I discovered Amanda Palmer at a college party. A colleague was hosting a Saturday night get together in his grim dormitory. He played one of her songs which sounded vaguely familiar: “Coin Operated Boy” was catchy, funny, weird. That was 9 years ago.
I found her name again after a few years when I read an article by Cristian Lupsa, a Romanian journalists who said that an Amanda Palmer concert had changed his life. He worked as a journalist in the US and then he returned to Romania and started an ambitious indie magazine (which is still going). So I listened to some of Amanda’s songs on youtube, thinking that maybe her music is going to change my life too. At that time, it didn’t have the desired effect.
A few more years passed and an online reference to Amanda’s Palmer’s blog caught my attention again. Amanda received a journalist who wanted to write about her in her home. The article apparently showed Amanda’s life in a very distorted way. She was writing about being hurt. Among others, she said “We’re all gonna die”. Those words stuck with me.
It was an obvious truth that contained something liberating. It reminded me how precious time is and how all things pass away. I worried less about grades, money, clothes, being liked. It felt miraculous I was alive.
I occasionally went back to her blog. Her writing touched me. Her music was loud and for me, she represented free expression. When I crossed Europe in a car I played her album “A Is for Accident” over and over again until I started learning the lyrics. Her voice was instant emotion, her lyrics were unusual and provocative. I liked her.
In November 2014 I saw her in New York.
When I planned my three month trip round the USA I didn’t think I would go to New York. I told myself to focus on the West Coast and the Midwest (both are amazing) and visit the East Coast at some other time. Halfway through the trip I realised that New York is the only place I really want to see on the East Coast. I instinctually checked Amanda Palmer’s website and she gave me the excuse to go there – on the 14th of November she was going to be at a Barnes and Noble bookshop talking about her new book. Free entrance. I took the Amtrak trains from Seattle to Fargo to Chicago and made it on the East Coast the day before the event. I stayed in a house in Brooklyn, inhabited by some amazing musicians and two cats.
My first day there was something of a endurance test. If the rest of the US meant big distances between everything, New York was the opposite. The large sidewalks were full of people rushing in opposite directions. They bump into each other but don’t apologise – as if that’s totally common. Both people and cars ignored traffic lights. Skyscrapers so tall they made me feel crushed.
The place I decided to see first was the worst one to visit: Museum of Modern Art (MoMa). Thousands of people everywhere; queues for the tickets, coat hangers and the Matisse exhibition. You see from afar a painting, you swim through people to get to it only to find yourself surrounded by a crowd of people looking at the same thing, conversing in different languages and taking pictures on cameras, phones, tablets.
Something felt wrong: how can one appreciate art in a mass of noisy people all hungry to see everything? But I paid a ticket and I wasn’t going to come back to MoMa anytime soon so I resisted the urge to leave. Then I saw the self portrait of Frieda Kahlo dressed in a man’s suit, sitting in a room littered with hair and I felt the effort was worth it.
When I left the museum it was already starting to get dark. I went down the overcrowded 6th Avenue and came across a cafe with reasonably priced food. I got a sandwich, a carrot cake and I asked for a glass of plain water, no ice. The girl behind the counter took a glass full of ice and poured hot water over it, until only little bits of ice floated on surface. They were doing the same for all their customers. They had no cold running water. A huge waste of energy.
I shared my too-sweet carrot cake with the guy next to me who was a Spanish teacher from Venezuela called Rodrigo; slim, grey hair and a 40ish looking face. Even though New York is such a massive place it’s easy to get into conversations with people.
We spoke about Simon Bolivar and Romania’s new president, about him teaching English to lawyers, me travelling alone. He offered to accompany me to Barnes & Noble in Union Square, where Amanda was launching her book. I walked to the toilet before leaving the cafe, and when I came back he was speaking with a Russian who was saying “I love America. Best country in the world. I pray for it every night. Only the best people should come here.”
We navigated through the waves of tourists in Times Square. We made it on time, bought the book cheaper with Rodrigo’s Barnes & Noble loyalty card and he helped me closer to the stage were Amanda was going to talk. I sat on the floor, my back against the bookshelves.
Amanda came late, dressed in a funny dress, wearing fishnets, a kimono and beautiful shoes which looked like they could start dancing anytime. She played a song on her ukulele:
In my mind
In a future five years from now
I’m one hundred and twenty pounds
And I never get hung over
Because I will be the picture of discipline
Never minding what state I’m in
And I will be someone I admire
It was the first time I had heard this song but the girl in front of me sang the lyrics while recording Amanda’s performance on her iphone.
Amanda read from her book, my head was splitting, a girl had flowers for her, her step mother was there, people asked questions. A guy from the photoblog “Humans of New York” was her guest and they had an amazing conversation about art, social media, internet haters and work.
“Ideas are cheap, work is what’s really rare” I noted snippets from their dialogue in my notebook. “I don’t use Facebook to talk about my vacation, I use it to generate work.”
And more: “When people laugh at your ideas: Don’t search for validation, just start working on it. People who want validation without much work – that’s not okay. You can’t control the feedback you’re getting, so focus on your work. At the beginning you don’t even need an audience, you’re enough. Ask yourself: how can I do this so I can like it more?”
After the talk, she patiently autographed books and spoke, kissed and hugged with everyone who passed by her table. I was red, speechless and had a huge headache when I handed her my book. We hugged.
Rodrigo, my companion, hadn’t heard about Amanda before. But he listened to her carefully and at the end he said: “Now I understand why you were in such a hurry to see her.” I didn’t realise by then that I probably rushed him through the city to get in time for the talk. My head was still splitting with pain. He took me to the closest metro entrance and that was the last time I saw or heard of him. But before we parted, he said something which kept me smiling on the long metro ride to Brooklyn: maybe my headache was the birth of something new. “Like the cracking of an eggshell.”
It took me about a month to read “The Art of Asking”, Amanda’s first book. Sometimes, I stopped and went back to read the last few lines as they was so much meaning in them. She takes simple words and makes them vibrate bringing you feelings, wonder, memories, understanding.
“We’re all gonna die”
“Take the donuts.”
“Was it fair?”
“I trust you.”
Read here about Amanda’s book, music and life.
Photo: Still from Amanda Palmer’s TED talk.