas about art -- with trenchant glimpses of the “passionate aloofness” of so much of the art of the ‘80s, I give it a more central place in the decentered world of the commodity-art object that we were all so ineluctably stumbling through.

This is the time
And this is the recordOf the time
–Laurie Anderson, “From the Air” (1982)


Andrew Shields said...

They're American planes.
Made in America.
Smoking or non-smoking?

Donald Brown said...

We're going down
We are all going down