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by Barry Divola
Tori Amos asks me to imagine that she and I are sitting on a plane together. Maybe we've just watched a crappy comedy that neither of us would have bothered with if we were walking around on the ground, 10,000 metres below, and we're chatting about nothing in particular while waiting for dinner to be served. All of a sudden there's an almighty thump, and everything starts to shudder. The overhead lockers spring open, the lights flicker, and the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling. The plane is rapidly losing altitude. We look at each other and realise that very soon we will be jack-knifing into the Pacific Ocean. What would Tori say to me in those final, terrible moments? "There's always the dolphins."
On earth, in a hotel room high up over Sydney Harbour, I look at her mascara-laden lashes and unblinking eyes. She takes a sip of her takeaway coffee. "Um," I venture. "And how would this help me in that situation?" "Well, it's not going to help you exactly," she says. "But there's always the dolphins. There's always a pivotal space and a crossroads." "Uh-huh," I say for the 45th time in 20 minutes. But what I really want to say is this: "What the hell are you talking about?"
"You either get her or you don't," Trent Titmarsh told me a week beforehand. Titmarsh gets Tori Amos. He really, really gets her. We're sitting in his meticulously ordered apartment in the Sydney suburb of Drummoyne. The coffee table has been converted into a Tori shrine, with all her albums and many limited edition releases under glass. At the end of 1991, unable to sleep in the overbearing heat of a Brisbane summer, he was listening to late night radio. "It was a time in my life when I had some issues and I was dealing with my sexuality," says Titmarsh, who is now 27 and lives with his male partner of five years. "This song came on, and it was about hiding a secret for a long time and then finally letting it out. It just grabbed me and I started crying."
The DJ came on a couple of songs later and said that she couldn't believe how many people had phoned in to ask about the track. She said that it was from a new artist called Tori Amos, and it was called "Silent All These Years." Titmarsh has followed her religiously ever since that moment, but after her 1994 Australian tour, when year after year she failed to re-appear on our shores despite touring the rest of the world, the unrequited love thing was getting a bit much for him and many other Toriphiliacs. In July last year, he took matters into his own hands and started an online petition, and over 900 people signed, pleading with her to come back. In March this year, the tour was announced.
"I know it sounds weird, but this is a religion, and the leader is appearing," he says. "We're intense, and Tori has a cult following. You won't find people going to her shows who are like, 'Oh, I quite like some of her songs.' The atmosphere is going to be crazy."
SOUND OF MUSIC
The 'leader' was born Myra Ellen Amos in North Carolina in 1963. Her mother was part Cherokee, her father a strict Methodist minister. You get the sense that she has been trying to referee an ongoing battle between those two parts of her genetic make-up ever since - the conquered and the conqueror; the instinctive and the repressive; the native spiritual and the white religious. Now, at the age of 41, she thinks hard when I ask what traits she sees in herself that have been inherited from each parent.
"From my father, discipline," she says. "From my mother - I hope - her compassion." Amos was something of a musical child prodigy, winning a scholarship to Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Academy at the age of five, and getting kicked out at 11 because she played by ear rather than reading music, loved Led Zeppelin rather than Beethoven, and wanted play in piano bars rather than concert halls. Incidentally, her first schoolgirl crush was Zeppelin's Robert Plant - years later, when they collaborated on a song, they got along famously and he jokingly proposed to her. Here's what she said in response: "You are late!"
After an ill-fated first attempt at breaking into the music industry with a group called Y Kant Tori Read (think '80s style Berlin/Pat Benatar; she wears a bustier, lots of hairspray and wields a sword on the album cover), she retreated to her piano and started writing intensely personal, idiosyncratic songs that eventually made up her 1992 debut solo album, Little Earthquakes. On there was "Me And A Gun," a haunting account of her rape at the hands of a man to whom she offered a lift in her car after he saw her play. She went on to help establish the Rape, Abuse And Incest National Network (RAINN) as a result.
Now she has released eight studio albums and a compilation (called Tales of a Librarian, with a tracklisting ordered by the Dewey Decimal System), and each release is usually accompanied by Tori going off on flights of fancy to explain her intentions. Here's how she describes her latest album, The Beekeeper, in her record company bio: "The story of The Beekeeper has to do with bringing together disparate pieces and attaining wholeness without deferring to hierarchies or power structures." It's also about the religious right, the tree of life, terrorism, the marginalisation of holy women throughout history, and bees. Or something.
This is the problem I have with Tori. Every couple of years she releases a new disc, and I read the accompanying blather that comes with it. And then I put it on to review it. And I go "huh?" And I'm not alone. She's been earmarked as a kook, a flake, a fruitloop, and as she once put it herself in an all-too-rare moment of self-parody, "a New Age waif shivering in the forest". But no-one ever seems to call her on this stuff. So I do.
"Okay," she says, straightening her back. "I've always said that one of the best things I ever did was play kooky for the British. They wanted that and they went for it hook, line and sinker. On one hand you have to be aware that in order to stay around so long, people need to have some kind of characterisation, or you come and go because you're not that intriguing anymore.
"At the same time there is a sexist side to all this, which you don't usually hear me say because I don't bite that bullet. But there are guys - and I'm not going to mention names, but they're surrounding us at this moment - who write emotional music, and they're seen as these deep, dark poets. And yet, we ladies need therapy. If I was a guy, people would be saying I'm deep, dark and hot."
Maybe, but none of those guys whose names she won't mention ever pretended to breastfeed a piglet for a record sleeve, as Amos famously did for 1996's Boys for Pele, an album which even her hardcore fans diplomatically call "difficult". I don't want to bring up "the piglet thing", but strangely, she does.
"That was my Christmas card to my dad and all the other Christians," she informs me. "Madonna and child. Bringing the kosher back to the fold. But anyway, back to Robert Plant..." See, it all makes sense in Tori's head. She sees a strong visual statement about religion and prejudice. We see a crazy woman suckling a small farm animal.
Tori refers to her husband as 'Husband'. His real name is Mark Hawley and he's an English sound engineer. When she's not touring, they spend most of their time in their 19th century cottage in the Cornwall countryside, where they have a studio set up in the barn. Amos suffered a series of miscarriages, which coloured her 1998 album From the Choirgirl Hotel, before giving birth to Natashya in 2000. Now four-and-a-half years old, Tori's daughter is making up her own songs and playing the piano. Any singles yet?
"That's a really good question!" she exclaims, laughing and lightening up for a moment. "Maybe I should listen more closely. She comes up with something different every day. It could be based on something she's eating, something she heard, the koalas she saw at the zoo yesterday, the crocodiles biting the Americans..." That last one sounds like a Tori Amos song. "Yeah, maybe I should keep it for myself."
Tori doesn't keep a whole lot to herself. And that's why her followers love her so much. But when I broach the subject of her fanatical fanbase, the deep connection she seems to have with these people, and mention Trent Titmarsh and some of the things he said, she grows defensive. "There's another side to this," she says. "If I took you for a walk to see the people who come and see me play, you wouldn't see them all as fanatical. You'd see girls in cute sundresses having a night out and a giggle, and very well adjusted people who are well read and intelligent. There are going to be a few people there where you think, 'Okay, I'm going to steer clear of them', but for the most part, if you were being a fair journalist for five seconds..." She fixes me with a look for a moment, and her voice gets louder. "...and I'm sure you are a fair journalist, but there's a cliche that can happen with the word fanatical, where people might think 'Oh my god, she's serving the Kool Aid' and of course it's scary."
So, that's sorted then. To change the subject, I compliment her shoes. Tori likes shoes. She's wearing Gucci stilettos. When I bring up the fact that she used to be a big fan of Manolo Blahnik, she becomes dismissive. "Oh that's old news. I was into them before Sex and the City. Not now."
I put on my Hush Puppies the following night and go to the Sydney Opera House. I can't find anyone to be my date. Reactions vary from "Are you kidding?" to "Oh god, I can't stand her!" Finally I find an acquaintance who was planning on buying a ticket, but was strapped for cash. The last three gigs she attended were The Waifs, Norah Jones and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Once we enter the building, I'm in the minority. These are Tori's people. From the moment she swans onto the stage wearing a pale, layered dress reminiscent of what a six-year-old girl would choose for her role as a fairy princess, they're enraptured. The opening of every song is greeted with exclamations of joy and echoing applause, even though she only plays one single the entire night. She alternates between a grand piano and an organ, sometimes playing both simultaneously, her arms at strange angles, and her body moving up and down in an almost carnal manner. During one song she bashes out a rumbling staccato bass part with her left hand and repeatedly whacks the front of the piano with the flat of her right hand, setting up a rhythm that the crowd takes up with their handclaps. She does a couple of unlikely covers - AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" and Madonna's "Like A Prayer" - and finally leaves after three encores. I was starting to flag at around the halfway mark, but this crowd could easily have taken more.
A couple of hours beforehand, in the backstage area, I'd introduced Trent Titmarsh to Tori at a meet-and-greet session. Or re-introduced them. Trent showed her a photo of the two of them together from 1994, after her concert in Brisbane. "You were just a child!" Tori exclaimed, rubbing his shoulder warmly. "And my god, my lips were huge!"
They posed for an updated photo (Tori: "This is like prom night!" Trent: "I'll be your date!") and before she moved on to meet someone else, she told him something. "You've grown into a wonderful young man."
There was a smile on Trent Titmarsh's face that wouldn't fade for days. And I realised that this was Tori Amos's gift. I may be a cynic who finds her flowery, kooky, and obtuse. But somehow she connects with these people on a whole other level. They need her and she gives them what they want. They understand. They get her. And even though I probably won't play another one of her records after filing this story, and I definitely don't ever want to sit next to her on a plane that's plummeting towards the ocean, when I saw that smile on Trent Titmarsh's face, just for a moment I kind of got it too.
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