June 1, 2013
Not for Laurie Anderson the dramatic revelation. No clenched hands or tears. There’s no big build-up to revealing in her husky, soft voice that her husband, the rock star Lou Reed, has just almost died.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time in Cleveland [Ohio] these past few weeks . . .” the sentence begins, seemingly ushering in a less earth-shattering anecdote. “My husband had a big surgery, which went very well.”
What was it?
“A liver transplant. It’s as serious as it gets. He was dying. You don’t get it for fun.”
We are in Anderson’s work-loft over- looking the Hudson River in New York, a few blocks south from the home she shares with Reed. Will, her Border terrier, is nestled by my leg. There’s a shrine to the Dalai Lama, paintings, art books and musical instruments. Sometimes she sings a word out of the blue, mid-sentence.
She has been ambling, both precisely and esoterically, around other subjects dressed in pale-striped shirt and trousers, dark hair feathery-spiky, with an engaged, wry smile. She has mulled over a planned 13-storey building that will obliterate her light (a skylight may be the solution) and her river view, her latest piece, Landfall, which she’s set to perform in London this month with the innovative string ensemble Kronos Quartet, and her career as one of the world’s pre-eminent avant-garde artists. She reached No 2 in the British charts in 1981 with her single O Superman, though she is happiest dreaming up collaborations involving art, film, music and technology with instruments and technology she has originated.
Reed had mysteriously cancelled five concert dates in April, including a pair of performances at the Coachella Festival, with one venue citing “unavoidable complications”. The couple chose surgery in Cleveland over New York “because the hospitals here are completely dysfunctional,” says Anderson. “Fortunately, we can outsource like corporations. It’s medical tourism. The Cleveland clinic is massive: they have the best results for heart, liver and kidney transplants. Whenever I get discouraged about how stupid technology is and how greedy and stupid Americans are, I go to the Cleveland clinic because the people there are very kind and very smart.”
Reed, formerly of the Velvet Undeground and famous as a solo artist for Walk on the Wild Side and Perfect Day, had the operation in early May. “You send out two planes — one for the donor, one for the recipient — at the same time. You bring the donor in live, you take him off life support. It’s a technological feat. I was completely awestruck. I find certain things about technology truly, deeply inspiring.”
How have the last few weeks been? “When you’ve been with someone for a long time (she and Reed, 71, have been together for 21 years and married for five) it’s almost like it’s happening to you because of the empathy between partners.
This is no longer an operation that is life-threatening. They put it [the new liver] in immediately and it started to work immediately. Every week it gets better. I can imagine a world where you can get everything transplanted.”
How long will Reed’s recovery be?
“I don’t think he’ll ever totally recover from this, but he’ll certainly be back to doing [things] in a few months. He’s already working and doing t’ai chi. I’m very happy. It’s a new life for him.”
Anderson thinks music and art have a function in hospitals: her friend Brian Eno has made music for hospitals and airports. “Music and art don’t have to be shunted away to the gallery district of town. I’m really grateful for some of the barriers falling down.”
The 70-minute Landfall was conceived when she said to Kronos Quartet, “How about I make something so you can tell stories with instruments?” The New York Times review of Landfall said: “The results suggested logic while defying sense.” The piece combines a “five-string viola layer with little bits of electronics,” Anderson says, who once created a tape-bow violin that used recorded magnetic tape on the bow instead of horsehair.
“I can’t leave things alone,” Anderson says. “I wasn’t really that good as a violin player. If I’d really had chops myself, I wouldn’t have quit when I was 16. I wanted to learn physics, German and travel.”
“Playfulness” motivates her to create new instruments and sounds. She says she is fascinated by codes, such as the poems transmitted by agents during the Second World War. “Art is a code. This conversation we’re having is a code. Music is a code.”
Environmental threat is not Landfall’s theme: “I have a lot of trouble with this idea that artists should make the world a better place. For who? I had a missionary grandmother who spread the word of God to the Japanese but she didn’t want to learn Japanese. She taught them how to make large hats. She was a gardener so they taught her how to cut bonsai. That was the exchange.”
Anderson’s art tends to be more political when the Right is in power. “But I don’t know who’s in power now. The Left looks like the Right so I’m desperately confused. I’m not in favour of picking people off with drones; we no longer have a working constitution or Bill of Rights. Obama is a pretty good guy who got caught in what we all got caught in: a late phase of capitalism where everything is about money.”
In her forthcoming multimedia work, United States V, Anderson is updating United States (1983), one of her most famous works, which will focus on the weather, surveillance culture, weapons and war. “I’m not trying to comment on these things but describe them.”
In an event later this month, she and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (via Skype) will rant about the US and China. Anderson would never say that artists shouldn’t be political but “one thing I have noticed is a giant blue painting can be more about freedom than any poem about not being free.”
When the Hudson River flooded during Hurricane Sandy last October “it came up our street. It was fascinating, really wild, to see nothing between you and America. It was very dream-like and I was writing Landfall, which is a lot of different stories about the influence dreams have on us.”
Anderson and Reed’s basement was com- pletely flooded: she lost 30 projectors, “a bunch of vintage keyboards, a lot of old sculpture. At first, I was devastated. Everything that was floating was cardboard pulp within two days.” She realised later that it was a relief. “It was very freeing to have that stuff gone and now I no longer have to clean the basement.”
Most of her archive was at her studio; Reed has his own. “It works very well. I suggest it to any married couple. If you’re an artist you need a lot of time by yourself.” Reed is a “really good, really hard” editor, urging her to say what she means rather than deploy metaphors. “He’s always right, it’s irritating.”
Growing up in Illinois, Anderson was a “sky-worshipper”. She “skipped to school, looking at the trees full of squirrels and a 180 degree Midwestern sky. It always calmed me and still does.”
She was the second oldest child of eight, taking care of her siblings, “so I decided never to have any [children] for myself. I was busy travelling, having so much fun. I am very happy with that decision.”
Anderson’s mother was a painter and violinist, so art was always around her. Her father tap-danced and told jokes. She grew up thinking men were warmer than women, “who just told you to eat dinner and do your homework”.
After studying art history and sculpture Anderson worked as a comic book artist and art critic. She collaborated with avant-garde luminaries such as John Giorno, Philip Glass, Gordon Matta-Clark, Timothy Leary and William Burroughs — “Bill liked guns and didn’t like women, so that was a little awkward.”
Anderson says she felt the pressure to come up with a style, to sell herself in the art world marketplace, but she was doing “little pieces in lofts of ten people” and alter- native arts spaces. “Warner Brothers showed up asking me to make a record,”
Anderson recalls. “I didn’t want to. Pop culture is for 14-year-old boys. I’ve nothing against 14-year-old boys but they’re not interested in what I’m interested in. I wasn’t looking for recognition. I have a lot of disdain for pop culture. I’m a snob.”
She says television, apart from HBO, is hopeless. How did she feel about making No 2 in the charts? “If you get something you didn’t dream of, it’s very abstract. I didn’t even know what the charts were. I approached it in an anthropological way, it was really strange all these people listening to it. I’m not saying it didn’t make me happy, I just couldn’t count on it. That world will come and go.”
Anderson married Reed in 2008 after speaking on the phone — he was in New York, she in California — and recounting the things she’d never done, like learning German, and physics and getting married.
“ ‘OK’, he said, ‘let’s get married. I’ll meet you in Denver tomorrow’. I said, ‘Don’t you think that’s too soon?’ and he said, ‘No, I’ll be there.’ We married in a friend’s yard the next morning.
“Marriage adds a certain tenderness,” she says. “You realise you’ll be with this person for the rest of your life. It moves you through time, it makes you imagine the rest of your life. Big weddings could be fun but not for me. I wore a checked shirt I really like that I wear every Saturday. We wrote our vows in, like, five minutes. It’s nice to have a partner. I recommend it.”
Anderson tells me she is making a movie about her deceased rat terrier Lolabelle “who played the piano” and died 49 days before Anderson’s birthday. “The Tibetans believe the spirit disintegrates and transforms over 49 days, so she was reborn on my birthday.”
Anderson says she’ll probably be on the road till she drops. “As long as I’m strong I’ll work. You don’t work music, you play music.” As she pets Will, Anderson smiles: “I think of work as a way of playing around and why would you want to stop playing around?”