Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Art of Giving

            Clap on.
My best friend use to have The Clapper.
            Clap off.
But my cackling laugh always created a strobe light effect, turning the lights on and off. On and off.
            The bedroom was our disco.

            A group of us often piled on and around her bed taking turns playing DJ at the computer, my laugh always giving the room life like a pulse. It was through those computer speakers when I first heard the softly bouncing keystrokes of an electric Kurzweil keyboard. It was a sinister nursery rhyme with a creepy melody and lyrics about an inappropriate, older lover. I could hear a bit of Boston in her voice. I could hear a bit of Berlin. She may not always hit every note but she didn’t have to with her kind of passion. The song was, Missed Me, the band was the Dresden Dolls, and she is Amanda Palmer.
            In their band, Amanda plays the electric piano and Brain Viglione plays drums and guitar, and occasionally, both at the same time. The Boston-based duo self-proclaimed their genre as Punk Cabaret – each song as gentle as a spooky lullaby or as pounding as a vibrant burlesque. In a heartbeat, I was a fan. I bought the albums, I attended their epic concerts, and I downloaded the bootlegs. Outside their concerts, hours before show time, the line blurred between fan and volunteer. People in elaborate costumes would congregate outside the venue doors on the sidewalk. Chalk artists, hula-hoopers, human statues, accordion players, stilt-masters, magicians, and fire-breathers. Okay, I may have made that last one up, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

            One time, at Newbury Comics on National Record Store Day in 2008-ish, my friends and I joined a packed store to celebrate music and support record stores with other fans. The Dresden Dolls were there for an all-day appearance. They didn’t play music, instead, hung out for hours with us, made art and we all painted each other's faces in a circle. Caught up in the moment, I had twirled Amanda out of our hug and kissed her on her naked shoulder before leaving the store. She didn’t mind. She thrives on connecting with others and I’m so grateful I’ve been able to participate in these magical Bostonian moments.
            Before the Dresden Dolls, Amanda scooped ice cream at Toscanini’s in Harvard Square. Them, she became the Eight Foot Bride. Adorn in lace gloves, a black wig and a long vintage wedding gown. It touched the ground, covering the milk crate that she’d stand on for hours, frozen in time. Her face was painted white; her eyebrows were shaved and drawn back on in crazy designs. She stating the painted eyebrows was a way of inviting people to look at her face. To actual see her.

            Each day, the Eight foot bride held a bouquet of flowers (her first few batches handpicked from along the Charles River). When a stranger would drop money into her hat, Amanda would come to life, intently making eye contact with her patron. Her eyes saying, Thank you. I see you. The same way she looked at me the day I kissed her shoulder all those years later. Her gaze so warm, I’m sure she saw the gratitude in my eyes at Newbury Comics.

            Then, the Eight-Foot Bride would slowly gift the stranger a flower from her bouquet and return to her next frozen pose. Amanda has stated that more often than not, the eyes of her generous strangers would say, Nobody ever sees me. Thank you.


            In 2013, Amanda wrote a book called, The Art Of Asking: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. She recalls her TedTalk experience and elaborates on her ideas of asking and giving. Asking can be hard, though, through reading the book, I realized how easy giving can be. The Eight Foot Bride was a symbol of giving. So was the flower. So is any dollar any patron has ever placed in any hat.

            For me, The Art of Asking not only reinforced the importance of communication and of asking, but also excited the art of giving. As a long-term volunteer, I understand that non-profit organizations rely on community member’s donated efforts in order to survive. Likewise, financially supporting the independent artists we love is vital to the livelihood of their creations. I always put a dollar in a street performer’s hat, and more often than not, I don’t just visit the merch table at a concert. I buy the album. Or a poster.  Or a sticker. In most scenarios, those sales benefit the artist directly, or help them pay their bills at least. 

            I have devoured The Art of Asking about three times now between audio and hardcopy. I own a hardcover, a soft cover - so I can always lend one out and I keep buying the book to gift. I have many favorite parts but here is a section:
“ We ask each other, daily, for little things: A quarter, an empty chair, a lighter… but I’ve learned that everybody struggles with asking… It isn’t so much the act of asking that paralyzes us - it’s what lies beneath: the fear of being vulnerable, rejected, or looking needy or weak… American culture has instilled a bizarre notion that to ask for help amounts to an admission of failure. But some of the most powerful, successful, admired people in the world ask constantly, creatively, compassionately and gracefully… There is always a possibility of a no, but if we don’t allow for that no, then we’re not actually asking… We often resist asking not only because we’re afraid of rejection, but also because we don’t think we deserve what we’re asking for. We have to truly believe in the validity of what we’re asking for, which can be hard work… Even after finding balance though, how we ask and how we receive the answer (allowing for the no) is just as important as finding the feeling of validness… We may love the modern myth of Steve Jobs slaving away in his parents’ garage to create the first Apple computer, but the biopic doesn’t tackle the potentially awkward scene in which Steve had to ask his parents for the garage. All we know is that they said yes. And now we have iPhones.”


            Before The Art Of Asking, after the Dresden Dolls took hiatus, Amanda captured the mainstream media’s eye when she began crowdsourcing on Kickstarter dot com to fund the creation of her second solo project, Theatre Is Evil. Not only did she surpass her financial goal, she broke the record by fundraising the largest amount of money in the shortest amount of time, at the time in Kickstarter’s history. However, she received much negative feedback.

            Some said that her act of asking was distasteful, but the truth was that in the spirit of community, Amanda’s backers were happy to support a fellow artist that they cared about, and who cared about them. Amanda redefined the music industry and started a revolution for independent artists. She still crowdsources for her projects now, on Patreon dot com, a pay-per-thing service. And I am a proud supporter.

            Throughout my life, I have always been encouraged to ask questions. Asking questions encourages vulnerability with each other. Asking with gratitude says we have the power to help each other. It’s super important, and as silent as the Eight-Foot Bride was, she always made it possible for strangers to engage. To ask. To give.

Is that a real person? Is that a real statue? Look, there’s a hat! What does he do if you give him money? I would beam with joy when I saw strangers giving each other money, saying: That’s a real person, look, put this dollar in his hat! It gave me faith in humanity. Even if they thought I was in drag.”
-       Amanda Palmer

Amanda Fucking Palmer

            Though the Dresden Dolls no longer release new material or tour on the regular, their musical catalog received medium success and notoriety, and still has a cult following, especially in New England. Gone are the days that my friend, also Amanda, and I as teens would sing Good Day, Delilah, and Sex Changes at the top of our lungs in my Ford Taurus behind Donut Donuts. However, for the past two years, Amanda and Brian have reunited for special concerts to celebrate their anniversary and revive the magic. Catch them next month at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston for a 3-night run!
Dresden Dolls

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