The Spalding Gray/Laurie Anderson Age: The creative flourish of New York in the 1980s

The Spalding Gray/Laurie Anderson Age: The creative flourish of New York in the 1980s

Steven Soderbergh’s documentary And Everything Is Going Fine (which is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection) tells the story of the late writer/actor Spalding Gray, in Gray’s own words, taken from interviews and footage of Gray’s monologues. There are no on-screen captions in the film, and little in the way of contextualizing images or comments, beyond what Gray said publicly, on-camera, in the decades he spent as a performance artist. But there wasn’t much that Gray didn’t cover in his monologues, from being raised in Rhode Island by a Christian Scientist mother who committed suicide, to his world travels, sexual adventures, relationship woes, and even his creative process. And Everything Is Going Fine’s approach is a smart way of documenting a man who converted his own memories into art, year after year, right up to the day when his corpse was fished out of the East River in 2004. Gray had already organized the chaos of his life; now Soderbergh, who knew and collaborated with Gray, has compressed 62 years of that chaos into 90 minutes.

But while And Everything Is Going Fine is good at narrowing in on Gray, it misses the bigger picture of how Gray fit into one strange and remarkable time and place in American culture. Consider that Gray made a name for himself by sitting behind a desk in small performance spaces, just talking. His work was funny, but not “comedy” per se; and while it had its artsy touches, Gray’s monologues were direct and easy to grasp in ways that separated them from the avant-garde of that time. And yet largely because of Jonathan Demme’s film of Gray’s monologue Swimming To Cambodia, Gray became emblematic of what was going on in New York City in the ’80s, when there was a confluence of pop and art, accessibility and edge, irony and sincerity.

 

All of those traits—some conflicting, some complementary—were evident also in the work of musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson, who scored Gray’s films Swimming To Cambodia and Monster In A Box. Anderson had been one of a number of New York-based artists in the ’70s who were aggressively experimental, testing the boundaries of what audiences would endure, in ways not too dissimilar from what was happening in the early punk-rock clubs. In retrospect, New York’s art and culture in the ’70s seems all of a piece: The city was crumbling and in fiscal crisis, so its artists explored defiant, apocalyptic visions. By the ’80s, the money started flowing through New York again, and the art began to comment on excess by becoming excessive—not with budgets, but with ideas. Anderson fused poetry, pop music, and theater, dazzling audiences with her homemade electronic devices (like the tape-bow violin, which used audiotape and a magnetic head to make sound) and ambitious staging. Her early career culminated in the two-night, eight-hour performance United States, a comment on technology, tradition, and being alive in America in the back half of the 20th century.

My first exposure to Anderson—like a lot of people’s, no doubt—came via the video for her United States showstopper “O Superman,” with its quirky Vocoderized lyrics about modern disconnection and its nifty low-budget effects, which made it look like Anderson had glowing teeth. At the time, I didn’t fully get what Anderson was going for, and was completely clueless about her connection to the New York art world. (I was only 12, as I recall.) But there was something immediately compelling about “O Superman,” something weird, smart, cool, and fantastical. In the pop world, this was an era where oddities like Anderson floated through and occasionally got stuck in the transom. Suddenly, out of the blue, a futuristic version of “Puttin’ On The Ritz” sung by an Indonesian-born Dutch actor named Taco would become a Top 40 single, or a half-rapped number from a Broadway musical about chess would become a hit, or Tom Tom Club’s “Genius Of Love” would get enough radio play that the kids in my sixth-grade class would spontaneously start chanting, “JAMES BROW-OWN!” on the bus, even though they’d never heard any actual songs by Brown (or Talking Heads, for that matter). That was the context for Anderson, for me, at that particular moment.

 

Later, in high school, a girlfriend made me a tape of Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak, and between her artsy proclivities and my own regular perusals of The New York Times during free period in our school library, I started to piece together where Anderson was coming from. I read about Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Robert Wilson, and the intersection of hip-hop and art via graffiti stars like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. I learned how Sonic Youth had emerged from the avant-garde classical scene, and read articles about how Beastie Boys transitioned from punk to rap, and how They Might Be Giants were making quirky little DIY pop songs available by phone. I saw the film of Swimming To Cambodia right around then, and watched the early movies of Spike Lee. I dug deeper, and learned more about how punk in New York had evolved from the efforts of poet/artists like Patti Smith and Richard Hell. I bought my first Velvet Underground albums. I started to pick up the threads, from New York’s past to its present, and to see how art was shading into show business, and the underground into pop, and theater into everything, and vice-versa on all counts.

Even the more “respectable” New York arts scene was being affected by what was bubbling up from below. While Broadway was producing blockbusters like Cats, Les Misérables, The Phantom Of The Opera, and Neil Simon’s autobiographical trilogy, the ’80s also brought James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant Sunday In The Park With George and Into The Woods, the first plays from August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” and David Mamet’s searing Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-The-Plow. In addition to Spike Lee, New York spawned arthouse staple Jim Jarmusch, whose films Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law filtered down from the festival circuit to college campuses and video stores. In rock music, West Coast troubadour Tom Waits collaborated with New York avant-garde jazz guitarist Marc Ribot on the album Rain Dogs, emerging with an exciting junkyard sound that more mainstream artists soon sought to emulate. New York seemed vibrant again, a place where writers, musicians, artists, and actors could do daring work and be recognized for it. (And that’s not even taking into account the thriving stand-up comedy scene, or the dominance of East Coast hip-hop, or the way The Cosby Show re-imagined New York as lively middle-class paradise after a decade of sitcoms about the city’s decay.)

Of course, I was observing all of this from a distance, first as a high-schooler in Nashville, Tennessee and then as an undergrad in Athens, Georgia. Laurie Anderson was a big enough deal back then that her concert film Home Of The Brave played at my college’s student union, to a fairly packed house. If you were into music or art or American culture in any significant way in the ’80s, Anderson—like Spading Gray—was someone you were expected to know. And while it was hardly a chore to listen to her work (aside from some of the more esoteric passages of United States, that is), it’s strange to look back and realize that someone with her feet as firmly in the art world as Anderson was recording for Warner Bros. Records and had a movie of one of her shows released in theaters and widely available on home video. Some of the credit for that goes to the rise of the video store, which democratized art, music, and cinema for a time in the ’80s, putting movies like Home Of The Brave and Swimming To Cambodia on the same shelves as Ghostbusters. And some credit is due to the way that everything exciting that was happening in New York seemed to fit together and push each other forward.

Watching And Everything Is Going Fine brings that time back—though likely only for those old enough to recall it, since Soderbergh, by design, doesn’t engage with that part of Gray’s story. Still, from the documentary’s grainy opening image of a empty desk and chair, there’s a sense of possibility that reflects the way the New York arts scene looked to those of us stationed far away. Living in New York may have seemed impossible, but creating the way they did in New York? Not so much. If you were a person with something to say, all you needed was a can of spray paint, or a microphone, or some hand-made instruments, and you could be recognized.