Tori Amos appeared in my life back in 2010. In six years, she’s become so much ingrained in who I am musically, both as a listener and a musician myself, that her musical journey has become an inextricable part of mine. As I grow older (though still not particularly that much older, because I am now the same age Tori was when Little Earthquakes was released), I find myself understanding more of the songs I didn’t understand before. Tori’s music is filled with so many layers that people could probably spend lifetimes digging through the songs (numerous as they are, there are literally hundreds) and still glean new meaning as time goes on.
My first Tori album was her retrospective collection Tales Of A Librarian, which even now as a big fan I still don’t particularly like, both because the songs selected don’t really sound right to me when they’re paired together (for instance, Jackie’s Strength, Tear In Your Hand, Baker Baker, Bliss and Spark all sound completely out of place paired with Mary, Sweet Dreams, Angels and Snow Cherries From France), and because the new mixes weren’t remasters as much as they were so-called “reconditioned” versions of the songs, switching backing vocals with lead vocals, moving some instruments to the back and others forward, etc. On the whole album, I really only enjoyed three or four songs, and two of the songs I liked were a minute long each. I almost gave up, but I decided to keep trying and got American Doll Posse and Boys For Pele at roughly the same time. I chose these two because American Doll Posse was supposed to be a “new era,” and I thought that her new music might be more accessible than her old music, and because Boys For Pele was considered to be her most out-there album and I had a feeling I’d like it. American Doll Posse literally hurt my ears the first time I listened to it, and I don’t mean that statement as anything other than a reflection of what actually happened: the music had so much going on, so many layers of production, so many changes in genre from song to song without ever really changing, that it felt like one onslaught of sound that had no downtime and I couldn’t process it. The music all blended together and I couldn’t really grab a hook or a melody to remember from each song, and it made my head hurt.
Boys For Pele was another story, however. I still remember the day I got it, and that memory means something to me. I was agoraphobic at the time, or at least I was developing agoraphobia. I was home alone, which was the way I preferred it, and I was standing on the back deck of the house I lived in. That house was the nicest place I’ve ever lived, with a full back deck with a space for a (non-functional) hot tub, and an in ground pool. I always wanted to go swimming naked in that pool early in the morning when no one was home, but I don’t think I ever did (I did sometimes slip my shorts off and swim around naked when I was at home by myself, but usually came back to put them on after a few minutes of excitement. So, I was standing on the back deck opening a package that came from eBay. At first I was annoyed because when I pulled my copy of Boys For Pele from the package, though it was still factory sealed, the booklet inside had a big crease in it. This couldn’t technically have been the seller’s fault if my memory that the album was still plastic-sealed is correct, but it aggravated me. I pulled the booklet out and looked through the photos, the beautiful image of Tori suckling a piglet (the meaning of which, as far as Tori’s attempts at motherhood, was probably lost on me at the time, but I must have enjoyed some symbolism in it because I do remember thinking she looked like some Pagan goddess, and was reminded of the Fairy Goddess Lurline suckling an animal in her arm in the novel Wicked), a piano burning in the rain, and the words to the songs arranged vertically. The lyrics all seemed like strange gibberish to me, and I had sampled some bits of the album (I was terrified to listen to the song Father Lucifer, because I was just beginning to shake of the fear of the devil Christianity had instilled in me. I didn’t know it would later become one of my all time favorite songs), but I really didn’t know how big of an impact the album would have on me.
I put it in the CD player was sitting on the kitchen counter. My piano, whose maker was Marcellus, a piano maker based in New York circa the early nineteen-hundreds, sat in the living room. I still miss that piano. It was quiet and I was alone and the house was mine. I put the CD in and I seem to remember almost forgetting it, because Beauty Queen came on and it was so quiet, not much was happening, and I was walking around the room doing other things.
But then Horses started.
The piano began to sound like drops of rain, as Tori quietly sang “I got me some horses, to ride on, to ride on…” I fell in love with that song right there. And so it went on, I continued to listen to more Tori, to be completely spellbound by some songs and bored or confused by others, but even after six years I’ve only really managed to suggest maybe half of her catalog, and then there’s probably an infinite amount of reflection to be done on those hundreds of songs.
I discovered Tori bootlegs a little later, but not too much. The first one I ever heard was a live performance from 1996 and the Purple Rose in Berlin, with Tori playing American Pie and Smells Like Teen Spirit. It also had an interesting improv in Doughtnut Song I hadn’t heard before and Not The Red Baron, which would later become one of my favorites. Of the Tori shows that exist online (and mostly all of them exist in some form), my favorites are the 1996 Dew Drop Inn tour.
It’s hard to describe exactly how I feel when I listen to shows from that tour. But there is one in particular, Miami Florida, October 23, 1996. This was a night when Tori got sick on stage and ran off stage crying. She came back a bit later saying that she could either go to the hospital or finish the show, and she decided to finish the show. She took some of the pressure off of herself by not sticking to a set list for the majority of the rest of the show, and just playing what came to mind. What happened at that show, that night, is a part of who I am. It’s on my heart. It’s a part of me. That recording of that show has had an incredible impact on me.
She played so honestly on that tour, she was bleeding all over the stage (I say that as a metaphor, though one person online who says they were there that night claimed they could see Tori drooling on the piano because she was so sick), she was dying in front of everyone. I don’t know if it’s wrong, or cannablistic, or sadistic to ENJOY those performances, but I do. It’s not as simple as just hearing something that makes me cry, in fact I’m not sure that I ever really cry during Tori’s music. But it moves me on some very deep level, in something inexpressible, a dark place that I don’t have perfect access to, a place inside me that touches something, maybe magick, maybe other lives, maybe cosmic fabric. I don’t know. But Tori’s performances from that tour have stayed with me, and I’m still horrified (in a beautiful and very, very good way) and entranced, unable to leave those performances.
What I want. What I want is something that I don’t know if I can ever have. The way I feel listening to that Miami 1996 performance, it’s something I’ve never felt anywhere else. And what I wouldn’t give to be able to BE there. I don’t know what it was like there. In my mind, the concert was outside, Tori was up on stage and it was raining and overcast. It might not have looked like that at all. But I can just imagine what it might be like to stand there in that space, where someone whose connection to the divine, whose magickal power is so strong, to feel her aura, her sadness and her strength and her anger and her emptiness and her loneliness, swallowing me up, to be a part of that sound she created, that wave of fulfillment emanating from the piano and from the speakers and from the chamber of her own body, to hear it, to truly be there. To close my eyes as she sang and LISTEN, really listen. That’s what I want. That’s what I would like to experience. Tori still tours, and I hope to see her some day. But I don’t know that it could ever be like that.
I want to experience really being there. The best I have is one recording, the same bootleg that seems to have made it’s way around the internet. I would give so much just to have a perfect high quality recording of the show (and I don’t know if there’s any truth to it but I’ve heard that Tori records her shows, so maybe there IS a high quality recording of the show somewhere in the world). I keep hoping that when Tori’s promised remaster of Boys For Pele arrives, it will have some performances from that show, particularly Girl, or if I had my way, also Father Lucifer from the night before.
When I leave Tori behind and find other musical obsessions, she somehow finds her way back into my life. And you know, I don’t mean to sound like a person obsessed with Tori the PERSON, because I’m not. I love knowing the back story on the songs and how they affected her and where they came from and how her experiences made their way into the songs. And I would love to MEET Tori the person. But it’s Tori’s music itself that has such a strong presence for me. And that, I think, is an important distinction. It makes me a listener and not a stalker. I’m not obsessed with Tori the person, but I am infinitely fascinated, comforted, and inspired by Tori’s music. She made me believe that I was a musician, without ever speaking a word to me. She doesn’t even have a song in particular that feels like it bears a message that I can be a musician (although I suppose many of her songs, Silent All These Years probably being one, would come across with that message among their multitudes of messages, thoughts and concepts). It’s the music itself. It moves me so much that I HAVE to play music. I HAVE to sing and play piano. And it isn’t contrived or thought out or anything, it just happens. And that’s how I know it’s what I’m truly most passionate about. I don’t really have to think too much about it. It just happens naturally.
I never really thought I’d be a musician, or that it was in me. But it’s there.