Another week, another loss. This week we said goodbye to Dick Dale, the king of the surf guitar.
I first heard Dick Dale’s music the same way many of my generation did: watching the opening credits of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Dale’s rocking version of 1920’s tune “Misirlou,” released as a single in 1962, set the tone for the ultra-cool gangster movie that followed. It also showcased his innovative guitar style, with its fast, aggressive picking. He pioneered that style with songs like “Let’s Go Trippin’,” and with his Del-Tones, made five killer records full of it between 1962 and 1964.
Dale kept on playing even after surf rock fell out of favor, and made several albums in the ‘90s on the back of Pulp Fiction. He continued touring in his later years, he said, to afford mounting medical costs. Dale died on Saturday, March 16 at the age of 81, after being treated for heart and kidney failure. There aren’t many people who can say they invented a genre, but Dick Dale was one. May he rest in peace.
* * * * *
Amanda Palmer seems to make people upset.
I don’t mean her work, although that sometimes does the trick too. I mean Palmer herself. The very existence of Amanda Palmer on this planet is enough to drive some people to genuine fits of anger. I’m not exactly sure why that is, although I’ve heard a lot of reasons. Some people find her gift for self-promotion annoying. Some find her use of crowdfunding – and her constant sloganeering about it, i.e. “we are the media” – to be somehow detrimental to other working musicians. Some just don’t like her seemingly inborn ability to be provocative. (And I’ll admit to a certain wariness about her for that last reason, too.)
But I would push back against the assertion that Palmer is not genuine. I’ve heard that too, that the theatrical nature of her work and persona somehow precludes her from creating honest art. I’ve been an Amanda Palmer fan since the first Dresden Dolls album, and I sincerely think the picture of her as some kind of button-pushing artifice machine is thoroughly mistaken.
In every one of her incarnations, from the German punk cabaret of the Dolls to the Ben Folds contemporary who made Who Killed Amanda Palmer to the grand orchestrator behind Theatre is Evil to her varied collaborations with husband Neil Gaiman and Jason Webley and Edward Ka-Spel and even her dad, Jack Palmer, the emotional underpinning has been real. Just behind the facepaint is a fully formed human being yearning to share herself through art.
That’s never been more true than on her third solo album, There Will Be No Intermission. I don’t want to give the impression that Palmer has given up her penchant for the provocative here. Just one look at the cover, on which she appears naked, balanced on a tree stump and holding a sword above her head, should put paid to that notion. But Intermission is her most naked, open-hearted and earnest album. It’s also the most emotionally potent thing she has done. Listening to all 78 minutes of this in a row is almost exhausting, so raw are the feelings it evokes.
Yes, I said 78 minutes. Intermission consists of ten songs and ten interludes, and the songs are often extended pieces – two of them break ten minutes, and a third tops eight. Its messy sprawl is part of what makes it so effective, though. A shorter album, one more sensitive to the nearly nonexistent attention spans of the modern audience, wouldn’t have nearly the impact this one does. Palmer knows this record is imperfect, but she invites you to love it anyway, in all of its fumbling glory. In a way, that’s the point – this is a record about being perfectly human, about how we’re all struggling through and should show each other grace.
I think Palmer’s right that no major label would have paid for this thing, which makes me happy once again that crowdfunding exists. These songs were financed through Patreon – Palmer has thousands of patrons who pay a minimal monthly sum to support her work, and she’s used that money exactly the way I would hope she would: by creating art that only she could create. The list of artists who would make a record like Intermission is exceptionally small. The list of artists who would make this record, just like this, only has one name on it.
Intermission is a quiet thing, despite its length. Most of it was performed on piano (with a couple songs on ukulele), with minimal additions. The more full-sounding tunes (“Drowning in the Sound,” “Machete”) are the obvious singles, even though both stretch to six minutes. Elsewhere, though, Palmer counts on her audience to stay with her as she navigates these longer stretches, these outpourings of herself through 88 keys. She doesn’t couch that experience, either – she opens with it, putting the ten-minute “The Ride” right up front. This turns out to be the perfect place for it. “The Ride” is a more general song about life and death, like a slow-motion opening of the gates, ushering you in.
And it’s wonderful. She was right to trust us, because this long and sparse poem draws you in and guides you through. “Drowning in the Sound” is more compact and louder, with drums and everything, and it’s as strong a minor-key pop song as Palmer has ever written. It’s a reaction, as much of this record is, to the dark political climate we find ourselves in, and to climate change in particular: “And your body is a temple, and the temple is a prison, and the prison’s overcrowded and the inmates know it’s flooding, and the body politic is getting sicker by the minute, and the media’s not fake, it’s just very inconvenient…”
Every song here is a highlight, so I won’t go through each one. I’ll mention a couple, though, that stand out from a very strong pack. “Judy Blume” is a gorgeous paean to a writer who inspired millions of girls Palmer’s age, specifically mentioning events from Deenie and Tiger Eyes and of course, Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret. The final verse is just lovely: “Judy, I can’t believe sometimes that I’m an adult, and girls like I was think that I have this shit figured out, you and me lying together at night in my room, you’ll be inside them forever, Judy Blume…”
“A Mother’s Confession” is another ten-minute piano piece, and it’s even more captivating. It’s straight out of Palmer’s diary as she screws up time and again while trying to keep her newborn son Ash safe. He takes a tumble in a public bathroom and Palmer feels the weight and guilt of it. She gets pulled over for speeding because the baby was crying and she was trying to get to her destination quickly. The song is a stunning bit of empathy for every hard-working mother trying to get through each day, and when a choir joins in on the refrain (“At least the baby didn’t die”), it’s simultaneously heart-wrenching and joyous.
And speaking of empathy, there is “Voicemail for Jill,” probably my favorite thing here. It’s an absolutely apolitical song about abortion, which by itself is a miracle. It’s about how we treat women making the hardest decision of their lives: “No one’s gonna celebrate you, no one’s gonna bring you cake and no one’s gonna shower you with flowers, the doctor won’t congratulate you, no one on that pavement’s gonna shout at you that your heart also matters…” It’s a stunning piece of graceful humanity, a reminder that behind the arguments are real women going through real heartache. I think it’s one of the best songs Palmer has ever written.
But really, it’s the cumulative effect of this thing that sets it apart. This is an album that asks you to go through “The Ride” and “Judy Blume” and the hypnotic, circular, eight-minute “Bigger on the Inside” and “Voicemail for Jill” and “A Mother’s Confession” and THEN two more songs before reaching the end. I’ve done it a few times now, and each time my heart swells and breaks and is torn open. By the time the final chord of the wry “Death Thing” is fading out, I feel like I’ve lived a full life inside these songs.
I don’t know that I can ask more of that from any artist. As I said, I have been a fan for a long time, and I expected There Will Be No Intermission to be good. I did not expect it to be an experience of this magnitude. I certainly hope this astoundingly good record puts paid to the notion that Palmer is not an honest, genuine, powerful songwriter. There isn’t a false note here, and taken all together, this is one of the best records of 2019 so far.
* * * * *
Next week, probably Foals and Jonathan Coulton, plus the First Quarter Report. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.