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Laurie Anderson Reflects On Life And Loss In 'Heart Of A Dog'


This is FRESH AIR. Multimedia artist Laurie Anderson has made a new film that's a personal reflection on death. The film is dedicated to her husband, Lou Reed, who died in 2013. But his passing is not spoken of in the film. As you might guess from the film's title, "Heart Of A Dog," a central focus is her late dog, her rat terrier, Lolabelle, who died in 2011. But Anderson also tells stories about her mother's death, the accident which nearly killed Anderson's twin brothers and one that nearly killed her. Anderson narrates the entire film, did the drawings and animation and wrote and performed the score. Home movies from her childhood as well as video diaries are woven in. Lolabelle went blind before she died. To give her some sense of structure and pleasure, Anderson got her a form of music therapy including piano lessons, using an electric keyboard which was placed on the floor. Here's what Lolabelle sounded like.


GROSS: Laurie Anderson, welcome to FRESH AIR. So your film is called "Heart Of A Dog," and part of the film is about the death of your dog, Lolabelle. And when Lolabelle became old and sick, she was blind, and you got her to play music. Would you just describe how you used - in my mind, it's kind of like you used her like John Cage used chance processes in his music (laughter).

LAURIE ANDERSON: Actually what happened was she went blind. And unlike a lot of dogs who do pretty well when they go blind because their - really, their eyesight isn't so great. But they're hearing is exquisite, and their sense of smell gives them a place. And so - and a lot of dogs do well, and she did not. She froze in place. She just - we had to pick her up to do anything. So I kind of panicked. And I talked to a trainer who said, you know, I taught my dogs to play piano. I said, that could be a solution, I guess. Anyway, Lolabelle learned to play. And she ran in every day. We'd put a keyboard on the floor, turned it on, played music using a lot of the same presets I use in my shows, and she was - she got pretty good - pretty good.

GROSS: So what do you think your dog got out of creating sounds by putting her paws on the keyboard?

ANDERSON: Well, probably, first, is the ability to make a sound, so a bit of control. And she had lost a lot of control. She'd lost her world. And second is the pleasure of sound and being able to manipulate it and turn it around. So it's why musicians like to play. That's why she liked to play, really.

GROSS: When she was dying, you decided not to put her to sleep because of what your meditation teacher had said. And you quote him as saying, animals are like people. They approach death, then they back away, and you don't have the right to take that from them. So just take her home from the hospital. And you did. And you spent three days with her as she died. What did what your meditation teacher say mean to you?

ANDERSON: The teaching of this guy, Mingyur Rinpoche, is basically try to be there. Try to be there for your life, and try to be there for your death, too, if you can. If you can't, that's OK, too. You know, it's - he's a completely nonjudgmental person. You make up your own mind. But in this case, I followed his advice in that I didn't want her to be in a kind of a cold place. I wanted her to be in a familiar place. And that said, you know, when Lolabelle got very sick, the first thing - that I didn't include in the film - was the vet said, you know, Lolabelle is going to have to be in an oxygen room the rest of her life. What kind of life is that? And my husband, Lou, said, OK, where can we get an oxygen room? And so we got one, and we brought it home, and she went in there and she was just kind of peacefully resting and breathing, and then she wandered out. And she lived for another half-a-year.

GROSS: So in your movie, you incorporate in some home movies from your childhood that one of your siblings sent you.

ANDERSON: That was a crazy thing. My older brother said, I've got a lot of movies from our childhood. So I transferred all these - a few of them actually. I just dipped into these boxes. And the first transfers back from the lab were these scenes of ice skating and this frozen lake and an island, and my mother's pushing my little brothers in a stroller, and I'm skating around. And I thought, whoa, I remember this time when I was coming back from the movies. And I was pushing my little brothers in the stroller and going to see the moon rising over the lake. And I thought, I'm going to go park on the island and show them the moon. As I got close to the island, the ice broke and the stroller sank under the water.

GROSS: The stroller with your twin brothers in it?

ANDERSON: Yes. Their little hats, like, going - mom is going to kill me. This is really, really bad. And so I ripped off my coat, and I dove down to get them. But the stroller had slipped down the side of the bank, and I couldn't find them. And I was 8 - I was panicking. I dove down again. I found it. I pulled one out, went down again. I couldn't find the other one. I went down a couple more times. It was really terrifying. Finally, I got both of them and ran home screaming - they're screaming, and ran to the door. And my mother looks at us - at my brothers and me, and I told her what happened. And she said, what a wonderful swimmer you are, what a great diver. I didn't know you could dive. She did not mention - she didn't say, like, you almost killed your brothers. She didn't even mention that. I was a hero. What an incredible thing she had said to me.

GROSS: Because she praised you instead of traumatizing you that you had done something really terrible.

ANDERSON: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Laurie Anderson, and she has a new film that's called "Heart Of A Dog." And it's, in part, a meditation on death, and it's, in part, a film about stories, about personal stories and storytelling and memory. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson who has a new movie which is called "Heart Of A Dog." And it's in part a reflection on death and it's also just about personal stories. How we tell stories, how we remember our past and the meaning we take away from those memories and from those stories.

So you were telling us the story about how you nearly killed your brothers by taking them out on a stroller on the frozen pond that you always skated on, but the ice broke. And they fell through, and you had to rescue them from the frozen water. There's another story about water in which you nearly killed yourself. You were taking a dive in a pool - and it strikes me as, like, a fancy dive that you hadn't practiced before. Do you went to tell the story about the jump?

ANDERSON: Oh yeah, so I wanted to impress people because I was kind of a kid who was lost in the crowd - was sort of my, you know, feeling about childhood was being part of a big family. And so I thought I'm going to try a really fancy flip off the board, like, a double flip. And so I went up to the board and I'd never done a flip before. But I thought, you know, that can't be too hard. So I flipped off the board, and I missed the pool. And I - boof (ph), you know, landed on the edge of the pool and broke my back. And so I spent some months in a - in traction in the children's ward in the hospital. At that time, you know, all the kids are dumped into the same ward that kind of, like - the kids who'd broken their legs and kids who had been burned and they're all piled into the same place. And, as if, you know, it doesn't really matter (laughter). So my memory of this was that I kind of didn't believe the doctors when they came over and they said you're not going to be able to walk again. I'm sorry to tell you this. I thought who is this guy? I just was so impatient with the whole thing. I knew I was going to walk again. I knew that I was going to do that.

GROSS: So did you ever get phobic about water after the ice accident and the diving accident?

ANDERSON: Yeah, so many things have happened to me in my life that I could be phobic about. I mean, I was in a plane crash and I...

GROSS: You were?

ANDERSON: ...I did - yes, I was. And I got very phobic about that for a while. But then I got over it. You know, what happens when you're in a crash is you join a crash club, and you talk endlessly about your crash because you don't want to bore your friends with it. And they've heard about the crash so many times. And so you also protect yourself in other ways. I mean, after that crash, in which some people died, and it was very traumatic to drop through the air. And I - as we were doing it, I thought I'm in a plane crash. I'm dropping through the air, and then we crashed. I walked away with nothing. Other people lost their lives. What happened with me on that was - I was - I flew the next day because I knew I'd never fly again. So with that however, I would fall asleep as soon as I got on the plane for, like, three years. I would fall into - almost a deep trance. I actually had to, like, pin a little note to my shirt saying I'm not in a coma. You can just keep banging on my head. And I would talk to the stewardesses when I got on, and they were all - they were very trained in working with crash people because they - I said, look, I was in a crash and I'm pretty nervous. And they were very kind. And I said it's going to look like I'm going into a coma, but don't worry I'm just going to go to sleep. And they were super understanding about it. So what happened in that case was my mind shut down. My mind protected me from being there anymore. And words protected me in this, you know, the crash club where you talk about the story until it sounds very uninteresting, until you're beyond bored with it. That's what happens with stories too. It's, like, you know, you can take their energy out by repeating them over and over and over. We look to our candidates for that too. When you're thinking...


ANDERSON: ...tell me that story again and I'm going to shoot myself.

GROSS: So wait, was this a passenger plane?


GROSS: Like a commercial airliner?

ANDERSON: Yeah, it was a 30 passenger plane.

GROSS: I always wonder when people have any kind of spiritual and meditative practice especially if it's one designed in part to help them cope with things that seem unmanageable and to cope with something like death, if they're able to maintain that practice and maintain the equanimity at the time of death whether it's, you know, that person's or that person's loved one. And I was wondering with you and your husband, who both had the same meditation teacher, were able to follow through on those practices at the very end or whether all of that just kind of slipped away at the end and, you know, you just dealt on this gut level with what was happening.

ANDERSON: Well, gut level is a good level to deal with life, you know, and for me, I have to say that Buddhism makes sense for me because it's how I'm an artist. The only - it's not about things you should do or things you should believe. It's extremely simple. It's be awake. That's all it is. Be awake. Be aware. And that's what I do as an artist. That's how I live. And that's the way Lou's life was. And that's the way Lou died as well. And one of the things that I had to do when I inducted Lou into - or gave a speech when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few months ago was first of all, that's a very boring ceremony. It's - just goes on for, like, so many hours. And I was trying to shorten the speech because it was getting so dull. So I tried to shorten it, shorten it. And then I thought I'm just going to mention these three rules that Lou and I had. We made them up, and they had to do with how to live with your life 'cause, you know, life goes by so fast. It's really - and a lot of times things happen so fast you don't know - how should I react? What should I do? I'm in a panic, you know. So we came up with these, and they're time-tested rules. And I'll tell you what they are. So the first one is don't be afraid of anyone. Imagine your life if you're not afraid of anyone. Two, get a really good BS detector and learn how to use it. Who's faking it and who is not? Three, be really tender. And with those three, you're set.

GROSS: Laurie Anderson, thank you so much for talking with us.

ANDERSON: It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Laurie Anderson's new film is called, "Heart Of A Dog." After playing in theaters, it will premiere on HBO in early 2016.


GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed like our interview with Peter Sohn, the director of the new Disney Pixar animated film, "The Good Dinosaur," and our interview with Shonda Rhimes who created the TV shows "Scandal" and "Grey's Anatomy" and is executive producer of "How To Get Away With Murder," check out our podcast. You'll find those interviews and many more. Fresh AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Our associate producer for online media is Molly C.B. Nestor. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.