Eavesdropping

Laurie Anderson Seals a Story with a Kiss

The performance artist and musician, whose new film "Heart of a Dog" opens this week in New York, recalls a stormy stay in Amish country.

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Image courtesy of Abramorama / HBO Documentary Films

Laurie Anderson rose to prominence in 1970s-era New York City with performance pieces like “Duets on Ice“… and then began recording artful electronic music — including her hit 1981 single “O Superman.” She later directed and starred in the concert film “Home of the Brave,” and lent her eerily cool voice to work by Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, and her late husband, Lou Reed. In 2003, she became the first artist-in-residence at NASA.

Her new film “Heart of a Dog” opens in New York on Oct. 21, before expanding to other cities nationally; it’ll be shown on HBO next year. It takes on topics ranging from the death of her cherished dog — a rat terrier named Lolabelle– to life in post-9/11 America. Anderson’s music, paintings and animation are woven into the film, which she wrote and directed.

A lifelong observer and storyteller, Anderson shared a tale with us from her collection “Transitory Life.”

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A few years ago, I’d been working a lot in the studio, and I was getting very burned out on all this equipment. So I was looking for places where they didn’t use any technology at all.

I happened to be in Western Pennsylvania, and I ran into some Amish people at a farmers’ market. And they were selling vegetables and bread, and they all looked so incredibly relaxed and happy, just standing there with their arms at their sides, kind of peaceful and smiling, like if you wanted to buy their bread, that was fine; and if you didn’t, that was fine, too. And I thought, “Wow, I wonder what it’s like to live that way.”

Now, for a lot of them, time stopped back in the early 16th century, and they haven’t used anything invented in the last four-and-a-half-hundred years. They just still use wheels and wind. So, I was hanging around with them, and I asked if I could come and help out, and do some weeding or cleaning up on their farm. And they said, “Sure! Why not? Yeah, that’d be great. That would be wonderful.”

When I got to the farm, it started to rain. And it rained non-stop for days. And the family I stayed with was a couple and their son, and a newborn who never stopped crying. And so we all sat around the kitchen table listening to the rain and the crying, and waiting for the weather to change.

Once in a while, the rain would stop, and we’d run out and pull a weed or two, and then it was back to the kitchen table.

Now, actually, I kind of like sitting around kitchen tables. But I’d never done it for days on end, and I was finding it kind of hard to remember why I’d wanted to come out there in the first place. And the longer I was there, the more obvious it was I might have come at kind of a bad time. Because basically, there was always an argument going on.

Now, I’ve seen grudges. And I’ve seen the slow burn of rage. But I’d never seen anything like this before; this kind of slow-motion fury.

The woman would suddenly look up, and she’d say, “David, you know I asked you never to speak to me in that way again!” But since no one had said anything for hours, it seemed like kind of a weird thing to say. So, I would look over at the husband, and there was no reaction. He was, like, tuned to another station. And it would be another hour or so before he answered her with some equally bitter comeback.

Then one afternoon, their three-year-old, named Aguilan — which is Spanish for “north wind” — began a temper tantrum that went on for hours. And his mother’s holding him, and he’s kicking her in the face and screaming. She’s saying, “Now, Aguilan, you know that we agreed that if you would just stop kicking Mommy in the head, we would revise our agreement about suspending your privileges for next week,” and on and on like that. And I’m thinking, what does she think this is? The U.N.? I mean, this kid is trying to kill her.

And I thought, you know, this is just never going to end.

And then a dense fog rolled in, and we’re back to sitting at the table staring at each other.

Then one day, the grandma came to visit, and she joined us around the table. And she’d keep saying to Aguilan, “Now, Aguilan… give Grandma a kiss. When will you give Grandma a kiss?”

And he’s on the spot now. And I can see the look in his eyes. And it’s the wary, hunted look of someone who suddenly realizes he’s about to be tricked.

But she keeps saying, “When will you kiss Grandma? When will you kiss her?” And she’s repeating this over and over like a loop. And finally he mumbles, “I’ll kiss you when we’re in the living room.” Which, I guess, seems pretty safe to him since we’ve been in the kitchen for several days now.

A couple of hours later, we’re all actually in the living room, and the mood has darkened even more. And she says, “Well, Aguilan, we’re in the living room now.” Waiting for her part of the deal.

And the deal he’d made slowly comes back to him. And you can watch him remember it. And he drags himself over in slow motion and puts his mouth to her cheek.

And I’m watching it happen:

A tiny boy, who had just learned to kiss without affection.

To kiss as a form of payment.

As part of a deal.