I’m not the most musically literate person there is out there. I always heard some of my friends constantly talking about musicians that they love and bandying their name all around. And I never understood it really until relatively recent times. I’m also sure that there plenty of musicians that can sing with the intensity that Amanda Palmer has displayed. But the fact of the matter is that none of the others that I’ve either heard or haven’t bring up the effect in me that she can.
Not to this extent.
I don’t even know where to start: though I do know it is going to be short. There is a moment in a few Amanda Palmer songs, particular songs, where she enters what could be called a climactic phase but what I call a keening moment. For Amanda, and from my limited experience as I am not a fully comprehensive Amanda Palmer listener, it is that point where she builds and builds her tone and pitch to the greatest of passion and it … rips through you.
For instance, take her rendition of the song “Hallelujah.”
While she didn’t create this song, and the piece in itself already has a powerful emotional resonance, Amanda increases this frequency to its nth degree. She sings it for Anthony, who at the time was fighting a particularly brutal form of cancer. Her voice is broken. Apparently, when she was singing this and as she is wont to do as she is always on the move, she was physically ill. But, as if that weren’t enough, she was also in an intense place of grief.
But when she reaches that moment of “Hallelujah” … I don’t even know what to say. It is a scream. It’s a scream that, for me, pierced me right to the quick. In that moment, it was real. It was very real because, quite simply enough, it was. It is the terror and anger of life fighting for life. It is primal and messy and only the surface of what is underneath it. It’s like that moment when you try to detach yourself from what’s going on and you don’t understand, or want to understand what your friend is going through and you hide behind something petty only for that friend to scream that this supersedes all of that bullshit and you will damn well fucking acknowledge it: because life takes precedence over the proprietary.
I’ll be honest with you. It’s makes me uncomfortable: to have that surface of pretend that makes most human interaction ripped away to expose the raw. It is a brilliant, uncomfortable feeling made even more poignant that it is from another person being shared with everyone else.
Yet as potent as this is, Amanda’s “Bed Song” is …. something else entirely.
If her voice in “Hallelujah” makes me uncomfortable in that it reminds me of mortality and my very real lack of power, “The Bed Song,” quite frankly, terrifies me.
I’m not kidding. It scares me. It scares me to the point where after having heard it a few times, I just can’t listen to it or watch the music video. It, too, is far too real. But it’s more than that. It’s worse. It is a beautiful song and an excellent series of visuals and storytelling that captures the essence of a relationship dying.
I mean: think about this. You have two people together who love each other and you watch as time and circumstance erode that connection and friendship between them into distance. Into death. I’m not even talking about the physical death that happens at the end and the retrospection, but the emotional death: the slow rot of the soul between the two people living together, but not being together in any meaningful way.
Neil Gaiman, Amanda’s husband, has created many terrifying creatures and stories in his time. He has made “Cereal Conventions” and Other Mothers and all kinds of terrors with and without flesh. But, if I were to choose, I would say that Amanda Palmer in the context of “The Bed Song” scares me more than Neil ever could. She manages to build up to and capture the essence of a living death and the helplessness of watching it happen and feeling powerless to stop it only, at the end, to confront it … after it’s far too late.
That realization, in and of itself, is enough to drive anyone insane or want the embrace of physical death, but “The Bed Song,” the idea of two people lying next to each, facing away from each other, inches away and dying alone, is all the more horrifying because it is a wrongness that becomes accepted much in the way that someone slowly succumbs to an icy death.
It is a brilliant story. It is a poignant song. It takes the spirit of that lack of communication to the point of “too late” and makes it into art.
And it utterly terrifies me: because it makes me feel something I don’t want to feel. Or it brings out something that I already have. Because that keening moment isn’t just the climax of the song or the pitch of Amanda’s voice, but rather it’s that painful and almost transcendent moment of recognizing these qualities growing inside of your own very self.
I could just leave it all at that. I could leave you here with the feeling of raw grief and a lack of catharsis. I really could be that mean and say that this is what life really is. But I would be doing Amanda a tremendous disservice. The keening moment I identify is not merely in the domain of grief but its very opposite.
“The Ukulele Anthem.”
Sometimes nonsensical, sometimes weird, but oftentimes fun and always, for me, transformative. It just expands to the horizon and becomes liminal. There is darkness but it is the song commands, “Ukulele banish evil.” I can just see a glowing, eternal figure facing the growing darkness and playing her simple ukulele: making the shadows scream and, for a time, retreat from her sheer presence, only for her to hand it to someone else cowering in the darkness, smiling and skipping away to make another one.
So while I like the ferocity and anger of the keening moment in The Killing Type and dealing with the loss of a romance as life goes on in the summery fey cabaret of Massachusetts Avenue, “The Ukulele Anthem” is, for me, a reaffirmation that eventually the darkness will be put in its place as people realize they are not alone and they can make the light grow together even sharing something as simple as how to play ukulele.
Maybe one day, when I am less self-conscious, someone will show me how to play one. In the meantime, I am just grateful that through those keening moments I have another way to relate to music. Perhaps, as Neil’s Erasmus Fry once said, all writers are liars, but I believe that at least some musicians tell the truth.
Photo Credit: Glenn Ross