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The Boston Globe - July 12, 2002

Plays with Dolls
Where Rock Meets Theater, You'll Find Amanda Palmer

by Hayley Kaufman, Globe Staff

ith a cup of tea in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Amanda Palmer is explaining, in her low, velvety voice, how the ceiling in her bathroom recently collapsed. Days before, some friends of the singer-songwriter-playwright camped out in the garret upstairs, and their revelry apparently took a toll. Upon returning from a brief sojourn of her own, Palmer, 26, strode through her knick knack-filled South End flat - past the Oxford English Dictionary, past the innumerable vases of dried flowers, past the local rock band posters - and into the bathroom. She found her tub filled with rubble.

"The house waited for me to leave," she says with a throaty sigh. Palmer cocks an eyebrow. They have been tweezed bare, and in their place, she has painted an intricate pattern of squiggles and swoops with liquid eyeliner. The result is both captivating and peculiar.

"But I suppose," she continues, playfully stoking the dramatic fire, "it could have been worse."

Indeed, those who know Palmer might have guessed that the ceiling would collapse over her usual perch: the room where she keeps her beloved baby grand piano. There, amid the stacks of writing paper and books and CDs, with thick vines of wisteria choking out the light, the young composer can often be heard pounding away, her intense, chord-driven melodies rising and falling, rising and falling, like an unruly mood.

With her eyes squeezed shut and her face twisted into an ecstatic grimace, Palmer is anything but demure when she performs. Her latest project, a theatrical rock duo called the Dresden Dolls, attests to that. During the band's recent monthlong residency at the Lizard Lounge, Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione electrified audiences with their lusty sets, merging the playful eroticism of Weimar-era German cabaret with the intensity of modern rock opera.

The band's appearance this Sunday night at Axis, part of a goth-industrial Bastille Day celebration, promises more of the same. To call their performances provocative would be an understatement. Carnal is more like it.

This isn't the first time that Palmer, a Lexington native and one of the Boston music scene's consummate multitaskers, has bridged the divide between rock and theater. The founder of the Shadowbox Collective, a loose consortium of local theater types, Palmer has built several plays around music, especially the moody psychedelic stylings of the British band the Legendary Pink Dots. In fact, the troupe is named after one of their songs.

Lately, she has also made time to perform with Count Zero, a local art-rock outfit founded by a veteran of the scene, Peter Moore.

Her day job is no less dramatic. For several years, Palmer has slathered herself in chalk-white makeup, donned a vintage wedding gown, and performed all over New England as a living statue under the moniker The Eight-Foot Bride.

"It's shocking how many things this girl, this woman, seems to be able to do," says Joe Bonni, 32, the managing editor of Boston's Weekly Dig, who first encountered Palmer's work when she was

17 and still a suburban high school student. "I thought Amanda was absolutely brilliant back then. And she's been at the forefront, pushing the boundaries of art and music ever since."

The perfect fit

If Palmer has been a presence on the local scene for several years, she is the first to admit that meeting Viglione has changed the trajectory and tenor of her work. About a year and a half ago, Viglione, 23, saw Palmer perform solo at a huge Halloween party that she and her housemates were throwing. (Palmer's periodic bashes and fund-raisers have taken on an almost legendary quality, with dozens of bands and performance artists mingling with the hundreds of partygoers who attend.) Struck by the intensity of her set, Viglione immediately went up and introduced himself.

Palmer, whose musical influences zig and zag from Kurt Weill to the Smiths to Nick Cave, snickers that her songs during that period were "self-reflective, agonizing anthems of pain." The drummer heard them differently. Or at least more charitably.

"I thought her music was weird and really creepy and brilliant, and I could completely see myself backing it" on drums, says Viglione, who moved to Boston from New Hampshire three years ago to pursue music.

A week later, more or less, the two formed a band - and found themselves on a musical honeymoon. Their similar tastes and expressive performance styles clicked from the start. After other, less than fulfilling musical forays (Viglione, at the time, was playing bass rather than drums in a ho-hum Somerville rock band), they were giddy with their good fortune.

"It was like, `We're in a band! We're in a band! We're in a band!' " Palmer says, twisting her bobbed brown hair and tucking it into a messy up-do. "I just couldn't believe how totally unpretentious and genuine and unaffected he is."

Anything but unfettered communication would interfere with one of the Dresden Dolls' most powerful attributes: their chemistry. In white face makeup and black garters, her legs splayed beneath the piano, Palmer's eyes lock on Viglione's as she plays. Her darkly funny lyrics - on topics that vary from plastic surgery disasters to coin-operated lovers to the Lexington skateboarders who leave her wistful for youth - are frequently accompanied by a sexy, smoldering grin.

Her partner, meanwhile, gives as good as he gets. (Figuratively speaking. Though Palmer and Viglione declare their love for each other, they say they are not a couple.) A disciple of jazz deity Elvin Jones, Dave Grohl in his Nirvana years, and hard core greats Minor Threat and Black Flag, Viglione frames Palmer's melodies with the fierce accuracy of a knife thrower. The sonic combination leaves audiences rapt. At the Lizard Lounge last month, a capacity crowd sat absolutely silent during their songs, breaking into raucous cheers only after the last chords faded.

Tension and attention

Palmer has been playing the piano for as long as she can remember. She began writing songs at 8, and by 12 she had penned what she now sheepishly refers to as a "horrible musical." That work, "On Their Own," was a tale of four suburban girls who swipe cash from their parents, run off to the city, and hide out in an alley. In other words: the ultimate preteen-rebel fantasy.

By the time she enrolled at Lexington High School, Palmer was writing and directing plays, one of which, "Asylum," based on the music of the Legendary Pink Dots, was picked as the school's entry in the Boston Globe Drama Festival in 1994. The judges, however, disqualified" Asylum," ruling that it was more performance art than play and therefore didn't fit festival guidelines. (The criteria were later changed.) Crushed, Palmer and her schoolmates fought back, printing fliers saying they'd been "oppressed."

The tussle got the play some attention - perhaps more than winning the competition might have. Bonni, then editing an underground newspaper called the Pit Report, was among those who went to see "Asylum" at Lexington High to find out what the fuss was about. He was so impressed that he immediately got Palmer's show booked at the Middle East.

The turn of events was formative for the budding performer-director-playwright, an affirmation that this self-decribed "friendless" teenager would find her niche. "It was awesome," Palmer recalls. "After that, I always wanted to go back and do nightclub theater."

She would get her chance, but not until after college (Wesleyan) and a year abroad (Germany). Palmer had imagined that college would be liberating, a haven where at last she would meet a lot of people like herself: artistic, thoughtful, somewhat tortured, but cool nonetheless. The reality failed to measure up. "I spent the first year locked in my room," she says, scowling at the memory.

Ironically, it was in that room that Palmer discovered a way out: German. Having never studied the language, she became fluent in six months (she also speaks French). Soon, she was flying to Bavaria on an exchange program. Once there, she interned at a theater, studied a little, drank a lot of beer, and generally absorbed the art and culture that would so influence the rest of her college career.

And, beyond that, her work: The surreal "Hotel Blanc," a play Palmer mounted earlier this year with artist Claire Elizabeth Davies at the Middle East and MIT, aches with the pain of the Holocaust. Then, of course, there's Palmer's Dresden Dolls persona, in which the risque sexuality of "Cabaret" singer Sally Bowles and the caustic empowerment of rock's PJ Harvey collide.

When the Dresden Dolls hit the studio to record their debut CD in September, they're confident that they'll capture the intensity and gritty beauty for which they're becoming known.

In a stroke of luck, noted studio technician Martin Bisi, a friend of a friend who has worked with music luminaries Sonic Youth, John Zorn, Herbie Hancock, and the Swans, has agreed to coproduce and engineer the album in New York.

"It's pretty incredible," she says brightly of this latest development. But is it enough to make a multifaceted talent like Palmer focus on just one project for a while? Apparently.

"Right now," she says with a nod, "it's all about the band."