Real Life Rock (12/81)

Real Life Rock - O Superman

Laurie Anderson’s emergence from the ghetto of avant-garde performance art into the domain of the international pop star is one of the remarkable stories of the year. But while we’re going to be seeing her picture everywhere over the next months, a line Anderson recently offered is worth keeping in mind, both as a description of her aural/visual constructions and as a frame for her coming status as media celebrity: “What you see is not what you hear.”

Anderson, 34, grew up in the Chicago area and now lives in New York. She trained as an Egyptologist, but for more than ten years she has been performing in the live conceptual art tradition that be­gan with Filippo Marinetti’s first Futurist Evening in Trieste in 1910. The form became legend with the dada performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916, where the artist’s implicit promise to reveal the meaning of life was turned into a vaudeville show in which all the acts appeared at the same time. Hans Arp reports from the scene: “Total pandemonium. The people around us are shouting, laughing, and gesticulating. Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos, and miaowing of medieval Bruitists. Tzara is wiggling his behind like the belly of an oriental dancer. Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing and scraping. Madame Hennings, with a Madonna face [the Cab Volt performers often wore primitivist masks that presented distorted versions of their real faces], is doing the splits. Huelsenbeck is banging away nonstop on the great drum, with Ball accompanying him on the piano, pale as a chalky ghost.” The next year the craze captured Paris with the epochal Parade, a full-scale production by Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, Pablo Pi­casso, and Leonide Massine.

Just as cubism and photomontage subverted the claims of the fixed image, live art used noise to subvert music, costumes that overwhelmed those who wore them to subvert the actor, chance and absur­dity to subvert dramatic narrative, and the street to subvert the stage. The result was an enormous sense of possibility—now, anything could be “art.” The last bastion of mystification, it seemed, had been overthrown.

As happened with other twentieth-century avant-garde movements, performance art inverted itself. It led to a situation in which anything could be Art with a capital A and for that matter an R and a T. The decadence of the tradition can be seen in much of the American performance art of the last decade. The most paltry gesture (the artist masturbating and recording the event on video) could be cloaked in the sort of authority that radical live art had meant to destroy. The concept became more important than the performance that was meant to test it, to bring it to life—because in truth the performance was only meant to preserve the integrity, which is to say the sterility, of the concept. Concept was no longer an opportunity for the live exercise of imagination; it often became a way of disguising, through the authority a performer assumes over an audience—even an imaginary, “conceptual” audience (so much the better!)—the fact that no imagination was present. Someone setting up a game of three-card monte in an “art space” was doing performance art—in more ways than one. But in Anderson’s work that combination of vaudeville and the artist’s promise to reveal the meaning of life still makes itself felt.

While various Anderson pieces have appeared on obscure new-music anthology LPs over the years, Anderson released a record of her own for the first time this spring: “O Superman”/”Walk the Dog,” a seven-inch, fourteen-minute disc drawn from her United States (Transportation, Politics, Money, and Love), a multihour performance that has yet to be presented in its entirety. Issued on the tiny New York independent label One Ten, “O Superman” was also Anderson’s first real venture into a new art space—the market, the pop process.

The 5,000 copies One Ten originally pressed slowly began to appear in the more adventurous record stores and to be heard on a few of the nonprofit FM sta­tions you find jammed onto the far left end of the dial. The record played mostly late at night, when the line between dreaming and waking is thinnest—and it’s just that line “O Superman” means to dissolve.

The record found its way to Great Brit­ain’s John Peel, an eclectic BBC disc jockey whose anarchic show is beamed to the entire country four days a week. He spun “O Superman,” and the response, as they say not more than once a year, was unprecedented. Within weeks, “O Superman” was the most talked about record in the nation. Even Capitol Radio, London’s closest equivalent to an American Top 40 station, was playing it, though there was hardly a copy to be had anywhere in England—or, by this time, in the U.S.A. The London independent label Rough Trade picked up some of One Ten’s second pressing of 5,000 copies; they went fast, and Anderson entered the U.K.’s independent singles charts. Swiftly, Anderson cut a deal with Warner Bros., and by mid-October, just a fortnight after the major shipped 125,000 copies of the disc, “O Superman” reached number two on the British pop charts.

Warner Bros. has just made the record available in this country, and you should be able to find it in almost any store. Whether it will become any kind of hit on our timid airwaves is another question. Eight-minute AM hits in the United States are almost unknown; not even commercial FM stations still play long pieces—and, length aside, “O Superman” is a very strange record. It is, I discovered this fall, an even stranger performance.

I saw Laurie Anderson at the Cin­ema in San Francisco—the debut production for the venue’s new management. For a place set up mainly to present internationally known postpunk bands, it was an interesting bill: Anderson plus William Burroughs and poet John Giorno. But Anderson was the reason the 1,200-seat converted movie theater was jammed. The previous day (when the Warner Bros. signing was only a rumor), I had heard people in three different record stores asking, rather desperately, for “O Superman”—no luck.

Anderson took the stage in a black satin jacket, black shirt, black tie, black pants, her eyes made up to look like those of an emissary from the Village of the Damned, her hair chopped and spiked into a punk do, and immediately defused the expectations of the crowd with a bit of rambling, deadpan patter. She mimed with her neon violin, set a few tapes rolling to no apparent purpose. Having broken the context of artistic seriousness that had greeted her, she faded into “O Superman.”

Little else Anderson did that night came close to this piece. Much of her work—combining music, props, sound effects, movement, talk, and projected images—fell somewhere between noo­dling and academic deconstruction: “Closed Circuit,” nominally a skewed blues, came off as a riff seeking a subject. But “O Superman”—on record impressive partly for its commitment to craft and appealing partly because of its seemingly blithe toying with sound and myth—was an act of prophecy. Playing Farfisa organ, filtering and electronically distorting her voice against a never-flagging tape of “ah ah… ah,” the interjections seemingly timed to a cricket’s chirp, Anderson set comedy against fear: here, the object of deconstruction was nothing less than the United States itself.

“O Superman” begins with the recorded leave-a-message instructions of an answer phone. Mom checks in (“Are you coming home?”), and then an anonymous voice: the voice, you come to think soon enough, of the nation’s future—or its fortune-teller.

“Well, you don’t know me,” the voice says, “but I know you”—Anderson suddenly lifts and curls the line out of speech and into music, bringing you into a conversation that a moment before you were only overhearing—“And I’ve got a message/To give to you/Here come the planes…” This last word is drawn out electronically, giving you time to think about it, to form an image, even to helplessly glance up at the roof of the theater. The word carries over into the next verse, and the voice goes on: “So you’d better get ready/Ready to go/You can come as you are/But pay as you go.”

It’s a good joke, but by this point only that anonymous voice can afford to laugh. The voice creates the sense that one has incurred a debt without knowing it and that one must now make the debt good. The piece is absolutely terrifying, and the voice turns playful, or sadistic, with a prim little lilt: “They’re American planes/Made in America/Smoking—or Nonsmoking.” The woman whose machine has picked up the call now picks up the phone herself, but the voice continues with its riddles: “Neither snow nor rain/Nor gloom of night/Shall stay these couriers/From the swift completion/Of their appointed rounds.” The voice is gentle, ageless, magically summoning the shared American memory of old catchphrases, old certainties—but these couriers are not delivering the mail. There isn’t a note, a tone, a word, an inflection that is out of place, that doesn’t have its purpose in advancing the awful, revela­tory mood of the piece—in moments you can almost hear Anderson crouching behind a line, hear her back off from another even as she delivers it.

The song drifts away. The voice departs, and the woman is left to make her peace with its echo: “When love is gone/ There’s always justice/And when justice is gone/There’s always force/And when force is gone… there’s always Mom (Hi, Mom!).” What is left, really, is retreat, because the mystery, solved, is implacable. In a weird but by now inevitable merging of technological authority and the yearning for a love that need not be earned, Mom becomes America, and the woman we are listening to wants only to surrender to its arms. And so she does.

Were we to hear “O Superman” on the radio every day, as, presumably, the Brit­ish are—were we to hear it waking up, driving the car, without warning—both Anderson’s concept and its execution would be tested. Then we would find out how strong this work really is.

In contrast to Anderson, Yoko Ono is precisely the sort of intellectually effete, aesthetically decadent post-dada artist I was speaking of earlier—a maker of art by fiat. It has been a year since John Lennon was shot to death—a year during which Ono has performed as something like a professional widow (on her Season of Glass LP, not at all badly)—but now it is time to blow the whistle.

Recently, Rolling Stone interviewer Barbara Graustark pressed Ono on the subject of her and Lennon’s heroin use in the late sixties. Ono finally owned up, and then produced this extraordinary state­ment: “But we were taking it in celebra­tion, not out of depression. We were artists. We were celebrating ourselves. It was beautiful to be on a high… You know, when you think about people who take drugs, you think of weak people who can’t help themselves or get off. But that’s when I realized what a powerful person John was. Once he decided, he would just say, ‘Okay, this is the last one.’ And then he would go through with­drawal, and I would, too. He had will­power that was amazing.”

It’s the central conceit of these com­ments that is amazing: we were artists. Throughout almost all of Ono’s conceptual artwork from the early sixties on—her Duchamp imitations, bag acts, bed-ins, noise albums, one-note films—one can find this theme: whatever the artist does is sanctified. (Even murder can be sanctified, as Chris Burden has labored to prove, so far unsuccessfully—he once took a shot at an airplane and labeled the act an art statement.) Dada wanted to smash the sanctity of art; the New York neodada tradition out of which Ono has worked tries to make the artist into God.

What Ono was trying to tell Graustark was that she and Lennon were special: better than you and me. This is a spiritually repressive message—and her Los Angeles Times ad soliciting “plants, rocks and/or stones” to decorate the Central Park lanes where “John and I took our last walk together” is of a piece with it—but the effect of Ono’s comments on smack will be concretely destructive. Can anyone imagine a statement more likely to encourage heroin use among people who identify with John Lennon? Among high school and college students who think of themselves as “artists” (who will be led to think that “willpower,” which we all believe we have and which is part of the self-image of the driven artist, is all it takes to get off heroin)? Among those who think that sensitivity is dispensation?

Yoko Ono’s comments about heroin are not just personal, not just one more example of the sentimentality and mindlessness that have characterized her discourse with the public over the years. They are part and parcel of a tradition that meant to liberate both art and life, and which, in certain hands, now enshrines the falsification of the former and the suppression of the latter.

Albert Goldman’s Elvis (McGraw Hill), which grossed $2 million in subsidiary rights even before publication, is a sneering dismissal not only of Presley and his music but of the entire white working-class southern culture from which he came. “Like most country boys of his time,” Goldman writes, “he was uncircumcised… He saw his beauty disfigured by an ugly hillbilly pecker.” In an earlier book, Gold­man found John Lennon’s uncircumcised penis similarly repulsive—which has not stopped him from demanding, and receiving, a $1 million advance to write Lennon’s biography. Presumably Bob Dylan is safe.

Real Life Rock Top Ten

  1. Human Sexual Response, “Andy Fell,” from In a Roman Mood (Passport)
  2. Rod Stewart, “Young Turks” (Warner Bros.)
  3. Joe Ely, Live Shots (SouthCoast)
  4. Robert Christgau, Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (Ticknor & Fields)
  5. Sly and the Family Stone, Anthology (Epic reissue, 1968-73)
  6. Billy Idol, “Dancing With Myself” (long version), from “Don’t Stop” (Chrysalis 12″ EP)
  7. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” from In Harmony 2 (CBS)
  8. Funkadelic, The Electric Spanking of War Babies (Warner Bros.)
  9. Singers & Players, “Reaching the Bad Man,” from War of Words (99)
  10. Foreigner, “Urgent” (Atlantic)

California, December 1981

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