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The Face (UK)
OK, so the pain, the suffering and the bleak confessions are well worth hearing -- but she's still a nutter, right? In the thick of a gruelling world tour, Tori Amos entertains Michael Stipe and explains the method in her madness... Then considers leaping out the window.
text Mark Edwards
photography Jake Chessum
"You just can't get good advice from a legend," Tori Amos concludes as she wolfs down her lunch in the restaurant of the Atlanta Ritz Carlton, fuelling her tired, tired body. A month earlier, already several months into a ten-month world tour, a road-weary Tori had been holed up in the Chicago Ritz Carlton, thinking about throwing herself out of the window. She rang former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant for advice. What could she do to make touring more bearable? Plant advised her not to tour at all, but just make the records, put them out, and let them sell what they sell. "It's all right for him," Tori says, exasperated, "but some of us have a living to make."
So much for the legend. How about the cult artist? Next she called Nine In Nails' Trent Reznor, and told him that she was about to throw herself out of the hotel window. "What hotel are you in?" he asked. "The Ritz Carlton in Chicago," she told him. "Well, then I'm not worried about you," he said. "I've already tried it and you can't open the windows."
Just as well, because the road winds on and on for Tori Amos. Atlanta marks only the half-way point in a 200-date world tour, with Tori playing six shows most weeks. This week she's playing eight, doubling up to play two shows in one night earlier in the week back in Tampa, and doubling up again on her second night here in Atlanta. Doubling up like this gets her a whole day off -- if you count travelling from Atlanta to Nashville as a day off.
When she's not on stage, Tori is walking around with her wrist in a sling. The strange way she plays the piano -- legs splayed out, back twisted at 45 degrees to the keyboard, crotch grinding and squirming against the piano stool -- may be a young man's wet dream, but it's also an osteopath's nightmare. It's a miracle that only her wrist is in constant pain.
"The way I play is a bit torturous." she admits, "but, at the same time, it's the only way I know how to play. It would be hard for me to hit those notes with that power and play with that accuracy unless I supported myself physically the way I do. I saw doctors in Memphis, a couple of weeks ago. They sat me down. Looked at my hand. Said, OK, this is our diagnosis. This is what we want you to do. We want you to cancel the rest of the tour. Just pick up the phone and do it. It was, like..." Tori mimics a game show buzzer. "Next player on the Jeopardy game, please. That isn't an option. I'm paying you guys to give me options, not this ridiculous philosophy. I'm not asking you to save me. I'm asking you to take the pain away. And they said: 'We can't'"
AFTER ROBERT AND TRENT, Tori called Neil Gaiman, creator of the Sandman comics, for advice. (She may be having a tough year but, boy, she's got some neat numbers in her address book.) A particular problem she'd been having was the post-show meet-and-greets with fans that have become a feature of Tori's gigs. The more famous she had become, the longer she'd had to spend listening to her fans' traumatic life stories and hugging them better.
"She said, 'Neil, what do I do now? It's taking me two hours after each show,'" Gaiman remembers. "I told her she had to stop doing it. She felt really bad about the idea, but I managed to persuaded her to cut it down. I worry about her, but... she's a big girl. She knows what she's doing."
Oh really? A big girl? Could this be the same Tori Amos that Gaiman uses as a model for the Delerium character in Sandman? Delirium, if you don't know, talks like a seven-year-old (with a slightly extended vocabulary). She says things like: "Have you ever spent days and days making up flavours of ice cream that no one's ever eaten before? Like chicken and telephone ice cream?" Sit Delirium in the driving seat of a car and she says, "Bzuum Bzuum... Brrr. Bzzuuuum. I'm good at this aren't I? I'm really good. I knew I'd be good at driving. Bzuum. Bzuum. Look at me! Look at me driving! You know, if this car had great big ruunny legs like a centipede it could run very fast and we'd get there quicker.".
More frequently, Delirium says fractured, hurt, worried little things like: "Is this... um... OK?" and "OK... well... I see. It's like that. Well, I'll be back in my realm then. If you want me. If anyone wants me."
"The legend is that I based Delirium on Tori, but that isn't true," Gaiman explains. "Delirium existed long before I met Tori. I have, however, cherrfully and shamelessly stolen some of the things Tori's said to me and given them to Delirium. Once we were sitting in her hotel room after a gig in Minneapolis, drinking Coca-Cola and eating cold room-service pizza -- the only thing they'd send up after midnight -- and I said something about how pleased I was to see her, and she said, 'I'm pleased too. Now we must jump up and down and around and around.' And she proceeded to do so. And I thought: I'll have Delirium say that.
"But there are many different Toris. There's also Tori the businesswoman, who is cold and very sensible. I remember her sitting me down once and explaining in great detail exactly why she wouldn't sell her publishing rights to anyone."
On the other hand, her publishing company is called Sword and Stone, and this is the woman who, on her first long-form video, cheerfully declared: "I'm into faeries." Couple all this with her tendency to speak in imagery from a safe, middle-class, middle-American childhood (not the one she actually had, by the way) -- all blueberry muffins and gooey cookies and slumber parties and Gilligan's Island -- and it's not that surprising that the British rock press has Tori down as a major space cadet. So much so that the very first words on her current record company biog are: "'I don't see myself as weird,' says Tori Amos."
Neither, it turns out, does America. In the States, Tori isn't seen as weird at all. Because she criticises God, her records are banned from mainstream radio, and only played on college radio stations, giving her a younger audience and a veneer of credibility. She's seen as radical, almost dangerous. "I'm known as that girl who has tea with the Devil," Tori explains. "I'm the thing that fundamentalist Christians cringe over. Mothers drag their daughters out of my shows. Because their daughters are going, 'Hey, maybe I don't have to think about these things. Why am I worshipping some dead guy?'"
In fact, Tori's pretty easy on the old deity. Her song "God" was banned for lyrics like these: "God, sometimes you just don't come through/Do you need a woman to look after you?" Hardly subversive, but then this is America we're talking about...
FRIDAY MORNING, FIRST DAY in Atlanta, and Tori is guesting on radio station 99X, on The Morning X With Barnes and Lesley. As "Cornflake Girl" ends, Barnes asks what kind of gifts Tori gets from fans (mainly food, it turns out), then Lesley brings in a new, more sensitive line of questioning: what kind of man does Tori fall for?
"Devils," says Tori. "And it usually gets me into trouble. They're emotional infants." We go over to the phones and a caller asks her what her songs mean. "You don't want t know what I think they mean," says Tori. "I'm a nutcase."
Barnes tries to get Tori to tell an anecdote about a famous grunge star. Tori doesn't really remember it. Barnes' seamless linking falters for a second. "Did I say something wrong?" asks Tori. "No," says Barnes. "Oh," says Tori, more Delirium than Delirium. "You had that look."
That afternoon -- despite her injured wrist -- Tori's soundcheck is an hour-plus of full-force piano playing. It isn't really a soundcheck at all -- it takes about three seconds for the crew to fix the piano and vocal levels -- it's an extended rehearsal and writing session for Tori, who works and reworks her own songs and cover versions. A doctor would no doubt advise against it, but when Tori gets in front of a piano, it's not like she's playing an instrument; it's like she's having quality time with a friend. She's watched by the largely redundant crew and the large numbers of cuddly toys that crowd both her piano and the mixing desk.
While she's playing, Tori is interrupted with news of a gift from a fan. Having heard on the radio that most people bring food, he has brought her... a loaf of bread. ("I don't see myself as weird," says Tori Amos fan.) The crew are more interested in confirming that Tori's press officer from her English record label has brought over the requested supplies from London: PG Tips teabags, English newspapers, and a supply of Nicorette patches (they're a prescription-only deal in the States).
Before she resumes playing, Tori looks around her. "You know the sad thing about theatres?" she asks the few people spotted about the auditorium. "They always look best from up on the stage. And I'm the only one who can see it from here."
That night, two songs into her set, and the cue comes for mothers to drag away their daughters. Tori introduces "Icicle", a song about masturbation. "My father's mother was a minister. My father's father was a minister. My father was a minister. I am not a minister." The audience erupts, screaming with a sense of release that makes no sense at all unless you wre born and raised in the bible belt. ("Remember," notes Neil Gaiman, "this is a country where they shoot doctors who are pro-abortion.") Tori continues, talking about baptism: "Normally they sprinkle a few drops on you; in my case, they held my head under for 13 fucking years." The audience goes wild again. Then, when Tori suggests that Jesus would rather hear a good Led Zep song that a boring old hymn, the place goes mental. Gradually, you get it: for a white, Southern kid raised on the good book, Tori is Public Enemy. What she's saying is: "Don't believe the hype."
Tori slams through a set that includes covers of the Rolling Stones' "Angie", Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Don MacLean's "American Pie", before coming back for seven encores. When the show's finally over, and the crowd drifts away, only those with backstage passes linger. That's me, Jake the photographer, the British press officer Lee Ellen and -- seated directly behind us -- a small party grouped around a huddled figure in a baseball cap that says "Punk Rock". Blimey, guvnor, it's only Michael bleedin' Stipe, the King Of Alternative Georgia, bestowing his cred blessing on Tori.
Lee Ellen used to work on REM, so we start chatting. Michael thinks Tori's show was "amazing, just amazing". He's a nice guy. Too nice. Apparently, Jake's head has been obscuring his view throughout the show. You want to tell him: look, Michael, if you'd just said something, we would have happily had it cut off.
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER RADIO station. Saturday afternoon, we're at college station WRAS. It's an informal place, with the studio door permanently open, and people free to wander in and out even when we're on-air: less zoo radio, more safari park. Whenever Tori isn't talking to DJ Dave Hill, she leans back in her seat, shuts her eyes and blanks out, saving her strength. She's meant to be picking her favourite music, but she's so out of it that we hangers-on contribute some of the tracks. The end result is a mix of Nine Inch Nails, PJ Harvey, the Cure, the Clash, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Peter Murphy and Neil Young. ""If you don't know who this is," Tori says, introducing Neil, "go away and shoot yourself. You don't deserve to live."
When Tori's segment is finished, someone asks her to autograph his soundtrack album to Conan The Barbarian. Can you do me a favor," he says, "and put, 'Bob, I know your pain' on that"
This is Tori's secret. Her fans think she does know their pain. Mainly because she's shared her pain with them. Shared her feelings of rejection, and shared her feelings of being a victim. Tori's big moment of rejection came in the mid-Eighties when she was trying to carve out a career as a rock chick, fronting a soft metal band called Y Kant Tori Read? Transvision Vamp-like, they were hyped by the industrty and then critically savaged. When their debut album came out, Billboard called Tori a bimbo.
"I walked into a restaurant called Hugo's in LA that I ate in all the time -- I mean, I lived there. And I walked in, and there were two tables of acquaintances of mine in the industry, and they ignored me," Tori recalls. "It's not like I'd call them friends, but I thought they were good acquaintances. One was a publisher -- and you know he would give one of his balls to have my publishing now -- and the other was an A&R person. One of them turned away and pretended I wasn't there. And the other one turned away and was sniggering with his girlfriend. And she was laughing at me. I had my hair all piled up -- six inches -- I had my boots on. I mean, now that I look back it was kind of sweet, this little thigh-high rock chick. But when you've been publicly humiliated, you're not even a cool cartoon character any more, you're a cartoon character that they're erasing... and they have the power to erase you.
"So I hid my tears behind my 17 applications of mascara -- you know, the waterproof kind -- and walked out with what little dignity I had... went home... sat on my kitchen floor for a long time. A few days later, I was still on my kitchen floor -- you know, you're in shock. All my ideas: coming to LA, wanting to be... it's not about music any more, it's about approval: am I OK?"
Eventually Tori called her friend Cindy Marble, then lead singer with the Rugburns, just another band from LA that never got signed. "And Cindy said, 'I think you need to come over here.' So I did. She had an old piano, and she said, 'Will you play for me? I really want to hear you play. I haven't heard you play in a long time.' And I played for her. Five hours. And she said to me: 'Tori, this is what you have to do. You play your piano and you sing your songs. That's what you do. And you've been trying to get away from it and be Lita Ford or somebody for the past five years, but this is what you do. Doesn't matter if it's hip or cool or not.'"
This is a friend worth having, I suggest. "Yes," Tori agrees. "This is a friend worth having. This is a beautiful soul."
So Tori reinvented herself as one woman and her piano sans thigh-high boots, and was sent off to London to be marketed as a sensitive singer-songwriter in a country which had never known her bimbo phase. Did I say "sensitive"? Sensitive like an open wound is sensitive. Tori was intrtroduced to the British public with "Me and a Gunn", an a capella song about rape -- her rape, by an audience member back in those rock chick days.
As a marketing exercise, it almost worked, except instead of sensitive, Tori's been pigeonholed in the UK as simply kooky: I mean, good God, the woman even told one interviewer that she'd been a Viking in a former life.
It gets disappointing when the British lose their sense of humour with my stuff," Tori concedes. "I mean, the whole Sven the Viking issue was... I was in thie very serious conversation with this woman about compartmentalising different parts of yourself to survive a violent attack. It was a very heavy conversation. And I said, the child in you is the one who gets violated the most in any violent attack. You kill your child first. You have to, to survive the situation. The child is gone, and the hooker in you survives. That's what kept me alive. If the little girl had been operating I would have been dead by now, and I have no doubt of that, because I was dealing with a maniac who wanted to cut women up. Put the sex aside for a minute -- this is about hatred. So, my prostitute got me out of it -- that side of me that understood what the energy this guy was feeding off was. Just keep him from going crazy. A little girl screaming and crying would have got me killed, so I got rid of her.
And bringing her back has taken a lot of work -- not to be a bitter tough broad, but to allow yourself to be vulnerable again. How do you do that? Well, that's where the different personalities come in... the strong side of myself... whether I call it the prostitute or Sven the Viking. The little child is the one who's so much a part of the writing of the songs, she's the core, you know, the honesty and the openness. So I said to this interviewer: the part of me that's Sven the Viking -- if anyone tries to hurt the little child -- he's going to rip their balls off...
"...and that's where the whole thing came from," Tori concludes, a little exasperated, "and... and it makes total sense to me."
But do you wish you'd never said it?
"I have to respond the way I respond. If people would have heard it for themselves, they might think I was many things but not 'weird'. Maybe I've got some skinned knees and I've had to do what I've had to do to pull myself back, and maybe I have different kinds of analogies to describe what a protector is. It's just colourful language. But everybody knows what a Viking is. You ain't gonna spit at one."
SATURDAY NIGHT, TWO SHOWS. The second one doesn't even start till 11pm. She still adds five encores on the end. She still meets and greets -- though she only hugs maybe every other fan who's waited for her. Finally slumped in the limo, she's discussing what to do with her day off. John, the tour manager (oncee described by Tori as "the God I worship") thinks he might go and see Forrest Gump. Tori thinks it'll be crap, but says she might come along anyway. "Oh no," says John. "I'm not having you sitting there saying, 'I told you it would be rubbish.' It's either that with you or it's, 'Who's he? Have we seen him before? Is he a baddie? Why has she come back? What did they just say?' I don't know. You were talking!"
Back at the hotel, as we wait for room service, Tori is slowly falling asleep, or as she puts it: "I'm not far from sleepy-pies. I'm dead. But... I'm... satiated? Is that the word? Sated... I feel very... you know... I'm content."
Drifting off, she mentally scans her schedule, and remembers the day off. "But I won't be content tomorrow," she adds, "because to be content tomorrow I'd need to have the rush again. I don't care how good your personal life is, there's nothing like that adrenaline rush. If you haven't experienced it, it's hard to explain. To say it's like a wonderful love session -- it's better than that. Because it lasts forever. Two-and-a-half hours. And you're not walking crooked the next day."
And, with that thought, Tori goes off to sleepy-pies.
Tori Amos' new single, "God", is out now on EastWest
[transcribed by jason/yessaid]
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos