I love Amanda Palmer.
She is, most of the time, a maelstrom of artistry: a musician, a songwriter, a performer, a dreamer, now a writer, a media target, and a controversial topic for many. She is a beacon of light and patron saint to self-proclaimed weirdoes, artists, punks, goths, in-betweeners, loners and overall a vast spectrum of people, people of many different genders/identities/ethnicities/ages. She is a strange, hairy, beautiful, loud, open-armed mother-sister-lover-friend of all who seek her, and her fans love her for her genuine words, her infinitely raw and passionate performances, her honesty, her dedication, her connection to each and every one of them.
Not everyone loves Amanda Palmer. I get that. She gets that. It’s cool. But a lot of people – and I mean a lot of people – really love her.
Two days ago, Amanda’s Twitter feed exploded as she announced she was seeking a venue for a ninja gig in Chicago. Amanda is famous for ‘ninja gigs’ – last minute, often free or very cheap performances where she plays music but mostly interacts with her fans in a less formal setting, often in public or in strange locations, sometimes with a picnic, frequently with shared food, booze, and company. People flew off the shelves suggesting places, and when she was narrowing it down, I even helped connect her with the folks for one of the possibilities myself. She decided to stage the gig at the Old Town School of Folk Music (near enough to my house that I walked there) and have an after party at a super-secret loft space in another building. It would be a magical event. I rallied my folks (and by folks I mean a handful of gals from Plan 9 Burlesque, including one of my best friends and fellow AFP aficionado Stella Cheeks) and reserved a (free) ticket and two hours before the doors were set to open I made sure I was standing in line to get the best seats we could. (I was third in line. Spoiler: our seats were perfect.)
We stood outside of Old Town and waited…
We lounged about in the beautiful, warm, almost muggy Chicago afternoon, chatting with total strangers about Amanda’s work and our following of her. We caught up with one another, since I haven’t seen these friends in a few months. We ate tacos in bags from the local establishment Taco In A Bag. When they let us into the building, they gave us wrist bands and accepted any donations we might care to give in exchange for the free gig they were hosting, and we made our way into the little theatre. Our seats were front row, physically touching the edge of the stage. Perfect.
Stella and I have seen Amanda Palmer perform four times before, all in Chicago, all in different venues with different acts and styles, so we knew what we were in for. Some of our friends did not, and it was really cool to see them experience Amanda Palmer: The Phenomenon in person. With no introduction, no dimming-of-the-lights, no sound cue, she trotted out onstage barefoot in nothing but a vintage slip and a long black formal coat, her wild dark red hair characteristically twisted and knotted up and pinned with white and gray fake flowers. The audience erupted in cheering and applause, and she smiled, bowing sheepishly and setting her half-hearted setlist (on a paper plate) on the ground. Standing upright, she held her battered, bruised red ukulele in one hand and the mic stand in the other, and in between the two her wonderfully round pregnant belly was positioned near the ukulele mic, as though the baby might speak to us through the silk slip at any moment. It was so good to see her; I can’t be the only one who felt relief and joy, like coming home to find your favorite wild aunt/cousin/sister/friend is there already and waiting for you to give you a hug.
Amanda started off by playing a few songs on the ukulele (which has definitely seen better days and is far from the finest instrument on the market). In between each song she continued to talk amiably with the audience, as though nothing were between us but a tiny table in a coffee shop. All were welcome here, and the audience shouting things back at her or requesting songs was expected and completely normal for her.
She brought out a friend, Maria Popova, a poet and thinker who has a keen mind and a decidedly eloquent quality to her. She and Maria discussed art, patronage, the way our society treats artists, crowdfunding, and poetry, and the two of them took turns reading a few poems. One was maybe the saddest thing I’ve ever heard and was written and read by Amanda herself, inspired by the Germanwings plane crash in March 2015, and featured the breath-catching line “You only fall when you care.” The other poems were written by Amanda and Maria’s shared favorite poet, Wislawa Szymborska, from a collection called Map and the late great Mark Strand. The poetry session was unexpected, and unusual even for Amanda’s gigs, but it was incredibly moving, and everyone was hushed and profoundly tuned in to what was being read. One was titled “Life While-You-Wait”, and contains a line that both Amanda and Maria claimed to be one of the most beautiful ever: “…ill-prepared for the privilege of living…” Another Szymborska poem read was called “Possibilities,” which won the Nobel Prize in 1996, and was equally moving and smile-wringing.
After Maria left, Amanda then took to the baby grand piano for some powerful memory-jogging tunes that I had forgotten I loved. At the end of the concert, she announced there would be an after party at the supersecretloftlocation and she hoped to see us all there. So off we went to the supersecretloftlocation which was already full of people, and hung out in a very warm dance studio space waiting for Amanda to arrive.
She did, and sat at the piano in the corner, gesturing for us all to sit down – everyone immediately sat down on the ground like story time in kindergarten. I had thought the after party would be more of a party, but I should have known she wouldn’t disappoint people by not playing anything. It turned into an even more intimate set than the first one, where she took requests, answered questions, chatted, genuine and open and relaxed. She was tired, she said, but happy to be among us. People passed food up to her: a muffin, a slice of pizza, some grapes, a glass of water, some fruit strips. She ate, and talked, and played and sang. It was truly wonderful to be so close and to have her continue to give us the art we so admired from her, even though she had to be up in the morning, even though she was pregnant and exhausted. She gave and gave and gave, and we soaked it in. At some point, a black cat sauntered through the crowd, accepting pets and affection, then wandered off. Later, a white cat appeared somehow beneath Amanda’s piano bench, and proceeded to clean itself thoroughly in front of everyone.
I wanted to tell her how reading her book The Art of Asking helped me quit my job in March, helped me seize the reins of my many artistic endeavors and surge forward. I wanted to thank her for her generosity and genuine connections even on Twitter and Facebook. I wanted to tell her how glad we all are that she’s her, and that she shares that so freely with so many people. At the end of her set, she apologized and said she was going to go right to bed. She was sorry not to pose for pictures and do the usual meet-and-greet, but she was tired and pregnant and needed to speak at a conference the next day. We forgave her immediately, and packed it in to go home.
We headed out around 1:00 AM, feeling grateful to have been there, and reminded of all of the myriad reasons we love her and her art so much, and each feeling inspired in our own ways to continue making the art we make as much as we possibly can.
Also, before the performance, I bought a new ukulele from the Old Town School music shop. It’s a concert uke – I’ve only ever had/played sopranos. It’s beautiful, has a warm, rich sound, and I think I’m in love. Onwards, friends!