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Sunday Independent (Ireland)
June 27, 2010
My spirit walk with Tori Amos
By Joe Jackson, Sunday Independent
"Among all the famous people you have interviewed, who was your favourite?" is a question most "celebrity interviewers" get asked as often as, "Would you like a line of coke?" But frankly it's a question I now find so boring I usually reply, "Richard Harris or Tori Amos", rapidly explain why, and ensure the conversation doesn't go any deeper than that. And even if it does, I never tell people, particularly if the person posing this question is a prospective girlfriend, that meeting Ms Amos led to me leaving a lover!
Nor have I ever told even Tori herself that our 10-year "spirit walk", as she calls it, crystallised my perspective on the art of interviewing. In fact, during my more pretentious moments, I decide that if all I am remembered for is my, eh, triptych of interviews with Tori, which have never until now been "exhibited" together or given a psychosexual setting in the context of my own life, I'd die happy. Hell, if there is a heaven and St Peter risks boring me at its gates by asking, "Who, among all the famous people . . . ?" I may tell him that it was the divine Amos.
So, where do I begin this love story, of sorts? Well, from the first time I heard Crucify, the opening track on her debut solo album, Little Earthquakes, in 1992, I was hooked. So much so that my girlfriend -- a fellow journalist, who, as you will see, it would be unseemly of me to name -- snapped at me at one point, "Would you for Christ's sake shut up about that anus woman! She's not that bloody good!"
Yes, my fiercely feminist girlfriend did, maybe only less than half-jokingly, refer to her "sister" Amos as "anus" -- though even I had to admit it was a witty bit of wordplay. More seriously, she definitely wasn't happy on the morning of March 21, that year, knowing I was going to interview Tori, and said, plaintively, "Everyone knows you're a mad romantic; don't fall in love with her, Joe, OK?"
I also knew there was an even more serious subtext to that comment. What? Well, the most I can, will, or would want to say on this sensitive subject, is that shadows had begun to appear in our love life, largely of my making, which left me "feeling disconnected from my own body, and my sexual pleasure" as I'd told my girlfriend only the day before. Meaning, maybe even though I never had, and would never, betray her, she felt I was, at this point, susceptible to being seduced.
Either way, the first question of my interview -- for a "Sex Issue" of Hot Press -- obviously stemmed from not only what I perceived to be the core tensions in the soul of Tori, but was asked on behalf of everyone who suffers from sexual guilt. The interview, incidentally, took place in Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel and began with me sitting at a small table, while she, tellingly or otherwise, sat, not beside me, but on a window ledge, where she reminded me, almost distractingly, of the subject in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's breathtakingly beautiful painting, Beata Beatrix.
"The title of your CD could refer to orgasms, there are, apparently, phallic symbols on its cover, and when you perform on stage you sit at the piano in a provocative position, all of which seems to celebrate sexuality. Yet, a song such as Precious Things seethes with dark, sexual rage. Why the dichotomy?" I asked.
"I look at something from all sides, as if what I see comes from separate pieces of myself. We're all divided; spirit split from the physical, mental from emotional, all these expressions of our being get chopped up. And that song has a view of being 13 and humiliated, because you are a flower, so you build walls around the flower that then is not getting light until you realise you are killing the flower," she answered.
And so Tori continued for nearly 10 minutes, with her thought patterns becoming increasingly abstract, which gave me my article's opening line, "For many people the process of self-denial becomes most apparent when they speak about sex," and made me suggest her reply had "more to do with evasion than with truth."
So, even though I knew I was taking a gamble and it could lead to Amos storming out of the room, I told her this was how I felt about her reply, set aside my list of typed questions, and decided to draw instead, more directly, on the experiences, and desires, of a woman I knew at the time, women I have known all my life and women I have read about, who are, in particular, tangled up from the outer layer of their skin to the deepest part of their souls by the schisms imposed by religion in relation to sexuality.
Sadly, but understandably, the explicit nature of three-part question I asked Tori and her full reply are, arguably, far from suitable for a Sunday newspaper and so, albeit reluctantly, let me try to paraphrase, without betraying her truths, or mine, what was said. I spoke of one woman who had very specific sexual fantasies about her boyfriend, which she defined as one way she could liberate herself sexually, in a theological sense, and of a woman who, let's say, was inclined to see Christ more as a man.
How did Tori Amos respond? Laugh, slide off that window ledge then, rather than storm out of the room, walk over to my table, sit beside me, and grip my arm in a way that thrilled me and, as such, of course, filled me with a sense of guilt. Then, to end her potentially controversial quote -- and it was hugely contentious at the time -- she said, "In fact, I always imagined I was Jesus's girlfriend!"
"Many Christians would say the thought of doing it with Jesus is blasphemous!" I suggested.
"They would, and that's what I -- don't forget my father is a Methodist minister -- was taught. But that's a load of bollix. Blasphemous is the fact that religion, for 2,000 years, has used Jesus's name to keep people divided. That's how women have been paralysed, disconnected from the source of their power. You also had this feeling of shame because you sensed Jesus was watching everything you did, sexually, and you'd been told he thinks sex is heathen, not of love, not of anything you want to be a part of. Yet, I always thought if Jesus really liked Mary Magdalene and really was a man attempting to become a master, he made no judgements about her. So, in my deepest longing I did want him to be the boyfriend nobody was being for me. Many Christian girls have a crush on Jesus but can't deal with the sexual longing so they translate it into something else. Sure, I felt guilty about wanting to do it with Jesus, but then I'd ask myself, 'Why not?'"
Furthermore, when I asked Tori about that line in Crucify, "got enough guilt to start my own religion", she revealed, "I am riddled with guilt", then said she was working her way through it with her boyfriend. The parallels between our sex lives were becoming disconcerting, as was our obviously shared obsession with religion.
"But I want this man to slam me against a wall, fuck me and love me," she continued. "Yet, the concept of both is hard for me to accept because I've been told love and lust cannot be part of the same equation; that being fucked against a wall is not love. Who thought up that idea? It has kept people from giving to each other completely, and under control for centuries. And thoughts like these had me in a rage for years . . . I traced back to religion and rooted in sex. I didn't confront my religious past until I was 24 and I'd become so ill from sexual guilt I sought help."
Here I had to ask, "How much of all this can be traced back to the rape you sing about in Me and a Gun -- if that song comes from a personal experience?" Tori said it did, that she'd been raped at 22, but this was something she hadn't talked about for five years. Then, at this point in our interview, Tori suddenly, and not surprisingly, said, imploringly and almost whispering, "Joe, I really don't want to go into every detail of that night, OK?" Yet, she did graciously agree to answer two questions when I said they might help other women who had been raped.
"How does a woman break away from guilt after rape, and not, automatically, associate sex with violence?"
"That is the core problem and if I had sought professional help -- which is what a woman should do -- it would have been different. Yet, at first I couldn't respond to any guy sexually. I broke off a relationship I'd been having for two years, started ranting, raving, 'I don't want to see you again' . . . [And] didn't go to the police because I didn't believe I had a case. The fact that I was a performer like Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys, I knew I was going to be set up. I didn't want to become a victim of that experience so, instead, I became a victim of myself."
I should, perhaps, explain that what I am presenting here are heavily edited fragments from that half-hour interview, which ended soon after that last quote. But we continued talking and when I told her about the 1992 X Case -- during which the Attorney General sought, and won, an injunction to stop a 14-year-old girl having an abortion after she had been raped, a decision that then was overturned by the Supreme Court -- Tori made a request no interviewee ever had.
"Joe, you were so right to say I slipped into denial at the start. I wasn't sure where you were coming from. Now I am, so could we take a second shot at parts of the interview? We could do it in my dressing room at the gig or you could come back to my little suite here, where we won't be disturbed, after the show."
My girlfriend, naturally, was not delighted by this news.
"Sorry? You interviewed her for a half hour, chatted for 15 minutes, now she wants you to go back to her dressing room, or bedroom, to 'talk' some more?"
"It's only an interview."
As such, back in Tori's dressing room after her gig -- during which she dedicated Me and a Gun to "a 14-year-old girl" -- I really did hope no one would tell my girlfriend that she had run to, and hugged me, in front of so many people from Warner Brothers Records. All of whom, later in the lobby of the Shelbourne Hotel, also heard Tori end the evening by saying, "Joe, shouldn't we go up to my room?"
After that, it became even more surreal, as Tori sat on her bed, I sat in a bedside chair, and we talked for a further three hours. Some of it on the record, most not, but with every syllable so highly charged I couldn't help but think, at times, that we were like lovers newly met and should end the day by sleeping together. Even though I knew that by having this thought I was, in a way, betraying my girlfriend.
And I became even more morally conflicted near dawn as I slid into bed beside my girlfriend, woke her by mistake and she asked, again maybe less than half-jokingly, "So, did you sleep with her?" I kissed her forehead, said, "No, don't be silly. Now go back asleep". But as I lay there in the darkness there was one truth I couldn't deny. The fact that as Tori and I hugged, just before I left her bedroom, and seemed set to kiss on the lips but settled instead, awkwardly, for the cheeks, I no longer felt disconnected from my body and truly, if fleetingly, ached for her. And the more I thought about this, the more I realised that the most honourable, truthful thing to do was to leave my girlfriend -- though it took a year to do so.
However, a year later, again, in January 1994, I skimmed over the more revealing details of this story when I told Tori how meeting her had "made me" decide to leave a girlfriend of three years, who had hoped we might get married.
"It was just that after our interview, I was reminded there could be far more to a relationship between a man and a woman than I had. Saying that, I don't mean --"
"I know what you don't mean, Joe, go on!"
"Well, you and I did connect in a way that I seem to crave."
"We do have this thing where we open up and share, don't we? That's why, this time round, I needed to talk to you, to let you know what's been happening in my life. And I have realised that interviewing isn't just your job; it's your life, how you express yourself; your art. I even see you as a medium, a healer, so maybe this is your higher calling.
"And as for that girlfriend, maybe you were just in the wrong relationship. But you took the first step of a new journey by leaving, by facing the fact, 'this isn't truth'. When you made that leap of faith, knowing what you may be leaving behind, you were saying, fundamentally, 'I am choosing the potential for a life fully lived; I won't settle for a lack, I want all possibilities in a relationship.' Isn't that what we all want? Even if we don't identify it as such then, when we feel the relationship is lacking, leave? That was a brave thing for you to do, Joe."
I don't doubt for a moment that many people will relate, even if it is painfully, to the truth of what Tori said to me in that paragraph. But let's get back to her spirit walk. It was during this interview, which took place in her apartment in London, where Tori, again, tellingly or otherwise, had personally invited me, that she finally decided -- after saying, "You are the only person I will talk to about this" -- to disclose the details of her rape. Some of what Tori revealed, she asked me never to make public, and I never will. However, what follows she desperately wanted to be told in all its explicit and horrific detail, albeit edited and, again, purely in the hope that it "just might help" any woman recover after being raped. But, be warned, truth does not come any more savage or raw than you are about to read. Unless that truth is as it was in Tori's original soul-naked recording of the song Me and a Gun.
"That man was ready to slice me to shreds. The idea was to take me to his friends and cut me up for hours and I knew that's what they intended . . . If he hadn't needed more drugs, I'd have been one more news report . . . Nothing I could ever understand, even the violence in myself, can help me come to terms with the violence that was planned for me and that left me urinating all over myself, paralysed. I have, in effect, been living with that man for years and I will be living with him, until I open the venom and squeeze the pus out. But you know what is good, Joe? I am healing. I do not, now, automatically associate sex with violence.
"But people must be told about the self-loathing that follows rape and how it is the greatest breakage in divine law to mutilate themselves. Emotionally, I mutilated myself by feeling I'm not worthy of being loved and fucked at the same time. I already had the hatred women feel for themselves in the Christian church in terms of that tyranny of believing love is one thing and lust another -- that was where I began to be segregated within myself -- but the rape compounded that feeling a thousandfold. So . . . my boyfriend has to say, 'I am not the man who raped you.' And, when we make love, he'll leave on the light and say, 'Look at me, what's my name?' And he'll ask, 'What am I doing?' And I'll say his name and try to say, 'You're fucking me'. Then, he'll hold me and say, 'And I love you.' So, I really am healing, ceasing to see myself as a victim, which is the only way out of this."
Sadly, when I presented the interview to The Irish Times, it was censored.
"We can't go with this Amos interview because it is just too much," I was told. "This woman is deeply disturbed. She should have gone to proper counselling. Here she is rambling on about Jesus, rape, and her boyfriend fucking her. No, not for our readers, I'm afraid. The whole interview is just a personal crisis."
"But surely it's a 'personal crisis' many of our female readers could relate to?"
"No. 'He sits on top of me and fucks me,' or whatever, is too extreme. We can't have that in the newspaper. That is the judgement of The Irish Times, overall."
Naturally, Tori was enraged. Particularly given that, as she'd told me, she hadn't talked about her rape for five years, then written a song titled Silent All These Years, and now, ultimately, was being silenced yet again -- by a woman. At least in the sense that this female editor was asked, by her male "superior", to give him her opinion of this article and "agreed" with his apparent preference not to go to print.
"This is what my song Cornflake Girl is all about, Joe," Tori responded. "And this woman has silenced not just me but, as you suggested to her, all women who have gone through rape and she is saying, 'As a woman I don't care what you went through.' Her position on that needs to be made public at some point."
"Actually, I don't think she is saying that. I think she's just hit a blind spot here."
"Maybe. But to me, Joe, she has a misplaced pussy, you are more of a 'raisin girl', all the way, man, than she is and far more true to women. But, above all else, we mustn't allow ourselves to be silenced by The Irish Times, right? And won't."
So, we didn't. A rewritten version of the interview -- minus any hint of our personal relationship -- appeared in Hot Press. It also led to me receiving, from poet Brendan Kennelly, a quote Tori loved, and said was "true" and "a lovely image".
"Amos is right. You are a medium, Joe. You do have that gift. You open up and allow people in, as though you were a vacant house, then they rummage around and learn much about themselves. And from your work, we all learn so much. So, to me, what you do is saintly; it is 'holy' in the best sense of the word."
To which I can add only, "Holy shit, Batman!" And admit, yes, I am blushing with embarrassment as I repeat that quote. I do so only to highlight how it brought into focus what I still see as my role as an interviewer. To be as ego-less as I can be, in order to allow other peoples' stories to travel though me, as purely as possible, in the same way Elvis approached the singing of certain gospel songs.
How's all that for a pretty amazing outcome of a few meetings -- and a few phone calls I'd rather keep private -- between a "hack" and a "rock chick"? But, as for the story of Tori's journey towards the reintegration of her psyche -- which was, let's face it, chopped up and scattered the night she was raped -- it ends relatively happily. I once asked her if recovering from that rape might finally mean, ultimately, giving birth to a child. She replied, categorically, "Yes," and that is exactly what Tori did on September 5, 2000, at the age of 37. She had married sound engineer Mark Hawley, and after three miscarriages, they had a daughter.
"I'd lost the others within the first trimester so when Mark and I went for that ultrasound our hearts were in our shoes," she told me two years later, during an interview for this newspaper.
"I have my feet in the stirrups and it got quiet and it was at that moment, before, I heard the tears of nurses but this time what I heard was, 'Guys! Little dancing feet!' Then they turned the screen around and truly, Joe, tears of joy flowed from both of us."
I haven't seen Tori since. Indeed, a few years back I was told she wanted to be interviewed by me, again, in London and decided not to go. Why? I believe our spirit walk together is over. Also, a romantic, mad or otherwise, knows when a love story must end.
Tori Amos will play in The Iveagh Gardens, D2, on July 16
For original interviews, see www.joejacksonjournalist.com.
[Wikipedia: Sunday Independent]
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