A Conversation with Laurie Anderson
Mike Ragogna: Laurie, from your perspective, how did you affect each other’s creativity?
Laurie Anderson: We would always be in the studio when the other person was there―not non-stop, but just popping in. I think we influenced each other even more in the writing phase. We would always look at each other’s things. I was always completely amazed that Lou could wake up and write a song without seeming to work on it at all. There it was. I agonize over each three words. But also, he was a much more direct writer. He was very into his emotions. He would always encourage me to speak directly. He would say, “Why are you saying that’s ‘like’ something? Why don’t you say what it is?” Well, metaphor? I don’t know. He was very clear about being direct, and that really made a big impression on my own writing. In terms of music as well, he would listen to things and say, “Repeat that.” He knew what a great chorus was. “That’s your chorus.” “I don’t need a chorus.” “Just try it,” and it would be really interesting. He was always right. His instincts were infallible, it was crazy.
MR: He was considered a musicologist with a strong, working knowledge of music. Did he exhibit that much of the time? Was he always referencing artists in conversation?
LA: Yeah, he and Hal Willner were deep musicologists. They would go, “Oh, remember that thing that Jimmy Scott did? It would be so spot on. Also on the radio show they did for Sirius they were able to really geek out on their musicology because they both know so much music history.
MR: The concept of “beauty” keeps coming up over and over, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’m thinking to him, it might not have meant gorgeous or lush.
LA: I would say lush might have been part of his definition depending on what it was. He didn’t have anything against lush, really.
MR: The liner notes refer to him feeling pleased and vindicated that finally a couple of albums that weren’t appreciated on their release finally were. Did he come up with a theory on why?
LA: I think it’s probably the same theory that most people would have. Music is about expectation and not experience. People think, “This is going to be a rock record,” so it has to fit into their category of rock records. It’s the same way an audience will decide in the first three minutes of a show, “Oh, this is a rock show.” If it suddenly turns into blues three songs later they get upset because it’s not as advertised. People don’t live so much in the present days as in what they expect. I think that’s what it is, and he was never surprised about that. I sometimes am. When Lou died I had trouble listening to Lulu, because it was one of the last things he did and because it has a lot of violent imagery in it and anger. One of the things that David Bowie told me was, “Just wait, it’s always like this. People don’t understand it until twenty years later. Lulu is his masterpiece.” What? I went back and listened to it again kind of with different ears and I realized it’s so full of rage. He was not afraid to be really angry. Really angry. It wasn’t about being polite, and people are terrified of real rage and ragged emotion like that. That was what Lou understood and wrote to. He never tried to be polite or ask anyone to like him or like his ideas or feel good about it. He was really just trying to express things. Well, he was doing a lot of things, I shouldn’t quite try to say it like that. I finally realized Lulu really is a masterpiece, and I think that has happened with most of his really daring things. People just don’t get it.
MR: He’s considered the godfather of punk, but he didn’t really consider himself a punk artist. There are so many periods of Lou music, it’s almost like he was saying, “You need to experience this now.” Do you think he may have had a dual mission of expressing himself and guiding his audience?
LA: I don’t think he would’ve loved the word “mission,” but he was open to a lot of things and trying a lot of things. He was a real pioneer. Maybe “mission” would be good, I’m not sure. He really wanted to push things as far as they could go.
MR: How did you react to his rampant experimentalism? Did you impact his creativity in a similar way?
LA: You have to ask him, which wouldn’t be possible now. He said that I did, but I couldn’t see that myself. I can’t really speak to that.
MR: It’s in the ear of the beholder, I guess.
MR: One of the more beautiful things mentioned in the liner notes was the description of how he passed, with the music, and all of you in the room. The public knew certain Lous, but I’m not sure we knew that Lou.
LA: His friends did. He was the amazing and most kind person I’ve ever met, by far. The fact that he didn’t advertise that made me even love him more. He just wasn’t about making that a public statement at all. He was a writer. People forget that. He wasn’t necessarily saying, “This is me.” I always think of him as able to take his leather jacket on or off depending on when he wanted to be Lou Reed or not. Lou Reed for him was a concoction that he had invented. He used it really in a very interesting way.
MR: What was the cycle for him and his audience?
LA: I think he enjoyed pushing a lot of buttons, he would play songs that he liked and that he knew the audience would like as well, “Wild Side,” “Sweet Jane,” classics, but he would always look for new ways to do them. Always. He would get really frustrated if he couldn’t find a new way to make that song come across. He’d also go off into lots of other styles, he did a lot of meditation music, a lot of tai chi music, one of his goals was to do electronic music that would open your mind in ways that weren’t just a calming, soothing thing, but would really pry it open. He was a very fierce martial artist and teacher as well. I think in many ways a lot of people know him more as a martial artist than as a musician. That’s why when we did this big celebration of his work at Lincoln Center a lot of people said, “Oh, he did music? Oh wow!” because they knew him from that world of being a tai chi master.
MR: Was there a lot of spirituality in the house?
LA: I would say in our hearts, so yes. We are both students of Mingyur Rinpoche, that was a very big thing for us, being students of Tibetan meditation. We spent many, many years doing that and we found some great teachers. Lou was really masterful at finding stability and power, which he used in his meditation and in his tai chi and in his music. He was able to avoid separating those things into categories. He saw how he could integrate the knowledge of yourself into your music and make it ten times more powerful. He was really interested in that. He was interested in magic and power and transcending yourself.
MR: How would you say he evolved, both creatively and as a human?
LA: I saw him do a lot of things, which mostly involved meditation and tai chi. Finding the right teacher is really big for any student. His teacher master Ren Guangyi is the push hands champion of China and now is trying to do a lot of big foundations of Lou as a Tai Chi master in China. Chinese TV was just here doing a whole series on him. Ren is really very tied to Lou. They were twin martial artists. I think that Lou is known mostly in China as a tai chi master, and rock ‘n’ roll is second to that.
MR: That’s amazing, something people in general didn’t know around here, but of course you get to have your own life, too.
LA: Especially in the music world, it’s just a bunch of cartoons about who people are. Nobody knows what’s really going on, it’s just roll out the product and have a very simple personality of two or three things to go with your songs, and that’s it. I’m not saying people should do more than that, it’s hard. I have to say Lou was a great writer, and don’t confuse his characters―think about how many people he wrote about, they all have names, he’s not writing about “me alone in my room” and “I” and “you” and “the person I love,” it wasn’t “I and you” kind of writing. It was “Candy from out on the island.” Everyone had a name. “Rotten Rita,” this Shakespearean cast of characters. I think people should look at him like that. It’s not in a rock ‘n’ roll icon mold. He played that part and that was just one of the many, many things he played in his life.
MR: What do you think new artists could take away from Lou’s life and his body of work?
LA: I would say probably just don’t be afraid to experiment. Take all of your fears and get rid of them. I spend a lot of time trying to put our three rules out into the world. We did spend several years trying to come up with these because life goes by so fast and sometimes you need a rule or two to get you through. Don’t be afraid of anyone. If you can imagine how different your life would be if you weren’t afraid of anyone. Just get a good bullshit detector and learn how to use it. Be really tender. That is what I would say to new artists, because that is something Lou and I really worked on and I can with confidence say―especially the very first one, fearlessness is really important. That means jump out of your self-contained nest if you can and try to make something beautiful and dangerous.
MR: What is life like for you these days? What are you working on? How are you doing?
LA: I’m having an incredibly great time. I’m working on a lot of things, a big VR project, several books, one of which is completing a tai chi book for Lou, which will come out when we get it out. Probably a few too many projects, a lot of touring stuff, I’m involved in film now. It’s a wonderful thing. When the worst thing happens, which is when your partner dies, you think, “Okay, what am I going to do about that?” I decided to follow those rules and have the most wonderful life I could imagine, so that’s what I try to do, even though I miss Lou every second of my life. Every second. I live in another zone now, where I appreciate life a hundred times more than I used to. I think people whose partners have died often experience this, this incredible gratitude, this sense of ecstasy of understanding a little bit more about how time works.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
THE WHO'S ROGER DALTREY PRESENTS HERNAN BARANGAN’S TEEN CANCER DOC ROAD REBELLION
On Saturday Oct. 8, Southern California’s KCETLink Media Group will air two documentaries during its fundraising event—Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who and the television premiere of Road Rebellion, created by filmmaker and cancer survivor Hernan Barangan and executive produced by Roger Daltrey and Teen Cancer America. Hernan is an LA filmmaker who at 15 was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, which he fought successfully. Ever since, his focus has been to offer information and positive reinforcement to those teens afflicted with cancer, as well as their supportive network of families and friends.
Also during the broadcasts, KCET will offer viewers a chance to get a pair of premium, reserved tickets to all three days of the Desert Trip Concert (featuring The Who, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, etc.). Viewers will need to tune in during the broadcast for further details regarding the premium seats.
According to cancer survivor Hernan Barangan on the making of Road Rebellion...
“Throughout making this film, one of my biggest goals has been to reach those who have no experience with cancer whatsoever. If I can give them a better understanding of what its like to have cancer—then everybody is a little more prepared for the moment when someone they know actually is diagnosed. My hope is that this dispels a lot of the fear that comes in that moment. So that everybody is more equipped emotionally to support that person who has been diagnosed. The fact that I’m a cancer survivor goes a long way towards forging a bond while were filming. Still, every interview has its own challenges and it’s up to me to find that one moment when both my interviewee and I forget completely that we are filming. Our sessions usually feel more like storytelling hangouts—and usually an interview will run for 2 hours or more.
“When you get diagnosed with cancer its like being airlifted into a completely different life. The dynamic in your family is changed forever. You’re afraid or sad or in pain but you can never let it show because you have to protect your family from what you’re going through. Maybe you have siblings and they have a whole other set of emotions to deal with. Now you’ve got all the attention of your parents—where does it leave them? And what about your school friends? In this age group, how can anyone expect them to react well to the news that you have cancer? Many stay away because they have no idea how to act around you anymore. A good friend will step up and face the challenge with you. Either way, they’ll never look at you the same. It’s an age when home and social life are already in flux to begin with. Adding cancer to that just makes it so much more complicated.”