Past presenters at TED have included Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, Bill Gates, and countless Nobel Prize winners. So when Amanda Palmer was invited to address this year’s conference — TED, an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design, kicks off Feb. 25 in Long Beach, Calif. — she was understandably anxious.
“no pressure what. so. ever. nope,” the former Dresden Dolls frontwoman wrote on her blog. “me speaking at TED is the equivalent of … a violinist having her first solo concert at carnegie hall. or an athlete getting invited to the olympics. Or like ... anybody on earth being asked to give the commencement speech at harvard. or a person who’s always wanted to be in ‘disney on ice’ finally getting hired by ‘disney on ice.’
So for the past several weeks, Palmer, who grew up in Lexington, has been hunkered down and prepping her 12-minute talk at the house she rents near Harvard Square with her husband, British writer Neil Gaiman. Located on what’s sometimes called Professors’ Row, the red-brick enormity isn’t just any old house. It’s the stately five-bedroom, five-bathroom former residence of the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith.
Saturday, Palmer summoned a few dozen of her friends to the fabulous Francis Avenue abode to hear her TED talk, or at least a working version of it, in the hopes that their input and edits might be helpful. The crowd included a few familiar faces, notably Gaiman, who lay on the floor and prompted Palmer when she lost her place; former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, whose tiny toddler was wandering from room to room; Palmer’s best pal Anthony Martignetti, author of “Lunatic Heroes”; MiddleMojo.com’s Joan Anderman; and Rob Chalfen, overseer of the Inman Square performance space Outpost 186. (There were plenty of others whose faces weren’t so familiar to us.)
We can’t reveal too much about the talk, but it entertainingly traces the unusual arc of Palmer’s career, from living statue to punk cabaret act to queen of Kickstarter. Afterward, as everyone drank wine, chatted, and admired the home’s elaborate wainscoting, Gaiman led a small group on an impromptu tour of the basement. The highlight, at least for us, was the underground bomb shelter, which is filled these days with books and records, and a hidden hot tub and sauna, whose benches clearly were designed to accommodate Galbraith’s 6-foot-8 frame.
Before heading upstairs, Gaiman turned on the water in the tub and invited guests to come back in 30 minutes for a soak. We took that as our cue to leave.