Crotchety Man has been on holiday – one week in Devon with the missus and a tottery old man I call Dad. The weekly blog for 3rd September was written in advance, the draft was called up on the phone as we sat in the holiday cottage watching the rain stream down the windows and the Publish button was clicked there. It must have worked because something on Hotel California appeared in these pages that very day.
Returning home, the usual schedule was resumed for a San Francisco Drive last Sunday. And then, as I welcomed the start of a new working week on Monday, my thoughts turned to the Album of the Month for September. It’s good to know there are people out there tapping frantically on computer keyboards, manufacturing consumer goods and transporting things from one side of the globe to the other, thus keeping the economy going so that I can spend my state-provided pension being frivolous and enjoying myself.
But, I digress. The self-appointed Crotchety Boss wanted an Album of the Month blog on his desk by close of business Thursday. What was I going to write? That stifling black cloud of blogger’s block descended ominously for a moment and then, suddenly, it evaporated. I had already decided on the album; I had made a note of it before going away. Sure enough, my list of candidate albums had an entry for this month, but reading it just filled me with dismay. “Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels”, it said. And a thoroughly confused inner voice replied, “Huh?, Who? What?”.
The Crotchety mind felt as though it had fallen into a swollen, swirling river but, after a few seconds of intense effort, it found an overhead branch and grabbed it with both hands. Before going away I had been reading an article in The Telegraph newspaper entitled “50 amazing albums you’ve probably never heard“; the album on my list must have been one of those. Sure enough, album number 19 in that newspaper article was Strange Angels by Laurie Anderson.
So I had the album but I still had no idea who Laurie Anderson is/was or what Strange Angels sounds like. I had pulled myself out of the River of Confusion but I was not yet out of the Woods of Ignorance.
Sitting on the river bank the ignoramus made a plan: step 1, listen again to the music, for it must have had some remarkable quality to be on the list; step 2, search for Laurie Anderson online and see what comes up; step 3, write down a few pertinent facts and try to describe what it is that makes Strange Angels worthy of the Crotchety Readers’ time. It was a good plan. Following it my Mind and I would force a path through the Woods to the scrubland of Superficial Knowledge and there the travellers would erect a marker, a post that will show others the way.
So I listened. At first there seemed to be nothing at all remarkable about the music. The album opens with the title track, which is a fairly ordinary pop song – pleasant enough but certainly not something that warrants The Telegraph‘s ‘amazing’ tag. Then again, there’s an unusual selection of instruments – you don’t hear castanets very often in pop songs – and there’s an intriguing quality to Laurie Anderson’s voice that makes you wonder what the rest of the album has in store.
Track 2 is anything but ordinary. Called Monkey’s Paw it sounds as though it has been excised from Paul Simon’s Graceland and given a growling, half-spoken commentary warning that no good will come from our attempts to bend Mother Nature to our will.
Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw.
The instruments swing like a monkey in the trees; the words carry a profound and disturbing message. There is a depth to this album that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
As each song passes you become aware of ever more variety. Sometimes the singer’s voice swoops and trills, sometimes it grumbles. One song has Andean pipes, another features a harmonium; there are bongos, horns, drum machines and synthesisers. And the songs grow on you. By track 6, the funky Beautiful Red Dress, Crotchety Man’s ignorance was flowing away faster than the River of Confusion. There really is something precious glinting just beyond the thinning Wood.
As I listened I kept hearing echoes of other musicians: Liz Fraser’s passionate voice, the ominous atmosphere of a Nick Cave composition, words from a Sally Barker song. It struck me that Strange Angels is a collage of musical fragments, fragments assembled so artfully that they create a wholly different work in which the individual pieces lose their identity. It is, I think, as much a tribute to the session musicians and producers as it is to the songwriting and the headline artist.
The album ends with the hypnotic Hiawatha which ambles through the Old West, accompanied by Native Americans and the occasional howling wolf, for nearly seven minutes. It is a timeless, wandering piece that fades into the sunset much too soon leaving this old timer hankering for more. Here it is on YouTube where an early fade reduces it to 5:24:
The enlightened Crotchety Mind had left behind the Woods of Ignorance and it was time to take step 2, an expedition into the scrub of Superficial Knowledge.
Upon opening Laurie Anderson’s Wikipedia page it is immediately obvious that she is a complex and interesting character. She is described there as “an American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director whose work spans performance art, pop music, and multimedia projects”. The key word, here, is ‘artist’. Strange Angels is a work of art; that it is delivered through the medium of music is incidental. And music is only one string to Anderson’s bow¹. She has also worked as an illustrator, art critic, film maker and performance artist.
Our increasingly confident explorer made two surprising discoveries on this particular expedition. The first was that Laurie Anderson had a number two hit in the UK charts in 1981. Was the Crotchety Mind asleep that year? Or had it just forgotten the name of a one-hit wonder? Listening to O Superman, the track in question, quickly eliminated the latter possibility. It is one of the most distinctive, surprising and unforgettable songs ever to have graced the charts. Borrowing words from Le Cid, an opera by Jules Massenet, it is over eight minutes of multi-tracked, half-spoken, heavily processed chanting and electronic organ, reminiscent of Ivor Cutler’s idiosyncratic warblings. Here’s the official video:
The popularity of that single is inexplicable. I have seen reports that it was used as the introductory music for a program on Capital Radio and that many listeners contacted the radio station to ask what it was. I have also heard that John Peel promoted it on his radio show. That may all be true but the support of a local radio station and an off-piste show on national radio isn’t enough to explain its success to my satisfaction. Still, it provides a welcome stimulation for the ears and the intellect and it brought Laurie Anderson to the attention of those of us well outside the orbit of performance art.
The second surprise my exploring Mind discovered was that Laurie Anderson hooked up with Lou Reed in 1992 and they were married from 2008 until his death in 2013. Now that makes sense. Those two strong, creative characters would either clash violently or build an unbreakable bond. In an article in The Guardian newspaper, when the interviewer asked what it was like to be a widow, Anderson replied that she thought of Lou Reed as more of a partner than a husband (although he was that, too) and that he is always with her.
We paused then as we contemplated step 3 of the plan. Slowly we began to gather stones from the River of Confusion, building a cairn to mark the path. A fallen tree was dragged from the Woods of Ignorance and from it we fashioned a sturdy post, painted with arrows pointing to Laurie Anderson and her Strange Angels. And we have now committed these words to the blogosphere, providing another pointer to a road less travelled and music heard unjustifiably rarely.
- Laurie Anderson was, initially, trained in violin and sculpture. She invented the tape-bow violin in which recorded magnetic tape replaces the horsehair of a violin bow and sound is produced as the bow is drawn across a tape head in the bridge.