Once upon a time I was a boring girl who liked boring music and boring authors and never did anything outside the box. Despite my passion for Napster, the only music I listened to or downloaded was Top 40 and 90s/early-00s pop music. And then it all changed. In Spring 2005, about 1 or 2 AM, I was pulling yet another all-nighter on my senior thesis. My local radio station had a late night program where listeners tuned up mix tapes and came in to play DJ for an hour, and one of those unknown heroes put on “Coin Operated Boy” by the Dresden Dolls. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was my gateway drug, my slippery slope. I fell for Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione. They were like nothing I’d ever heard before. A year later I finally got to see them live when they played a Fourth of July show opening for the Violent Femmes. The arrow struck my heart and I was dead to everything else.
Years later, I found myself standing in the now boarded-up Borders at Hollywood and Vine where I sneaked off to when I was supposed to be working. I had just finished Y: The Last Man and the withdrawal was killing me. I bought “Preludes and Nocturnes” more or less at random (I liked the cover... it’s kinda depressing how many of my literary and musical obsessions come down to awesome cover art), and again I felt like Carter and Herbert discovering King Tut. Neil Gaiman crafted worlds and words in a way I never thought possible. Shakespeare and Chesterton were the only authors I knew who could rearrange English into a foreign language, and there he was redefining comics and literature like there was nothing to it.
All this is a very roundabout way of revealing just how heart-asplodingly excited I was when the now happily married Mrs. and Mr. Amanda Fucking Palmer would do a once-in-a-lifetime Sonny and Cher Variety Show-esque mini-tour this fall — sponsored by we, the fans, via Kickstarter. They could have done it in small towns in backwater Siberia and I would’ve been there front and center, but luckily for me their first three stops ran right through my neighborhood (and included a little Jason Webley and solo AFP as foreplay).
I had a very busy week. My Neil and Amanda Extravaganza began on October 28 with the world-shaking wall of sound that is Jason Webley, noted accordionist, creepy carrot dude, conjoined twin, and officiator of weddings. I’m not being hyperbolic here when I tell you that Webley is a musical god among men. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to cope without him during his upcoming hiatus. Webley should just about be wrapping up his own tour — supported by the fantastically killer Petrojvic Blasting Company — as we speak, but he popped to open for AFP’s solo LA show at the El Rey on the 29th (while NFG was participating in World Fantasy Con in San Diego). Secretly opening for the Neil and Amanda show was the Jane Austen Argument. Tom Dickins and Jen Kingwell were very cute with a sprinkling of twee and a whole lot of shock and awe, which is impressive coming from a piano and two vocalists.
Halloween night opened the “An Evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer” tour at the Wilshire Ebell. What a strange, curious evening. In fact, the whole enchilada could be summed up with those very words. The Halloween show was fast, loose, and all kinds of crazy, but in the most fun kind of way. The show started off late (blame The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson) so any chance of rehearsal went out the window, but it seemed more appropriate that way. Yes, a lot of the show was lost on them whispering back and forth and rearranging their hastily assembled setlist, but it only added to the enjoyment. The costume contest kicked off by Margaret Cho was weirdly satisfying, even if light-up-Hester-Prynne lost to the creepy fez-wearing rabbits.
The two San Francisco shows, at the Brava Theater on November 2nd and the Palace of Fine Arts two days later, flowed much better. About half of the material between the three shows was recycled, nearly all of it Amanda’s. Neil made a point of reading something different each night, tying his tales into the holidays or the mood: Halloween delivered ghost stories and the Day of the Dead raised demons and death. The second show was a cover song bonanza while the third was much more structured and organized. Both Palmer and Gaiman debuted new or heretofore unheard material, the latter’s in the form of a dedication entitled, “Forgetting Ray Bradbury,” and the former premiering the songs “Judy Blume,” about her childhood inspiration and Occupy Wall Street’s newest theme “Ukelele Anthem.”
Each performance maintained three key aspects. The shows all began with a duet to the tune of “Makin’ Whoopee,” a song about a cheating husband and his fed up wife made all the more ironic when Neil revealed that he and Amanda sang it for their Scottish wedding in front of their whole family. Ah, young love. For those of you who have been to AFP shows in the past, you know that the “Ask Amanda” bit is usually the most entertaining and revealing. This time around they both took questions from the audience, with some pretty cool results. Also making multiple appearances was Amanda’s Hanukkah-style birthday present to Neil. On each night she (along with the Jane Austen Argument and special guest Lance Horne) covered a Velvet Underground or Lou Reed song. (Velvet Underground/Lou Reed is one of his favorite bands, going so far as to name his eldest daughter after one of the characters in “Walk on the Wild Side.”)
All three shows felt more spontaneous and improvised than they probably were, but even the scripted moments contained elements of random chaos. Lines were dropped, verses forgotten, words misspoken, but rather than get annoyed at their lack of polished perfection, the audiences ate it up. It was humbling to see these larger than life people getting by just like the rest of us, to hear about Amanda’s crippling stage fright and Neil’s terror at reading a story in public for the first time. It gave the performance a sort of cinéma vérité feel. And, really, isn’t that what their relationship is all about? This is a couple who got married three times just because they could, one of which doubled as one of Amanda’s infamous ninja gigs.
The great thing about NFG and AFP is that they both are passionate about idiosyncratic originality. None of Gaiman’s characters — even the ones begged, borrowed, and stolen from folklore — are like anyone else ever created. Palmer herself is the walking definition of “individuality.” Neither of them made me who I am, but both taught me that it’s okay — nay, great, wonderful, awesome, imperative, powerful — to be just who I am and no one else. Most of my life has been spent trying to force my round peg into a square hole and I was miserable and lonely because of it. Now I am not only happy with who I am, but proud of it, brazen with it, and wildly indifferent to the scorn and derision of all those boring square holes. I am Coraline all grown up, the child of Shadow and Door, the anachronistic girl who refuses to live her life on one side of an ampersand. There is only one of me, just as there is only one of you, and, as Amanda would say, holy fuck, it’s so fantastic!
Alex Brown is an archivist by passion, reference librarian by profession, writer by moonlight, and all around geek who watches entirely too much TV. She is prone to collecting out-of-print copies of books by Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, and Douglas Adams, probably knows far too much about pop culture than is healthy, and thinks her rats Hywel and Odd are the cutest things ever to exist in the whole of eternity. You can follow her on Twitter if you dare.