I want to describe Amanda Palmer, half of art-punk cabaret-rock band the Dresden Dolls, in a way that makes her seem like something exotic, but truly, it’s hard for me to think of Amanda Palmer as exotic: I know her too well.
We’ve been friends for three years, a couple for nearly two, and engaged to be married for the best part of a year now. In that time I’ve seen her play gigs of all sizes and all kinds, alone or with bands, playing piano or keyboards and, sometimes, a joke that got so far out of hand it became a Radiohead covers album, the ukulele. I’ve seen her play grand churches and basement divebars (once on the same night going from chapel to divebar), watched her play a seriously genderbent Emcee in Cabaret and half of the pair of conjoined twin sisters known as Evelyn Evelyn.
But I’d never seen the Dresden Dolls. They went on the sort of hiatus that most bands don’t come back from about a month before I met Amanda for the first time.
I’d been a lazy sort of Dresden Dolls fan before that. I had their first two major label CDs (but didn’t even notice when they released No, Virginia, their third). They had a few songs on my STUFF I REALLY LIKE iPod playlist. I’d felt vaguely warm towards them after hearing Amanda was nice to my god-daughters Sky and Winter after a gig, and when I noticed that the Dolls put up the hatemail they had received (complete with occasional hatedrawings) on their website.I tried to see them once, in 2005, when they played Sundance, but I had a press conference when they were on, and I watched Nellie McKay instead.
When I started going out with Amanda I asked about the Dresden Dolls. She told me it was a pity that I’d missed them. They were so good, she said. Brian Viglione and her, well, it was special.
I was sure it was. But then she’d talk about Brian, the other half of the Dresden Dolls (Amanda played keyboards, Brian played mostly drums and sometimes guitar), and talk about their time on the road in the way someone talks about a bad marriage she’s glad she’s out of: they had been together all day and every day, and for 120 minutes of that time they had made the music that made her happy, and the rest of the time they drove each other crazy. They’d sometimes been lovers, or at least, they’d had a fair amount of sex over that seven years, and they’d sometimes been friends, but mostly they’d been the Dresden Dolls, a band on the road, united in a vision of art as liberation. And then in early 2008, they weren’t.
Curious, I’d watched a YouTube video from the end of their final tour. Brian talks about why it was time for them to stop: “Why constantly fight?” he asks. “It’s not a marriage. It’s a band.” Cut to Amanda: “It’s like being brother and sister and married and business partners and then put in a box where you have to see each other 24 hours a day,” she says. They both look tired and they look done.
But time heals. Or at least it forms scabs.
Which explains why I am standing on the balcony at Irving Plaza at Hallowe’en, at the first gig of the Dresden Dolls reunion tour, watching two young ladies, wearing mostly glitter, hula-hooping in the dark with glowing hula-hoops,watched by an audience of clowns and zombies and mad hatters and such, and I don’t actually know where the Hallowe’en costumes end and the dressing up to see the Dresden Dolls begins.
Amanda appears on the balcony to watch the support band, the Legendary Pink Dots. They were her favourite band as a teenager, gave the Dolls their first break. She’s happy that they are playing to 1200 people who would never have seen them otherwise. She holds my hand, introduces me to the man who introduced her and Brian at a Hallowe’en party exactly a decade before, and slips back into the shadows.
The next time I see her, she’s on the stage wearing a red kimono over a Hallowe’en sweater she bought in June in the Wisconsin Dells. The sweater has a scarecrow on the back. She’s wearing a red military cap, and when two songs in, she takes off the sweater and the kimono to play in skin and a black bra, she has the word LOVE written in eyeliner across her chest. Brian is dressed in a black vest, black trousers.
The first strange thing about watching the Dolls is the feeling of immediate recognition. The “Oh, I get it. This is what the songs are meant to sound like.” As if the drumming makes sense of something, or translates it back into the language it was originally written in.
The second strange thing about the Dolls is this: it’s very obviously a band that consists of two percussion players. They are two people who hit things. She hits the keys, he hits the drums.
And the third, and strangest thing about the Dolls is that they are, when they play, quite obviously, telepathic, like a couple who can finish each other’s sentences. They know each other and the songs so well that it’s all there, in muscle memory and in their heads and in the subliminal cues that the rest of the world is never going to see. I’d never really got that until now. I’d puzzled over why, if the songs needed a drummer, Amanda didn’t simply go and get a drummer.But drumming is only part of what Brian’s doing. He’s commenting, performing, pantomiming, playing, ying to Amanda’s yang.It’s a remarkable, virtuoso, glorious thing to see them play together.Read More of Neil Gaiman’s Reflection on Page 2 >>
They play “Sex Changes.”They play “Missed Me,” and the audience are pumping their fists, zombies and superheroines and Pennywise the clown, and I think, “I’ve heard her play this song so many times. I’ve seen her cross a hall with a marching band behind her playing this song. She’s done it with a full orchestra. And this is better than any of them.”
Two nights later, on the phone, after the Boston gig, she tells me how irritated she is with people who tell her that they like the Dresden Dolls better than her solo performances, and I feel guilty.
I’m starting to understand why she went on her first tour with a dance troupe, even though it guaranteed the tour would make no money, why she would go on tour as conjoined twins with Jason Webley and a single dress that fitted both of them. I can see how much of what she’s been doing on stage was looking for things that replaced, not Brian, but the energy of Brian, putting something else on the stage that’s more than just a girl and a keyboard.
She introduces Brian, tells off security for trying to take a fan’s camera, “We have an open photo policy.”
A change of energy: they perform Brecht/Weill’s “Pirate Jenny,” and Brian acts it out as he conjures the ocean with the drumming. As the Black Freighter ships off to sea, and Jenny whispers that “On it is me,” the hall is perfectly quiet.
A girl shouts “I love you Amanda.”
A man shouts “I love you Brian.”
The Long sisters, friends of Amanda’s, both made up dead, Casey with a bullet-hole in her forehead, Danni’s face a mess of stage blood, come and stand beside me.
“We love every single fucking one of you in this whole fucking room,” says Amanda, using her favourite intensifier.
The Dresden Dolls play Maurice Sendak’s “Pierre.” The moral is “Care,” and I don’t think either Brian or Amanda can stop caring for a moment: about the gig, about the other’s playing, about a decade of good times and bad times and petty offenses and anger and disappointment and seven years of really, really good gigs.
Amanda goes into the chords of “Coin-Operated Boy,” a song that too often, solo, feels like a novelty song, and, played by Amanda and Brian together it brings the house down: less of a song and more of an act of symbiosis, as they try to wrong-foot each other. It’s funny and it’s moving and it’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen.
By now Amanda is a mop of hair and skin in a bra, Brian is a topless sheen of sweat and a grin. They launch into Autotune the News’ musical version of the “Double Rainbow” speech, as hundreds of balloons fall, and it’s as foolish as it’s smart and either way it’s perfectly delightful.
“The Jeep Song.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard Amanda play this live. They grab half a dozen fans and pull them up onstage for backing vocals.
Then it’s “Sing.” If there ever was a Dresden Dolls anthem, it’s this: a plea to make art, whatever the hell else you do.”Sing for the teacher who told you that you couldn’t sing,” sings Amanda. The audience sings along, and it feels important, less of a singalong and more like communion or a credo, and we’re all singing and it’s Hallowe’en and I’m up on the balcony slightly drunk, thinking that this is some sort of wonderful, and Amanda’s shouting, “You motherfuckers, you’ll sing some day,” and it’s all so good, and I’m standing with two dead girls, and we’re cheering and happy and it’s one of those perfect moments that don’t come along in a lifetime that often, the kind of moment you could end a movie on.
The first encore: Brian’s on guitar, Amanda’s now wearing a golden bra, crawling out onto the speaker-stacks to sing “Mein Herr” from Cabaret. Then a crazed, wonderful improvisation that slowly crashes into Amanda’s song about parents, “Half Jack.” “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” said Philip Larkin long before either of the Dresden Dolls were born, in a line that sounded like it could have swaggered out of an Amanda Palmer song, and “Half Jack” is just all about that. Jack Palmer, Amanda’s father, is up on the balcony near me, beaming proudly.
A drunk touches my shoulder and congratulates me duringthe flailing madness of “Girl Anachronism.” Or I think he’s congratulating me. “How do you sleep at night?” he asks. “It must be like catching lightning in a jar.”
And I say yes, I suppose it must be, and that I sleep just fine.
The band crashes into “War Pigs” as a final number, and it’s huge and bombastic and heartfelt, and Amanda and Brian are playing like one person with two heads and four hands, and it’s all about the beat and the roar, and I watch the crowd in their lunatic, wonderful Hallowe’en costumes drink it in until the final explosive rumble of drums has faded away.
I love the gig. I love everything about it. I feel like I’ve been made a gift of seven years of Amanda’s life, the Dresden Dolls years before I knew her. And I’m in awe of what the Dresden Dolls are, and what they do.
And when it’s all over, and it’s two a.m. andwe are back in the hotel and the adrenaline is fading, Amanda, who has been subdued and awkward since the gig finished, starts crying,silently, uncontrollably, and I hold her, not sure what to say.
“You saw how good it was tonight?” she asks as she cries, and I tell her that, yes. I did, and for the first time it occurs to me how bad it must have got to make her leave something that meant that much to her, that made so many people happy.
Her cheeks are black with wet eye-make-up and it’s smearing on the sheets and the pillow as she sobs and I hold her tight, and try with all my might to understand.