What I Did On My One-Day Vacation

Last Thursday, I went to Portland because of Twitter.

Ok, that’s not quite true. I went to Portland because of Amanda Palmer, the singer-songwriter-force-of-nature who some folks may know as half of the Dresden Dolls. Palmer’s solo album is one of my absolute favorite records of last year, and I’ve long been complaining that of course I only fell in love with it two days after she played Portland in December. Of course.

Palmer is a savvy Twitterer, engaging blogger and generally the sort of musician you can follow closely (but not creepily) online. She’s been playing what she calls ninja ukelele gigs in various places this summer, notably in L.A. — the pictures are fantastic (and not all safe for work). Her travels, last week, landed her in Portland, where she called her Twitter followers to meet her first at Mary’s Club, late on a Wednesday, and then in the park blocks on Thursday afternoon. We were to bring flowers, ponies and fruit, among other things. (The fruit, she explained later, was because in L.A. she’d requested cookies and cake, thinking it would be wonderful, and it turned out to be kind of gross. My paraphrasing, not her words, that.)

I couldn’t resist. I made a day of it — lunch at Broder, with its rich, delicious Swedish meatballs; a cherry beer at Deschutes while I waited for 6 pm to roll around, a pink bouquet of hastily purchased flowers wilting in my car; dinner at Pok Pok, where I ate what were possibly the best chicken wings I’ve ever tasted — but let’s just talk about the mini concert for now, shall we?

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Palmer rolled in late and unassuming; the park wasn’t full, but pockets of fans (easily identified, in some cases, by striped tights or colorful hair) milled about or sprawled on the grass.

We spotted her early, and drifted as casually as possible into her orbit, somehow, delightfully, winding up in the front ring of the quickly forming circle of admirers. Everyone was disconcertingly quiet until Palmer spoke, breaking the silence and dissipating the feeling that everyone was very nearly holding their collective breath.

Fruit appeared. In the course of the evening, a pineapple and a watermelon were butchered and sent around the circle. The feeling of being at a strange and magical family picnic crept up and settled comfortably in. Palmer played five songs, beginning with Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”; I can’t remember the order, but the others were Cat Stevens’ “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out”; Radiohead’s “Creep,” for which we all joined in on the last chorus; her own “Dear Old House That I Grew Up In”; and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Two-Headed Boy.” “Dear Old House” was a treat, a bittersweet ode about home and change, but for sheer entertainment value, it’s hard to beat the moment when a woman wearing an elaborate antlered headdress walked up just as Palmer sang, “You’re so fucking special…”

It was just Palmer and her ukulele, immediate and simple, charming and sincere, entirely accessible and, to use a godawful but entirely applicable cliché, down to earth. (When one girl’s phone went off with the beginning of the Dresden Dolls song “Coin-Operated Boy,” Palmer chuckled, explained what happened to those who couldn’t hear, and then said, slightly wryly but kindly, “I don’t know which one of us feels more embarrassed.”)

I felt like I was in on a secret, but it was one you’d never get in trouble for telling. I took a million pictures and then put the camera down so I could just pay attention. The immediacy was almost overwhelming: Here’s this woman who writes amazing songs, creates pictures of herself that tell their own stories and inspire yet more stories, makes musicals out of beloved albums and can make a hoodie, T-shirt and jeans look totally stylish, and she’s sitting two feet away playing stripped-down covers and making herself astonishingly available to dozens of people whose days are being utterly and completely made. To say it was inspirational is an understatement.

She read to us from Who Killed Amanda Palmer, the book companion to the record of the same name; it’s full of pictures of Palmer dead, accompanied by stories by (her now-boyfriend) Neil Gaiman. (Aside: The book was actually my introduction to her existence, thanks to the LiveJournal of the talented photographer Kyle Cassidy, who took some of the pictures.) She answered questions, including mine about when the next book tie-in, a line of scents from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, would be released into the wild (next week, at Nerd Prom Comic-Con, where Palmer and Gaiman both will be). She even discussed Gaiman’s lack of rhythm while praising his singing voice and songwriting skills (audience members suggested she get him drunk and into the studio).

And then I had to leave — missing the part of the evening where Jason Webley turned up and the two of them sang from atop the elephant statues a block away (they have a duet about elephants; the location was almost unnaturally appropriate). I gave my pink flowers to a girl in roller skates and gave all my dollar bills to a friend to throw in Palmer’s open uke case (her explanation of how she’s made more money from Twittering in a month than she’s made from her major-label record in a year is worth a read). The puppeteer I’d met before the show, a friend of a friend, asked her to sign his ukulele. He somehow wound up with a bigger container of fresh raspberries than the one he’d brought to the gathering. I floated off to dinner on a cloud.

There’s no moral to this story, but I do have a suggestion. If anyone ever tells you Twitter is stupid and useless, remember this: Anything that can bring a group of strangers together to sit in the grass, singing, laughing and smiling, really can’t be all bad. It’s like any tool; it’s all in how you use it. And this was one hell of a use.