Laurie Anderson, Zellerbach Hall 2012

Getting There

This trek to Berkeley is becoming more familiar, and it’s a trip we’re making more often, especially since U.C. Santa Cruz dropped their Arts and Lectures programs, due to lack of funds.  I found the drive to be a rather harrowing, up 880 during rush hour, even though we lucked out on the traffic.  No serious collisions.  But lots of construction, and lots of drivers of all kinds, including crazy ones.  Whee!  I know some people commute this route every day.  Amazing.

Also, I’m getting used to the poorly marked freeway exits.  The really nasty one is going from highway 24 to Telegraph Avenue, which is marked, NOT Telegraph Avenue, but “51st Street.”  Miss that one, and you wind up in the Caldecott Tunnel, and getting back can be significantly slower than going astray.

I love that there are about a half a dozen Ethopian restaurants on Telegraph.  On the other hand, Herbivore is one of my favorite Berkeley experiences (and San Francisco experiences).  Usually, if you’re vegetarian tending to vegan like I am, a typical restaurant may offer you maybe two meager choices.  By contrast, at Herbivore I can eat anything on the menu.  Same thing at Cafe Gratitude or Malabar in Santa Cruz.

But I digress.

The Show

The curtains were open the entire time, before, after, and during the show.  All around the stage were votive candles, and there was an fog generator constantly spinning out thin sheets of artificial mist.  Down stage, house right, was a little console apparently equipped with a MIDI keyboard that could trigger loops and so on.  She spent most of her time there, reading from various “texts” (a cross between prose and poetry) and shifting the ever-present musical accompaniment.  We were subject to the lingering body-shaking low notes, kind of like with Tangerine Dream, though  I didn’t feel a need for ear plugs for this one.  For the rest, the background consisted of a series of spacious, hypnotic electronic loops.  You know the kind.

Now and then she would take out her electric violin and play heavily modified chords.  It sounded like she had at least a harmonizer and an echo-plex going, along with other modulations.  Pleasant, yet avant garde, I suppose.  And she did her usual voice-transposer thing, where she spoke into a microphone and her voice was transposed down several octaves so she could imitate an old man, or God, or what have you.  The most creative gimmick of the evening was when she took this little white disk called a “pillow speaker” and put it in to her mouth, where she could modify the formant of the violin part playing through it by changing the shape of her lips.

The substance of the performance seemed to be her reading of the texts, in her own particular slow, deliberate style characterized by an emphasis on the ends of sentences and drawing out of the ends of words.  Or a pause before the final word, e.g. “For Darwin, the peacock feather was a complete … nightmare!”

Actually, that was one of the funniest pieces.  She explained how Darwin was troubled by the beauty of the peacock feather, because it was completely inessential to survival, plus it meant that women were making all the decisions that governed evolution.  “And Darwin being something of a mousy dresser himself…”

Other themes were rather solemn.  Is this what artists do when they get old?  She reflected on the fact that at 63, she has spent an average of 21 years asleep.  So her sleeping self is now old enough to vote and buy alcohol.

She spent a long segment an a visit to a tent city in New Jersey, where people lived when they became homeless.  I suppose she felt those who paid $90/seat to see her ought to be subject to this sort of scolding.  Given that the show was 90 minutes, that would be a dollar a minute.  If you’ll let me play her own game back at her: I think it would have been much more democratic had we been admitted for free, taking along a stack of dollars.  We could feed them into a slot, one per minute.  Then, if the minute were only worth, say fifty cents, we could withhold our fees and negotiate for better entertainment.  Some of those minutes, I think she should have paid me a dollar for.

I suppose I ought not complain.  Had I been clever enough to realize she would rocket to stardom back in 1981, I could have seen her for free at the college night at UCSC.  In addition to being cheaper, she would have been younger and less morbid back then.  Apparently, speculation has never been my strong suit.

Like Garrison Keillor, who we saw this year, who was ruminating about turning 70, Ms. Anderson’s thoughts and monologue were evidently turned towards that big finale of life, that final tunnel of light and so on.  Or two lights, according to the Tibetans, we found out.  One near, and one far.  Go to the far one.  This, the Lamas shout  in your ears after you have died.  I’m not quite sure why.  Couldn’t they just give you a map to look at beforehand?  Someday they will patent a GPS that you can use crossing the river Styx.  It might be rather expensive, but at that point, who cares?

We got to hear about her dog, (who died) and see a video of it playing the piano.  For this episode, she sat in a comfy chair upstage house left, with a screen showing these imprints her dog had left on a giant sketch pad similar to one of those you had when you were a kid, where you lift up the plastic sheet to erase it.  As she so astutely pointed out, they resembled phosphenes.  And told us about a friend who had died, who used to saw houses in two.

Just like Garrison Keillor, except the sawing houses in two.

In all, I’m glad I got to see Laurie Anderson in person, but I don’t think I would again, at least not for that price.  I’m glad she’s successful, as she seems to have good intentions and it’s amazing that she could have the focus to entertain us for 90 minutes non-stop.  But not exactly the best value for entertainment.

And by the way, the title of the show was “Dirtday,” because she was thinking we could rename planet Earth “Dirt,” which would be more accurate or visceral I guess.  I’m afraid I may not be clever enough to grasp all of this.

Too deep for a simple-minded fellow like myself.

Besides, I was hoping she would do Smoke on the Water for the encore.



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