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Public News (US)
August 10, 1994
happy in her moccasins
by Ericka Schiche
Tori Amos survived a rape, and whereas many people would be forever broken like glass on their inner shelf, she has decided to pick up the shards and reconstruct her life.
That violation left an indelible mark on her life. Evident in such a song as "Me and a Gun," is her ability to combine playing an upright piano with the inverse of gutless emoting, intrapersonal dialogue, reflection, and even matters that can be perceived as trivial even though that is not the case. Like "Little Earthquakes" and "Crucify," this song from Little Earthquakes helped catapult her to the fore -- a piano playing prodigy who began playing the upright ivory 88s at the age of two and a half. "I was a freak child who had really good rhythm. I'd be invited to parties simply because I played the piano. It took me some time to come to terms with this, but I realized that I had some kind of calling."
Now, she plays a nine foot Bosendorfer, the instrument heard throughout her latest offering, Under the Pink.
She fuses the blame-the-victim language with trying to survive a painful trial on "Me and a Gun": "yes I wore a slinky red thing does that mean I should spread for you, your friends, your father?"
She has an ethereal, occasionally shrill and lilting soprano voice. Perhaps it would be a stretch to desribe her singing voice as Piaf, Butterfly McQueen, and the lighthearted girl next door mixed in a cuisinart, but greater stretches have been made. Like the one made by the writer who, in her profile of Liz Phair, likened Tori -- who plays at the Cullen Performance Hall Friday -- to a "trembling waif" and cast aspersions on some female musicians whom the writer seemed to be lumping together as a group of people riding the current estrogen wave that's flooding popular culture.
"I don't know, I kind of find it hilarious. It's the funniest thing I've heard in weeks because I don't think you get much stronger than writing 'Me and a Gun.' I just don't think you do, and living through it and being a survivor and finding vulnerability. And I quite like Liz -- I think she's very good at what she does. But, I'm very happy to be in my moccasins. And, if this woman would like to think I'm a trembling waif, then I just have to kind of chuckle."
Amos seems to have an aversion to journalists, but she did consent to serve as interviewer in a magazine. In the latest issue of Interview, she initiates a q & a girl talk session with Sandra Bernhard, the humorous, somewhat uninhibited dominatrix with attitude. Tori reveals she wants to meet a man she can hold hands with -- one whom she can share a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with. Well, guys, go wash those hands and get a jar of Skippy.
On a much more serious note, she conceived The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, which is a hotline for survivors -- 1 (800) 656-HOPE. During the first week of its existence, the hotline received 3,500 calls, many of these pleas for help and fortitude.
"Well, I've gotten so many letters. Mostly from young women, but I've gotten some from men, too. When you read them, my first response was just being overwhelmed with so many letters where these people hadn't been able to get on with their lives, and I understand what that's like because I've gone through the same thing. And, at a certain point, we have to make a choice, we have to choose how we're going to continue our lives. Are we gonna stay a victim walking around this planet going, 'Well, this experience happened to me, so I'm a ruined woman?' No. We don't have to do that.
"I mean, this is kind of like the new frontier: we don't know what kind of people we're going to be when we start healing because this planet hasn't been a healing planet. We don't know of a time when people have dealt with issues and really transformed situations, so setting up the hotline was a place where these people could speak to people who have been through it, and hopefully help take them to the next step in healing."
Catharsis as a thematic subject recurs on both Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink. The empowerment that is borne out of self discovery and self autonomy is another subject she mines in her lyrics. "Feelings are like tools. If you go into your toolbox. Feelings, um... Now, you've got a screwdriver, a wrench, and maybe the monkey wrench is your coward place, whatever. And, if you're not opening doors to your different feeling centers, then you're walking around pretty numb and half alive. If you start experimenting with these feelings, this is how you know yourself. When Socrates or Jesus or Hiawatha said 'know thyself,' this is what they're talking about. And this is how you get powerful. It doesn't stop, this exploratory mission on the inner life, the inner world. So, I use the songs to show me the things I hide from."
The first single, "God," features emphatic delivery and the casting of God in an anthropomorphic role, as someone who might need a woman to look after him. Her disdain for authority is evident, and it's not quite the "diatribe against God" some writers accuse her of making. The dissonance of instrumentation is part of a musical kaleidoscope that features screeching guitars, church revival-style piano music, and Amos' girlish innocence and womanish questioning. The person who owns this narrative is appreciative of the flora: "you make pretty daisies." But, issues also need to be resolved, and some questions answered: "Will you even tell her if you decide to make the sky?"
"Well, I have definite views about religion and its control. How humankind has manipulated and controlled each other. And, I'm not into being controlled. I'm beginning to become my own savior. You know, Jesus has a 10 o'clock. He's busy. He has got stuff to do. He did his work here. It's for us to do our own work. If he's inspiring to you, then, great. Inspiration is a wonderful gift. But we have the ability to go in and become our own master, and that's what we're talking about here."
The daughter of a Methodist preacher, she grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Nat King Cole and Fats Waller. Her piano playing occasionally reveals the classical influence, but some of it is spare, and some of the music even sounds like church music. Amos had a string section assisting her with the latest recording, and she has found an able bassist and guitarist in George Porter, Jr., and Steve Caton, respectively. Carlos Nuccio and Paulinho Da Costa added percussive skills to create a provocative, full-bodied musical mosaic.
"The Waitress" -- a song in which she professes a desire to "kill this waitress," and queries, "and is her power all in her club sandwich?" -- features a bass line that has an Isleyesque tinge to it, and post-modernist, computer-oriented mixing.
What possessed her to compose and write that song could be construed as a personal affront to all of the Veras, Flos and Alices working in greasy spoons throughout the hearland? She says, "Cause I had this bitch's throat in my hands, and I had no problem ripping it off from her body. So, I figured maybe I needed to look at that, huh?"
For "Cornflake Girl," her muse was actually a tome -- Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy, which touches on subjects ranging from clitorectomies to sisterhood to collective memory. The cornflake girls are more transparent, more flaky, more narrow-minded, more neurotic, have more of a limited perspective, more insulated in the midst of a crowd whereas raisin girls have an opacity about them, not easily given to attenuation, more sophisticated and independent.
Folks probably will not be hearing Tori sing, "We are family, I got all my sisters with me." She opines a woman can stab someone in the back just as hard as a man. "Cornflake Girl" addresses the lie of sorority and exposes this mendacity that clouds the truth about the whole sisterhood thing. "It's about taking the sisterhood off the pedestal. For so long, we his behind the sisterhood, thinking that it's this righteous group of beings. Well, it isn't. In the ladies room, it's more vicious and more fun than any locker room you've ever been in. And, it's important to stop blaming men all the time. You know, the guys do stupid stuff constantly. And they're gonna continue to. But we do vicious things to each other."
"We;re not supportive like we say we are. We just have to get honest with ourselves. We're very competitive. And we think there's only room for one of us in the harem. We have this harem mentality instead of Cleopatra. You know, it's a little bit different -- the harem, they're always, like, trying to poison each other so they can be the khalif's only lover. Whereas Cleopatra realizes she can have 15 guys and it's okay."
It would be kind of hard for one of her male American groupies to stalk her because she's living in London. Her latest recording was mixed at London's Olympic Studios. "Nothing was really happening in America," she says. Well, some things did happen since she left. For one, she sang a duet ("Past the Mission") with Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, and took a respite from the hectic pace of city life by recording at the Fishhouse, a hacienda in New Mexico.
What song on Under the Pink touches her core and means the most to Amos? "Probably 'Bells for Her.' Because it has many different layers. And the way you hear it on the recording, it was written as it was being recorded. The red light just happened to be on, and I was testing out a microphone. And it just happened to get written."
The vulnerability expressed in a song like "Baker Baker" is a part of her articulated need to feel whole again, or perhaps baking is a metaphor for combining the parts to produce a whole identity that metamorphosed from a liquified state.
Amos is evidently not one who's impinged upon by structures of oppression or holding back emotive forces by repressing some aspect forces by repressing some aspect of herself. Under the Pink's cuts represent myriad mutations, narratives Amos doesn't try to impose, but, rather permit these voices to guide her as she negotiates rough patches of road with her music. Amos' survivalist philosophy seeps into many songs on Pink, whereas Little Earthquakes is like a musical dissertation on victimology. "Well, this whole record was [about] refusing to stay a victim, whereas Little Earthquakes was really working through that victim energy. So, whether I'm Greg or whether I'm seducing God or whether I'm Greg or whether I'm seducing God or whether I'm killing some other woman -- these are things I wanted to explore."
The various personas are there in her music: inncocent naïf, temptress, defiant one, bad girl, and even prostitute. But trembling waif? Amos' retort to the writer who denigrated her is, "I guess she hasn't seen me life." She is most of all unpredictable, and did a cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the Crucify recording.
Where does her sense of humor come from, especially on a song like the nonsensical "Space Dog"? "Well, I think watching Monty Python movies."
Her songs are a series of musical meditations full of revelations, frustrations and personal exaltations. She is intent on letting the listener hear and see her vivacity and strength. None of this jibes with the description of a trembling waif.
[scan by Sakre Heinze]
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the World of Tori Amos