Laurie Anderson: Live in New York

Krista L. May

Laurie Anderson

Live in New York

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2002-05-21
UK Release Date: 2002-06-24

On September 19 and 20, 2001, audiences at New York City's Town Hall welcomed Laurie Anderson home. Several weeks earlier, the performance artist and her band (Skuli Sverrisson [bass], Peter Scherer [keyboards], and Jim Black [drums]) had begun a tour that would take them through the northeastern United States and then on to Europe. For Anderson and her companions, the homecoming was a somber one, as they returned to a city whose landscape had been disastrously altered by the events of September 11. At a time when other performers were canceling shows and even entire tours, Anderson decided to go on with the show. Even more significant, New Yorkers came to the Town Hall to experience the performance, perhaps with the attitude that it would be good to get out for the evening and to be with people who, just over a week after the disastrous events, were still walking around in a state of shock. Reflecting on the state of the city upon her return, Anderson writes, "The atmosphere in the city was eerie, like during a strange holiday. The driven people in New York had all suddenly experienced enormous fear and uncertainty. Unable to predict, we were simply looking and listening" ("Some Thoughts on the 'Live at Town Hall' Recording").

This atmosphere of "looking and listening" foregrounds the quietness of the Town Hall performances, which are especially significant for both the artist and her audience as they attempt to process what has happened to their city, themselves, and the people they love. Aspects of the performance are familiar (e.g., Anderson's quick wit, her knack for telling a good story, and some of her most well-known songs), and the audience finds some reassurance in this familiarity. However, for much of the evening, Anderson and her audience travel through unfamiliar (and sometimes painful) emotional spaces, as the events of September 11 add a dimension to Anderson's performance that had previously been unimaginable. Rather than providing listeners with answers, Anderson instead attempts to set the mood for thinking about loss and the future, as we decide what to do and how to live. Dedicating the Town Hall performances to "the great opportunity . . . to begin to truly understand the events of the past few days and to act upon them with courage and with compassion as we make our plans to live in a completely new world", Anderson and her band thoughtfully guide listeners through musical ruminations on living our lives amid new uncertainties.

Originally intended to be a live version of the studio recording Life on a String, Live in New York instead showcases Anderson's development as an artist by including some of her early work sprinkled among newer songs. Longtime Anderson fans will recognize "Let X=X", "Sweaters", "O Superman", and "White Lily" from early in the performance artist's career. Additionally, the CD contains tracks that Anderson has performed over the last decade: "Strange Angels", "Poison", "Coolsville", "Love Among the Sailors", and "Puppet Motel". Anderson and her band interweave the old with the new, breathing new life into many of the songs; as a result, Live in New York is an engaging retrospective of Anderson's career, as well as an indication of where Anderson is now and what directions her work might take in the future. Anderson confesses that she had some concerns about mixing older songs with those from Life on a String, thinking that the older material may sound dated and out-of-step with the new pieces. To her surprise, the previous works "fit together well" with the new songs, even though she did face some technological challenges ("Some Thoughts on the 'Live at Town Hall' Recording"). In an attempt to remain somewhat faithful to the technology of the original recordings, for example, Anderson favors analog rather than digital on some of the older tracks. The additions of bass, drums, and samplers to these older tracks freshens them, adding a new musical dimension to Anderson's electronically generated sounds.

The CD opens with pieces from Life on a String. The first track, the haunting instrumental "Here with You", establishes the quiet, contemplative tone. The band segues easily into "Statue of Liberty", as Anderson changes a few lines of the song: "Freedom is a scary thing / Not many people want it" becomes "Freedom is a scary thing / So precious, so easy to lose". Indeed, Anderson's songs certainly take on an even deeper significance after the events of last September. Never before has "O Superman" seemed so timely: "Here come the planes...they're American planes / Made in America". While some would argue that Anderson's work has proven to be prophetic, Anderson disagrees, concluding instead that "loss, betrayal, death, technology, anger and angels, these have often been the things I have written about. At Town Hall in New York I was singing for once about the absolute present" ("Some Thoughts on the 'Live at Town Hall' Recording").

Of course, no Laurie Anderson performance would be complete without the artist's trademark quirky sense of humor. Thankfully, Anderson provides listeners some comic relief with her funny stories of the surreal. "I met this guy, / And he looked like he might have been a hat check clerk / At an ice rink, / Which, in fact, he turned out to be. / And I said, / 'Oh, boy . . . right again'" ("Let X=X"). Such moments remind us that it is still okay to laugh at the absurdities of everyday occurrences. "Wildebeests" invites us to laugh with Anderson as she traces the lineage of the American movie hero: "Beauty in all its forms / and hopefulness, too. / And John Wayne begat Clint Eastwood, / begat Bruce Willis, / begat Brad Pitt . . . / and so on. / Okay, cut . . . action".

Including earlier material in a performance, though a departure from Anderson's usual practice of writing music as part of a particular multimedia piece, contributes to the success of Live in New York. On this CD, we hear Anderson making connections between her past and her present in an attempt to understand where she has been and where she is going. At the same time, Anderson also connects with her audience as she and the audience try to achieve some understanding of recent events. In "Embracing New York" (Newsday, September 21, 2001), Martin Johnson explains the significance of Anderson's Town Hall performances: "It was entirely appropriate that one of the first major concerts since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center featured Laurie Anderson. . . . . In general, her music seems emblematic of the city: ambitious, insightful, humorous and always teeming with four or five parts that really don't seem like they should fit together but do." Live in New York, perhaps better than any other musical recording since September 11, captures an artist and an audience just days after the terrorist attacks, allowing us to witness the beginnings of a process of understanding.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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