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Foreign affairs
The Dresden Dolls’ Dresden debut

DRESDEN — It’s 1:45 on a Friday morning, and Amanda Palmer has just shoved a shiny silver vibrator up her nose. Girl Anachronism was dared, and she responded in a blink. While the little toy shakes in her right nostril, she chit-chats, as if it weren’t there at all. Drummer Brian Viglione, Palmer’s partner in the Boston duo the Dresden Dolls, picked up the vibrator on tour. He got one for another girl too, but she’s not here now. He and Palmer are inside their towering tour bus, idling outside a nightclub far from home in the city that inspired their name. In fact, the band have just played their first ever concert in this tough-luck, heartbreak Saxon capital.

"You can’t imagine how terrifying it is to be playing in the city we stole our name from," Palmer had confessed from Star Club’s stage a few hours earlier, moments before tapping out the high-pitched opening notes of "Coin-Operated Boy," the notorious Dresden Dolls song about love and a dildo. A little edge can be a good thing for a performer. It helps keep the engine revved. But there was no need for Palmer or Viglione to be nervous: the locals loved the show. Writing in Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten, the city’s major daily broadsheet, Norbert Seidel would rave about the concert. "Sometimes there’s a concert that, from the first beat, not only takes your breath but also stops the clocks, freezes the birds in the trees, and rocks everything in the hope that the crackling tension will never let up. Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione, known as the Dresden Dolls to everyone who pays any attention to music, reached this magic moment and held it for an entire concert." The headline in the Dresdner Morgenpost, the city’s scrappy tabloid, read, "Dresden Dolls: Triumph of Punk-Cabaret at Star Club."

So if Amanda Palmer feels like sticking a sex toy up her nose, why not? It would have been a downer for the Dresden Dolls to bomb in Dresden. But they didn’t. Just as they hadn’t in Berlin or Gent or Liverpool, where, oddly enough, Palmer remembers an English girl coming up to her to thank her for "making Germany cool again."

The Dolls had played several shows in Germany before their March 4 debut at Star Club. But this had been the first time they’d visited Dresden, a city of about 500,000 situated on the Elbe River behind the former East German border — old Iron Curtain turf near the Czech Republic. Once known as the "Florence of the Elbe" for its architectural majesty, Dresden, which was founded 800 years ago, is not the A-list city it was before the Allies’ infamous firebombing at the end of World War II. To this day, buildings destroyed on February 13 and 14, 1945, lie in ruins. And 44 long years of soul-crushing Communist rule didn’t do much to revive the city’s soul.

But Dresden is just the kind of tough-luck place that appreciates punk culture. There’s even a skate shop called the "Fuck You Too Skateboard Shop." It’s in the Neustadt (Dresden’s Latin Quarter), on Alaunstraße, not far from Pension Raskolnikov. The Pension’s logo is an ax.

But back to the Dolls. The band rolled into town early on the day of the show. The night before, they’d played Hamburg, where they’d gone through the last of the CDs — a homonymous 2003 album that was reissued with international distribution last year — they’d brought along to sell at shows. Their first stop in Dresden was the historic Frauenkirche, a Protestant church that was destroyed in ’45 and lay in ruins for decades, a semi-permanent reminder to Dresdeners of the bombing. It’s still under reconstruction and was closed. So much for sightseeing in Dresden.

But Palmer, Viglione, and their crew had more important business to attend to. They were in Europe on a 25-date tour that would take them from Scotland to the Czech Republic. It has started on February 17 and was scheduled to come to a close on March 31, in London, where they’d be opening for Nine Inch Nails.

In Dresden, a band called M.A.S.S. opened for the Dolls. Bad weather had forced Air France to cancel its first two Paris-to-Berlin flights that day and nearly kept me from boarding the third and last flight. So I missed M.A.S.S.’s set. Fortunately, the Dolls were running late. Of course, I had no way of knowing that on my taxi ride over to the club. Had I come all this way only to miss the Dresden Dolls’ Dresden debut? But when my driver mentioned that he’d seen the Dolls on TV earlier that day, I sensed the stars aligning in my favor.

Located in a quiet residential neighborhood far from downtown, Star Club was smoky and packed solid with, a club employee estimated, between 500 and 600 people. Reaching the bar was out of the question. Movement was impossible, except in a narrow channel along the wall stage left, where I posted myself. The crowd simmered quietly with murmured voices. Nose rings, black lace, and tattoos blended in a crush of percolating anticipation. It was an eclectic audience that included an alterna-preppie with well-groomed dreadlocks and a turtleneck sweater, some non-judgmental-looking middle–aged guys with frayed ponytails minding their own business, and absolutely nobody wearing Palmer’s trademark jailbird-striped stockings. When the Dolls took the stage, the audience fell quiet, as if at the opera.

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Issue Date: March 18 - 24, 2005
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