it all started when i was a wee girl, 4 or 5 years old. we lived a house (a cold, big, old house in lexington, massachusetts, usa) with two pianos: one old spinet and the cherished steinway.
this is the steinway:
my mother put me on her lap and played “le petit negre” by debussy and the bach preludes. i copied her hands. i learned how to recognize the patterns the keys made. i didn’t learn how to read music, a fact that i regret and have tried to remedy ever since (with limited success). i improvised alot and wrote little melodies that i would play every time i sat at the piano. i couldn’t work the record player by myself and so the housekeeper, brenda, would flip “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” for me over and over and over again. there was a big armchair and there i would sit with headphones that engulfed my head. i don’t remember listening to any other records, until i was about 9. i purchased “Rant n’ Rave with the Stray Cats” and i got my own record player. my next few records were by Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Prince, Duran Duran and Huey Lewis and the News. i also took the Miami Vice soundtrack from my older sister Alyson, who used to
beat me up a lot.
then i started making up full songs. songs about drugs (which i wouldn’t try for many years to come), boys (with whom i also had limited success), and the illusions of reality (think: what a clever young 9-year-old!)
this is a picture of me at the piano at about that age:
when i was about 10, i wrote my first musical. it was about four suburban girls who decided they were fundamentally misunderstood. they joined forces and gathered money and sleeping bags and hit the big city. they found an alley and built a shack out of cardboard beer boxes and scrapwood. the rest of the plot is fuzzy, but i think they end up realizing that the fifty bucks they had stolen from their respective parents wouldn’t buy more than a week’s worth of provisions and returned, defeated, to the woes of suburban life.
i dreamed of mounting the musical on broadway, but these dreams were never realized.
i started fooling around with the older, dangerous, drug-dealing men that lurked in lexington center and conjured enough inspiration to write songs that managed to touch on the love-sex-and-angst that my musical heroes seemed to write about. (by now, i was 14 or 15 and listening fanatically to the cure, yaz and depeche mode).
this is a picture of me purchasing “three imaginary boys” in HMV in london:
i am fourteen.
i found my first real boyfriend, jason. he was half-german and he turned me on to the music that provided the soundtrack for a typical tortured high school girl …the legendary pink dots, dead can dance, current 93, kraftwerk and other obscurities that you couldn’t find in the record stores of the deep suburbs.
for some reason i was pretty friendless throughout high school, so i spent most lunches with my latin teacher or sitting with a styrofoam tray full of canned fruit and peanut butter and fluff sandwich in one of the practice rooms in the music department pounding out chords on the piano and writing about things i didn’t like. like malls, and mean boys.
this is a self-portrait from that time:
i can’t remember actually ever sitting down with the intention to “write a song”. the piano is just sort of where i gravitated when i had free time and i would sit down and play what came into my head. My parents weren’t generally too happy about the sounds coming from the living room, so i generally only played when nobody was in the house. i skipped school alot.
and here is, for your enjoyment, is a map of my soul from around that time:
i didn’t play my songs for anybody. i wrote the lyrics in lined composition books and sometimes recorded with my four track and dreamed that one day, when i was grown up and famous, that someone would find them interesting for posterity’s sake.
here is a page from my first composition book:
(this song was called “aphrodisiac” i threw it away, because it was pretty bad)
my first real public appearance as a songwriter was in the high school auditorium as the intermission act of the Rogers and Hammerstein muscial “Carousel”. I had written a parody/protest song inspired by the production called “June is Busting Out all Over” and the director, Steve Bogart (who was, for the record, directing this schlock against his will) asked me to perform it. it was well received.
i tried to take piano lessons but i hated them. i took lessons with a woman for a few years when i was about ten and quit, because i didn’t like her. i tried to take lessons again in high school from a man who prompty seduced me and though i let myself be seduced i quit that, too.
i was pretty unhappy.
here’s another self portrait:
i wrote and wrote. i came up with infinitely more ideas for songs than i ever had the discipline to fully write, and i would record these ideas into a tape recorder i kept on the piano. i was always disgusted with my lack of self-discipline and later, when i was in college (college….) i created a performance piece using the raw material from these tapes. i took some of the best ideas, stuck them all together and mixed it with a recording of me interviewing myself after my death. i stood on stage behind a sheet, onto which was projected different slides (of my family eating dinner, and…stuff) and projected the shape of my silhouette as i destroyed about 200 cassette tapes with a hammer, filling up the entire screen with the shadows of a few miles of magnetic tape. at the end of the performance, when i was quite worked up, i tore down the sheet and shrieked (while naked and covered in blood, of course) at the audience about how much i hated myself for having wasted my life. i’m not very proud of that performance, but it makes a good story.
here’s the poster from that show. it was called “potential”:
i didn’t perform my songs for the general public, really, until about that time at college (college…), when i was about 18, and set up a few little shows in cellars and coffeehouses. the audience would usually respond with a confused silence, hesitant applause and an occasional acquaintance’s hug (as if to say: you poor girl, amanda, i had no idea…..). it wasn’t very encouraging. i hated college. but i did take piano lessons during college with a very good teacher who taught me more about sight reading.
i moved to germany for a year and drank. i didn’t write or play much that year. i drank and simultaneously tried to find pianos to play, which led me down some very dark paths and nearly lost me a many friendships and jobs.
after i moved back and finished up college (college…), i decided to embark on a serious rock star career and started “Amanda Palmer and the Void” with jonah sacks on cello and (briefly) martin bernert on drums. jonah was also my lover and when the relationship died so did the musical collaboration. i kept playing solo around boston but didn’t really push myself to book shows or publicize.
here are some photos of the only show “the void” ever played:
i tried to take piano lessons again but the teacher i found tried to seduce me. he was nice, but what the fuck? so i quit.
then one fateful halloween night in 2000, my friend shawn setaro came to a party at my house and brought his fine friend brian viglione. as usual, i played a few songs for my guests and brian liked what i played. we talked. we met a few days later and tried to play together. and we fell in rock love.
this is what rock love looks like:
we tried to think of a good name. for a few days we were The Left. for a few more days we were Finishing School. we settled on Out of Arms and premiered ourselves at the Zeitgeist Gallery in cambridge (R.I.P. Zeitgeist, at the time of this writing it has just burned in a Great Fire). sometime after that we changed the name to The Dresden Dolls (much better, don’t you find?).
our first demo was recorded at emerson college where my childhood friend owen curtin was working as an engineer and had access to a studio and a piano.
at the time of this writing, we are practicing in the basement next door and are planning to bring the gospel of the dresden dolls to boys and girls all over the world.
i’ve found a nice piano teacher who hasn’t tried to seduce me and have high hopes about learning how to really read music.
i’m glad you read this. someday i’d like to write a longer story.