book review: The Art of Asking

art of asking

 

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer. Publisher: Grand Central Publishing [November 11, 2014]. Memoir. Hardcover. 336 pages.

RATING: *****/5

“I’m thirty-eight. I started my first band, The Dresden Dolls, when I was twenty-five, and didn’t put out my first major-label record until I was twenty-eight, which is, in the eyes of the traditional music industry, a geriatric age at which to debut.”

Amanda Palmer has accomplished quite a lot as an independent alternative musician and artist in slightly more than a decade. She might not be an uber-recognized name or international superstar but she’s adored by many. She’s worked hard to express herself through her music and through her performances. When you see Amanda Palmer perform it’s a complete show borrowing much from cabaret acts. Years ago, I’d somehow found out that Palmer would be performing at her former high school, Lexington High School along with some students. I went to the show with a then close friend. It was an event. Quite theatrical with an electrifying and mysterious air about the entire thing. I grew up in Acton, two towns over from Palmer’s native Lexington, Mass.

I’ve been a music critic for maybe too long. In the 90s national publications published my work and I was occasionally paid for my efforts. Never full-time. I’m slightly known in Boston but that’s about it. The only instrument I played was the flute for four years in elementary school and junior high. I’ve hung around with lots of bands. I’ve dated musicians and I’ve hooked up with plenty of musicians. In the 90s, I let a band stay at my parents’ house while they were away. I knew this band pretty well, or thought I did the Durham, North Carolina band Queen Sarah Saturday had been opening for The Charlatans UK on the current tour. Don’t think they asked. I think I just offered. Maybe that was the problem.

In her brilliant and revealing book, The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer talks about couchsurfing a lot. Even crowdsourcing meals from fans. She asks people to let her stay at their homes while on tour. She asks them to bring food to the venues at which she’s performing. She says she always gives them CDs, t-shirts and other merchandise in return. Recently at Great Scott a band announced from stage that it needed a place to crash that night. I was a little miffed that they said “we have nothing to offer you.” Really? A CD or a t-shirt might be just the thank you a fan might appreciate. Andy from the wonderful 90s indie band IVY made a point of letting me choose a t-shirt because he so appreciated my reviews and my relentless support for the band. And this was the 90s, pre-Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook. Think of the damage I could do now.

“There’s an inherent, unspoken trust that happens when you walk through the door of your host’s home. Everybody implicitly trusts everybody else not to steal anything. We leave our phones, our wallets, our laptops, our journals, and our instruments lying scattered around our various mini-couchsurfing campsites. To my knowledge, I’ve never had anything go missing.”

I had a crush on one of the guys from Queen Sarah Saturday [bassist Chris Holloway—it’s always the bass player or the drummer, occasionally a keyboardist] so as a young naïve 23-year-old I was kind to this band. I made them cookies. I was in graduate school for journalism at the time and didn’t have extemporaneous time and money to spend. I was just starting my music/entertainment journalism career. I let them sleep anywhere they wanted in my parents’ house. My two girlfriends and I all slept in my bedroom. I’m pretty sure I even got the band bagels for breakfast in the morning. Here’s the thing: lead singer/guitarist Johnny Irion TOOK one of my The Charlatans CDs right out of the case. I think it would have been better if he’d taken it case and all. I might have thought I’d lost it somewhere. I was appalled. How could he do such a thing? After that I felt they took advantage of me that entire night. Perhaps the entire tour.

For the most part not many people take advantage of Amanda Palmer in her thousands of moments of asking and trusting. However once a woman touched her inappropriately as she let fans sharpie messages on her naked body. Another time her red ukulele got stolen (later returned after a call to action via twitter). She tells about a few other incidents when someone wasn’t all that cool. For the most part you put your trust in others and expect the best. And Amanda Palmer’s response to the unexpected bad events: “Some people just suck.” So, 20 years later I’m saying you suck Johnny Irion.

After she posted “A Poem for Dzhokhar” to her blog, Palmer received nasty messages and death threats. I read the poem and didn’t think she was supporting his terrorist acts. I think she was expressing her empathy for a young man caught up in something horrific. Artists express themselves in good times and in bad times. It’s an outlet. Palmer wrote: “To erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the possibility of art. Theater, fiction horror stories, love stories. This is what art does. Good or bad, it imagines the insides, the heart of the other, whether that heart is full of light or trapped in darkness.”

As a feminist and a Boston-based music journalist, I love everything about this memoir. It’s absolutely engrossing. I liked Boston’s The Dresden Dolls and always appreciated Amanda Palmer for her outspoken nature, her feminism and musicianship. Now I truly admire Amanda Palmer and feel we’d be friends if we ever met. I’m wondering if we were ever at a party at the same time at Castle von Buhler—my artist friend Cynthia von Buhler’s former Boston home. The Art of Asking illustrates the importance of making lasting connections through art, love and creativity.

“Our first job in life is to recognize the gifts we’ve already got, take the donuts and show up while we cultivate and use those gifts, and then turn around and share those gifts—sometimes in the form of money, sometimes time, sometimes love—back into the puzzle of the world.”

“Our second job is to accept where we are in the puzzle at each moment. That can be harder.”

In the Art of Asking, Palmer shares what she’s learned to succeed as a musician and artist. She details her career and interweaves the story of how she and her husband Neil Gaiman met and fell in love. She includes song lyrics. It’s quite impeccably done. Engrossing from page one. Not too much of anything at once. Evenly distributed throughout the memoir. Both inspirational and comforting—[I can do it and she’s like me]! Palmer chronicles her days as a street artist to being in The Dresden Dolls to her solo music career to being and artist and an individual. It’s mostly about asking for what you want, asking for what you need and accepting the outcomes.

“Often it is our own sense that we are undeserving of help that has immobilized us. Whether it’s in the arts, at work, or in our relationships, we often resist asking not only because we’re afraid of rejection but also because we don’t even think we deserve what we’re asking for.”

“Asking is an act of intimacy and trust. Begging is a function of fear, desperation, or weakness.”

“It has to start with the art. The songs had to touch people initially, and mean something, for anything to work at all. The art, not the artist, is what fundamentally draws the net into being. The net was then tightened and strengthened by a collection of interactions and exchanges I’ve had, personally, whether in live venues or online, with members of my community.”

A few things Amanda Palmer revealed in The Art of Asking:

1. Amanda Palmer was reluctant to marry author Neil Gaiman. After they’d dated for a year, Neil wanted to get married. Palmer panicked a bit and worried about losing her independence and defying her feminist core. There were some practical reasons for getting married. She said to Neil: “I want to live and work alone. If we get married, do I have to live with you?”

“I felt my hard insides, my desperation to stay independent, and the irony of it all: the girl who stood on the box for five years, falling in love and merging with a million passing strangers, yet remained staunchly resistant to an actual human merger. My inner feminist was also rolling her eyes. Just date, for chrissake. Maybe move in together. What is this, the fifties?”

2. Palmer moved into a low-income cooperative for artists in Boston called Cloud Club decades ago when she worked at Toscanani’s ice cream and performed as The Bride in Harvard Square. The Dresden Dolls would practice on the top floor. She still keeps the apartment.

3. I knew Amanda Palmer had a fervent fanbase but didn’t know how far some of her fans would go to help her. Amanda has not only asked for food and places to crash but electric pianos to record music, costumes for video shoots, equipment and rides to and from the airport. The payback is a hug, her music and her art. How many mailing lists have you signed up for at shows and never heard from the band or artist again? Palmer knows the value in the mailing list.

“Explaining how I use Twitter to those who’ve never used it is difficult. It’s a blurry Mobius strip of love, help, information, and social-art-life exchange.”

4. Despite stripping off her clothes and baring her body at numerous gigs Palmer admits “I’m still vain. I still cringe when I see my belly after a monthlong muffin-and-beer binge, spilling over a waistline that’s too tight.” She doesn’t shave her armpits or legs which is kick-ass feminist.

5. The Kickstarter for Palmer’s full-band album Theatre Is Evil raised a recording-smashing $1.2 million. She’d set an original goal of $100,000. Naturally a woman in music simultaneously garners criticism, skepticism and praise for this.

“As I launched my campaign, I walked right into a wider cultural debate that was already raging about whether crowd-funding should be allowed at all; some critics were dismissing it out of hand as a crass form of “digital panhandling.” Apparently, it was distasteful to ask. I was targeted as the worst offender for a lot of reasons: because I’d already been promoted by a major label, because I had a famous husband, because I was a flaming narcissist.”

6. Palmer’s closest friend is her former neighbor, Anthony, a therapist. He still lives in Lexington where her parents live. She calls him her mentor and advisor. He’s several decades older than her and she talks to him regularly. They take walks around Walden Pond discussing anything and everything. He got cancer and Palmer took time off a tour to drive him to chemo appointments and spend time with him.

“Anthony was also one of my patrons. He gifted me books on Buddhism and pocket knives. Occasionally, when he knew I was broke, he’d include a crisp hundred-dollar bill in a letter.”

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Grand Central Publishing.

Purchase The Art of Asking

purchase at Amazon: The Art of Asking (Signed Edition): How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help

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