The Landfill Chronicles: Part 4 of 4-Part Chapter on Lou Reed’s Wisdom for Laurie Anderson
THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES: Conversations on Music Elevated to a State of Art
Chapter 1 Lou Reed, Part 4: Lou’s Wisdom for Laurie Anderson
By Dan Ouellette
Chapter 1 Lou Reed—Part 4: Lou’s Wisdom
This is part 4, the final installment of the Lou Reed chapter in The Landfill Chronicles. This time we learn about him through multimedia artist Laurie Anderson, the love of Lou’s life. Laurie first met Lou on the New York arts scene in 1992. They became a couple in 1995. They married on April 12, 2008 in Boulder, Colorado, with only two witnesses attending. To celebrate their nuptials a week later, they hosted a small gathering of their closest friends, including producer Hal Willner.
In August 2001, I speak with Laurie at her former home and now work space in lower Manhattan (she now resides a few minutes away by bicycle upriver in the West Village with Lou). I’m there on assignment from San Francisco Chronicle, talking with her about her radical new project, Life on a String, that comes into San Francisco at Bimbo’s 365 Club in North Beach . Laurie references Lou often.
My writer’s cut follows:
STUFFED RACCOONS, STRAW CRUFIX, TELESCOPE
Outside it’s a sweltering day, but Laurie sits comfortably in the air-conditioned living room of her spacious five-floor work space. I can’t help but notice her eclectic tastes. She has a Stickley oak rocker, a couple vases of peach-colored roses, a bronze baby shoe on a table and perched over the TV set a stuffed raccoon holding a straw crucifix. One wall is filled with book shelves boasting an aquarium and an array of titles, including Atlas of Advanced Orthodontics, College Algebra, Live at the Fillmore East and America and the Sea — A Maritime History. In front of a large window is a telescope for looking out onto the Hudson River. Her wall photos speak volumes about what she values, most notably a color shot of the Dalai Lama and a black-and-white portrait of Lou.
Laurie notes that playing Bimbo’s (the first stop on a seven-city tour) is consistent with her penchant for gravitating toward novel experiences. “It’s hilarious. I’ve got a band, and we’re going to play clubs,” she says. “I’ve never done something like this, ever.”
She pauses, then makes a minor revision to her theater-only performance past. “Actually, way, way, way back I played in a couple of clubs and I loved it, especially if they served food,” she says. “I love watching people eat. They think they’re invisible, and they’re looking at you as if you’re on TV. I suppose it makes for a more passive audience because their hands are full, and the music is not too mysterious because they’re busy eating and drinking.” She giggles and adds, “It feels very sociable to me, like when I’m sitting with my dog and she is chewing on a bone.”
With an upbeat personality and dimply smile, Laurie sports a short, spiky coif, but dresses conservatively — all told, not the kind of look or temperament one usually associates with a person steeped in the avant-artsy New York scene.
The last time Laurie appeared in the San Francisco Bay Area was two years earlier at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium showcasing Songs and Stories from Moby Dick. It was her gargantuan, high-tech, multimedia performance piece that remade Melville’s classic novel in her own quirky image. This time, she will slip into town for a two-night August engagement at Bimbo’s, toting a much lighter load — her violin, a few electronic keyboards — and traveling with only a support-team: bassist Skúli Sverrisson, keyboardist Peter Scherer and drummer Jim Black.
“It’s a club tour,” says Laurie, who will be performing songs from the recently released Life on a String. It’s her first recording in seven years and the most personally revealing collection of lyrical songs in her 20-year career. “No movies, no slides, no digital effects,” she says. “It’s going to be kind of a living room show. The last thing I wanted to do was another gigantic production.”
The new songs are simpler and more accessible than past recordings. She notes that she feels more subjectively present on this outing. “I don’t think I totally succeeded, but I tried to be as honest as I could,” she says. “Sometimes that’s hard for me, but that’s a way in which Lou was very helpful. I’d play him something, and he’d say, why don’t you really say what you mean? So, I tried to be more direct.”
LIFE ON A STRING
The Hal Willner-produced recording is her first for the boutique Nonesuch label after a string of artistically triumphant but commercially underachieving albums for Warners. On Life on a String the violinist-vocalist-poet delivers a multitextured collection of originals influenced by pop, new music, storytelling, spoken word and jazz. Originally planned three years earlier as the companion recording to Moby Dick, Laurie was so tired of working on the production of the performance piece that she decided to “throw 90 percent of it away and work on new material” for her next album.
In the lower level of her work space, down a spiral staircase, wires are everywhere in the control room. Listening to Laurie talk, one assumes she knows the function of them all. She explains the long process of recording Life on a String — changing its thematic direction, adding and deleting tracks, stripping away multiple layers of instrumentation to get a sparer sound. She admits that she’s meticulous about details. “I know every song file backwards,” she says. “Do you want to know how many song files there are? 32,000. Now, that’s a real burden, but I know where they are and how to find them if I need to.”
A category defier since her debut 1982 Big Science album, Laurie again exhibits her expansive musical purview. She takes a whimsical jaunt through the suite-like Van Dyke Parks-arranged “Dark Angel,” grooves into the peppy, jazz-curved “The Island Where I Come From,” colors a rainy-day feel on the poetic, film-noirish “Washington Street,” and uses sci-fi-like effects on her peculiar love song, the loopy “My Compensation.”
O SUPERMAN, AGAIN
Laurie’s most intimate song is “Slip Away,” a tune she wrote for her father who passed away at the age of 88 two years earlier. “It was his birthday yesterday, and my mother called and thanked me again for writing it,” she says. “I was with my dad when he died. He wasn’t very prepared when he found out he was ill. He didn’t know how to die, so he rented a bunch of cowboy films, I guess to see how to die bravely — like boom-ahhh-whooo, last words in the dust, there you go, goodbye. I was there with him on his last day, sitting close by him and synchronizing my breathing with his.”
Laurie attributes much of the introspective moments and at times dark tints on Life on a String to the loss of her father. “I am a driven person, but anytime you lose someone close to you, you think, what’s really important? Around that same time, Lou was on the road, and I was very lonely. Not a painful lonely, but a beautiful lonely where I’d go for three-hour walks with my dog and just look around and let things open up to me.”
The tour will focus on her new songs as well as revisit such old numbers as “O, Superman,” “Strange Angels” and “Beautiful Red Dress.” Again, Laurie took Lou’s advice: “I was trying to figure out how to make this club date work, and Lou said why not play some of your old songs too, stuff that people might like to hear.”
Laurie laughs. “I’m so used to putting on big productions, that had genuinely never occurred to me,” she says, then adds, “Hey, I thought, what a concept.”
EPILOGUE: DO ANGELS NEED HAIRCUTS?
In the May 16, 2018 edition of the London newspaper The Times, Roderick Stanley interviewed Laurie on the occasion of the publication of Do Angels Need Haircuts?, the clothbound book of Lou’s early poetry before the Velvet Underground days. It was based on Lou’s extensive archives acquired by the New York Public Library in 2017.
“It took us four years to go through it all,” Laurie told Stanley. “This is like getting to know him again. It’s really wonderful. Something most people don’t get to do is meet their younger partner much later in life.”
Laurie noted that Lou was the “funniest guy I’ve ever met” and “was one of the few men I’ve ever met who could cry.” In regards to one poem that begins with the line “Playing music is not like athletics/One may improve with age,” Laurie said. ”Isn’t that interesting? It gives you a glimmer of how hard he tried in everything…to make a song better, make his experience of the moment better…He always, until the last second he was alive, wanted to make things better.”
END OF CHAPTER 1
THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES is the work-in-progress book on Medium that continues for several weeks with archival articles on rock stars such as Frank Zappa and Elvis Costello; pop stars Joni Mitchell, T Bone Burnett, David Byrne; jazz greats Charlie Haden, Regina Carter, Henry Threadgill, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carla Bley; seminal roots artists John Lee Hooker and Astor Piazzolla…and more. The bulk of the writing originally appeared in print magazines and newspapers that are now relegated to the landfill.
In Chapter 2 of The Landfall Chronicles, jazz icon Wayne Shorter takes center stage in a multipart series of conversations — part 1 of Chapter 2 to be published on Medium next week.
Chapter 1. Lou Reed
Chapter 2. Wayne Shorter
Chapter 3. Frank Zappa
Chapter 4. Regina Carter