New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: literature

Thulani Davis’ New Poetry Collection Chronicles Twenty Years of Transcendence, Resistance and Concerts

Thulani Davis‘ writing has always had a very close connection to music, from her jazz poetry and operas to her nonfiction work. Her latest poetry collection, Nothing But the Music, 1974-1992 is subtitled “Documentaries from nightclubs, dance halls & a tailor’s shop in Dakar.” From a music writer’s perspective, she is an inspiration, her concise, crystalline, indelible imagery capturing the febrile energy of the 1970s loft jazz scene, the punk movement in the 80s…or just chilling with friends and blasting records. And she never fails to put the music in historical context. She’s a tireless and transportative guide: if you weren’t there, she makes you wish you were. It hardly comes as a surprise that much of this material has been performed in concert over the years, by the author and others as well. As she takes care to mention in a breathless account of watching Cecil Taylor and his quartet at the Five Spot in 1975:

this is not about romance
this is the real stuff

Even better, Davis lists showdates and personnel. One can only hope, for example, that somebody in the crowd – or the band – had the presence of mind to record the two sets that the hall of fame AACM lineup of Roscoe Mitchell, Julius Hemphill, Phillip Wilson, Joseph Bowie, Richard Muhal Abrams, Leroy Jenkins and George Lewis played at Studio Rivbea on February 8, 1976.

Davis’ portrait of a busker outside the Village Vanguard in 1975 is viscerally spine-tingling. Her account of a night in a Washington, DC club a year later may be fervent and ecstatic, but in the context of enormous historical baggage. In a portrait of a David Murray quintet gig in that same city, the way she brings back the motif of how “the truth came down twice” is too masterful, and too spot-on, to spoil: it will leave you green with writer’s envy.

These poems aren’t limited to first-class concert reportage in politically informed free verse. In jaunty period vernacular, Davis imagines Chicago’s Mecca Flats apartment complex in 1907, sixty years before it was razed, where a catchy piano riff wafting from an open window testified to its fertile role in black culture. She connects the dots between Mingus and Henry Threadgill with an erudite bass player’s skill. She tickles you with her observation about the Bad Brains’ attempts at roots reggae. And she reminds that two decades before the Lower East Side’s 1990s days as a rock mecca, there was a jazz joint there called Brownies.

And the book’s subtext, considering this year’s assaults on our civil rights, screams bloody murder. “I wish you all the live music you can get your hands on,” Davis encourages at the end of her acknowledgments. What she only alludes to is that throughout history, relationships and revolutions alike have been cemented around a beat and a catchy tune. That’s why Andrew Cuomo and the rest of the lockdowners are so terrified by the prospect of crowds of people packing stadiums and clubs: because music is empowering. And the lockdown is all about disempowerment. You can’t surveil someone who’s screaming into a friend’s ear over the band. But you can if they’re miles apart, chatting on Facebook while they watch the livestream.

Soundwalk Collective and Patti Smith Salute an Influential, Psychedelic French Author

Over a triptych of albums, Soundwalk Collective and Patti Smith have explored the work of three defiantly individualistic French writers: Antonin Artaud, Arthur Rimbaud, and now, René Daumal. The primary inspiration for the collaboration’s latest and concluding chapter, Peradam – streaming at Bandcamp – is Daumal’s final, unfinished 1944 surrealist work Mount Analogue: a Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing. The album title references the philosopher’s stone in Daumal’s narrative, which is visible only to the truly enlightened.

In keeping with the rest of the records, this one features both found sounds and musical performances. Septuagenarian Sherpa Dhan Singh Rana sings the opening number, Nanda Devi a-cappella in his native vernacular over sounds of wind off the Himalayan mountain. Smith narrates the title track over Tenzin Choegyal‘s singing bowls and spare, hypnotically loopy percussion. “The gateway to the invisible must be visible; the gateway to the visible must be invisible,” she observes.

Knowledge of the Self features Anoushka Shankar’s lingering sitar: she has a distant connection to Daumal, as he went on American tour with her uncle, dancer Uday Shankar. “Your fondest theories vanish before the wall of appearances, that veil of colored shapes, sounds…this is where you started, but you chose the wrong door, instead you fell asleep at the threshold and dreamed your beliefs about the world ” Smith intones in Spiritual Death, a gnomic, Gurdjieff-like challenge to seek enlightenment.

Charlotte Gainsbourg half-whispers The Four Cardinal Times in Daumal’s original French over jungly nocturnal sounds and atmospheric keys from either the group’s Stephan Crasneanscki or Simone Merli. Smith offers an English translation of this shaman in action, which continues with greater detail over temple bells in Hymn to the Liquid.

Anoushka Shankar returns for Vera, a strangely murky tableau. Smith’s poem The Rat, an eco-disaster parable, closes the album over ambient samples and a bassy thud. This album doesn’t have the chilling intensity of the ensemble’s previous Rimbaud tribute; then again, it wasn’t meant to.

Director Ted Bafaloukos’ Posthumous Photo Book Captures the Turmoil and Glory of 1970s Reggae

Ted Bafaloukos’ 1979 film Rockers is iconic in reggae circles. Its soundtrack captures many of the foremost figures from the golden age of roots reggae at the peak of their powers. The movie became one of that year’s fifty highest grossing films. And it was almost never made.

The late director and photographer reveals the drama, the turbulence, passion, and ever-present danger surrounding the artistic crucible of the mid-70s Jamaican music scene in his richly illustrated coffee table book, ROCKERS: Ted Bafaloukos + 1970s New York + Kingston + On Set Mayhem = The Making of Reggae’s Most Iconic Film, out this year from Gingko Press.

The Greek-born Bafaloukos got his start at the Rhode Island School of Design. His steamship captain father had sent him there after discovering, while docked in Providence, that the school drew students from as faraway as California. The younger Bafaloukos earned media accolades for his photos while still in college. But by 1978 he was struggling as a freelancer, largely supported by his wife’s $78-a-week sweatshop paycheck, sharing a loft at the corner of Varick and Franklin Streets with several friends.

He’d discovered reggae a few years earlier and fallen in love with it after seeing a show by melodica player Augustus Pablo and his band at the Tropical Cove, a club located above Gertie’s Discount Store in Brooklyn. He intuitively grasped the connection between the communal esthetic of reggae and the folk music he’d been immersed in at community celebrations as a child in the Aegean island village of Apikia.

Aided by his new friends from the New York reggae scene, he traveled to Jamaica and decided then and there to make a reggae movie, despite having neither script nor cast. Bafaloukos enlisted several New York friends as production crew, and a hippie neighbor with money to be the producer.

Bafaloukos’ photos from his initial expeditions are a goldmine for reggae fans. The most choice shots are black-and-white. Singer Kiddus I, with record producer Jack Ruby behind him, sits slit-eyed with both a cheat sheet and a spliff in hand at a recording session: it’s clear that this is all live, with no iso booths. A young, thin Burning Spear perches triumphantly atop the ruins of a slavery-era jail in his native St. Ann’s Bay. Jah Spear (who also appeared in the film) pops up again and again, most memorably backstage with an equally rail-thin Patti Smith, laughing it up. And Big Youth is captured on his signature motorbike on a Kingston street, showing off his jewel-embedded teeth

In full color, there’s dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry in his ramshackle, rundown original Black Ark Studio before he burned it down: from Bafaloukos’ description of the setup and gear, Perry’s engineering genius becomes all the more astonishing. A series of 1975 portraits capture Bob Marley on Sixth Avenue near West 8th Street in Manhattan. There’s owl-glassed, bearded folk music legend and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith with Burning Spear drummer (and eventual star of the film) Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace. Impressively, the book’s candid photos far outnumber stills from the movie.

Which is basically The Bicycle Thief transposed to Jamaica, with tons of classic songs and a cast comprising the most colorful people the filmmaker had met while traveling across the island. “For those who think that movies get made in the editing room, Rockers is not a case in point,” he avers. As he tells it, the film ended up being even more highly improvised than originally planned.

The problem with crowdsourcing your cast is that a bigger crowd comes with it. It ended up taking Bafaloukos more than a couple nickels to buy his way out of many pickles, several brushes with death and, as he tells it, a mutiny by the movie’s two stars, who had held out for more money. Considering how hard both cast and crew partied when they weren’t working, and how many challenges – several at gunpoint – they had to overcome, it’s a miracle they were able to finish it.

And considering how breakneck – literally – the pace of the filming was, some of the most memorable moments in the narrative are the asides. We find out that Earl Chin, who in 1975 had not yet become the legendary host of Rockers TV, is a crazy driver: gee, big surprise. The movie’s crucial set piece – a very fickle, used motorbike – ends up being delivered by none other than the Cool Ruler, Gregory Isaacs. And Bafaloukos recounts the priceless moment at Bob Marley’s Peace Concert where Jacob Miller leaps from the stage, goes up to a cop guarding the Prime Minister and offers him a spiff. When the cop declines, Miller steals the guy’s helmet and finishes his set wearing it.

What Bafaloukos never mentions is residuals. He ended up retiring to a villa on the Aegean. it would be interesting to know how much Horsemouth, his co-star “Dirty Harry” Hall, the Montego Bay mystic named Higher, or the Reverend Roach and his A.M.E choir, to name a few of the cast members, came away with.

A Harrowing, Inspiring, Gruesomely Exquisite Memoir from Marianne Dissard

Singer Marianne Dissard‘s memoir Not Me is just like her lyrics: witheringly insightful, harrowingly direct, disarmingly self-aware and stylistically exquisite. That her story’s scathingly funny asides and spot-on musical and social commentary are just as gripping as the grim central narrative reaffirms the argument that great songwriters are also great prose writers.

Dissard’s musical career was on many levels a very unlikely success story. A filmmaker by training, living in Tucson with her musician husband, the French expatriate didn’t get her start as a performer until the zeros, in the wake of a bitter divorce. By then, she was already in her thirties. Yet she hit the ground running, hard, possibly out of revenge. From the beginning, her tunesmithing had a stunning level of craft: part cabaret, part desert rock and, as you would expect from a French girl who grew up in the 80s, part new wave. And her lyrics were top-tier, packed with puns, clever wordplay, historical and literary references. Although most of them are in French, she also writes competently in German. And her command of English surpasses 99% of Americans writing in their native tongue.

In a decade where the music industry lost 90% of its income and sales of digital music plummeted to zero, Dissard did what every musician needed to do to maintain a career: she toured, relentlessly. And recorded a consistently brilliant series of albums, a handful of them made on the fly in cities around the world on the rare off-day. She got great press and has an adoring fan base, neither of which she mentions in this humble and humbling story. In 2012, in many ways, she looked like she was on top of the world.

Then she crashed.

Looking back, she reflects, bandmates knew something was wrong, but they chalked it up to the wear and tear of the road. The truth is that Dissard, a lithely muscular, pixieish woman, had been a bulimic for twenty years, and it had finally caught up with her.

In context, many of her lyrics ought to be a dead giveaway. The most obvious one, which she quotes in the book, is from the song Mouton Bercail, with its images of “drooling blood.” Considering what she’d been going through at the time, one of her most shattering songs, Am Letzen, makes more sense than ever. Dissard’s muted, half-whispered portrait of complete emotional depletion on the New Years Eve from hell reaches even greater depths of despondency.

She acknowledges how lucky she was to survive – and also how unlikely it was that she managed to keep a career going, as a singer, of all things. Her teeth suffered, but somehow her vocal cords escaped any permanent damage, although she alludes to the occasional problematic show: “Ah, but my voice? Glazed by juices more acrid than turned wine, what sounds would this throat make, words boiled unintelligible from raspy syllables, a wheezing flow of tepid weakness disguised as demure coquetry. It doesn’t fucking matter. You sing in French. They’re Americans. Make sounds, any sounds. It all sounds the same, exotic and sexy, Parisian. Still, wouldn’t someone notice you’d gone awry? They know you, some of them, and some of it. And the photos? You sure don’t look like your press shots anymore. You look simply ravaged.”

This is a typical passage. Dissard has an extraordinary eye for detail and a laserlike sense of the mot juste, whether recounting the gory blow-by-blow of a night of purging where she thought she’d gone blind, or more hopeful days after she’d put the touring on hold to pursue….a degree in teaching yoga.

Which ultimately saved her. She may have tormented her digestive tract for a couple of decades, but she’d also maintained a rigorous, daily yoga practice. And when not bingeing on forbidden treats (the list will shock you), she ate well, drank little if at all, didn’t smoke or do drugs, enjoyed a close relationship with a beloved cat and remained active, perhaps hyperactive. The impetuosity and steely self-determination that drove her career may have confounded some of the people who knew her, but those qualities also kept her alive in every sense of the word.

Tellingly, Dissard’s first encounter with eating disorders came after her parents moved her to America Discovering the calorific, processed American diet – and no doubt wanting to fit in with the other kids – the svelte, petite teenager suddenly had weight issues. Then became anorexic, and after that summer was over – with only a pointed, mostly wordless encounter with her mother about it – the forty pounds she’d lost from not eating returned with a vengeance. She would discover bulimia and the thrill of guilt-free food indulgence a little later.

Ultimately, bulimia is all about control, mind over matter: giving in to the most basic desire for nourishment, then pulling the plug right at the moment where it could be metabolized. Dissard had it down to a science and doesn’t spare any ugly bits. Through sheer force of will, finally having hit rock bottom, she was able to sublimate the need for control and channel that resolve in life-affirming directions.

There are innumerable messages implicit in this story. That a French woman – you know the cliche, they’re all beautiful because they never eat between meals – could practically kill herself with bulimia speaks to how prevalent, and underreported, it is. That such a strong-willed, seemingly fearless artist could be leveled by the perception that others might find her unattractive is another genuine shock, and a cautionary tale. As usual, Dissard lets the details fill in the blanks: there’s no self-help instruction manual here.

And those details offer a delicious contrast against a haunted backdrop. Dissard’s powers of perception are formidable, whether offhandedly commenting on how an audience perceives an artist, to her contempt (a recurrent emotion in her songwriting, less so here) for digital audio: “I can’t stand these joints with tiny, lousy ceiling speakers that filter out prefab songs to their crash cymbals and hi-hat hits, a glass-fiber sort of sound, deathbed-gasping mp3s.”

Her account of yoga training, and what she seems to have considered surprising success at it, is just as vivid, particularly for non-yoginis. Most poignantly, it’s a weight gain after putting an end to the binge-and-purge cycle that brings her closer to her students, where a loss of flexibility suddenly helps her relate to their muscle fatigue and resistance to difficult poses. Just like her songs, the story’s changing milieux – from Tucson, to Paris, to Italy and back – are ablaze with color, sparkling with imagery.

Dissard considers herself a recovering addict, and that the pain had come in many ways to define her (just listen to a couple of her songs and you’ll figure that out fast). Ultimately, this is a story of transcendence, with what appears to be a happy ending. It will keep you up all night and then make you dream about it. That could be a nightmare, but it could also be immensely inspirational. Dissard, as usual, doesn’t come out and say that explicitly, testament to her prowess as a wordsmith. This book is reason to look forward to whatever narrative might be her next: a film, a novel, or if we’re lucky, maybe even a 2020 concert tour.

Iconic Songwriter Amy Rigby Revisits a Lost New York in Her New Memoir Girl to City

What’s more Halloweenish than the destruction of New York artistic communities in the blitzkrieg of gentrification, and the rush to throw up speculator property to displace working-class housing? Songwriter Amy Rigby got her start as a college student, in a $300-a-month Alphabet City apartment she shared with her brother. Rigby’s new memoir is a look back at a time and place that’s not going to come back until after the real estate bubble finally bursts. And that could be awhile, maybe even not until we repeal the tax exemption that enables it. Holdovers of New York, unite!

Amy Rigby‘s new memoir Girl to City validates the argument that great lyricists are also strong prose writers. But beyond a stunning level of detail, that generalization is where the similarity between Rigby’s often outrageously hilarious, witheringly insightful songwriting and this plainspoken book ends. Instead, it’s a sobering and understatedly poignant portrait of an era in New York gone forever.

Rigby is humble to a fault. If there’s anything missing from this book, that would be more insight into her songwriting process. She’s a polymath tunesmith, equally informed by and eruditely successful with styles as diverse as Americana, honkytonk, purist pop and these days, psychedelia. As a lyricist, she’s a first-ballot hall-of-famer: it wouldn’t be overhype to rank her with Elvis Costello, Steve Kilbey, Hannah Fairchild and the most memorably aphoristic Nashville songwriters of the 40s and 50s. Rigby takes some pleasure in revealing how she wrote one of her most gorgeously plaintive songs, Summer of My Wasted Youth, in her head on her way home on the L train. Otherwise, we’re going to have to wait for a sequel for more than a few stories behind some of the best songs of the past thirty-plus years.

Beyond that, this is a rich and often heartbreaking narrative. The only daughter in a large, upper middle class Pittsburgh Catholic family, young Amelia McMahon (nicknamed Amy, after the 50s Dean Martin pop hit), grew up in the 1960s as a tomboy and evemtual diehard Elton John fan. Spared the ordeal of Catholic high school, she developed a highly refined fashion sense – she was East Village chic long before East Village chic existed – and although she doesn’t go into many details about what seems to have been a repressive upbringing, it’s obvious that she couldn’t wait to escape to New York.

A talent for visual art got her admitted early into Parsons, where she earned a degree she never ended up falling back on – then again, fashion illustration was basically obsolete by the time she graduated. Meanwhile, she haunted CBGB at its peak. Even then, her taste in music was eclectic and adventurous, from punk, to gothic rock, disco, and eventually pioneering feminist bands the Slits and Raincoats.

Auspiciously, she teamed up with a bunch of college friends to open the legendary Tribeca music venue Tier 3 – where she made her New York musical debut, as the drummer of the minimalistically undescribable Stare Kits. “It seemed unthinkable even a decade later that the streets of downtown could ever have been so empty at night, or that a Manhattan club could have such haphazard beginnings. But that was part of the beauty, although you wouldn’t have thought to call it beautiful, “Rigby recalls. Understatement of the decade.

Rigby reveals that she came to embrace Americana when she realized that country music was just as alienated as punk. Now playing guitar (and percussion, and a little accordion), it wasn’t long before she and her younger brother Michael McMahon (who’s led the hilarious, theatrical Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. for almost twenty years now) founded one of the first New York urban country outfits, the Last Roundup. Maybe it was that group’s newfound embrace of country music – a genuine appreciation, rather than the kitschy contempt for it that would characterize the Williamsburg Americana contingent twenty years later – that shaped their individualistic sound. Even then, Rigby was flexing her songwriting chops.

What’s even more improbable than being able to situate a punk club in Tribeca is that it was once possible to (barely) make ends meet as a working musician in Manhattan, playing original music. Like those trust fund kids in the East Village now, somebody had to be subsidized, right?

As Rigby tells it, no. Cruelly, inevitably, money is always elusive. When she isn’t gigging, she temps and temps, for a succession of bosses from across the boss spectrum. The plotline of her classic, cynical bargain-shopper anthem, As Is, has never been more resonant in light of her experiences here. She seems to have given up everything but her career to keep her daughter clothed and fed.

Misadventures with small record labels, well-intentioned but clueless enablers and wannabe enablers from the corporate world, with both the Last Roundup and Rigby’s successor band, the fetchingly ramshackle, all-female Shams, are predictably amusing. Her details of simple survival are every bit as bittersweet.

Time after time, she falls for emotionally unavailable older men. She mentions “dad’s putdowns,” in passing: this legendary beauty doesn’t even seem to think of herself as all that goodlooking. A marriage to drummer Will Rigby results in a talented daughter (future bassist Hazel Rigby). and doesn’t last. The author goes easy on him, maybe because she’s already excoriated him, if namelessly, in song. 20 Questions, anyone?.

Yet, out of that divorce, and the borderline-condemnable three-bedroom $700-a-month Williamsburg apartment at the corner of Bedford and Grand, she built a solo career that would earn her a well-deserved media blitz and critical raves for her solo debut, Diary of a Mod Housewife. That’s pretty much where the story ends, and a sequel hopefully picks up.

What’s most depressing about Rigby’s narrative is that it could never happen in current-day New York. She started totally DIY – she’d never played an instrument onstage before joining Stare Kits – and made her way up through a succession of small venues, then larger ones and all of a sudden she was playing the Beacon Theatre and touring. No such ladder of success exists here anymore: in fact, it’s working the other way around. All the rock acts that used to play Bowery Ballroom are now being squeezed into its smaller sister venue, the Mercury (a joint that Rigby used to sell out with regularity twenty years ago)

What’s left of the Americana and rock scenes, so vital in Rigby’s early years, now rotate through a handful of small Brooklyn clubs, playing to the same two dozen people week after week. With larger venues (and even some of the smaller ones) assiduously datamining so they can book only the most active Instagram self-promoters, the idea of thinking outside the box and promoting artists whose strengths are not Instagram followers but lyrics and tunes is almost laughable. All this is not to say that the typical club owner in, say, 1985, wasn’t plenty lazy and greedy. It’s just that laziness and greed, at the expense of genuine art, have been institutionalized by social media.

Throughout the book, this charismatic, acerbic, laser-witted performer comes across as anything but a diva. Maybe the Catholic childhood, the authoritarian parents and series of doomed relationships cast a pall that she’s still trying to get out from under. More than anything, this tale deserves a triumphant coda: since Diary of a Mod Housewife, Rigby has put out a series of consistently brilliant albums, toured relentlessly if not overwhelmingly lucratively and married another legendary rock storyteller, Wreckless Eric.

Sleeping with Bob Dylan

Mary Lee Kortes has had many dreams about Bob Dylan. The funniest one involves the lute he was playing in a rehearsal for a Loser’s Lounge gig at Joe’s Pub.

Some things you just can’t make up.

Kortes has included that dream, and many others from a globally-sourced, vastly diverse crowd, in her irresistibly playful new book, Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob. It’s available at or through your neighborhood bookstore, if one still exists, and also at the usual online spots.

Kortes may be known as one of the most brilliantly lyrical songwriters and powerful singers of the past couple of decades, but she’s also an entertaining prose writer. As a young Michigan kid straight out of college in New York, she took a dayjob as an editor in academic and scientific publishing. That helped her get her band Mary Lee’s Corvette off the ground.

This blog’s precedessor e-zine (blogs didn’t exist in 2002) picked Mary Lee’s Corvette’s live recording of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks as the #1 album of that year, and her version of Idiot Wind as the #1 song. Her immersion in Dylan’s work – plus the fact that he’s been such a frequent visitor in her dreams – makes her the obvious candidate to pull this book together.

There’s more than a little irony in that Dylan – the consummate wordsmith – tends to be very laconic throughout almost all of his otherworldly appearances here. A handful of them are obviously wish dreams, but most of them are just randomly hilarious. Dylan wears many hats – he’s a cop, President of the United States, Presidential candidate, prom date, boating instructor, airline pilot, guitar store customer, diehard baseball fan, and in a couple of dreams, a woman. Jim Morrison, Keith Richards, Charles Bukowski, Tom Petty, rightwing extremist George Will, several Dylan sidemen and a talking cow, among others, make cameo appearances.

The funniest dream of all might be the one from drummer Will Rigby, who shows up at a festival to play his first-ever show as a member of Dylan’s band. But the people in charge are incompetent. Rigby doesn’t specify exactly how, but it’s the gig from hell: the door guy is probably AWOL, the sound guy’s already drunk, the promoter’s unreachable, the outdoor tent where they’re playing is a wreck, and there’s not much of a crowd. So Dylan shows up, takes a quick look around, says, “I’m not playing this awful place,” and leaves. Rigby’s regret, of course, is that this wretched gig was his one chance to get to play with Dylan.

Contributor Patti Smith also includes one of her dreams, as well as the lyrics it inspired. Among the many wryly clever illustrations are photos from Mitch Blank’s vast collection of Dylan memorabilia. This book is a rabbit hole waiting for you to take the plunge: it’s impossible to resist reading in a single sitting.

What brings the book full circle is that one of Kortes’ Dylan dreams actually came true. In the dream, he wordlessly told her he liked her work; over a decade later, he put one of the songs from her Blood on the Tracks album on the front page of his website and kept it there for months. And Mary Lee’s Corvette also got to open for him at Madison Square Garden.

Laurie Anderson at the Town Hall: Perennially Relevant and Hilarious

Mohammed el Gharani was a teenager when he was captured by Pakistani bandits and then sold to Bush-era army troops for five thousand dollars. His case mirrors many if not all of the prisoners in the American Guantanamo gulag. In 2013, Laurie Anderson beamed his image onto a mammoth, Lincoln Memorial-esque setting at the Park Avenue Armory.

Beyond the complications of a live projection from Chad, where el Gharani returned after Reprieve.org worked to secure his release from prison, what Anderson remembered most vividly from the installation was how audiences reacted. She recounts the story in her new book All the Things I Lost in the Flood, whose release she celebrated with a solo show at the Town Hall last night. In a surveillance state, “Crowds have become very much aware of where the camera is,” she reminded.

Those who moved to the front, where their images would be transmitted back to Chad, were mouthing the words “I’m sorry.” It was the one moment in the performance where Anderson appeared to be close to tears. Considering that the book title references the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy flooding on her basement archive, and also addresses the loss of her husband, Lou Reed, her usual deadpan stoicism in this case carried even more weight than usual.

Anderson’s work has always been intrinsically political, if not in a doctrinaire or sectarian  way. Over and over again, this mostly spoken-word performance reaffirmed that fearless populist sensibility. Her work is also usually outrageously funny, and this greatest hits show of sorts reflected that as well. An archival clip staged in the back of a diner, Anderson musing about the merits of the Star Spangled Banner versus alternative, less stressfully arpeggiated national anthems was as funny as it was back in 1980. More soberingly, she contemplated how Aristophanes’ The Birds might serve as a metaphor for the current administration.

Otherwise, Anderson shared a lot of remarkably candid insight into the nuts and bolts of staging provocative multimedia installations around the world. Homeland Security didn’t waste any time putting a stop to the idea of beaming in images of US prisoners serving life sentences – although the Italian government had given its stamp of approval to that same concept, which eventually springboarded Habeas Corpus, the installation el Gharani appeared in. That’s another typical Anderson trope: more often than not with her, plan B works just as well as plan A.

And she has a way of staying relevant: she allowed herself just a single moment to bask in that, recalling how she’d played her one big radio hit, O Superman, at the Town Hall right after 9/11 and found crowds resonating to it as much as they had during the Iranian hostage crisis twenty years before.

Her musical interludes, played solo on violin with plenty of pitch-shifting effects and layers stashed away digitally, only amounted to about ten uneasily wafting minutes. The stories, one after another, were very revealing, especially for an artist who ultimately doesn’t give much away about herself. As a “burnt-out multimedia artist” in Greece around the turn of the century, she recalled getting up the nerve to ask her Athens guide – a curator at the Parthenon – what happened to the country that invented western civilization. His response? That the Parthenon became so filled with tchotchkes that Athenians took their praying and philosophy private. “You can’t pray in an an art museum,” he explained.

Anderson pondered that and found it shocking. It was just as provocative to be reminded how she’s equated prisons and galleries over the years – both are heavily guarded and meant to keep what’s inside from leaving. On the lighter side, she recalled a late 90s project whose laser-fixated curator staged what could have been “group eye surgery” for extra shock appeal along with the pyrotechnics he’d mastered in the Israeli army.

At the end of the show, she sent out a salute to her husband with a brief tai chi demonstration, reminding how much she missed the banter of 21 years of marriage to a similarly legendary raconteur. One can only hope that if they ever recorded any of that, it survived the flood and future generations might be able to hear it someday.

A Revealing, Lavishly Illustrated New Book and a Midtown Release Show by Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson is the world’s best-loved avant garde artist. Yet as much as her forty-plus year career has encompassed music, art, sculpture, film, video, literature and cutting edge technology, ultimately her work boils down to narratives. Ask anyone what they love about Anderson, and inevitably the first thing they’ll mention is her storytelling. And it’s that keen sense of purpose, that inimitable, dry sense of humor, and that unpretentious, matter-of-fact midwestern sensibility that draws an audience in, that succeed in getting us to think outside the box along with her.

You wouldn’t expect a coffee-table book to be much of a revelation, but that’s exactly what Anderson’s new book All the Things I Lost in the Flood is. A lavishly illustrated, self-curated career retrospective, it’s a rare opportunity to explore the nuts and bolts of how Anderson conceives and then brings a work to life. And it’s hardly self-congratulatory, While out of necessity, she devotes a large proportion of the book to her best-known works – Homeland, United States in its many parts, and Habeas Corpus – she spends just as much time on early projects, some of which weren’t fully realized, others which ran into roadblocks. Either way, it’s a feast of ideas for any artist in any discipline.

Anderson’s impetus for the book – and her new album, Landfall, with the Kronos Quartet – was Hurricane Sandy. In salvaging what was left of her basement full of instruments and memorabilia after the storm, she was thrown into revisitation mode. Obviously, if there’s any living artist who deserves a retrospective at, say, the Met or MOMA, it’s Anderson; in the meantime, this will suffice – and you can take it home with you. Anderson is celebrating the release of the book – just out from Skira Rizzoli – on Feb 15 at 8 PM with a performance including many special guests at the Town Hall. Presumably there will an opportunity to get books signed afterward.

Although Anderson’s work is the antithesis of TMI, she’s surprisingly revealing. As a child, she almost drowned her twin younger brothers in a frozen pond whose ice gave way – and then miraculously saved them. Much as she loves “lossy” media – where the limits of technology interfere with the delivery of an image or an idea – she’s always been fascinated by the state of the art. She was using a lo-fi, landline-based prototype for Skype in 1979…and much as she initially resisted virtual reality and computer language, she has recently delved into both, if with a little prodding from fans who were experts in those fields.

What might be most astonishing here is that Anderson had already pretty much concretized her subtly provocative vision by the early 1970s. A violin filled with water; talking statues with loaded messages (who may well be alter egos); convicted murderers beamed into installations, and her interactive piece featuring a survivor of Guantanamo torture hell during the Bush years, are all chronicled here.

The visuals are just as fascinating. The black-and-white photos from 1972 forward say a lot. The young Anderson, it turns out was just as calmly determined as the famous one Americans know much better. There are also all sorts of sketches, diagrams, stage directions and plenty of tour photos. The latter, many of them outlandishly large onstage, don’t translate to the format of the book as well, but the rest are a literal how-to guide for inspired multimedia artists.

And she’s hilarious. Both the anecdotes and the offhand sociological commentary are choice. Having memorized a Japanese translation of one of her spoken-word pieces, she discovers during a Japanese tour that the guy who gave her the cassette to memorize had a bad stutter – which she dutifully copied. Although she’s hardly convinced that her fulfillment of an early 70s grant – playing solo violin, unamplified on the Upper East Side of Manhattan – was any kind of success, there’s a charming photo of some chivalrous gentleman passing the hat for her. Many of the jokes are too good, and still valid after many years, to give away here.

And relevance has always been front and center in her work – from the coy, sardonic questions of her early 70s work, to her hit single O Superman – a cynical look at Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt at a rescue during the Iranian hostage crisis – to the sinister implications of global warming in Landfall.

Much as this is a very funny book, a sobering undercurrent lingers. It’s one thing to lose the record stores that used to sell Anderson’s albums; it’s another to lose the bookstores she had in every city, that she relished visiting between gigs while on tour. She quotes Karl Rove, referencing how fake news has been part of the totalitarian agenda long before the current Presidential administration. And much as she has come to employ new technology, she’s dismayed by social media’s atomizing and alienating effects. Anderson herself is not on Facebook.

A Potentially Paradigm-Shifting Series of Women Performers at the New School

In conversation with the audience and performers at her potentially paradigm-shifting new series Women Between Arts at the New School yesterday, singer/actress/impresario Luisa Muhr contemplated the complexities of branding interdisciplinary works. How do you market something that resists easy categorization? Maybe by calling it what it is: outside the box. Considering the turnout, there definitely is an audience for what might be the only interdisciplinary series focusing on women performers whose work encompasses so many different idioms in New York right now.

When Muhr springboarded the project, she’d assumed that Women Between Arts would be one of at least five or six ongoing programs here. But this seems to be the only one at the moment – If there’s another, would they please identify themselves, because they could be doing very important work!

Dance on the same program as storytelling? Sure! Writer/choreographer Allison Easter wryly remarked that audiences at dance performances don’t mind being talked to. Her piece on the bill featured dancers Tiffany Ogburn and Paul Morland subtly and then explosively tracing Easter’s spoken-word narrative about a couple of American college girls intent on thwarting a would-be rapist on a train winding its way through the Alps.

Klezmatics violinist Lisa Gutkin proved to be the ideal headliner for a bill like this. Born and raised in a secular Jewish family in Sheepshead Bay, the songwriter/actress revealed an insatiably curious worldview that mirrored her sizzling musical chops, via excerpts from her one-woman show. Likewise, part of her eclectic background stems from the demands of being a highly sought-after sidewoman. Irish reels? OK. Tango? Si! Klezmer? No problem! She grew up with that culture, inspired by her immigrant grandmother, who would hitchhike upstate to her bungalow where she’d book artists like Pete Seeger to entertain her garment worker friends.

And Muhr illustrated her own, similarly eclectic background with wistful projections, a subtly humorous dance piece and poetry, following her own Greek immigrant great-grandmother’s journey as a refugee from Istanbul to Vienna. In pushing the boundaries of diverse idioms, a program like Muhr’s has the potential to spur the growth of new synapses for both audiences and performers.

The next Women Between Arts performance features songwriter Jean Rohe, choreographer Sasha Kleinplatz, brilliant carnatic violinist Trina Basu, singer/actress Priya Darshini and Brooklyn Raga Massive tabla player Roshni Samlal on January 7 at 3 PM at the New School’s Glass Box Theatre (i.e. the new Stone) at 55 W 13th St.

Le Trio Joubran Salute Their Late Collaborator Mahmoud Darwish With an Unforgettable, Intense Performance at the Lincoln Center Festival

There were innumerable long passages in Palestinian oud-playing brothers Le Trio Joubran’s multimedia performance last night at the Lincoln Center Festival that were absolutely shattering. Time stood still. When did Wish You Were Here, the stark, haunted dirge that the trio began with, end? After five minutes of hushed, bereaved minimalism, or closer to thirty? Realistically, it was on the shorter side, but it left a vast impact.

Yet moments like those were balanced by others that were ridiculously funny. Which ultimately came as no surprise, considering that the show was a homage to the group’’s late collaborator and countryman, poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Darwish saw himself as an exile. His childhood village was one of the hundreds bulldozed to make room for Israeli settlers in the wake of the 1948 war. In a country the size of South Carolina, that makes an awful lot of refugees. He returned as an adult, eventually joining the Palestinian government’s inner circle but then withdrawing, disillusioned: he had no tolerance for the hypocrisy of politics. Widely considered to be the voice of the Palestinian people, his richly ironic, fiercely proud, relentlessly defiant work speaks to anyone estranged from their home, physically or otherwise.

Darwish died in 2008: for the last twelve years of his life, Le Trio Joubran were his backing band and musical sparring partners. To play along with his recorded voice must have been a considerable emotional challenge for them, but this time they didn’t let on. Darwish was ailing when he made those recordings, but his voice was virile, supremely confident and as nuanced as his words, simultaneously projected in Arabic and English translation above the stage.

One of the group’s signature tropes is to play in unison with a flurrying, precise, tremoloing strum, a sepulchrally fluttering low-string section with an ancient resonance deeper than any western orchestra could achieve. They did that a lot, especially in the most somber passages. But the three oudists also lept, and bounded, and exchanged jaunty riffs, sometimes with an Andalucian flair, most notably in response to an innuendo-packed erotic poem ripe with surrealistic, irresistibly hilarious Freudian imagery.

The rest of the music was a dynamically shifting mirror for the poetry: Darwish zings you with a one-liner, then delivers a gutpunch. Fate and luck are fickle, at best, indelibly illustrated via excerpts from his epic The Dice Player. One of his characters misses his flight because he’s not a morning person, a good thing because it would have crashed with him onboard. In Darwish’s world, two things that make life worth living are invaders’ fear of memories, and tyrants’ fear of songs.

Samir Joubran played a slightly larger model than the instruments in the hands of his two younger brothers, Wissam and Adnan, taking the lowest descents of the night. Drummer Youssef Hbeisch began with a somber, boomy beat on daf frame drum and then moved behind a full kit, which he played with hands, maintaining a muted, subtly colored pulse – at least until a solo where the three brothers encircled him and added their own playful beats. They’d revisit that on the encores – after a warmly rousing singalong, Samir and Wissam played basslines on Adnan’s oud in perfect unison with their brother’s briskly chromatic, dancing lines. It’s impossible to imagine a concert by a single band in New York in 2017 any more riveting or thrilling than this.

This year’s Lincoln Center Festival is a wrap, but Lincoln Center Out of Doors – this city’s most consistently surprising and eclectic free concert series – is in full swing. Angelique Kidjo makes an appearance (but not singing her own material) on August 2; on August 3 at7:30 there’s a Bollywood music-and-dance extravaganza out back in Damrosch Park that looks enticing. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.