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The Beauty Myth

You know what people fail to understand about Laurie Anderson? That girl knows funny. Not that I don't take her seriously; in fact, I think she has as many intriguing ideas per square inch as anyone I've ever interviewed about matters of art and performance. But other people take her way too seriously, as if her appeal comes from some kind of top-down importance, from the sheer size of her ideas or even the physical enormity of her audio-video presence. It's possible this is simply what happens when you're known primarily for a four-part, seven-hour performance art piece on the identity and meaning of the United States and an eight-minute pop song, "O Superman," that's great but frankly a bit stuffy compared to most of her music (her oft-forgotten other near-hit, "Babydoll," in which she gets bossed around by her own brain, is half as long and several times as funny).

It was at her Civic show Monday night that I realized how misunderstood her work is. Now, this is a work-in-progress she was doing, and it may cohere quite a bit by the time she tours it in the fall. But frankly, I have no idea what, if anything, she was trying to say about the subject of art and beauty, except perhaps that it's a myth, which we already knew. I'd say the larger myth is that the beauty "theme" was really the strength or even the driving force of the piece. In a larger sense, it didn't come together or make a point.

But what was great about it--and what people responded to in a way that Anderson never gets credit for--was all the fantastically entertaining and imaginative bits that she injected all the way through. All these weird little stories that laid out her odd way of looking at the world--what was important was not how they added up to something bigger than the sum of their parts, but the parts themselves.

One of my favorites was her bit about her dog and how it tries to keep track of the number of people in a room by touching each one as they come in. When someone leaves, the dog has to start the count all over again. Her point: dogs can't subtract. They don't understand "less than." The audience cracked up, but it's also kind of an amazing observation. It was a just a weird little aside, it's not going to change anyone's life, but I have this feeling that now that she pointed it out, I'm never going to forget it.

There were lots of other great brain snacks like that. I loved her story about asking Thomas Pynchon if she could make a musical out of Gravity's Rainbow. He would be thrilled, he told her, on one condition: that the entire thing be written for a single banjo. "Some people," she said, "have the nicest way of saying no." Again, it's funny and true!

I also couldn't help but wonder if she's been rifling through Lou Reed's old Velvet Underground records--her violin playing was great, but I'm dying to know if it's just a coincidence that much of it at the end sounded like John Cale doing, say, "Black Angel's Death Song."

Hey, if Lou's cool with it, so am I.

Steve Palopoli

Upcoming

The Microphones' Phil Elvrum joined Arrington De Dionyso for a unique musical project that De Dionyso has been cultivating since the late '80s, a project that came to fruition as a little band called Old Time Relijun. The music is spastic and grating and disturbing, yet somehow dangerously hypnotic--bluesy in the rawest sense of the Delta, and then shredded through the meat grinder of post-punk art rock. It's music for people who like horror movies bloody and their Coltrane raw--people who cuddle up with roadkill at night to give themselves interesting dreams. Elvrum has since been replaced by drummer Rives Elliot, and their newest album is strangely accessible, but don't doubt the hillbilly demons of De Dionyso--things are still sure to get weird quick. Catch them live at the Cube on Thursday, May 6. Bring a $3-$6 donation.

Joey Ramone once said of The Independents, "They put the 'fun' back in 'funeral,'" and loved them enough to talk 'em up and produce a bunch of their songs--a good-time mix of punk, ska, surf rock and, as Joey says: "... a touch of Elvis." The band is bringing 22 lights, its own smoke machine and strobe lights, and props galore to the Mediterranean, where it will perform on Sunday, May 9, along with Los Dryheavers, Vicious Cycle and Deer Tractor.

Mike Connor

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From the May 5-12, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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