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Grieving with Laurie Anderson

by Sylvie Schwartz

Like many angst-ridden early teens with access to a solid music library and the Internet, I found Laurie Anderson (artist, musician, and talented storyteller), through Lou Reed, her husband - a poet, student of the poet and short story writer Delmore Schwartz, friend of Andy Warhol, and front man of the Velvet Underground. I found her through photographs reprinted in books about rock music. 

Annie Leibovitz, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, Coney Island, New York, 1995. Gelatin silver print.

As a young, angry and hormone-fuelled person, I’d always found Lou Reed most sympathetic. To me, he communicated that yes, the world is exactly as awful and messed up a place as you think it is. But in that, there is still compassion, there is still wonder, and you can still love and be loved. Lou Reed wasn’t condescending, and the bleak-yet-sometimes-still-hopeful world he presented most often seemed to come from a place of maturity rather than inexperienced cynicism. Plus, he was cool. The photos of him from the 60’s and 70’s showed someone effortless, who was completely abrasive but still, for some reason, magnetic. There’s a shift in the 90s. He’d started dating Laurie Anderson. He seemed softer and more inviting. In Annie Leibovitz’s 1995 photograph of the two, Lou Reed retains his cool distance but now he’s in love with Laurie Anderson and it seems like if you spoke to him maybe he’d answer you. In Patti Smith’s obituary for Lou Reed, she says that Laurie Anderson “was his mirror; in her eyes you can see his kindness, sincerity, and empathy.” These aren’t always the most apparent qualities in Lou Reed, but they come through with Laurie Anderson.

Throughout my teen years and even still now, I imagine sitting at the breakfast table with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, eating toast with marmalade. Or maybe lunch, but it’d still be toast with marmalade. I don’t know where the image comes from, or if it’s even mine to begin with; I don’t particularly like toast with marmalade, but it all fits in my head. I was unjustifiably devastated when Lou Reed died in 2013 and that became a true impossibility. October 27th still holds a special kind of sadness, and Lou Reed still holds a special place in my heart, and the breakfast table with him and Laurie Anderson retains its special place in my imagination. After he died, I spent a lot of time wondering about Laurie Anderson, what she’s doing, how she’s feeling, what her life looks like now that she doesn’t have Lou Reed.

I’d only even known Laurie Anderson at a distance. I’d listened to her albums, watched recordings of her performances, seen photographs of her art, but I’d never seen her live or experienced her work in person. When I visited my brother in Boston over Thanksgiving, I made him drive three hours through the autumnal Massachusetts landscape to North Adams, where Laurie Anderson has two installations on view at MASS MoCA. (When I told a friend who’d lived in Williamsburg that I was going to MASS MoCA while visiting my brother in Boston he responded, “Are we talking about the same MASS MoCA? The one that’s in North Adams?” These are the lengths I will go to for Laurie Anderson.) One of these installations is a cycle of large-scale charcoal drawings titled Lolabelle in the Bardo. Lolabelle was Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson’s dog, who died around the same time Lou Reed did. The Bardo is the place where, according to some Buddhist traditions, the dead spend 49 days before being reincarnated. A practicing Buddhist, Laurie Anderson imagined her dog’s time in the Bardo through these massive, beautiful, and completely absorbing drawings that cover the gallery walls almost from floor to ceiling.

In July, I adopted the cat that’d I’d been fostering for the past year, a gorgeous and funny black cat named Simon. He’s my best friend, possibly my soulmate. Simon’s the first thing that’s ever really made me feel “tied down,” inspiring a sometimes funny feeling of responsibility, of “I need to get my life together I need to be able to provide for my cat.” It impresses and surprises me that this fully living animal, with his own thoughts, feelings, and personality, is alive because for the past year I’ve put food out for him every night, given him hugs and cleaned his litterbox. I’d never had a pet before, and as the youngest sibling in my family, and very nearly the youngest person I’ve ever spent any real amount of time with, I’ve never felt like anything else depended on me, or that anything else was more vulnerable and clueless than me. It’s brought out an unexpected maternal instinct: what if my building catches fire while I’m at school and my cat doesn’t get out (he would be so scared!), what if one day in the future my dad (a big advocate of indoor/outdoor cats) lets him out of the house and he gets lost, or run over by a car, or meets the odd psychopath, what if he gets sick and I don’t notice the symptoms until it’s too late? He doesn’t have human words, after all. 

“See?” says my mother, “do you see what I’ve been talking about all these years?” 

This is all overshadowed by the sobering fact that even if nothing goes wrong, Simon won’t outlive me. He turned two a few weeks ago, and it breaks my heart to think about some day in my mid-to late-30’s when I’ll have to put him down, my little companion from college who came with me for all of my adventures in early adulthood. I was having particular trouble with this thought when I met Laurie Anderson for the first time at MASS MoCA with Lolabelle in the Bardo.

Travelling with Lolabelle through the Bardo in the mind of Laurie Anderson tempered not only my pre-emptive grief for my cat, but walked me through a possible process of coming to terms with the death of Lou Reed from someone who really knew him. Standing and staring at a 10 x 14’ drawing of a dog’s face, I imagined Lolabelle reincarnated as a human, and the tiny, new person out there with all of the joy, compassion and loyalty of dog and all of the wisdom culled from countless mornings at the breakfast table with Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. I wondered where Lou Reed is, and how he is, and what he is, and how he spends his time. I had a very moving dream about him not long after this and I like to think of it as a visitation, or some kind of reaching out or acknowledgment. But mostly I thought about Simon and all the nice times he’s going to have playing fetch and tearing up paper towels, and talking with people like we know exactly what he’s saying, and time spent together, and naps with his belly to the ceiling and all of the adventures we’ll go on and all the adventures and nice times he’ll have in his kitty afterlife, whatever that looks like. I like to imagine that it’s warm there with lots of butterflies, and bedsheets hung up on clotheslines that he can tear down and run around in, and lots of hugs from a new family that loves him very much.

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