May 07, 1990 12:00 PM

It’s Vaseline.” Laurie Anderson says, that makes her hair stand straight up on end: she applies handfuls of the stuff every morning. “I think I look like most female artists from downtown New York.” Maybe so, but this evening, Anderson, 42, is about as far away as you can get from the SoHo clubs where she got her start 15 years ago. She sits in a dressing-room trailer as the sun sets over the Pacific; nearby are statues of Jesus and Mary looking out over Monterey, Calif. Hitting the third stop on her 45-city U.S. tour, Anderson is about to perform her new stage piece. Empty Places, at Santa Catalina, a Catholic girls school.

On a hook in the trailer, with a safety pin holding its ripped hem together, hangs the jacket she will wear for tonight’s sold-out performance. Anderson puffs a Marlboro and drinks a vitamin-rich chlorophyll drink as she studies her cue cards. She’s wondering just how the Santa Catalina students, who wear white angora sweaters and crosses and call her Miss Anderson, are going to react to the show. “And there are nuns out there, aren’t there?” she says as she slips into the jacket and steps over to the Sister Carlotta Performing Arts Center.

Once onstage she announces, “Tonight’s topics are politics and music.” Dressed in her loose black jacket and black leggings, Anderson looks like some street-corner sorceress, hair lit by a spotlight into a halo. An accomplished classical musician, she draws her bow over a synthesized violin, evoking the cries of a screeching freight train crossed with a symphony orchestra. She moves to another mike, and her sterling-silver singing voice cuts through the night. She tells deceptively simple stories, electronically distorting her voice to create multiple personalities, sounding either seductive or sinister, mixing satire with confession. “Last night,” she says, “I dreamed I died and all my possessions had been rearranged into some kind of theme park.”

After her performance Anderson says, “I wanted to talk to the girls about Jesse Helms and [artist Robert] Mapplethorpe and censoring the arts.” But all they wanted was her autograph. Laurie Anderson, once the darling of the art underground, has catapulted into pop culture—the only practitioner of that quirky, free-form genre called “performance art” to do so.

It wasn’t exactly a well-planned ascendancy. Until 1980 Anderson was a cult phenomenon—each one of her idiosyncratic, multimedia presentations would bedazzle small audiences and then pass into avant-garde history. But that year she recorded one of her songs, “O Superman” (in which an answering machine receives a message of doom), and began selling it by mail order from her Canal Street loft. The initial pressing was 1,000 records. Business was slow at first, then the phone started ringing. “It was all these people from England saying, ‘Can you ship about 40,000, please?’ ” she recalls. “I looked over at my little stack and said, ‘Sure. I’ll send them. You bet.’ ”

Although she had been approached by record companies before, “I never wanted to sign, ” she says. “I thought records were pop culture, and I was a snob. But now I had all these orders, and I couldn’t lick that many stamps.” When Warner Bros, phoned again, “I said, ‘I’ll sign. Please.’ ”

Produced for $400, “O Superman” has grossed more than a million dollars. “We all underestimated what was going on,” says Warner executive Karin Berg. Anderson has since made five albums for the label: Big Science, Mister Heartbreak, United States Live, Home of the Brave and, last October, Strange Angels. She introduced Empty Places last fall to standing-room crowds at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Now, without a single or a video to support it, her tour has sold out in nearly every city. “People seem to respond to my work as if I’m saying something they already know,” Anderson says. “As if they’d thought these things but never said them.”

Part of Anderson’s appeal is her ability to tell stories, parables really, with puzzles and punch lines—how she hitchhiked to the North Pole, how she stayed in bed for a year. It’s as if her life were colored balloons handed out to strangers to make them smile. Some may want to respond with a line from one of her songs, “Hey, Laurie. Are you talking to me or are you just practicing for one of those performances of yours?” Yet Anderson is deliberate about mixing myth and reality. “I don’t feel the need to be strict about drawing the line between them,” she says. “My life is hopelessly mixed up with my art and always has been.” Being casual about these borders allows her to conceal herself while simultaneously appearing to reveal herself. “Stories are free,” she says. “I don’t think I’d be able to survive if I gave anything else away.”

In truth, Anderson’s life has some of the stuff of which stories are made, her family history being rather unorthodox. “My father ran off with the boss’s daughter,” she says. “He was hired as her riding teacher. They eloped when she was 17 and he was 32. Her family hated him until they got to know him.” Which doesn’t hold a candle to her father’s father. “The story goes that he left Sweden when he was 8, got into the horse business when he was 9 and got married when he was 10,” Anderson says with a smile. Her beloved maternal grandmother was a “complete religious fanatic,” says Anderson. “She went over to Japan to convert the Buddhists. Baptists in Japan? I doubt if there’s even one there and certainly not as a result of her.”

Dad worked at his wife’s family’s paint business, and Mom ran a household of 10 in suburban Chicago. Laurie was the second of eight children—and the racket in the house was earsplitting. It can hardly be an accident that onstage, fortified by electronics, Anderson speaks in dozens of voices instead of only one. But as a child Anderson learned to isolate herself early on. “I became extremely self-sufficient and still am,” says Anderson. “I would have gone crazy if I didn’t protect myself from getting sucked into the group. But I think a lot of us [children] ended up overprotecting ourselves.” Except for one brother, none of her siblings has children. “I think after being with so many people for half your life, it’s a relief to be alone,” she says.

All eight children were encouraged to be artistic, staging plays and participating in a family orchestra. Anderson, who studied classical violin, also played in the Chicago Youth Symphony. At 16 she quit, deciding she wasn’t blessed with the magic to be a virtuoso. Although she intended to be a librarian, she graduated in 1969 from Barnard with a degree in art history and earned her master of fine arts in sculpture from Columbia in 1972. Living in SoHo as an artist when painting had been declared dead and the “happenings” of the ’60s had just happened, she found herself present at the creation of performance art. “It was a weird and wonderfully open time in which you didn’t have to be a professional anything,” she recalls. “It was enough you were an artist. We were pioneers. Everyone was working on operas. You could walk down the street, see someone, ‘How’s your opera?’ ‘Fine.’ ‘Yeah, mine’s okay, too.’ ”

Anderson’s debut performance in 1972 was Automotive, staged on the town green in Rochester, Vt. She assembled some of the local populace around the band shell and conducted them in a symphony of beeping car, truck and motorcycle horns. By 1974, she had returned to the violin, playing on the 59th Street Bridge wearing skates embedded in slabs of ice. “I literally had cold feet about performing, so there I was with blocks of ice on my feet,” she says. She filled her violin with water so it would “weep” when she played a Tchaikovsky concerto. Of these early pieces, she says, “Staying very small is a way to stay away from generalizations. I don’t trust generalizations.” Not all her performances pleased her, however. “There was one about fire,” she remembers. “I guess I was doing the elements at the time. I had filmed a toaster with all my old boyfriends’ names written on pieces of burning toast that would pop up and I’d throw them away.” But after she’d done this performance, Anderson decided that “using someone’s name was an invasion of privacy,” she says. “It was the last time I ever did it.”

It was in 1975 at a recording studio commune in upstate New York that Anderson began her romance with sophisticated audio effects: “I was trying to find the sound of dust grinding underneath your contact lens,” she says. Since then, her work has been shaped by the capabilities of the synthesizers, vocoders and Harmonizers she uses to make her voice sound like a robot, a man or a chorus. “I feel a desperate need to get out of myself,” she says. “I bet a lot of people feel that way.”

But the real change came in 1986 when Laurie took singing lessons and added her soprano to the repertoire. “The vulnerability that singing gave her made the audience feel closer to her,” says Roma Baran, who co-produced Anderson’s albums. Says Anderson: “I find it nearly impossible to be sarcastic while singing.” What used to be called Laurie Anderson pieces were now called Laurie Anderson songs.

In Los Angeles, where two shows have been added because the others sold out, Anderson walks along Melrose Avenue looking for a new jacket. She is pleased that her traveling chef has discovered an organic supermarket in L.A. For the past five weeks Anderson has been following a macrobiotic diet meant to fight a dizzying parasitic ear infection she picked up in Rio. The chef also assures her that the diet will discourage her smoking. “Any minute I’m supposed to light up and get this gigantic headache,” she says. “I’m counting the days.”

Since the stark black clothes in the men’s stores look so much like the stark black clothes in the women’s stores, Anderson ends up trying on a men’s 42-long jacket. The androgynous look has become Anderson’s trademark, but “it’s not intentional, not a statement,” she says. “It came from a time when we all wore blue jeans and work shirts and were pioneer artists. I think a lot of people assume I’m gay. It’s a weird feeling. I’ve just never been a very fluffy type.”

Nor has romance played much part in her life in recent years. “My situation is central to a lot of women of my generation,” says Anderson, who lives alone in her New York City loft. “We were encouraged to be professional. The whole deal with men and babies—you didn’t even mention it. That was going to be later. And now it is later.” She laughs. “It’s a lot later. I think as a rule work is often used as an escape from revealing yourself or letting yourself be loved. But one person can be enough. They can just say, I think you’re the most lovable, sexy, incredible person in the world. Now, that’s really enough.”

A confessed “control freak,” Anderson says that lately she has been trying to fight her tendency “to fit people into my own fantasies. I get this ideal, and I don’t leave room for chaos. But I like it best when my place is sloppy. That’s when I know I’m happy.” She smiles. “By sloppy, I mean a few tapes are out of order.”

These days Laurie Anderson goes on the Johnny Carson show and has done a commercial for Reebok. Yet when she wants to make a video she talks to Jean-Luc Godard, David (Blue Velvet) Lynch and Pedro (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) Almodóvar. She records songs for Warner Bros, but dedicates them to Marxist aesthetician Walter Benjamin and includes epigraphs from Longfellow and Melville. “I like the idea of subversion. Pop culture needs it, and I like doing it,” she says. In Empty Places, a projected slide asks, “Should the unborn have civil rights? Yes, because they can thank you later.” A second slide reads, “Should the dead have civil rights? No, because they can’t talk anymore.” Says Anderson: “I want to make art that’s connected to the culture and comments on it. Not as a lecture but in little ways that creep in. But my first job is to create images and to paint with color and light and sound and texture. If something is more beautiful than it is true, I will always include it because I also believe that things that are beautiful are true.”

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