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Tori Amos: she's slowly turning into Freddy Krueger.
by Steve Malins
photos by Chris Taylor
March 5, 1996
"I play a nerdy instrument but at the same time it's no different to some of those nerds who have computers and surf the internet," muses Tori Amos in a backstage hand-to-mouth flurry of lip balm and mineral water. "They are quite capable if they want to of breaking into any system. I try to break into different systems with my piano. I don't accept that a piano can't do all things."
Amos's ambitious dialogue with the piano has chattered inside gay bars in Washington where the patrons showed the young minister's daughter how to give head to a cucumber; it's been hushed into classical claustrophibia in the Peabody Conservatory for young musicians where her dog-collared father enrolled her as a child and, more recently, this musical twinning has reverberated around a specially constructed box sited in an Irish church for the recording of this year's Boys For Pele.
When Amos deserted her bulky companion she ended up as the thigh-booted, slightly lost Los Angeles rock bimbo of Y Kant Tori Read infamy, but as a fully fledged queen of the runts of some litter -- memorably illustrated with some bestial pig suckling on the sleeve of Boys For Pele -- she's been dragged off her piano by fans, received frantic letters from reformed Christians and lecherous students and built on the success of 1991's Little Earthquakes with two further million-plus sellers, Under The Pink (1993) and Boys For Pele, the latter debuting at Number 2 in America.
Far from being sidelined as a quaintly delusional ivory folkie, Amos has dragged her bulky, four-legged muse into a battleground of sexual and religious debate, especially in America where the hardcore right don't take too kindly to her assertion that Jesus "soiled his little dinky" when he slummed it on earth.
On stage, her contored, splayed stance at the piano and the jolting, physical power of her playing illustrates the dynamics she tries to wrestly from her instrument, often leaving her in pain during her stamina sapping 200-date tours. While Kate Bush swapped her joanna for technology-led experimentation and Polly Harvey ditched her guitar in order to transform herself into a lipstick besmirched vamp frontwoman, Amos is lashed to her elegant Bosendorfer in a self-defined role as part sumbissive, part Dominatrix, startling tonight's audience into absolute silence with the first stroke of her opening song, Beauty Queen. "She (Ms Bosendorfer) is part of the show too," explains Amos, horrified at the suggestion that she'd lessen the physical toll on herself if the singer and the rump of the piano faced the audience in the same direction. "Her keys are her face," continues the former child prodigy of hand-and-eye, keyboard-centric co-ordination.
"Also, it's about having the power so that when I hit in 'Amsterdam' or 'Horses' you feel it crawl inside you. If you're going to have that range from quiet to power, it's a very physical thing. She's not going to move a toenail because she weighs tons, but what she does when I do touch her in a certain way is unbelievable."
After the cleaner musical prettiness of Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink, the self-produced Boys For Pele is constructed around the most challenging digit stretching techniques and emotionally demanding songs of her career. As a result, four gigs into her UK tour she's experiencing hand spasms and fluffed lines as she attempts to coax thrilling dynamics out of the instrument and its stylistically oppositional sidekicks, the flighty harpsichord and doleful harmonium which she uses for tonight's sonorous climax, Hey Jupiter.
"Every night it challenges me so I'm fighting for breath sometimes. It's almost as if you're there as she's discovering her feelings," says the elf-like mistress of the "depressing and oppressive" harmonium which wheezes around lines like "If my heart's soaking wet/Boy your boots can leave a mess" as if its intenstines are being yanked by Amos's fingers. Like much of Boys For Pele, the songs picks through the emotional debris of her split with her lover of seven yeras and Under The Pink's co-producer, Eric Rosse, with blood letting, kill-or-cure bravado.
The formidable workouts awaiting her in songs like Little Amsterdam and Muhammad My Friend almost defeated her in a troubled show in Liverpool the previous night. However, the elasticular snap of broken chord sequences rarely threatens in Newcastle where she changes the set list on the spot and maintains an impressively fluid rhythm through breathless pauses, flurries of notes and hiccuping staccato passages without a drum riser in sight. She also toughens up older material with the over produced Space Dog from Under The Pink finally baring its teeth in dramatic tempo changes, while Silent All These Years and the primal hollering of Precious Things from Little Earthquakes are two moments when the focus switches to the diminutive girl attached to the towering, Madame-like piano.
Nevertheless, apart from a should for Fog On The Tyne as Tori announces she's about to play a "local song" -- disappointingly it turns out to be The Police's Wrapped Around Your Finger -- the audience's eyelids begin to flutter with absorbed but sleepily passive reverie in long segments of the show and the occasional mistake adds a much needed sense of drama. This dreamy, slightly removed atmosphere is partly triggered by the show's lighting, which projectorially swirls blurred psychedelics onto a triangular slide show along with deep reds and blues from the traditional overhead rig.
"It's more like a mushroom trip this year," she explains. "You go through different colours and moods. I wanted more of a visual trip because I'm always there and there are moments when it does zero in on me. I'm trying to change things a little bit. The lights are more orchestral, they fill in that space where I might bring in a band, but all I have is my guitarist Steve Caton (ex Y Kant Tori Read) on some of the songs. It's trying to express a feeling rather than saying, Here's a song and here's the starkness."
Although this mock pupil-dilating impressionism complements the pianist's flourishes, it's in marked contrast to the emotional voyeurism of previous tours when night after night her expressions were revealingly picked out by the spotlights. The twisted poise of her playing is certainly on full, bone wrenching display: "I'm not taking any anti-inflammatory stuff but I have a masseuse. Some days my jaw, ear, my whole right side feels like it's being pulled out of shape like Freddy Krueger's face."
For the moment she's reserving her detailed soul baring for songs like her moment-by-moment description of rape in Me And A Gun. Amos causes a thwack in the crowd's collective constitution when she plays this track and the Rosse-inspired Putting The Damage On either side of her first encore. "Yes, that was deliberate," she admits. "The most emotional point in the set for me is usually what pays off Me And A Gun. I change it quite a bit but I do follow it with Damage most of the time. It's important that Me And A Gun stays present. We're not walking down memory lane, that experience, even though you can have a life after it, you take it with you. It's part of my weave."
Her approach may change over the world tour as her "fingers loosen up" into a more instinctive feel, but the ambiently lit shows and the verbular wriggles of Amos's recent, unrevealing interviews suggest an artist on the retreat from her infamous Oprah-styled openness. It's noticable that, although she finds time to read a couple of letters from confused Christians, the Carolina-born preacher's daughter is avoiding the two-hour greetathons which often followed her shows on previous tours.
"I've had to put a bit of distance between myself and the fans," she confesses. "I'm never going to make it to the end of the tour if I do that. I'll go and say hello to them after the show but I won't stop and chat. If I did that, I'd never get to Wolverhampton."
Tori grins as she contemplates tomorrow night's cathartic knees up in the black country -- with another 195 shows still to go.
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