Last night I saw Laurie Anderson live at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. Her show ‘The Language of the Future’ was the closing act for Transmediale – festival for art and digital culture Berlin, an event which has taken place annually since 1988.
I was a huge Laurie Anderson fan back in college. I still remember buying used copies of her CDs at Amoeba Music on Telegraph Avenue, all stashed away under the section Arists A. I bought everything of Laurie’s I could get my hands on, but my two favorites albums were Bright Red and The Ugly One with the Jewels.
I brought all my Laurie Anderson CDs with me when I moved to Berlin and, for a while, I still listened to them. But at some point, I knew all the stories on the albums by heart.
Life changed. Like most people in the Western world, I haven’t listened to CDs for years. But none of Laurie Anderson’s work ended up on any of my Spotify playlists. The last time I thought about her was probably when Lou Reed died, because I loved his music too and I knew they were married
I also compeletly missed out on Anderson’s 2015 film Heart of a Dog, but anyone with little kids probably knows this isn’t all that surprising. When you have kids ten and under, you more or less stop going to the movies, or at least everyone I know has. Before the kids I was a total film buff, always up on the latest art house flicks. I’m curious to see if this will bounce back as my daughters grow older—my oldest daughter is turning ten in around five weeks. Anyway, Heart of a Dog is now definitely on my streaming-at-home list.
Even though I’d lost track of Laurie Anderson, I was excited when I saw she was performing in Berlin. I bought two tickets as soon as they went on sale, one for me and one for a good friend of mine who’d seen Heart of a Dog and found it incredibly moving.
During the show, I was surprised how tiny Laurie Anderson is. Although I never really thought about it, I think I always assumed she’d be tall and willowy. I just read online she’s 5’6, but that doesn’t seem possible; she looked more like she was 5’4 or even 5’2. Then again, the stage was huge and she was all alone out there. Maybe anyone would look small under such circumstances.
During the performance, it was truly incredible how masterfully she changed the atmosphere. One moment she’d have all of us laughing at some funny story or witty remark and, sometimes only minutes later, the tone would change, and everyone in the room was on the verge of tears. Her stories switched from insightful and clever to personal and endearing, from surreal to folksy. Just when the intensity of the words and music had reached the point of being nearly unbearable, they dissolved into droplets or a puff of smoke.
Laurie started out the evening talking about Trump and what it’s been like in New York since he was elected. She said it’s been like waking up into a nightmare where all of the worst parts of America—its bigotry, its greed, its ignorance—was suddenly in charge. She talked about the initial protests and how they’ve died down. Now everyone walks around glued to their cell phones, waiting for the next terrible thing to happen. People tell stories, trying to make sense of it all, but the truth is nobody knows where this is headed.
For me, the most moving story of the evening was the one she told about spending a month in the hospital when she was twelve years old. It all started when she tried to impress everyone by doing a flip off the high dive one summer at the local pool in her hometown. She did the flip, but instead of landing in the water, she hit the concrete and broke her back. Laurie told the story of the hospital with film images in the background: The condenscending nurses who read her a boring story everyday which she detested, the children who were burn victims, their bodies turned over and over again to be bathed in a cooling liquid, the clueless doctor who told her she’d never walk again.
She said she’d been telling this story for years and years when one day she realized how much she’d forgotten: She’d forgotten the smells and sounds of the hospital at night; she’d forgotten how frightened she was. She’d forgotten the screams and cries, the sounds children make when they’re dying. She’d forgotten the empty beds and how the nurses never said anything, just cleaned them up and got them ready for the next patient.
In the story, all she remembered was herself. Like the nurses, even this she’d cleaned up: the memory neater, more vague, more sterile and homogenized.
Sometime during the performance, memories of my own came up:
I remembered lying alone in the dark on the beige couch with gold trim in my parents living room, listening to The Ugly One with the Jewels. I could smell the room, that musty smell of too many pets, could hear the click of my dog Buster’s nail against the terra cotta tiles, could see some of his nails, curled into little black rosettes because they needed clipping, but I was too afraid to clip them myself, too afraid I’d accidently cut them to the quick, and he’d bleed.
I remembered lying in the dark, listening to Laurie tell her stories and that feeling of doom is there: I am a person destined to live out a life behind closed doors, a person who will always feel things too deeply, but never have enough words to talk about what I feel.
I’m trapped in a block of ice and I can see everything, but I can’t act; I can’t talk; I can’t move.
Over the years, I’ve buffed and polished these memories. I’ve restructured the messiness, cleaned up the painful parts, blocked out the parts too hard to bear.
Feeling them again during Laurie’s performance made me remember in a deeper way just how far I’ve come.