A little while ago (well back in July last year), I went to see Amanda Palmer play at the Roundhouse in Camden with her Grand Theft Orchestra. It was the performance where she famously punched back at the Daily Mail, with her song “Dear Daily Mail”, performed in her own quixotic style, and there was a great deal about the performance, the gig as a whole and the entire experience that really moved me.
It moved me so much I wrote a story about it. Then I showed it to a small number of people and based on one person’s thoughtful feedback the story went through one major edit.
And then I lost my nerve. I have written for most of my life on and off, and while I have from time to time been told by people that what I have written has been good, or entertained them or touched them I have never really had the courage to pursue it properly. There is a lot more of me showing my soul to the World in the photography that I do than I have ever done through my writing, at least my fiction anyway.
All that ends today. For better or worse, here it is. Forgive the self-indulgence that you may see here, I could so easily have written in the third person and hidden the personal truth that may be here, but the whole point of writing this piece was to show anyone who was prepared to read it just how important and beautiful an experience it was to go to the gig.
The story is published below, or you can download it as a tiny little eBook for your Kindle or ePub capable device if you find reading in that way more comfortable. I hope that you enjoy this little fantasy, feel free to let me know either way…
A Night on the Northern Line
If you have never been to Camden High Street then you cannot possibly know what it is like to fall blinking into its bustling arms after a really good gig. You know when a gig takes you somewhere else or shows you something new about the world or yourself or everything, and that leaves you in a mode that is hyper-stimulated? Imagine feeling that way, more than you ever have before, and then colliding with the noisy, smelly, shiny, bright, intrusive reality of one of London’s more twenty-four hour locales. Bikes, taxis, the beep-beep of pedestrian crossings, trucks, crowds of people, a sea of litter and the weirdly defining quality of London’s Alt nexus, of feeling at once oppressed and liberated in almost equal measure. That was my experience of leaving the Roundhouse that night, a collision with a reality at once so bright and loud and yet so dark and forbidding that it was all I could do to light a cigarette, get my head down and make my best course for Chalk Farm Tube. My head was swimming with emotion, ears ringing from the music. More than ever I donned the cloak of London-ness and shut out my surroundings; I needed to get home, it was a school-night after all.
The Tube wasn’t packed after the show, I suppose it is to be expected with the incredible flexibility of the Northern Line comes a willingness from its users to wait for the right train rather than change at Camden Town. People often ask me what the Tube is like, not in London clearly, but when I travel and people hear me say that I work in London. I am always stuck for an answer. It used to be a horrid, grimy, threatening place, or at least my memory renders it so, back in the eighties. I remember people smoking in the Underground, just about, and that certainly contributed to the feel it used to have of being more than slightly menacing and claustrophobic. It is not really like that any longer. Safer, and much cleaner than ever before in its history the London Underground is largely just useful these days, but even then it still feels a little other worldly, an odd subterranean reflection of the World above. It would not be much of a surprise to run into Croupe and Vandemar, let alone the other denizens of so many works that have played upon the enigmatic nature of London’s innards. Despite being inured to its mysteries it catches even me unawares from time to time, but that night there were no surprises for me, or so I thought.
Surrounded, as I was, by the AFP faithful and armed with the sure knowledge that they would almost certainly talk to me at the drop of a hat, there was ample opportunity to be a part of our shared world. You would think that in my heightened state I would have wanted nothing more than to continue the ride, to re-live the entire experience with the like-minded who were all around me. I could not do it, despite that being my normal mode; for once I wanted the world to go away, not an easy result to attain in central London in all honesty.
It seemed easy to ignore the World, to revert to London Standard; earbuds slotted into place. What music to select? After such an event of a gig there was nothing for it than to simply select shuffling the whole collection on my iPhone. Trying to pick something to listen to was futile, I would arrive at London Bridge still having failed to wrap myself in the protective cloak of personal music that was so desperately needed.
Blitzen Trapper; Black River Killer.
That seemed to be ok; once more Apple Roulette had not let me down.
The train lurched into life. I became aware that I was truly inhabiting the person of a jaded London Transport user, as the thought “cunts, I wish they wouldn’t lean on the fucking doors” flitted across the transom of my mind. I sank back into the seat trying to focus on the music, helping it cover the chattering voices and the clanging of the train carriage as it seemed to ricochet from wall to wall along the tunnel. My work bag was unwilling to let me relax, its weight pulling it away from my protective grasp, and so in a round about sort of way it protected me from the risk of falling asleep and ending up stranded in Mordor. Thinking about Amanda’s exhortation to make friends with strangers, I almost looked up to see if there was a nearby parishioner, someone who might be just as in need of a chat, just an easy, fleeting experience of humanity to stop them from sinking into themselves. Still there was no will in me to actually reach out.
The show had been magnificent. The “Empress of Experience Art” I had dubbed her as I cast my review into the World via the medium of Twitter, and I meant it so completely. It has stuck with me. I never cry at gigs. Tears had nearly come at Koko, seeing Amanda, the year before. Now finally any remaining self-consciousness had been swept aside and I had wept openly as the music washed over me. It had coated me in the psychic mélange of Her blood, bile, pain, love and regret. No other musician had ever before reached into me so acutely, so indisputably. She reached deep into the inside of me and made me weep for joy to be in the presence of such a vital, fragile and honest outpouring. She had shown us all her Soul in all its bright and terrible majesty. That is how it had seemed to me then, and it still does today.
Camden Town, people shuffled on and shuffled off; it was late enough that despite the weight of gig-goers from Chalk Farm there was enough room for everyone, without the more common scuffles, harsh looks and occasionally even harsher words that are the norm for the Tube in London, particularly around tourist and teenager trap hotspots like Camden.
China; Tori Amos.
After a droning and pointless announcement over the train tannoy – which cut right through the opening verse of China in a most annoying but predictable fashion – the train pulled away the station and once more the big metal worm we were all riding leapt into the bowels of London, next stop Euston.
That was when it happened.
The lights flickered, not an uncommon event on the Northern Line, even with the new rolling stock. Looking up as they came back, I was jolted into the moment by realising that no one else was in the carriage. I blinked, looked again. Still no one. A moment before all of the seats in front of me and to either side were full of a mixture of AFP fans and other random denizens of London. Now those seats were all empty. Gingerly I stood up, removing my earbuds in case there might be a uniquely useful announcement, and looked up and down the train, courtesy of the windows in the communicating doors between carriages. No one. It was as though I was suddenly alone in a Tube train; no I actually was alone on a Tube train. Had I fallen asleep? Was I missed when they put the train in the depot? A low-level panic was rising in my chest when I snapped around to the sound of a voice;
“Don’t worry, Oli, you’re quite safe.”
There in the middle of what had been the empty seats opposite me a moment before, sitting with her feet up on the edge of the seat, heels tucked under her ass, was an American sounding woman (a guess at both, from the voice), in jeans and a nondescript black hoodie, the hood of which was pulled up so as to almost completely obscure her face. She really had not been there what must have been less than a second before. Who was she? How did she know my name? How did she appear like that, as if from nowhere? How did she know that I was quite safe?
I tried to talk, not even sure which question to ask first, but not even a simple sound could escape my lips. That actually made me panic, never one to be lost for words. My breath was coming in short snatches and the checklist began to run in my head; pulse, reflection, breathing? One could say that I was suddenly energised by the primal fear that I might be dead.
“Sit down, Oli. I promise you’re not dead, you’re quite safe and once we’ve had a conversation you’ll be back on your way home. OK?”
That voice… It was so familiar, but it was equally elusive. The more I tried to remember who it belonged to the further it seemed to slip from my grasp, like trying to catch someone that looks familiar in a crowded place, only to have them dart around a corner and apparently disappear. I sat down; after all, what else was there to do? Sitting as instructed, albeit very kindly, made all the difference. Tube seats are not all that comfortable, but the sheer relief I felt as I settled back into the seat was unexpected, and was utterly out of line from the raw comfort of just “getting a seat”, which while real (as anyone who commutes in London will tell you), is not really all that powerful in the end.
There she was, sitting opposite me, perched as if she was indulging in the internet craze of owling. Her face was tipped forward as if in deference, though something told me that it absolutely was not deference at all. Rather it was a sense of drama that was behind her posture. I leaned forward, trying to make out the shape of her face, trying to understand how I knew her voice, how on Earth this mysterious person could be familiar to me.
“You know who I am. Think harder. Think harder and deeper; it will come to you.”
I closed my eyes, replaying the words in my mind, listening as closely as I could to the timbre and pitch, the cadence and the character.
A soft chuckle escaped from under the hood, and then slowly she straightened her neck and peeled back the hood; it was her. How could it be her? Surely she was backstage at the Roundhouse, cooling off, having a drink or three with those people she had invited to be there with her after it was all over for another night? Maybe sending an email or a text to Neil and getting ready to crash on her bus before the odyssey to her next stop? I realised that rationalising this was pointless; somehow I was alone on a Tube train that moments before had been packed with fellow travellers. Well alone apart from Amanda Palmer; she was with me. On stage, earlier that evening, she had seemed so powerful and towering, a burlesque-glam-rock-punk icon holding a couple of thousand acolytes in her hands, but now she was just a shade above normal. No make-up, just street clothes, understated by comparison and yet still confident and charismatic. Of course she had appeared out of nowhere, so there was that, and as a hero of mine there was an instant jolt of awe despite her off stage persona.
“You look so surprised, which is gratifying I suppose, but seriously get over it.”
I started trying to speak again, wanting to point out that nothing quite so magical or odd had ever happened to me before and that I might need more than a moment just to process the whole thing, but once more I was speechless. I was immediately put in mind of a friend’s oft recounted experience of meeting one of her greatest musical heroes, wherein she had simply made a couple of involuntary noises and smiled a lot, despite years of consideration spent deciding what she might say if she ever met him. Suddenly it was the same for me, words catching in my throat like thorns, desperate to say something original and interesting to this person whose Art meant so much to me, and who was quite unexpectedly right there, in front of me.
“Okay, that was a little harsh, but seriously it’s just me, I’m not all that special in the grand scheme of things and we are alone here for a few moments, so stop worrying about it.”
There was something genuine and calming about the way that she spoke these words, something akin to the way her music had touched me only a few minutes before, and something deep down in my mind reacted to that. Involuntarily I started to relax. I was still filled with questions and confusion, but these things were no longer a tightening leash around my neck.
“Amanda, how is this possible? Am I dreaming?”
“Nope, you’re not dreaming, though I imagine that if you tell anyone about this they will assume it was a dream, even if they pretend to go along with your exhortations that it was a real experience. As for how this is possible, well… Let’s just say that there are some perks attached to being me, and I’ll see how much more I want to tell you as this conversation wears on.”
I reached into my pocket for my cigarettes, and took them out, offering her one as a way of checking to see if she would mind. Surprisingly she took one, and in return offered me a light with a sleight of hand that seemed so smooth, so perfect that I could only assume she had known what I was going to do well before I actually did it. We sat there for a moment, each inhaling the first couple of drags and then it seemed that it was my moment to ask a question;
“Why me? I mean, if I assume for a moment that this is completely real, not some fevered imagining, then why would you visit me, and why in such dramatic style?”
She smiled again, this time a wide and playful grin, a not unfamiliar expression that had played across her face several times over the course of the evening’s performance.
“Do you remember when I crowd surfed over you? You touched me, don’t worry I am not saying it was anything inappropriate you were just doing your part in keeping me aloft. You touched my wrist as you helped the crowd support me as I passed by. Remember?”
I nodded, I remembered slightly embarrassed that I had momentarily experienced a kind of religious pleasure at having actually touched her as she flew by above my head. It was a mawkish and teenage thought that had been more reverent than anything else, and certainly not sexual, but secretly I did not care that it was those things, I had felt it and it had been real. She knew what I was thinking, which should have troubled me more than it did, but in the moment that realisation passed me by;
“Don’t worry about it, most people feel the same way about some hero or other, we’ve all known people who had a story about the day they shook Obama’s hand or got a hug from Cobain, or were clapped on the back by David Beckham. It’s human to want to touch other people, and with heroes I think it’s something to do with us wanting to know that they are real, they are flesh and bone just like the rest of us. I’ve done it too, don’t worry.”
She waited to see if I could indeed shake off the awkwardness that the memory had brought, and when I did she went on;
“When you touched me I felt something, something bittersweet, something rare and dark and secret about why my music is so important to you and I knew in that moment that you were the one that I was there to find tonight. That’s the thing you are going to come to know about Art and the people that create it. Opening your heart completely to other people and painting the colours of your life on the canvas of public display comes with some fairly deep responsibilities. One of them is making sure that other people live up to the their own responsibilities to themselves.”
“I’m the one you were meant to find? I don’t understand.”
“Let’s try this, tell me why my music matters to you, why it made you cry with joy? There’s no one here to overhear you. Here’s your one chance to tell me face to face what it is that makes my Art matter so much to you. If you can do that, and do it honestly, then I think you’ll realise for yourself why I am here.”
I leaned back for a moment, took a long drag on my cigarette which was nearly done, as it had been burning away to itself while we were talking, and tried to find that truth within.
“I suppose it’s that I have things to say, regardless of whether or not anyone might care about them, things to create and shape and polish and then send out into the world that express any number of things about me. Right now they are building up and up and up inside me without coming out. Your music matters to me because you are someone who is like me. That is not to compare my creativity or talent with yours subjectively, just that on a mechanical, process level you appear to be someone that has things that they want to say and so you use your music to let those ideas and feelings out. For what it’s worth your Art is also important for me because I happen to relate to a great deal of it; not only that, but one can identify a fragile frankness in it that makes me believe, that conveys honesty and reality in a way that a good deal of other artists have trouble achieving.”
Exhaling, my whole body relaxed as if I had laid down a heavy burden. Still, there was more;
“There is something else, something deeper and more precious about what I see in you and your Art. It’s more than that I identify with you, or find your Art to be a visceral, raw experience. You inspire me. Not necessarily in terms of content, but in terms of your creative ethos. You are a prolific creative force, sending your creations out into the world. You and I are not kindred spirits, no matter how much I may wish that to be the case. No you are a firebrand, a leader. Your warcry “We are the Media” is a complete expression of the way in which being at one of your shows or really listening to your music makes me feel. For me, and so many others I am sure, you lead the way, letting all of us know that we have it within us to make Art, whatever form that might take as it bursts out of us.”
There, that was all of it. I felt strong, even after pouring everything out, leaning forward like an eager student keen to catch every word of whatever response might come from her.
She smiled, that rakish, playful smile that says ‘oh yes, we are going there’, and she took a a last drag on the cigarette I had given her before putting it out on the seat next to her and then fixing me in her gaze with the kind of deep eye contact that usually feels very, very uncomfortable. It felt fine, but then, that was the point.
“Oli, you’ve pretty much nailed it. Yes I have my stories to tell, and yes I do bare my inner world through my music and set those deep and personal truths free to roam around amongst you all, and that is fulfilling in itself. I count myself very lucky that what I have to say matters a damn at all, but it’s not why I do what I do.”
She paused, cocking her head to one side and looking up and away to the left, looking for all the world like Cyndi Lauper, just for a split second.
“No, that’s not true, or rather it’s not completely true. I do accept that some of what I do is about touching people in that more simple way, just making a basic dent in their consciousness by which I mean that they end up reacting to what I have given them by thanking me, with applause, emails, tweets and so forth; there is nothing wrong with enjoying the acclaim of others, though having said that it does help if you genuinely believe that you deserve it. But putting that aside, the real reason I do what I do is to encourage other people to take up the cause and in their turn make Art as well. I don’t want to sound overly hug-a-tree or chant-y, but Art is a big part of what makes the World bearable and not to sound selfish, but I spend so much time making Art I need there to be other people out there that make the Art that moves me, that drives me on. I’m a very lucky person, I know a lot of people who make Great Art, not least the coin-er of that very phrase, but that doesn’t stop me wanting to encourage everyone else who has something, anything within them to put it into a form that other people can experience. You could say that it is my primary mission in life.”
“Okay, so you came to find me because I am inspired by you?”
“Not only because I have inspired you. Time for the painful truth now, Oliver”
As she said my name in full for the first time the lights flashed again and in the moment of half-light her eyes flashed solid black and her smile widened far further than should have been possible, but then the lights were back, nothing else had changed and her eyes and smile looked as they had before. What was I speaking with? Or who? I was not sure anymore, but for reasons that pass all understanding I was unafraid. It was as if a part of my brain had already rationalised away that whether this was actually Amanda Palmer or not, who or whatever this was did not really comply with the normal rules of the world, and that was okay. I brought my mind back to the issue at hand.
I knew exactly what she meant, but it was going to hurt to say it out loud, to confront and admit the truth, oft denied, that was lurking there behind my tired eyes. We all hold truths within us, truths that we lie about to everyone, including ourselves, even if only by omission. Dark sexual fantasies, unpalatable violent thoughts, callous judgements about the people around us, and the real truth behind the excuses we tell ourselves and everyone else about why we are not managing to do this or that thing that seems important enough to talk about but not quite important enough to do. We never give voice to any of these things, for fear of being made to feel foolish or evil or stupid. Even in our private moments with only our soul mates there to see us, these deep-tissue secrets often go unmentioned. I steeled myself. This step was inescapable and at the same time completely necessary. There was nothing left but self doubt and fear of failure. It was time to step off a cliff.
“I make excuses for not writing. I make excuses for not creating the images in my mind. I make excuses for not making my podcast and website project happen. All the time I account for the lack of execution in my creative life with IOUs that are never redeemed. I make token gestures toward paying off these psychic debts to myself with tiny offerings, and rarely at that, barely able to keep the creeping negativity of procrastination and cowardice from my door. This isn’t the end is it? You aren’t here to take it from me, are you? To punish me for not letting it out? Please tell me that’s not what this is about?”
She nodded, slowly, making with her nodding the same impression one might get from a slow handclap.
“Good, that’s good. Your honesty is to your credit. It is rare in these situations for the people I visit to be so honest. Far too often they are keen to explain that they have responsibilities and that time is not on their side and that their partner doesn’t like having to compete for attention and time with their creative pursuits. You know that these are all excuses that you repeat to yourself in either fear or idleness, or perhaps both?”
“You realise, Oliver, that there is nothing to fear? Acceptance cannot be the real ‘why’ that makes you open your heart and splash your dreams all over the place. If it is then you are nothing more than a star fucker, a gold digger, mistaking fame for any number of much more important gifts. I do not believe that your fear is fear of anonymity, of failing to be famous, but you do fear something. I know that you do, because I can smell it on you now, and more than that I have felt your Art in your touch and there is no amount of idleness in Creation that could hold that at bay. Tell me, now, and I will consider the actions I may take, but speak the truth. Be warned of that, there must only be truth between us in this place.”
More nodding. Another cigarette was inexplicably between my lips, so I lit it and offered Amanda another. She smiled very graciously and waved it away. It suddenly occurred to me that I was smoking on the Tube and I almost put it out on reflex, but then remembered that there was no need. Looking up at her I could see that she was waiting patiently for me to speak, despite the awful consequences that I might endure should I fail to speak the truth. There was none of the kind of foot-tapping impatience one might have expected, she was so patient. Even in this defining moment the strongest sense that I had from Amanda was empathy. I took a long deep draw on the cigarette and looked up, fixing her with my eyes the way she had fixed me before;
“Regardless of fame or fortune, of touching one life or thousands, I fear that if I make the Art that is in me become tangible to others and I send it out into the World there will no longer be that secret place within me, that my work will provide the keys and maps that others could use to break into my inner world, and I like being able to control who comes inside, though many might mistakenly think differently.”
She smiled and was about to speak when I cut her off;
“There is an even deeper truth. I want to be honest with you, Amanda, not in fear of you or the idea that something of myself might be lost to me, but because now you have helped me open this door there is a strong need in me to open it all the way. My greatest fear is that by setting my ideas free as Art that they might run out, and in giving them their freedom I might wither and fade.”
As I finished speaking she stepped off the seat opposite me and wrapped her arms around me. She held me there, like a sister, for what seemed like an eternity and then she kissed my forehead, placed something in my hand and whispered;
“Bravo. Make sure you come to Boston, and make sure you stop letting fear hold you back. I promise you, there is nothing to fear apart from wasted time.”
“The next Station is Bank, please change here for the Central, District and Waterloo and City Lines”
Jolted awake, the carriage was as it had been when we left Chalk Farm, well apart from a few people had left and others had joined us. For a moment I felt cheated; ‘it was all just a dream’ is the worst kind of cliché, and my heart sank a little. Still clinging to the hope that it had been real I looked down at my hand. I uncurled my fingers and there were three cigarette butts and what looked like a shiny, new, American Quarter. I picked it up and examined it, it was not what it appeared to be at all. Embossed on one side was a graven image of Amanda’s face, and on the flip-side was stamped “WE ARE THE MEDIA!”. Holding it I felt my fear receding, and somewhere on the very edge of my consciousness, I knew that I would see Amanda again.