…and when force is gone, there’s always Mom

Well it’s official.  The US Postal Service has no official motto. The familiar line that many of us supposed was our mail carrier’s creed is actually an inscription engraved above the Corinthian colonnade of the James Farley Post Office in New York (designed by McKim, Mead & White to match the grand and beautiful Pennsylvania Station that once faced it).

The inscription was derived from The Histories of Herodotus, one of the earliest accounts of the rise of the Persian Empire (written between 450 and 420 BC) and a seminal work in Western literature. As such those persevering soles completing their appointed rounds in the snow, rain and gloom of night were actually ancient Persian couriers.

Not that it’s not an inspiring notion for our own hardworking postal workers.  It’s a fine thing to utilize such a line. Laurie Anderson certainly did, not only including it in today’s selection, but also interpreting it in American Sign Language for the accompanying music video, which was introduced at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (URL below).

Written and first performed in 1981,“O Superman” was part of a larger work (“United States”) and released on Anderson’s debut album, “Big Science”.  Spoken through a vocoder, it’s actually a loose cover of the aria from Jules Massenet’s 1885 opera, Le Cid, with its first lines (“O Superman / O Judge / O Mom and Dad”) “echoing” the aria’s appeal (“Ô Souverain / ô juge / ô père”).

Later lines (“when love is gone, there’s always justice,” etc.)  are eclectically derived from the Tao Te Ching: “When Tao is lost, there is goodness. When goodness is lost, there is kindness. When kindness is lost, there is justice. When justice is lost, there is ritual. Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.”

Although the eight and a half minute performance-art piece was a huge hit in the UK (where it peaked at Number 2 on the Singles Charts), prior to its release Laurie Anderson was a little known artist…outside the art would that is.

Born in 1947 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, Laura Phillips “Laurie” Anderson majored in art history, graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College, with a Master’s of Fine Art in Sculpture from Columbia University for dessert.  A pioneer in electronic music (who invented a number of the musical instruments used in her shows and recordings) she worked as an art instructor, a magazine art critic and as a children’s book illustrator, while creating her early performance-art pieces.

By the mid-1980s Anderson had dropped “O Superman” from her repertoire and it was only at the suggestion of her husband (none other than Lou Reed of Velvet Underground fame) that she revived it in 2001 for a “retrospective” concert tour.  Needless to say, the newly-revived piece took on eery new significance (“here come the planes,” etc) after the events of September 11th that year and a live performance was recorded in New York the very next week.


 O Superman

 O Superman

O Judge

O Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad

O Superman

O Judge

O Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad

 Hi. I’m not home right now

But if you want to leave a message, just start talking at the sound of the tone

Hello? This is your mother

Are you there? Are you
coming home?

Hello? Is anybody home?

Well, you don’t know me,
but I know you

And I’ve got a message to give to you

Here come the planes

So you better get ready. Ready to go

You can come
 as you are, but pay as you go

Pay as you go

And I said: OK. Who is this really?

And the voice said: This is the hand, the hand that takes

This is the 
hand, the hand that takes

This is the hand, the hand that takes

Here come the planes

They’re American planes

Made in America

Smoking or non-smoking?

And the voice said: Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night

shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

 ‘Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice

And when justice is gone, there’s always force

And when force is gone, there’s always Mom

Hi Mom!

 So hold me, Mom, in your long arms

So hold me,
 Mom, in your long arms

In your automatic arms

Your electronic arms

In your arms

So hold me, Mom, in your long arms

Your petrochemical arms

Your military arms

In your electronic arms


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