I’ve been a massive fan of Amanda Palmer (and the Dresden Dolls) since 2004. Her music has articulated feelings and conflicts I could only glimpse through murky mists.
I don’t often go to gigs, but have seen Amanda live at least five times – from a sticky-floored dank room she stuck to when her band mate backed out of a tour, a decadently-mirrored Spiegeltent, as one half of conjoined twins in a university lecture theatre, crowdsurfing over my head in a mosh pit, and to larger gigs in old movie palaces. Each event has had a different character: all have been magnificent.
Since I was a teenager I’ve been rather obsessed with mortality, its images and motifs. I probably would have been a budding goth if I didn’t feel the irresistible pull of a beautiful melody and looked dreadful in black.
I’ve been thinking about contemporary images to create memento mori (remember you will have to die) images for our on-line world. As I was considering this, Amanda Palmer’s song ‘Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen)” kept eating away at me. I love the song and listened to it incessantly, but its repetition of the on-line goad ‘pictures or it didn’t happen’ began to disturb me. (I know that the lyric isn't itself a celebration of the 'pictures or it didn't happen' mentality, but her use of it in this song pushed my imagination along its own path.)
When I was 25 years old, I lost my beautiful lover John. John was nine years older than me, and helped me come out of the closet. He affirmed that there was nothing wrong with who I was. He educated me about queer identities and politics. He was my first love and the world we shared was both expansive and intimate. From the day we met (I laid eyes on him and knew I was going to ‘marry’ him - as far as our 'we don't need a socially-designated model to affirm the validity of our relationship' would allow) until the day he died, our lives and souls were intimately intertwined.
Then, after a year long struggle with AIDS, John died a horrible, messy, painful death. And the world we'd created was gone. No one else knew the in-jokes or had our shared experience. No one else knew the story of that street corner, this fountain, that rock, or the things about the things on our flat - the tchochkes, the books and music.
This was in 1995 – the pre-internet age. Today, I’m as caught up in the on-line world as most people, but my relationship with John blossomed, thrived and was cut short with nary a Facebook status to announce it or post to show for it.
And, if I Google him, he simply doesn’t show up.
Which makes the goading of ‘pictures or it didn’t happen’ mournful to me.
When Amanda Palmer was coming to Edinburgh a couple of years ago, I got a ticket. Then, it turned out that my current partner’s friend’s colleage is a very good friend of Amanda's. The possibility was discussed that she might be able to get me backstage after the concert to meet Amanda. Nothing was certain and I didn’t expect anything, especially from a complete stranger.
However, four hours before the gig was to start I got the news – it was on! I was going backstage!
I’ve never been backstage at a concert. I didn’t know what the etiquitte was. I mean, you never show up at someone’s house without a gift – surely coming backstage to meet a performer is the same? And I know that Amanda appreciates the creative expression of others. So, I thought: I’ll make a memento mori piece for Amanda that will capture this strong response I was having to ‘Smile.’
I had four hours.
It usually takes me 4-5 *weeks* to make something. It’s got to be painted and fired and painted again, ad apparently infinitum. I thought I could just about paint something small, whack it in the kiln, fire it to 580°C, allow it to cool, get it out, frame it, and get to the gig. So, I did. I painted a skull on two layers of glass, and engraved the phrase ‘pictures or it didn’t happen’ on it, and put it in a miniature gold frame. I put on a ridiculous outfit and headed to the Picture House.
I met my partner’s friend’s colleague and her husband – who were lovely beyond belief, and had an amazing time at the concert (as always).
Afterwards, I stayed to finally get to meet one of my idols. Amanda and the band had to get on the bus to catch the ferry to Belfast, and they were being hurried out of the venue. She was exhausted, but stayed and signed cds and tshirts and talked with everyone..
At last, she approached our wee group.
She was exhausted. She had to go catch the bus. I could see she was spent. I thought I’d just say hello and say something generic and gushy about how wonderful she was and let her go with a minimum of fuss. But my partner’s friend’s colleague knew I'd made something for Amanda and wouldn’t let my shyness prevent me from imposing.
Amanda was lovely. She was exhausted and they were calling for her to get her shit together and get on the bus. And here was some oddly-dressed guy who was wanting to give her something.
I could see her summon all her strength and all of her patience and look me in the eye as I tried to tell her why I was giving her a rather crudely painted skull on layers of glass with a lyric from her song etched on it. I don’t know what I said, but it was some jumble of losing my lover and the internet and love and loss and memory.
And she pressed my gift to her heart and did what Amanda Palmer does – gave me a huge hug. My partner’s friend’s colleague took a photo of the two of us, and Amanda was gone.
What she made of the gift I have no idea. Perhaps it’s become an inside joke for her and her loved ones about the weird things fans give you when you’re on the road. Perhaps it's come to mean something else to whoever has it. Perhaps it’s been thrown away or lost. Maybe she remembers it, or maybe not. Perhaps she’ll read this, or perhaps not.. No matter. It did what it needed to do in the moment - it facilitated a human interaction. What it does after that is its own journey.
As Amanda knows 'The Thing About Things' is they take on their own meanings.