POP / She's a hell of a nerve: Pretentious? Her? Joseph Gallivan finds Laurie Anderson equally at home on the stage and the page

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The Independent Online
Did she ever tell you about the time she went to live with the Mayan Indians? She was dispatched to observe the women of the tribe. Her tortillas were so wonky and burnt that they threw them to the dogs when they thought she wasn't looking. And she was named Loscha, which meant 'the ugly one with the jewels'. She found out later that the jewels were her contact lenses, which she was observed removing at night, then putting into her eyes during the day for safe-keeping.

In her stripped-down act at Sadlers Wells on Monday, with just a keyboard, mixing desk, electric violin and two mikes, she slipped right into Shakespeare's biggest hit song, 'Full Fathom Five' from The Tempest: 'Those are pearls that were his eyes; / Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea- change / into something rich and strange'.

There aren't many artists who can get away with the old sea-change chestnut, but Laurie Anderson is one of them. She has been at it for 20 years now, performing her art out loud, and has progressed far beyond pretension. She's collected a retrospective of her work in the book Stories from the Nerve Bible (Harper Perennial, pounds 20), which she was hyping in London this week. Or rather not hyping. Such was the text's richness, all she had to do by way of promotion was read from it.

One time, in 1984 (the stage lights turned from blue to red at this point) she was sent to Bali by her Japanese publicist to have conversations with the Prince of Ubud about 'the future' which were to be collected into a book. The prince was to represent Southern civilisation, she the West, and the Japanese man 'what was left of the world'.

The Prince invited her to watch the extensive film of his father's cremation, to which she politely agreed. With a growing sense of absurdity, she told how his funeral pyre was built over three months with the help of the public. His corpse was placed on top of the high but fragile pile, which instantly collapsed, and hit the ground with a thud.

The audience chuckled, but the mourners in Bali, she said, had cheered, because the Balinese think of the soul as a bird, and the blow would have helped shake it loose from the body and set it on its way. This is typical of the way she tells them, blessed with a sensibility that is at once Western and global, amused and serious.

One day (in 1974), since New York was too hot, she packed her rucksack, stepped into Houston Street and started hitch-hiking to the North Pole. The first ride was in a station wagon, the last in a Canadian mail plane with a draft-dodging pilot who showed off his stunts. The geographic pole turned out to be a restricted area. She came home when she nearly hatcheted herself in the head, chopping wood.

All evening, as she spoke, she accompanied herself with eerie chords on the synthesiser, occasionally using her second mike to dip into the gruff voice of authority, or a cringe-making Pinky and Perky shriek. She has had so many ideas in her time, and so many are good ones: from nodding off in public to see what she'd dream (1972), to chipping in ideas for Peter Gabriel's Real World theme park in Barcelona.

Consequently, the book is bursting with life. One of the comforts of bad performance art is its impermanence, but through her work Anderson has honed her wit and her elliptical storytelling method to perfection, and here it is in print. The 'Nerve Bible' in question refers simply to her body, site of the voices and dreams of her work. And as a body of work, it really shouldn't be ignored.