I’ve seen a lot of great musicians perform.
Bruce Springsteen, back-to-back with saxophonist Clarence Clemons, cooking to “Rosalita.” Annie Lennox, her carrot hair crewcut-short, keeping time with drumsticks over her head, singing in a bar in Cleveland. I’ve seen Leonard Bernstein conduct the Vienna Philharmonic and Muddy Waters sing the blues. I’ve seen Frank Zappa display his shambolic virtuosity, twice, and Yo-Yo Ma play cello so sublimely the audience cried. Or maybe that was just me. Once, at a party, Tony Bennett made a surprise appearance, stood within arm’s reach and sang, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” I’ve heard distinctive singers from Joe Cocker to Joe Strummer, of the Clash. I’ve seen Elton John pound the piano on “Bennie and the Jets” and Ray Charles caress it, singing “Georgia on my Mind.” I’ve listened to David Bowie noodle a synthesizer and heard Loretta Lynn warble “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” I’ve heard Dizzy Gillespie play the trumpet, warming up in his hotel room. Alone with me.
So yeah, I’ve been around. But without question, the best musical moment I’ve ever seen was something performance artist Laurie Anderson did in Colorado in 1983, and since she’s doing a rare show Sunday in Chicago, I hope you don’t mind if I revisit the memory.
I had become acquainted with her the year before, when “Big Science” came out. I remember seeing the album in the window of Vintage Vinyl in Evanston, and marching in to buy it, though I had never heard her music.
Why? I’m abashed to say this — it feels creepish in 2019 — but I thought Laurie Anderson was a babe. The short spiky hair. The big white sunglasses. Cute as a button.
In my defense, I was 21.
Luckily, when I listened to the album, I liked the music. I was a DJ at the college radio station, WNUR, midnights on Saturday — didn’t know that, did you? — and would play her odd, spoken-word songs, like “O Superman,” spare lyrics with just enough meaning to capture the deadening, hollow ring of life in America in the early 1980s, and I guess now, too.
The following year, speaking of hollow, I had run through my first job in Los Angeles, and was back home, assessing my limited options while staying in the spare room of my parents’ house in Boulder. Anderson came to Denver and I got tickets.
This is the moment I remember. The show started with Anderson, at the back of the stage, waaaaay up on a kind of riser, a series of steps. At the very lip of the stage, a microphone on a stand.
I can still see her, atop that riser, in those big white sunglasses, hands out, just like on the album cover.
She starts taking these careful little steps, hands out, tentative. And I realize: she can’t see. Can’t see through the painted-over glasses. Step, step, step, her toe probing the stair in front of her.
She gets to the bottom, and she walks, gingerly, hands groping, waving in front of her like a blind man, counting her steps, working her way toward the mic, right by the stage, by the edge. It takes a long while, the audience holding its breath. Or maybe that was just me. Eventually, she is right in front of the microphone, and she stops. Her hands shoot out, grabbing the mic, pulling it to her lips. And she starts to sing.
That’s it. That piece of business leading to the microphone. Better than any other moment I’ve experienced because . . . it seemed such a metaphor — for performing, for creativity, a blind stumble toward an outlet, which maybe you grab, and maybe you miss and blunder over the precipice.
The only other thing I remember about that night is she had a blue electronic violin, and used a bow with a piece of magnetic tape instead of horsehair, these bloops and bleeps and riffs until, at the very end, she drew the bow evenly over the pick-ups and played a phrase, “I dreamed I was on a Dairy Queen on another planet.”
Odd yet satisfying. That’s Anderson — who grew up in Glen Ellyn, by the way, and went on to an interesting career as a performance artist and musician. She’ll be at The Art Institute Sunday, part of the Midwinter Pitchfork Festival.