Perfect Sound Forever

Tinkerbelle Raids the Capitalists
A Re-Vistation of Laurie Anderson's Home of the Brave

by Marc S. Tucker
(December 2005)

There was a time when the term 'avant-garde' applied to a fusion of art and altered consciousness, a foray into the mysterious, the evocative, and the daring, a milieu markedly progressed from the norms experienced during an artist's leasehold of life on this depressing mudball. With the infiltration of zen into the western landscape, and especially since John Cage, forgetting Dada for the moment (an exercise that bears much repeating), it was through this form that one was supposed to begin to see that the artist was possessed of a minute shard of elevated consciousness, a form of so-called "enlightenment."

We always hope this will be the case to one degree or another, in some bizarre shape, when hearing of specimens of the avant-garde. Certainly, Cage illustrated it as strikingly as any of the remarkableros of the catalogue, constantly excavating and disgorging elements of himself and hidden realities. Other times, on the graphic side, geniuses like Max Ernst and Salvador Dali struck down the outposts of perception, ushering us into parallel dimensions, realms we hadn't known existed until they'd painted them. When they were really successful, rebellious artists showed us more of ourselves than we cared to see, yet we stared, fascinated, helpless.

Those are the extremest exemplars, granted. In them, a sense of catastrophe and paranoia often smothers everything, despite one's fascination, but that's surrealism for ya. Though the movement was once considered a part of the avant rebellion; in retrospect, the inclusion has not held well, especially given latter day practitioners outside the movement's cloister. With the avant-garde - which, looked at historically, has too often sprung from feeble loins - one has all the time in the world for the same process minus most of the hazards, a hell of a lot more leisurely and infinitely safer. Consider: one of Dali's canvases may be an introspective drug but his work is most often frenzied with madness, discomfort, and fire. The avant-garde is, in contrast, almost patrician in its detachment, affecting a groundling's perspective from a well-padded house on the beach - academic as opposed to visceral, bourgeois as opposed to bent-plebian. To scandalize the analogue over into another realm: in surrealism, you take acid and ketamine, while the avant-gardist just smokes pot (just steal a glance at Christo).

'Avant-garde' means 'forward guard,' a bit too basketballish a term, so we'll slip in 'vanguard.' For an inadvertently hilarious illustrative contrast on how inappropriately the term is frequently used, read these quotes from The Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases:

1) "The punk singer, who wowed the avant-garde of Madrid in the frenzied years after Franco's death, has mellowed into a chubby 45-year-old in jeans and a stripy jumper." (1996 Times), and

2) "[Stockhausen's] "Gruppen" has always been considered an avant-garde landmark." (1996 Country Life)."

The first is a typical critic's (in this case: lexicographer's) self-gaffe: punk music as even faintly avante-garde? Please. The second is appropriate... and appropriateness, bizarrely, will be the center of this critique; hence, there's a rather pronounced tone present until the denouement.

What will follow may seem disparaging of the movement; it's not... not entirely. We must begin to draw reference to a frequent parasiting which passes for the genuine article, lest the term and event become lost in the usual neutralizations and idiotspreche. It's quite well understood that a lot of what identifies the movement is radicalized individualism fueled by largely uncontrollable visions, compulsions, and emotions articulated through bizarre craftsmanship. Amongst poseurs, though, such attributes are at best only hinted at through a severe lack of the same. Thus, the ersatz Avant-garde Club is most exposed through its too-proliferent pretensions.

And that's where we'll start, on Laurie Anderson's Betty Crocker Cookie Dough release Home of the Brave(Warner Bros., 1986), which contains not one of the statutory elements just mentioned, being little more than a porridge of visually exaggerated restatements of artistic norms. In this futility, Anderson shares honors with David van Tiegham, another academic and yuppie the media has tried to paint as avant-gardistic, failing miserably, mainly because there's no there there. Anderson, on the other hand, is smart enough to steal nearly every au courant device available and knit them together in an entertaining, but ultimately insipid, stew of inoffensively middle-class divertissements.

Society's imp matron, fairydust queen of the bourgeoisie, the bankable peripheral artiste, Anderson was so placed due to a lack of any threatening degree of talent which might upset ongoing accommodations to the demands of the disaffected nouveau semi-riche. She's the apotheosis of what some critics have long known: most of the reputedly esoteric art-fringe world is crammed to the gills with quasi-clever dilettantes - 'fakers' if you're more the pragmatist - who've been able to sink their canines into various frayed borders of the mode, knowing that practically no one really understands any of it and, thus, they're safe in their pretensions. The least clever and limpest quasi-provocateur, or any similar creature, may profitably exploit this ignorance through brazen manipulations. Thus, Home of The Brave is probably Anderson's most successful work precisely because it's not avant-garde, but only a safe and warm understated styrene replica that distantly seems like it, beloved of morons disgorging dollars for the privilege of being momentarily in the know.

In fact, you'll see here that, as the glittery charade draws toward its finale during "Language Is a Virus," you can't help but get the conviction the entire thing's a thinly caucasian bloodless outré Night At the Apollo. Unfortunate to the allusion, which intones a high degree of aptitude, Anderson's impressive neither as dancer nor singer, violinist nor bass player, nor even pseudo-playwright, though she certainly knows how to concoct a predigested plethora of clichés. Compared to 99% of the charlatans in the avant-garde world, she's head and shoulders superior, at least theatrically, thus deserving of whatever riches accrue to her sham. The discerning aesthete, though will find little more than a shred of the real deal, if any at all.

This is precisely the problem, isn't it? If one doesn't already have it, one never will - "it" being an inborn, non-cultivatable, unnameable trait. Try as one might, the diaphanous quality is like a sex-change: you can get the surgery but, underneath the new window dressing, you're still exactly what you started out as. True-blue, dyed-in-the-wool, genuine oddballs emphatically state and restate themselves constantly while the rest, the hangers-on in various fields (Andy Warhol, La Anderson, Alan Rich, etc.), just limp along behind, jealous of the glow, racing to catch its after-image.

Home, ladies and gentlemen, is confection, pure and simple, an exercise to re-assure the monied that all is safe and secure amongst the rabble, that the status quo isn't being threatened by thinkers and workers, that they're able to continue their depredations safely. The RIO school must've had a ball watching this flakeshow - I can just see Henry Cow reforming to come up with an anti-Home, in grating retribution. Anderson has given us the Cats or Lion King version of large-scale avant posturings, a bit more elaborate than anything she's ever done but just as forgettable.

It's true that the so-called geniuses at the labels - a dim handful of Clive Davises amongst clowns with greasy 'tudes and puncturable smiles - normally haven't much of a clue what constitutes good music, most often just making the kind of educated guesses luck favors with apathetic impartiality. They keep signing up the beef and churning out the crap, throwing everything against the wall until something sticks, littering the landscape with pathetic losers as well as (and this is where irony shows amidst mindlessness) a few grossly ignored marvels. Weirdly, the practice works often enough, though mostly destructively, producing a somewhat wider array of choices. The one release that hits usually ends up paying for the rest - not to say it properly rewards the bands themselves, that'll never happen, but it lines the pockets of the brass and keeps the process going.

So much for the general appraisal. Here's what the hapless procure when they glom the grand tour. First of all, the line-up: Joy Askew (keyb, vox), Adrian Belew (gtr, vox), William Burroughs (dubbed vox), Richard Landry (horns), Nicolette MacDonald (vox), Sang Won Park (keyb, vox), Janice Pendarvis (vox), and David Van Tiegham (perc), with sundry horn players (incl. Jane Ira Bloom), percussionists, and others in muted cameo sound-spots (i.e. Chic's Nile Rodgers and gadfly producer/bassist Bill Laswell). There are a couple heavyweights in the otherwise middling roster - Belew, Burroughs - but Belew uncharacteristically adds nothing to the venture and Burroughs is a momentarily premature literary cum shot, perpetually kept as lap-dog for an upper class desperately hungering to sup with panthers as safely and as infrequently as possible - just enough to shore up the patrician jello with an illusion of rough edges.

The poorly designed stage lights up dimly as Anderson enters in a spastic dance, mummified, copping Nash the Slash's riff, servicing it about as well as the ex-FM string rasper himself - which is to say: poorly. Her gut-strung axe has been plugged into an effects device transmuting the signal to an approximation of emulated electronitones. Crash-test-dummied humanequins stand about the floorboards as she carries on a taser-induced jig, prodding, poking, eliciting sullen robot reactions. The emphasis, of course, as will be the case for the entirety of the show, is on the MC, Anderson. This ain't no musical presentation, it's a personality sell-job and glaringly obvious from the git-go. The St. Vitus jitter terminates to untowardly wild applause braised in feminine screams, a token entablature that Andercipher has been inducted into New Feminism's ranks of, um, strong and, er, powerful, uh, wymyn.

The throwaway gesture's superficially buttressed by an immediate pinning of the spotlight, glaringly nailing her intro monologue to the floorboards, where the violinist's voice warps as slurringly as her instrument, providing a succession of grey flannel vacuities stamp-pressing false bonhommie and parodic stereotyping, ironically aping hyperthyroidal librarians, their tones and moods.

The object of this scattered on-stage preface is a revelation of the "opera's" inane base: zeroes and ones, binary code. The philosophical heart's hilarious: to be a zero, claims The Imp, is no different than being #1! Oh, how the heavens have opened; we've received The Word from on high. Heretofore, we'd foolishly thought accomplishment meant something. Well, kiss my existentialist grits and call me Spanky.

However, the brow wrinkles, watching the spiky-haired figure in the kleig soup lamely presenting her latest attempt to capture... What? A top-selling single? A storefront video? Whatever Fate might perplexingly grant? The substitute here is self-effacement, in stereo, at a locally famous venue, with a supporting cast, all concentrated intently on star and ego, and with La Laurie's Sting mug prominent on gigantiscreen, dwarfing the musical ants on the stage. The zen-ness of it all, juxtaposed against what one's lying eyes survey, is more than a little non-credible.

Music erupts immediately thereafter, illustrating exactingly what the viewer's in for. It's all decently presented, true, but in lightweight simplistic pop musics, nothing more, nothing less. This, we needn't hold our breath waiting to understand, spells the entirety of modern avant-gardism, whether it's Phill Niblock noodling for hours over a single note worshipped for oscillating quavers, Laurie Anderson multi-staging, or a framed piece of wood riven with rusty nails and a splash of tempera atop glued-on dogshit at Los Angeles' dismal La Luz De Jesus gallery. The new venue's slightly rude, inanely pretentious, but still an acceptable ego indulgence that disports outside one's gold-lined sandbox, uncharted territory for whomever mommy and daddy bankrolled through Tulane or UCLA. The melodies can be found on mainstream music stations, microscopically sanitized for mass consumption, gimmicked for pseudo-sophistication, perfumed with pheromones formulated to engorge the passionate agitation of A&R monkeys: gelt. Art, after all, must serve a purpose. Hence, what better mission than this?

The Leprachaunette halts almost before beginning, broadly winking slyly, so we know she's taoistically crushing that evil ol' ego, babbling about boho visitations to streetside palmists, rendering revelations that, in former lives, she was a cow, then a bird, and, later, hundreds and hundreds of incarnations as rabbis until this very moment, this lifetime, her first go-round as a, ta-daa! woman. Ego, thy name is Tinkerbelle. The multi-levelled crassnesses needn't be commented upon, but one again sees exactly what the film really is: shallow self-referentialism. Were some new book to properly catalogue the avant-garde, this fluff wouldn't merit the first letter of the first word in the opening sentence. How did the refrain go? "Show-biz kids making movies of themselves, you know they don't give a..."

Another spastic dance follows as we're tortured by an aimless syndrum exercise: the epiphanistically rabbinical transmorph's dressage has been implanted with responsive touch-points kicking up a synth somewhere off-stage. She taps various parts and we hear a few seconds of electronica drum soloing, the equal of what butter-faced, suit-and-tied, tub o' goo flunkies inflict on the rubes at any NAMM show. The audience, predictably, goes nuts. That display segues into a game-show parody, wherein The Selfless One trots out her college escholastica Espanol, launching into a brief round of "What's More Macho?" for no apparent reason other than solidarity, from a laughable distance, with Andrea Dworkin. The elements are about as subtle as flying hammers wrapped in barbed wire.

One might think there'd be nothing redeeming about this mess, given the above. Not true. Home of the Brave, a catcall title from one carny to a bunch of others, is calculatingly chart-oriented, as seamless as a Bob James jazz-lite release, innocuously exploratory within predictable borders, and, inside those same limits, quite good. Whether that's complimentary is another matter. Belew ambles out some of his pre-Crimsonite stylings and there's sufficient progression peeking out to satisfy the bubble-gumming segment of that slice of the consuming public. In fact, it comes as no shock that there's at least one song for most every taste on the charts. Paradoxical? C'mon, wasn't Breton's real mission a matter of end-run capitalism, pre-MTV 'tude merchandising?

Perhaps you'll find in my words a sense of provocateuring. Well, sirrah, so be it. Our hostess makes so bold as to invoke Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and, if she's studying Fassbinder's inane catalogue, well, she must be avant-garde! yawn Think of this farrago as Sominex for art hags, a lullaby for the jangled nerves of a yuppified audience fressing over stocks and BMWs, and you'll have it pared to a fare-thee-well. Home's a kinetic uptown exhibit of trend-of-the-moment tripe art futilely attempting the divide between utter mediocrity and backwater incoherence. When you cognize that Anderson isn't the avant-goddess she's laughably promoted to be, something she otherwise semi-daintily sweats to abet, you can settle back into a cynical enjoyment of the film's many quasi-well-crafted failures. Discard the A-V sobriquet and understand it's a euphemism for New Age music stabbed slightly out of focus, but... pay to see it on-stage? No, 'tis merely a grown-up version of little girl puppet shows. Though the savvy wage slave might retain the video, tickling up curmudgeonly glee from time to time, music for the macaw, neon crassness for those times when Kenny G and Yanni just aren't cutting it, even the obstreperous have to admit that such ventures are clever to a miniscule degree, a weird soma when all other sedatives fail.

That's success of a sort...isn't it?

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER