I bought Big Science by Laurie Anderson (LP version, not CD or cassette) with money from one of my first paychecks from Kentucky Fried Chicken. At sixteen, I was entranced by her music and her image after serendipitously seeing a video of "O Superman" one winter evening on some late-night cable basement TV show. That light emanating from her mouth, that electric-bolt style of hairdo, that voice, oh that technocratic-lady voice. The synthesizer sadness of it all is what truly got me though: there was a hook there, a pop-song need to please, and yet Anderson never escaped her own beautiful, repetitiously mournful pretentiousness, her need not to please. Every song on Big Science opened up new little doors inside a melancholy/psychotic dollhouse; it became the soundtrack of my high school years. I returned to it over and over, trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with myself, and then most of the time I would just give up and luxuriate in the big strange universe Anderson conjured, constantly edified by the sarcastic sincerity of her voice, her way.
I've seen her a couple of times live, and still that same feeling comes through. She's all-out, balls-out art-school-precious, but also there is a mean-spirited and wild blankness to her delivery that counteracts that preciousness. It's that off-kilter meanness that blossoms into her sense of humor too. Her music and writing brim with self-deprecation and moral wiliness; when she's not meditating on something serious, she's pulling the mask off her own seriousness:
I turned the corner in Soho today and
Looked right at me and said: Oh no! Another Laurie Anderson clone!
That's from "Talk Normal," a little ditty off her 1986 album Home of the Brave, a jaunty, funky hot mess of songs and ideas and jokes that gives off a toxic glow, while also somehow summoning the smell of suntan lotion being applied on the beach.
Anderson is a mixed bag of greatness, a clone of herself, and a sort of touchstone I'm glad is there. Without her, I wouldn't be the same. The world wouldn't be.
And so last night I watched her 2015 movie Heart of a Dog, and I was completely floored. A documentary that loops around itself, meditation into riddle into sidebar into punchline into philosophy, the movie is a sort of Laurie Anderson manifesto after the fact. And the whole shebang hinges on her love of her dog Lolabelle, a little terrier who passes away and yet leaves such a distinct impression I'm still kind of reeling from the experience of witnessing Anderson's total love and aesthetic devotion to her.
Heart of a Dog in short is a masterpiece of seriousness of purpose, of intent, of mode and mission. A cinematic hodgepodge of thoughts and feelings, drawings and mood music, texts and poems, the movie captures what it means to be a human being in all of this shit by investing all its intentions in the spirit and image of a dear little dog. While that sounds a little twee I'm sure, it's really all we've got to go on, if you get right down to it. Loving someone, something, that's beyond your scope of comprehension, and yet returns that love with an intensity and grace beyond any understanding. That's Lolabelle in a nutshell. That's Heart of a Dog.
Anderson's narrative voice in the movie is the same as the narrative voice in Big Science, thank God. Cartoonishly erudite, a little too full of itself and careful, it has a cadence and tone that turns musical in one moment and caustically cautious the next. It's like coming home.