Return to Amanda Palmer


The Rake: Magazine Amanda Palmer's Exquisite Corpse
by Rob Callahan
posted on Jul. 30, 2009 - 2:31pm

Like you, begins the book, I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard Amanda Palmer had been killed.

This is, of course, a lie. Amanda Palmer, who makes up one half of the Brechtian punk cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, isn't nearly as dead as the book might have you believe. She's merely taking some time off from the band - known for their dark, circus-like live shows and for blurring the lines between the audience and performers - and vaulting toward new successes, undertaking new directions on her own. The spirited musician, writer and artist, who is very much alive and well, is touring to promote her new solo work.

The book Who Killed Amanda Palmer goes on from its opening lines and recalls varying accounts of Amanda Palmer's tragic and untimely death, building a new mythology upon the fictional foundation of the Dresden Doll's imaginary demise. Alongside over 100 photographs depicting the fabricated aftermaths of her having fallen, drowned, overdosed, succumbed to freak accidents, been beaten to death, shot or asphyxiated, the volume presents fairy tales, one-liners and eyewitness accounts to tell a plethora of tales that will leave the reader wondering which is true, how she really went, and how they managed to go this long without having heard the news of poor Ms. Palmer's shuffling of the proverbial mortal coil.

The recent print release is the companion compendium to the 2008 album of the same name, a supplemental coffee table book and a collection of insert art all bound up in one. Having had no packaging budget, Palmer's solo musical release shipped without an insert and, to augment her aural endeavor, work was begun to bring out the lyrics and the stories behind the music in this separately-released book, compiling a decade's worth of pictures in which the macabre maven plays dead for the camera.

When asked how one develops a hobby of posing as one's own corpse, Palmer recalls the way in which she first became interested in arranging the various illusions of her passing. Of one of the oldest pictures in the book, in which she rests lifelessly within a mess of vomited jewelry, still flowing from her death rattling mouth, she says, "I never considered it a hobby. I was all alone taking self portraits in a studio at the university that I went to, and I showed up at the studio with a couple costumes and a tutu and a bag of jewelry that I had, that I figured I would think of something interesting to do with, and that's what I thought of. And then, as I found myself traveling more and more, I always wanted to take pictures of beautiful things, and I wanted to put myself in the pictures, but just standing there started to seem really boring. So I'd occasionally get myself corpsed-up and get into my own photos that way, because I thought it was somehow more interesting or more beautiful than just standing there and looking at the camera."

In the years that followed, her faux corpse turned up in New York, Australia, Cape Cod, the Hague and countless other locales. Her collection of both chilling and wondrous images grew slowly at first until, during the final year before the book came out, an epic single-victim/multi-murder mock killing spree began. Of the many images produced in that time, she fosters a fondness for a few personal favorites. "I really love the photograph of me completely under water, that Kyle Cassidy took at Walden Pond: A) because I just think it's gorgeous, and B) because it was just such a beautiful day out there, and he captured the beauty of that day perfectly."

"I really love the shopping cart photo," she adds, speaking of a picture in which her bloodied, broken body, clad in thigh-high fishnets and little else, is contorted and crammed into the aforementioned cart, "because I love people's reactions when they turn the page and they see it. It's usually, 'Oh, oh my GOD!' And it's just so deliciously gruesome and beautiful at the same time." But while the corpse in the cart tends to evoke gasps among her readers, much of the rest of the book simply meets the bar of bizarre already raised over the span of her career. "I think the reaction [to the book] was pretty much to be expected. I think my friends and fans looked at it and said, 'Oh, that looks like something Amanda would do.' I think I've done enough weird-ass stuff over the years that this one's not really a shocker."

The image of Amanda's broken and lifeless body is often photographed on its own, a lonely last look at the great equalizer's hold over her, but there is the occasional scene in which passersby and onlookers are near, seeming to go through their lives completely oblivious to the nearby presence of a dead Amanda Palmer. Only one of the photos boasts the presence of another warm body who was actually in on the setup. "Toward the beginning of the book, opposite [the lyrics to] Astronaut, there's a picture of me from high above in the middle of a crosswalk. There's a guy walking across the crosswalk, and it's just me and him. That's Brian from the Dresden Dolls, and that was staged." The other crowds, small groups and individuals seen elsewhere to be stepping over and around, or otherwise ignoring the dead woman displayed before them, knew not what was really happening. "So those were unsuspecting bystanders," jokes Palmer.

The book itself, while the product of a long labor of love, may only be the beginning. Musing over the possibility of a future online project, or perhaps a calendar, Palmer notes that there were many, many photos that didn't make the cut, "because we had a giant pile to pick from, and we didn't want the book to be too long or too boring so we definitely paired it down, but there are some really good ones that we decided to leave out because they were too repetitive or not quite right."

Those pictures that did make it to press were first put to the pen of Neil Gaiman, who added to the already dark and mysterious tone of the tome by interspersing short stories, in his trademark fashion, throughout the pages. His serendipitous inclusion as a co-creator was an organic one, as Palmer recalls, and along with it budded a new partnership that later blossomed into something more, eventually becoming woven into the fabric of the project itself.

"Originally," she remembers, "I met Neil because he knew my friend, Jason Webley, and Jason sort of emailed us together because he knew we were kindred souls. The project came up because I sent Neil an advance copy of the record and he loved it. When I got the idea for the book I hit him up for text, never expecting that it would get as involved as it did, but he was really game to do it so it became a true collaboration. He came out to Boston and spent a little while here working on the book. I pretty much have the book to thank for the fact that he's now my boyfriend, because if we hadn't spent that time together, we probably never would've truly got to know each other. So I keep telling Jason I owe him two separate cheesecakes: One for hooking me up with the guy who made the text for the book, and a bigger cheesecake for hooking me up with someone to fall in love with."

Palmer purposely limited her control over Gaiman's end of the project. "That's because he's Neil Gaiman and I knew he would do something genius," she remembers. "For the weeks that he came out to Boston, Kyle Cassidy - who was one of the main photographers for the book - was also out, and we collaborated on some ideas. Neil would throw out an idea and we would create a photograph for that idea, but generally Neil was just hanging out with us, sort of drawing his inspiration from the moments that we were creating. Which was much more fun than just sending him a package of photographs and saying, 'See what you can do with these,' because it really felt like we were creating the stories together, on the spot."

With the release of the album and the book, the dead version of Amanda Palmer took on a life of its own, and its living counterpart played with that persona while supporting the album. She recalls with a laugh, "We did a wonderful play on the album title and the book title while I was touring this year, by resurrecting me at the beginning of every show, which was lots of fun," but she has no plans to play the character up too much more. "I think if I dwell in Morbid Land too long then someone might pull a Jodie Foster on me and I'll wind up at the bottom of a river." Despite her corpsified photographic endeavors, she jovially remarks, "My interest in being dead is small."

The book, limited to ten thousand copies, is available for purchase exclusively online. "We decided to just put it out and go online, see how it sold and then, should we want to, press up another bunch of books and distribute them through normal channels. And we might do that," she says, noting that Who Killed Amanda Palmer has nearly sold out since its July 16th release. "Probably what we'll do with it is a second edition for those who didn't get one, or those who find out about it and want to grab it, and that one will actually be available through stores and Amazon, and what-have-you."