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The Enchanted Forest
Tori Amos inspires an almost religious devotion among her fans, who build totems in her image and covet her castoffs as relics. How can a goddess show her love without bleeding herself dry?
by Maureen Callahan
Photographs by Mark Alesky
Pat Kochie has transformed the living room of her tiny house in New York's Hamptons into a shrine to Tori Amos. But it's not decorated with the usual concert posters, ticket stubs, or fanclub tchotchkes; it's crammed with dolls. Some of them are small and childlike, with disproportionately big heads sprouting thick manes of curly red hair; others are long and lanky, with fairy wings and haunted expressions. All of the dolls, though, look like idealized visions of Amos. Kochie calls them her "girls," and she made each one by hand.
Kochie is not the tormented teenager you might expect, but a 46-year-old mother of two. With her unnaturally black hair and suburban-mom outfit - a loose blue oxford shirt worn over black leggings - Kochie looks like a former rock chick who refuses to totally surrender to a life of laundry and car pools. Referred to as "The Doll Lady" in Tori-land, she makes her living selling her girls for $1, 800 and up; her collectors range from rabid fans to amatuers like Gwyneth Paltrow and Demi Moore. Kochie makes the dolls out of clay, artificial tresses, cloth, and wire, and she is always careful to include a little piece of herself - blood, mail clippings, hair, saliva. "It started when I accidentally got my blood in one Tori doll, and then I figured it was meant to be that way," she says. "But I'm not a freak!"
She made her first girl, "The Muse," in 1994 and presented it to Amos after working her way backstage. But it was "Echi," a replica with bound hands, that sparked a more intimate exchange. "When I showed it to her, I told her I felt like the doll," Kochie says. "And Tori said, 'I need to talk to you! Amos promptly took her aside and offered some counsel, suggesting Kochie buy the book A Woman's Worth by New Age guru Marianne Williamson. "Tori told me it was all about possessing the goddess," Kochie says.
She soon bonded with Amos' parents over the "Raven" doll, another mini-Tori, and now speaks with them often by phone. One time Amos was visiting when Kochie called and chatted with her for 20 minutes; incredulous, Kochie and her Tori-loving husband checked their phone bill to confirm that such a momentous event had really taken place. "I have lots of letters from Tori's mom, but I don't have any notes or anything from her," Kochie says. She's laughing, but her consternation is evident. "I think there's a bit of rock-star barrier now."
Tori Amos is curled up in the back of a Lincoln Town Car. Her driver, a gruff, tattoed Brit named Dave, has been with her for years. He ferries her everywhere, and this afternoon he's taking her to the London Aquarium. Dave keeps a watchful eye on his charge, although Amos will go largely unrecognized during her three-day stay in the city (she spends most of her time hours away in the Cornish countryside, where she's had a house for several years). Doing press for her new album, To Venus and Back, she's dressed down in a faded-denim jumpskirt over a gray scoop-neck T-shirt, her wavy hair a bit frizzy and back to its natural brown shade.
"I used to chase people down the road when they would cut in front of me at a light," Amos says in the long-ago days when she used to drive herself around Los Angeles. "They would be in, like, a pickup truck, and I would chase them-I didn't care if they had shotguns." She looks out the tinted window at the slow-moving rush-hour traffic. "I was 23," she says. "I didn't appreciate life then like I do now."
The aquarium is closed by the time she arrives, so Amos decides to sit by the Thames for a while. She perches on a balustrade and dangles her legs over the river. She's known for provacative interviews, and today she does not disappoint. "What would happen if I fell in?" she wonders aloud. "I'm so nervous that my skirt would lift up. Like your mother says, always wear clean underwear in case you're in an accident."
She sits for awhile in silence. "People just don't know grace," she says, unprompted. "You know, they don't know how to give back. I think music has really been my way of doing that." She swings around and faces the aquarium's promenade, making furtive eye contact with passersby "But sometimes people want me to give them what their human value is," she continues. "I can't do that; it's a bottomless pit. I could never pay you in fruit, land, money, or blowjobs what your worth as a human being is. And I'm not going to start opening up my veins and bleeding until they cry enough - because they may never cry enough!"
Tori Amos is the ultimate cult artist, the fervor and devotion of her fan base far outweighing things like album sales or radio play. She has never had a bona fide hit single, yet all four of her records have gone platinum, pretty impressive for challenging, piano-driven music full of twisted religious and sexual imagery. MTV relegates her to the 120 Minutes ghetto, if it plays her videos at all, but the channel has devoted two specials to the Amos phenomenon, as well as a recent episode of Fanatic. A live phenomenon known to play 200 dates in a single year, she's a guaranteed sellout and recently upgraded to arenas. There are thousands of fan sites and chat rooms devoted to her on the Internet, and the singer receives truckloads of letters every month, often filled with incredibly personal disclosures and pleas for help.
"Tori goes to levels of emotional rawness that most people don't like to go to, ever," says Ron Shapiro, executive vice president of Amos' label, Atlantic. "She wants to stir things up, but most people are not looking for that heavy a trip."
"The kids that come to Tori are the outcasts," says celebrity makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin, one of Amos' close friends. "She offers them solace and understands them on such a deep level." He pauses. "I know it sounds New Age-y, but Tori loves to give and to heal. She's about feelings, and she's willing to share her path with people who are open to that." Not that only Web-crawling teens and twentysomethings can relate. The Doll Lady claims that Amos' song "Silent All These Years" pulled her through a midlife crisis. "The most important thing I have learned from Tori," says 36-year-old Melissa Caldwell of the Tori-zine Really Deep Thoughts, "is that I have a voice. Even if no one else wants to hear it, I have to listen to it."
Amos has resonance for guys, too, although they're often teased mercilessly for it. "If I had a dime for all the Tori Anus' jokes I've put up with over the years," says 17-year-old Alex Pearlman of New York City. Aucoin, 37, talks about Amos so zealously that "people think I'm brainwashed." For the most part, there's no such thing as a casual Tori fan. People either dismiss her music as pretentious and twee, or they cover their entire body in Tori tattoos. Really. Amos met one man inked in them from neck to feet. (She gave him a hug and gently suggested that he stop.)
It's no wonder misfits are drawn to her: Amos' early life is worthy of a three-part Behind the Music. Born Myra Ellen Amos to a Methodist preacher in North Carolina, she was a piano prodigy who enrolled in Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Conservatory at the age of five. At 11, Amos was kicked out for preferring Led Zeppelin to Chopin. At 13, she was playing Gershwin tunes in gay bars. At 17, she was a homecoming queen who dabbled in blasphemy. At 21, she was raped at gunpoint by a man who'd come to see her play in L.A. At 24, she was a washed-up rocker buried in bad reviews for the hair-metal fiasco Y Kant Tori Read. And at 27, she was living in London, recording the groundbreaking girl-and-her-piano opus Little Earthquakes.
On that record, and her stunning follow-up, Under the Pink (1994), Amos came off like the kind of deep, troubled, arty gal who furiously scribbles in her journal as she listens to Kate Bush. Her penchant for best-friend-only revelations about masturbating in church ("Icicle"), self-loathing ("Crucify"), and rape ("Me and a Gun") made listeners feel like privileged confidantes. When she founded the advocacy group RAINN (the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network), she showed a feminist can-do streak. But part of Amos' appeal is the way she balances the pensive with the wacky. She's a proponent of fairies, pagan gods, and loopy New Age philosophies, one who's currently reading a book that claims the ancient Sumerians were descended from an alien race. She once posed for a photo with a baby pig suckling at her breast.
"Tori's always been like that," says ex-Guns N' Roses drummer Matt Sorum, who's known Amos since her Y Kant Tori Read days. "I saw her after one show years ago, and she said to me, 'I knew you were in the audience, I felt you'-all the Tori-type shit," he says, laughing affectionately. "Tori was a star before she was a star, if you know what I mean."
But she is also the rare rock goddess to seriously question the traditional star/fan relationship, keeping the gulf between her and Tori-land as narrow as possible, whether it's responding to a note from a 13-year-old girl with a six-page letter and a stack of books or spending hours in online Web chats. Before every show, she reads ten pre-selected pieces of fan mail so she can feel closer to her audience.
In fact, Amos won't even use the word fan because it "doesn't feel like you're part of the party" (it also makes her think of serial killers). She prefers "the People That Come to the Shows." "I relate to a lot of them," Amos says. "I get letters from kids who are just so exhausted from trying so hard that they don't even know what they're trying for anymore. They don't know where to find their essence - they're not getting anything from drugs or parties. And they realize where I go with my music."
Yet over the past few years, as she moved into her mid-30s, Amos has become far less able, far less willing to leave herself open. "I've really begun to value not spilling the beans on every playing field," she says. "I don't go to parties, and I don't socialize much, even with people I know." She spends most of her time in her Cornwall farmhouse, working with her husband/engineer, Mark Hawley. She has learned, she says, to speak in "Chinese whispers": "Every word is loaded, so you find ways to avoid subjects altogether." This extends to her once-confessional lyrics, which have become abstract to the point of incomprehensibility. One of her New Age buddies might say she's building a bit of a "psychic wall."
"I do love playing for the People That Come to the Shows," Amos says earnestly, clasping her hands to her chest, "but it's very intense, and people are emanating all over the place. And there are also those who come to wound - I've seen people actually bite each other. So I have learned how to simultaneously protect myself and be the person onstage who loves to give. It's a paradox that lives within me that I'm just beginning to understand."
Simultaneously a fan totem, a bid for the mass mainstream success that has yet eluded her, and a further retrenchment in her enchanted forest, the double-CD To Venus and Back is the closest Amos has come to articulating that paradox. Tori-philes have been clamoring for a live album for years, and one Venus disc features songs recorded during her 1998 "Plugged" tour, the first time she was backed with a full band.
Amos and her crew sat down with hours of tapes, rating renditions to come up with a line-up. "It got quite Wimbledon," Amos says, laughing. "Someone made the daft suggestion" - Amos favors British slang and speaks in the slightly clipped tones of that other Anglophile, Madonna - "to put some of the live tracks at the end of the new record. It's like, 'Why don't I just walk up to your painting and paint on it?"
The other disc was to be a collection of B-sides and rarities, but it morphed into an entirely different project once Amos' friend Marcel Van Limbeek heard some new songs she had been fiddling with. Amos adores Van Limbeek, a Dutch physicist, nudist, and conspiracy theorist, and asked him for advice. "The nudist said to me, Sonically, this cannot live in the world of B-Sides," Amos says. "It will be separate thoughts." So instead she focused on all the fresh tunes that had "grabbed me by the throat."
Neither as precious as 1996's Boys for Pele, which was recorded in a church and ornamented with bells, bagpipes, and harpsichords, nor as experimental as last year's From the Choirgirl Hotel, Venus includes a few songs that rival "Cornflake Girl" in pure catchiness. "Tori is a very savvy businesswoman, and I think she feels that now is the time to aggressively make choices," Atlantic's Shapiro says. Some of those choices included coheadlining a tour with Alanis Morissette ("Why not get someone else's fans to pay attention to her?" Shapiro asks) and selling the atmospheric "Bliss" as a downloadable commercial single on the Web - a first for a major label. In another marketing twist, both "Bliss" and the spare, mournful "1,000 Oceans" single were released at the same time to alternative radio and adult contemporary radio, respectively. "The goal is for Tori to cross over," Shapiro says, "and '1,000 Oceans' is as accessible as anything out there."
But aside from writing a radio-friendly track or two, Amos made few artistic concessions. Venus is as beautiful and weird as anything in her oeuvre, full of all-over-the-map song structures and elusive melodies that take several listens before they lodge into your consciousness. And on a lyrical level, it's as inscrutable as ever. A line from "Bliss" reads "A hot kachina who wants into mine/ Take it with your terracide."
Then there's the love vs. lust debate "Concertina": "I got my fuzz all tipped to play/I got a dub on your landscape / Then there's your policy of trancing the sauce without the blame." The eight-minute-plus "Datura" named for a potentially lethal hallucinogen, is a florid, distorted list of herbs that Amos grows in her garden. The elegiac "Jaurez," dedicated to the hundreds of working women murdered in the Mexican border town of its title, is written from the point of view of the desert. It may be Britney and Ricky's world, but Amos refuses to slum in it.
Unlike such thematic records as Little Earthquakes (sexual trauma) and Boys for Pele (bad breakups), Venus is hard to peg. Amos claims there is an underlying concept. "It's a shape. It's circular," she says, launching into a very-Tori explication. "And it's not like you take a trip - it's more, like, in constant orbit. And I like the idea that there's this camera that orbits around the heart and sees things she can't see - yet. And then they form themselves into songs and they can work as a reflector, and then she can hear it through the image but not necessarily as the camera sees it."
"She being the character," Amos responds, as if all of this should be quite obvious. "What's hidden behind the heart fascinates me, I'm fascinated by everything that isn't said."
The woman who would once begin interviews by launching into the emotional repurcussions of her 1997 miscarraige now prefers to talk about her life mainly in the context of the Work. "I think my marriage has changed me a lot," she says. "I don't really throw myself into situations like I used to. I would just go and observe as I was writing this record, and observing makes you write different things."
Amos and Hawley were married last year in a traditional Church of England ceremony. It was perhaps the ultimate act of insurrection for a woman who said she would never get married because she "didn't want the church in my bedroom." The choice, Amos says "was instinctive. Going to a justice of the peace doesn't do anything for me. It wasn't about marrying into belief. It felt very legal, and it was how people got married hundreds of years ago." Amos narrows her eyes, her voice gets flinty. "You know, I didn't get married trying to defend anybody's history. And I don't feel like it's fair that people analyze why I made my choices."
It would be a valid point, were it not for Amos' own tendency - no matter how well-intentioned - to lean toward the pedantic. She is very sweet about it, but her conversation can sometimes make you feel like you're taking an impromptu course in spirituality. "How do you get your own source?" she asks, rhetorically. "There's no ticket you can buy. There are books you can read, but the truth is, only you have an access-all-areas pass to your realm."
The more impenetrable her lyrics become, the more distance she puts between herself and her cult, the more obsessed fans become with cracking her code. Amos has transformed from humble empathizer to diviner of truth, one who feels that the People That Come to the Shows need her to enlighten them, that she can take them someplace better if they follow her music's metaphorical map. And many of them now relate to her the way housewives relate to Oprah: Disciples studying at the feet of a secular leader who has read all the right books and found a higher wisdom. Amos would rather liken it to being a "pied piper."
"I enjoy being inspiring," she says. "There is no drug that's like that - when somebody comes up to you and opens their heart up. There is no drug."
Pat Kochie is explaining her "birth ritual." First she bakes the doll heads in her oven as she plays the Amos song "Mother." Then, when they're hard, she puts on "whatever feels appropriate." Visiting Kochie today is her friend Shana Young, a 20-year-old singer/songwriter she befriended after hearing her do some Tori covers in a local bar. A shy, soft-spoken woman who looks like Claire Danes, Young says she's surprised Kochie took to her, given "how particular Tori fans can be about people covering her songs." As Kochie plays Young's demo tape of original music, the singer curls up into a ball, hiding her head in her hands as her voice blares from the speakers: "Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!"
"Tori's been a real inspiration," Young whispers. "Before her, I wasn't so comfortable with my anger."
Kochie plans to give the demo to Amos at her next show. Even now, weeks before the concert, Kochie is wracked with anxiety about getting an access-all-areas pass. She says she was given the all-clear to visit after a recent Amos show, then drove for hours only to endure many security-guard rebuffs before working her way backstage. "It wrecked it for me to go through that," Kochie says. "You really would expect to get a little respect, but I guess it's too much to hope for."
Other fans are much more philosophical, seeing their role in Amos' dilemma. They realize there is only so much of her to go around. Really Deep Thoughts' Caldwell thinks that "Tori, if allowed, would spend more time than she can afford talking to her fans. She has a staff that she trusts to draw the line. She may not always agree with their decisions, but she understands that someone else needs to make that call."
"I don't have any illusion about what my responsibility is," Amos says. "I understand that when you write emotional work, it can bring things up, and I genuinely have time for people when they are opening that heart-space." But what is her responsibility really? Has she taken on more of a burden that anyone could manage? Are her fans too dependent Or is this still one of the best relationships rock's got going?
Tori Amos strides through the lobby of her swank Notting Hill hotel, ready for an interview-inspired trip to London's Serpentine Gallery. As driver Dave waits outside in the car, her twenty-something personal assistant hovers over her, breaking down her morning itinerary like a protective mom. When Dave drops her off at the entrance to London's Hyde Park (no cars allowed), he cautions her to be careful.
Amos leads the way through an array of trails leading to the Serpentine, a squat, unassuming brick building tucked away in the middle of the green. Amos is amazed she can even find it, though she used to spend entire days in Hyde Park when she lived in London in the early '90s. She laughingly admits she is disoriented and worries she'll never remember where Dave is parked. She just doesn't walk around alone much anymore.
Inside the gallery, she moves impatiently from one postmodern piece to the next, stopping only to study a canvas filled with rows of gray ovals. "I love gray," she says, sighing. "I really feel like I live my life in shades of gray."
True, she wants to be regarded as more than a cult artist but has reservations about making her music more commercial. She wants to stay approachable but has grown fiercely protective of her privacy. And she realizes she needs her fans as much as they need her. "The side of me that wants to be liked, my husband knows her, my friends know her, but you can't expect..." Her voice trails off.
"You know, it literally makes me weep when I see artists looking for love from the public," she says. "You just can't expect it. Everybody's looking for love - even when they're acting like they don't need it."
October 15: Spin.com shows its video interview with Tori Amos.
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The Incredibly Strange Business of Tori Memorabilia
Back in 1964, savvy entrepreneurs cut the Beatles' used towels and bedsheets into squares, advertised them in the back of comic books, and made a small fortune off of crazed fans. Today, savvy entrepreneurs are stealing Tori Amos' used tissues out of backstage garbage cans and auctioning them on the Web. As one memorabilia trader says, "Fans will buy anything that makes them feel close to Tori. I've heard of people selling her drinking glasses." Backwash sold separately. MARC SPITZ
Tori Amos TORIBILIA Y Kant Tori Read CDs and any promotional items related to Amos' late-'80s hair-metal band
PRICE The sealed CD in the long-box can go for as much as $600. Media press packs with photo sell for $125 and up. An original copy of the tacky promo video for "Big Picture" brought in $150
SIGNIFICANCE Extremely rare documentation of Amos' ill-fated career launch
PRACTICAL USE Album tracks such as "Ode to the Banana King (Part 1)" rock, sort of.
TORIBILIA Amateur snapshots of Amos posing with unknown fans
PRICE Between $20 and $100 a pop
SIGNIFICANCE Can be Photoshop-ped with your own picture to make holiday greeting cards
PRACTICAL USE "Wall of Fame" fodder for dry cleaners and diners
TORIBILIA Amos' set lists
PRICE Frequently blood: "I sometimes have to wound people to get them," says a fan
SIGNIFICANCE Handwritten by the goddess and taped to her piano
PRACTICAL USE Fully recyclable
TORIBILIA Snow globe emblazoned with singer's name and the word "Winter"
PRICE $50 on Webville.com
SIGNIFICANCE Promotional item for the Winter EP
PRACTICAL USE Paperweight
TORIBILIA Squeezable bear-shaped bottle of honey
PRICE $2.99 at supermarkets; $100 if touched by Tori
SIGNIFICANCE Amos has a B-side called "Honey," so a fan was thrilled to steal it from her catering table. "It's never been opened," says a conspirator. "Tori didn't use it. But it's Tori's honey"
PRACTICAL USE Soothing throat coat for vocalists when dissolved in hot tea
TORIBILIA Vicarious embraces channeled by hugging people Amos has hugged
PRICE Depends on the physical attractiveness of the hug-host
SIGNIFICANCE "I asked Tori if I could have a hug and she smiled and gave me one," says a fan. "I just started to cry. People like me are frequently asked if they can be hugged, too"
PRACTICAL USE "Would you like a vicarious Tori hug?" is a great pick-up line at Amos shows
TORIBILIA A half-empty bottle of Evian Amos sipped from at a mid-'90s concert, acquired by Scott McDonald of Columbus, Ohio
SIGNIFICANCE At his annual Tori-fest, McDonald adds some of the water to a communal pot of chili. "No more than a teaspoon," says Melissa Caldwell, editor of the Tori-zine Really Deep Thoughts. "It's Tori's backwash!"
PRACTICAL USE Can put out very tiny fires
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Spin - Rebuttal [from the dent]
I was contacted by Pat Kochie's husband about the Spin article. It turns out that there is a rather substantial difference between what got printed compared to what was actually said during the interview concerning Pat (the Doll lady) and Toriphile Shana. Most disturbing... Please read the letter below to get a more accurate picture of Pat and Shana and also take a look at the photos below which show more of Pat's work.
Pat (the "Doll Lady") and I read the SPIN article today, and I'm writing you to let everyone know what really transpired when Maureen Callahan came out from the city to interview Pat and Shana . I hope you will post this on your website.
I was present for most of the interview , and it's amazing to see what got printed compared to what was actually said. For instance, Pat got a call from the fact checker from SPIN wanting to confirm that she's made hundreds of Tori dolls. She's only made one doll in Tori's likeness- "The Muse", which is pictured in the article.
The point Pat kept trying to make, over and over again, is that Tori's music is about empowerment. You should take something from the music and do something with it. It's about inpiration and encouragement to move to another level. Mere idolatry misses the point. I remember when Pat presented Tori with "The Muse" and a book with photos of her dolls up to that point, how deeply moved she was. But when she tried to give Tori most of the credit for making this happen, she wouldn't accept it. She kept telling Pat-"No, YOU did this!"
Also, some of the inspiration both Pat and myself have drawn from Tori is the fact that she's always pushing the boundaries, and always searching.(I remember telling Tori once what an inspiration she was to us, and her response was:" No, you guys are an inspiration to me!"
Pat could kill me for revealling that she often puts physical parts of herself in her girls, which, of course, made it into the article, but the point I was making to the interviewer was how very personal these dolls are. A writer friend of Pat's, upon seeing her dolls, described them as " evocative and mysterious, with complicated inner lives." Another artist friend of ours called them "haunting, with a vengeance." (By the way, they left out the fact that Pat's girls have hearts." Some of Pat's work might pay homage to Tori specifically, such as the young Chloe with her purple monkey, or her latest, a red haired Alice in Wonderland, seated on a mushroom, holding a pig, which is currently in a museum show in Tokyo. But the real tribute to Tori is that Pat is doing deeply personal work. Tori's not the point, she's the starting point.
It's also nice to know that Tori respects us as artists.(I also create dolls, by the way, following in Pat's footsteps) In fact, another thing that Pat talked about that didn't make it into the article , was a passion she's developed about helping creative people connect. Much of her backstage time with Tori has been spent showing her pictures of other doll artists. In fact, Pat even arranged for Tori to meet our friends, artists Brian and Wendy Froud, when she was in England during the last tour.(Neil Gaiman mentions the in the intro to the current tour book).
Pat was hoping to get Tori together with our dear friend Shana Young, the singer songwriter mentioned in the article. We went to see her perform after reading that she did some Tori covers. Rather than doing slavish imitations, she manages to make the songs her own, from a delicately fragile "Silent All These Years" to an almost manic "Take to the Sky". But what really struck us was her ability to convey deep emotion with her incredible voice, and the maturity, subtlety and power of her original material. Unfortunately, this seemed to get lost in the article as well. The" Fuck you, fuck you" mentioned in the article gives a distorted view of her music.In fact, these words sort of sneak up on you in a song called "More than just naive", an intimate, dark, moody song of simmering intensity. I like to say that at a time when the airwaves are gutted with numerous "acts", Shana is the real thing.
One last point I'd like to mention. The article has Pat talking about there being a rock star barrier now, when in reality Pat had asked Maureen Callahan, who had just returned from interviewing Tori in London if she thought one was developing. We had the rare privilege spending a few hours with Tori's parents when we were at a doll artists conference in the D.C. area after the interview, and heard from them how difficult it is for Tori to create the time to see a lot of the people she would like to, since the demands on her can be overwhelming.
In closing , we'd like to say hi to all our friends out there. One of the highlights of this whole Tori experience is the connection we've made with so many great people along the way.
Anyone interested in more information about our dolls or Shana's music can contact us at Dollkochie@aol.com. We don't have a website yet, but hope to soon.
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos