Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Tag: amanda palmer

The View From The Cheap Seats

The View From The Cheap Seats

“I fled, or at least, backed awkwardly away from journalism because I wanted the freedom to make things up. I did not want to be nailed to the truth; or to be more accurate, I wanted to be able to tell the truth without ever needing to worry about the facts.”

—Neil Gaiman, The View From The Cheap Seats

Neil Gaiman may be best known for a mind that weaves together the fantastic and the mundane in fiction but, over a career of some forty years as a writer, all the articles and introductions and speeches and essays and interviews start to add up. The View From The Cheap Seats is a hefty selection of these non-fiction works, weighing in at over 500 pages. Fittingly for the title, I find myself sat up near the rafters gazing down at a beautifully lit church, the stage simply dressed and focused around two seats. Although I saw Neil speak last year around the launch of his short story collection Trigger Warning, being in the Union Chapel drew to the surface a very different memory from seven years ago. Neil reminisces about the same night, noting that he had not sung in public since his teenage punk years until, on the second of her two nights there, his girlfriend Amanda Palmer forced him to sing with her. This time round they are married, he introduces their baby boy to the crowd and then, in fitting role-reversal, has  Amanda open with a song before he takes to the stage.

The Union ChapelDiscussing the purpose of the collection early on, Neil explains earnestly that if the reader picks up the work of just one of the many authors or musicians mentioned within then the book was worthwhile. The book is, in essence, an exploration of what Neil cares about, be it people, ideas, the literary world or the written word itself. It contains around a dozen introductions that Neil has written for other people’s work. The generosity with which he writes these stems from the desire to bring works he likes to a new audience. He also mentions a disgruntled Amanda Palmer fan who, on discovering that they were dating, bemoaned “How can she be going out with him? He’s written more introductions than books!” Not quite as scathing an insult as may have been intended — introductions are, Neil points out wryly, much shorter.

The most interesting points arising from the night relate to the proximity of art and reality. An audience member asks how often he steals ideas from real events. The answer, as any writer will know, is constantly. Neil responds that, although he always worries he might be discovered a fraud with no imagination (unlikely!), writing fiction swiftly teaches one not to feel guilty about such theft from reality else one would be forever feeling guilty. I tend to approach it from the opposite angle: writing non-fiction swiftly teaches a writer that there is fiction in everything, whether it is true or not. Scientists may take umbrage with this statement but, even when one attempts to present facts alone, the inevitable resulting oversimplification is itself a fiction.

Neil repeats an analogy offered by Amanda when comparing her almost autobiographical discography to Neil’s veiled facsimiles of places or himself. She described the process as having a blender into which they pour themselves. The difference, she said, is that she presses the button for only a second so there are still big identifiable lumps, whilst Neil holds it down for much longer crafting a more evenly blended product that is no less real. Although I write this very blog, I have often commented that several of the fictional Shards elsewhere on the site contain the truest things I have ever written about myself. It may be shrouded — blended, if you prefer — but it is there for those who wish to look. And honestly, I think it is always those kernels of truth (rather than the fiction within which they reside) that draw people in when they identify with a Shard. Fiction is simply a medium through which one can convey a truth and, perhaps, the most nuanced one we have.

The View From The Cheap Seats

Joining the Dots

The House of Burlesque are back at the London Wonderground on the Southbank this summer with fantastic new show. Last year I caught the very last show of their run so it was too late to offer you a recommendation. This time, I am pleased to say you have no fewer than four dates left from which to choose. If you don’t see them, that’s on you. Whilst the Spiegeltent is undoubtedly less intimate a venue than many of London’s cabaret spots, it is a stunning environment to showcase the performers, with the space alone allowing the circus acts in particular to shine. Lauren and I both came away impressed.

Sxip ShireyHanging out after the show I bumped into Sxip Shirey who is here as the composer for Limbo, the Wonderground’s headline circus show, which has been receiving great reviews. I have not seen Sxip since he toured with Brian Viglione and Elyas Khan as Gentlemen & Assassins a little over two years ago. As we chatted over a couple of drinks, I was reminded of just how great that Icelandic volcanic ash cloud in 2010 really was. Of course it massively disrupted everyone’s travel plans at the time and left people stranded in all sorts of places but, if not for that volcano which actually prevented me from seeing Sxip for the first time, we would not be sharing these drinks together.

In 2010, Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley had a two-person show as Evelyn Evelyn, which was hosted by Sxip. Amanda was already in Europe but the ash cloud unexpectedly prevented  the other two from flying, so the gig morphed into a solo show supported by a flurry of bands that Amanda had met who were having similar difficulties as a result of the transport nightmare. Melissa Auf der Maur captured it succinctly, “A volcano and Twitter brought me to you. Do you realise how beautiful that is?” Well sure, but it turned out I would never get to see Evelyn Evelyn.

Sxip ShireyOne of the other support acts that night was a duo called Bitter Ruin. You have seen me rave about (and photograph) Georgia and Ben repeatedly, of course, but my sister and I stumbled upon them entirely by accident at this show. We followed them closely whenever they played in London, which is how we discovered that one night in the March of 2011 they were supporting the newly formed Gentlemen & Assassins. We attended this magical, intimate first gig together for Sxip, Brian and Elyas full of raw energy and a unique spirit as these three musicians crafted something that kept them all centre-stage without any of them slipping into a supporting role. To illustrate this post I have dug up some never-before-seen photos from that gig.

And so, sipping a drink in the Wonderground last night, I instantly recognised a distinctive wild tangle of hair and headed over to greet Sxip. We drank and chatted into the early hours, railing against the shift from state to corporate control, and the socially dangerous results of cutting arts funding (“You fund the arts to stop people being assholes,” says Sxip, “otherwise that’s what happens.”). None of which would have happened without a belligerent volcano that brought European air traffic to a standstill several years ago.

Sxip ShireyThere’s probably some platitude here about “recognising hidden blessings”. But really my point is that sometimes you can only tell just how well something worked out when you look back later and join the dots. People will tell you always to look to the future or to live only in the present. They are wrong. Look back, join the dots, reclaim those moments that seemed awful, now that you know where they were taking you. The past is, of course, the key to understanding who you are now: it may be as simple as plotting the course that led to you having a drink with someone, but it expands to why you are surrounded by the people you are, how your friendship group is constructed through gains and losses, and you just might find something more fundamental that defines you. But I’m not sharing that…

Musically Sociable

Today I am plugging a couple of musical selections linked predominantly by their social effect on my life. First up is a new music video from jazz singer/pianist Anthony Strong, For Once In My Life from his Delovely EP. Anthony is an old school friend of mine (as in we went to school together, not that he is old school). Anthony is the sort of person whose talent would be infuriating if he were not such a lovely, unassuming chap. He was also responsible for my initial introduction to some of London’s top burlesque performers, while he performed on that circuit. That has certainly led to a few of the more memorable nights out in the past few years. Unfortunately we seem to have reached a point where his releasing a CD or video is what reminds me that we are long overdue a drink. Therefore it is terribly important that you support him so that he can keep making great music and I can remember to catch up with him.

Next up, Amanda Palmer is again using Kickstarter to crowdsource funding but this time it is a little more ambitious: raising funds outside of a label to produce and promote her new album and an accompanying artbook, and to embark upon a worldwide tour with a new band. Any donation above a dollar nets a copy of the album, and backers have access to the first single now. This return to a patronage system (albeit a distributed one: people have donated anywhere between $1 and $10,000 each) is, she proclaims, the future of music and I am inclined to agree. I am always fascinated by the varied fans she has hidden amongst my friends, who crawl out of the woodwork whenever I mention her, whilst the crowds at her gigs are amongst the easiest to strike up a conversation and connect with if I find myself there alone — after all, at least half of them are guaranteed to be Neil Gaiman fans too. This summer she plays a sold-out London gig the day Jenna and her family arrive. Having been able to witness Jenna’s first real gig experience back in New Orleans (it was A Perfect Circle), accompanying her to her first London gig is almost as enticing a prospect.

If you happen not to care about music then, aside from the fact you have no soul, you may wish to check out the following:

Weird Life Goals

On 30th March 2005, at a Nine Inch Nails gig at the London Astoria, I stumbled upon a small theatrical two-piece band from the US called The Dresden Dolls as they broke into the UK music scene. While their short support set blew me away at the time (and arguably outperformed the headline act) I probably didn’t realise the lasting impact they would have. Sadly I never had another opportunity to see them live before they split up.

One half of the Dolls is Amanda Palmer, who is regularly mentioned here as she routinely tours the UK. And so, a few years after I first saw them, I was able to have her sign my Dresden Dolls album. Drummer Brian Viglione, on the other hand, remained in the States and never graced our shores with his presence. It seemed increasingly unlikely I would ever get the album fully signed but it sat there, an unfinished work in progress, and it gradually evolved into a Weird Life Goal eventually to complete it.

Years passed. Amanda continued to visit the UK. Brian did not. At a concert disrupted by the volcanic ashcloud, another small theatrical two-piece called Bitter Ruin stepped in to support Amanda, and my sister and I became instant fans. Earlier this year Bitter Ruin announced a March gig at the Underworld with the newly formed Gentlemen & Assassins, fused from several bands. Their drummer: Mr Brian Viglione.

Even as I dropped the half-signed album into my camera bag, I didn’t really think it would happen. And frankly seeing Brian drum was enough. His skill is in making precision seem effortless; instead the energy (and there’s a lot) all goes into infusing his performance and sound with character.

But after the gig he emerged — those who have met him will know he is the nicest guy, incredibly grounded — and was happy to sign everything from legs to ukuleles to, well, my album. If you want to know what a Weird Life Goal looks like, here it is. We chatted briefly, I mentioned seeing the Dolls play live with NIN (“At the Astoria?” he asked incredulously, “Wow.”) and it dawned on me just how long this moment had been in coming. The signed album was insignificant, but the breadth of time and experiences it represented were not. I grinned the whole journey home.

So I guess the point of this is post is not to give up on those Weird Life Goals, however unlikely or unnecessary they seem. What they represent is something else entirely, and from the other side they will always make you smile.

Apologies for the inexplicably low-quality thumbnail images in this post.

Gaga, Cartman

Despite a few long posts about Android and the Desire, I feel like I’ve been neglecting the site a little of late. So while I have a bunch of tardy links to share, today I just want to mention a recent Times article on Lady Gaga. It is written by an unabashed fan which does not always lend itself to the best journalism, but perhaps in this case it was entirely appropriate. Because, despite its length, I felt compelled to read the entire piece on an icon about whom I know little and have limited interest.

Like anyone in a western country paying the remotest attention to modern music, I am very aware of her. However I read almost nothing about because I tend not to follow celebrities unless I also have a genuine interest in their art. I do understand the important musical contribution that Gaga has made — almost single-handedly she has reinvigorated a creatively dead pop industry. So her relevance is in a genre that, generally, holds little attraction for me. Eric Cartman’s cover of Poker Face excites me more than the original (I even have it on Rock Band), but the very fact such a thing exists is a testament to her influence. I fully accept that the notion of Cartman “bluffin’ with his muffin” is horrific. Probably.

Seeing her rise as a counter-culture feminist icon has been equally startling, not because I am in any way opposed to it, but because of the ill-conceived attacks against such an idea that it has sparked (a brief glance at the comments reveals how wrong the writer is). I am, as you are probably aware, so in favour of equality that it tends to infuriate many feminists (who find it difficult to argue with me) and girls who think they want equality until they realise it necessarily requires relinquishing certain social advantages they have long held in order to gain economic (and other) ones. I think the subversive fashion in which Gaga treats the media fascination with sexualising absolutely everything is a fantastic approach, rather than merely railing against it. As she mentions in the interview, while she may strut around scantily clad in her music videos, it is rarely in a way that is designed to be attractive to the typical man, though arguably it is sometimes calculated solely to be provocative. I am a strong believer that the best way to undermine anything is to take it to its logical extremes rather than to suppress it. And suddenly Eric Cartman and Lady Gaga make perfect sense as contemporaries and collaborators.

I’ll leave you with a song that you almost certainly won’t have heard before, a lesser known YouTube-posted Amanda Palmer song that she recently performed live at a ninja gig (last-minute, but not exactly secret when you mention it to your 400,000 Twitter followers) at the Underworld: Gaga, Palmer, Madonna. While technical complexity is impressive, honesty is a trait I’ve begun to find increasingly endearing in music. Perhaps because so little popular music is.

Just One Evelyn

A volcano and Twitter brought me to you. Do you realise how beautiful that is?

-Melissa Auf der Maur

Evelyn Evelyn on Thursday night at KOKO may be have been the best ever gig that wasn’t. The quirky music of Evelyn Evelyn is performed by the fictional titular conjoined twins (or a musical and artistic collaboration between Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley, depending on your level of suspension of disbelief). Unfortunately one of the Evelyns (Jason Webley) couldn’t make it because she (he) was stuck in the US due to the volcanic ash cloud disruption. The result was a mess. And excellent.

I have previously described Amanda Palmer gigs as being “Amanda and friends” or, in this case, Amanda and whoever she dragged through the ash cloud. Luckily for us this included the sublime Bitter Ruin. A small band from Brighton, this twosome features the incredible voice of Georgia Train, by turns equally powerful and delicate, coupled with the Spanish twang of Ben Richards’ guitar. Be sure to listen to Trust and Soldier (and if you only click one link, make it that one). I find myself already eagerly anticipating the May release of their full album. Also supporting were the disarmingly enthusiastic Robots in Disguise (who may actually be robots in disguise) and the assured Melissa Auf der Maur (who may grow on me).

In a creative solution to the missing Evelyn, the gig was punctuated by a scripted fake webcast with Jason on plane to the UK, projected on a giant screen at the back of the stage, through which he could chat to Amanda and play a couple of songs with her. To explain the extent of the range of music experience that evening I could mention the country song about Icelandic volcanic ash clouds, but it really requires just three words: ukulele Radiohead cover.

Amanda seemed to flag a little (likely through exhaustion) by the end, but returned for a superb second encore with an energetic Girl Anachronism followed by a sort of Sex Pistols karaoke, with the lyrics to Anarchy in the UK projected as the crowd sang along, the front row (and Neil Gaiman) danced up on stage and Amanda Palmer crowd surfed. A fantastic closing given that it was conceived that very day when Amanda and Neil sat in a café as Malcolm McLaren’s funeral procession passed. Touring issues be damned, (record label) freedom clearly suits her well.

Amanda Palmer @ Union Chapel

Mobile PianoChatting to people queueing for the gig, we all agreed that explaining to friends what we were doing over the weekend was an impossible task. To those unfamiliar with Amanda Palmer it is difficult to convey how much more than the average gig her concerts tend to be. Event is a more appropriate word, as evidenced by the large number of elaborately garbed fans that made many of us feel horribly underdressed. On Saturday evening I saw amorous puppet replicas of Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman, a mobile piano mounted upon a bizarre pedal-cycle contraption, and upon Amanda’s arrival, the top being set alight as she proceeded to play a flaming piano. Bear in mind this was all before we had even entered the venue. The photo gallery will give you some idea.

Musically her solo work is a logical progression post-Dresden Dolls. Her former band was already a stripped down two-piece affair (most arrangements were for piano, drums and vocals), describing their genre as “Brechtian Punk Cabaret”. Her solo work is arguably less Brechtian, but the punk cabaret and bare-bones sound remains in full force. It really lets the colourful wit of her sometimes playful, sometimes intense lyrics shine. Although the content of her songs may seem at odds with a church, the interior of the Union Chapel, with its gothic Victorian architecture, stunningly lit in blues and purples, was the perfect venue.

Amanda PalmerPolly Scattergood offered a good supporting set despite the limited material she has released so far. Most interesting to me was actually a stunningly honest unreleased song which suggests she has plenty more ground to cover in future albums. Amanda began both her main set and encore with a capella renditions that showcased how tightly impressive her voice can be, particularly in the emotionally charged cover of Tori Amos’ Me and a Gun. The rest of the set covered her solo album and several classic Dresden Dolls songs, as well as requests from the audience and even dipping into classical piano (mostly as a challenge to herself). All the while an artist was painting a large canvas at the back of the stage, the resulting artwork auctioned off at the end of the gig. Such was my enthralment with the entire night that I very nearly ended up spending £350 on it (it went for £450 in the end).

It was broken up by “Ask Amanda” segments, a Q&A via written questions dropped in a box before the gig. Her genial responses covered her experiences of the English and the unfairness of dating Neil Gaiman — catching up on each other’s careers meant she handed him 3 CDs to listen to, while he passed her two large boxes of his collected works. Speaking of Neil, he was travelling with her too and took on singing duties for a tongue-in-cheek “hymn” that contrasted comically with our surroundings as the entire audience broke into (slightly nervous) laughter. Her gigs inevitably feel like “Amanda and friends”, drawing in all the interesting creative people she has recently met. It is a testament to her generous spirit that her immediate desire is to share these talented individuals with her fans, and that is what makes her a beautiful person and her performances a joy to attend.

For those interested in the music, here are Spotify links to full albums by Amanda Palmer and Polly Scattergood.

"Luck is the residue of design."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2021 Priyan Meewella

Up ↑