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Rolling Stone (US)
June 30, 1994 (#685)

TORI AMOS by Toure

IT WAS THE MOST well-mannered mob you'd ever seen: dozens of young women with a smattering of men standing a polite distance from the parked limo at the back of Sanders Theater, a small, church-like structure at the edge of Harvard Yard, in Cambridge, Mass. For more than two hours, they had stared, along with 1,200 or so others, at a stage empty but for a woman and her piano, at which she twisted and undulated, alternately punctuating her movements with delicate touches and majestic pounds on the keys of the black Bosendorfer. Two hours, however, was not enough: A second encore was demanded, then a third. Insatiable, the small crowd collected at the Sanders back door until, finally, out she walked: Tori Amos, the 30-year-old self-possessed ragamuffin, a Raggedy Ann in a Patagonia pullover and hiking boots. And when the fans finally got what they wanted, they didn't scream or start snapping photos or converge upon her. They just sort of gushed and, quickly pulling themselves together, politely applauded as she climbed into the limo. Then they parted to let the car drive out.

What Amos fans wanted this day - what justified standing for hours in the nippy New England breeze - was not altogether clear. It wasn't simply to catch sight of her: They'd just heard her perform most of the material from her two solo albums, 1992's Little Earthquakes and her latest, Under the Pink - which, on the strength of an ever-growing fan base and an eye-popping video for the record's first single, "God," has now been rung up on record-store cash registers more than 1 million times.

Perhaps it's because "Tori symbolizes the nice, little, suburban girl who never wanted to be nice," as 18-year-old Kirsten puts it. "She uses the piano and her voice - which were always open to nice girls - but she says real things with them."

Those real things might include questioning male authority (as she does in "God"), what happens when women betray other women (in Pink's "Cornflake Girl," the album's second single) and how that kind of betrayal makes her want to kill (on "The Waitress," also on Pink). Amos' embrace of the female experience makes it easy for young, intelligent women like Kirsten to worship. Take the woman who, during a break between songs at the Cambridge show, happily yelled out from the upper tier, "You're not beautiful!"

Like Amos' lyrics, the statement was somewhat ambiguous, complex. It didn't appear to mean what it seemed to on the surface. Did it mean "You're free from the constraints of male-determined beauty" or "You've succeeded without relying on your body and face"? Something else entirely? Either way, it was more eloquent than the blunt retort from a guy in the back row: "Bullshit!" Male adulation for Amos appears to spring from a far different place, but then again, it might not: As 30-year-old Ivan says quietly, "Guys have a feminine side, too."

Dear Tori,

Thank you. You taught me how to survive. In October '92... [during your show], my heart folded in on itself, and the walls around me came crashing down...I couldn't stop crying -- it was all very strange. After your show, my hurts and fears from my mouth to your ears...

From my farthest memories, my parents beat me almost every night. It still goes on, much worse... The need to hurt me -- without that factor, they (especially my mom) will have nothing left to do. It's sick, but true... You told me that my parents are not necessarily my spiritual parents. And... to mother myself. This advice did not save me; I took it to heart, though, and by using it, I survived.

THE LETTERS POUR IN and fill boxes -- mostly from young women who've been abused or raped, a few from boys concerned about the abuse their girlfriends have received. The letters come because fans see a concert or hear her albums and, expecting the private Amos to be even wiser and more helpful than the public one, ask for more. And though she is wise, warm and wildly charismatic with a seemingly tremendous capacity to be a good friend, what those at the back doors of the Sanderses everywhere don't know is that she needs her music, like they do, in order to live with her problems. That only onstage is she really whole. That "my work is much richer than my life," as Amos describes it. Over lunch in a Boston restaurant, her raindrop-color eyes and hair the color of "spaghetti" (her word) glimmering, she says, "I held myself back in life, and I didn't hold myself back as much in my work. I allowed more adventure to happen at the piano. I'm more comfortable there than in any other aspect of my life."

If Amos' life is poorer than her music, maybe that's because she has spent the majority of it behind the keys. Born Ellen Amos (she changed her first name to Tori at age 21) in North Carolina and raised in Maryland by her Methodist minister father, Edison, and homemaker mother, Mary Ellen, she was the youngest of three children. As a two-and-a-half-year-old, Amos climbed onto the seat of the black upright in the family living room and began playing. The instrument quickly became the center of her self-image. To a 6-year-old girl who teased Amos about her age, the 4-year-old Amos replied, "Fuck you. I can play Mozart."

Shortly afterward, Amos' parents dragged the prodigy to the Peabody Institute of Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University, one of the top music programs in America, so she could learn the fundamentals of music. The five years Amos would spend there were educational, but her memories are not fond. "It's not that I didn't learn anything there," she says. "I mean, you just know in my style that I've been exposed to things that weren't contemporary music. But I wanted to compose and expand."

At 11, Amos did just that, playing her own pop-based compositions for the Peabody examination board, an event that led to her departure from the program. "She's a very strong-willed young woman," says Patricia Springer, a Peabody administrator and teacher who has known Amos for years. "She had her own idea about what she wanted to play, and at that time, Peabody was pretty strictly a classical orientation."

Without Peabody to teach her, Amos' parents sought out local piano bars that would hire her to play. "When she was 13 or so," her father says, "I took her down to Georgetown and got her a job and then another job playing in the clubs. It wasn't easy taking a teen-ager to play in a lounge. I often wonder if I hadn't had on my clerical collar, if they would've even talked to me."

After eight years of playing D.C.-area bars and a week into her 21st year, Amos moved to Los Angeles to chase her dream: "being a rock star," as her father puts it. "Even when she was 11, she talked about being a rock star."

Although Amos is now a famous pop musician, it might be less than precise to call her a rock star. Still, she spent years attempting to become just that with her Los Angeles-based band Y Kant Tori Read, which included Matt Sorum, now the drummer for Guns n' Roses. Shortly after forming, the band was signed to Atlantic, and in 1988 an album was released, which Amos estimates sold a minuscule 7,000 copies.

As if the sale figure weren't humbling enough, Amos suffered some public humiliation. "They called me a bimbo in Billboard," she says.

(Actually, the quote read, "Unfortunately, provocative packaging sends the [inaccurate] message that this is just so much more bimbo music.")

Afterward, in a moment harder to misconstrue, Amos was mocked to her face. "I walked into this restaurant and saw an acquaintance, and I went over to the table, and he was, like, pretending he didn't know me. And I felt these snickers 'cause my hair was totally pumped up 6 feet high, and I had my plastic boots that went up to my thigh and my little miniskirt. And I understood for the first time that I was a joke. And I walked out of that room going, 'They can laugh at me, but I'm walking out of this place with dignity. Hair spray and all.'"

With tears in her eyes Amos drove to the house of an old friend, "who had this old, old, black upright piano that was just like the one I started playing on when I was a little girl," she says. "I was a wreck, and I just said, 'Can I play your piano for a while?' I played for about four or five hours, and when it was all over, she said to me, 'Tori, this instrument is crying without you, and you're a mess without it. This is what you are. It's not about [the fact that] nobody thinks it's cool. You've done everything else, and look what they think of that.'"

Amos went home and over the next few months wrote and recorded the bulk of Earthquakes. It was a musically sparse and dangerously personal record even without the emotional sledgehammer of a song, the heralded "Me and a Gun," about being raped by an acquaintance, which she would write one afternoon and began performing that same evening. It was the song that became an anthem for thousands of female Amos fans - she was recently honored with a Visionary Award by the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.

Doug Morris, the co-chairman and co-CEO of the Atlantic Group, fell in love with Earthquakes and asked Amos to move to London, based on the idea that it would be easier to break Amos in a smaller market. Although Amos had lived in Los Angeles for six years and had no U.K. ties. she immediately agreed. "Anything to play my own music my way," she says, explaining her snap decision. In barely a year, she broke though. "I kept playing as an opening act, and the other acts would take pity and come and ask their friends to come, and then it started to grow," she explains.

"After a few months, they started to bring the press." Then, Earthquakes was released and went gold in England and, a year later, did the same in the U.S.

There's a kind of justice in the fact that after a lifetime spent at the piano trying to heal personal wounds, Amos is enjoying a successful professional career. Indeed, Amos, who now divides her time between her London home and a place in New Mexico, says she has spent her life at the piano not hiding from the real world but teaching herself how to survive. As a teen-ager, she used the instrument to rebel against the oppressive, religion-based standards her parents and grandparents had erected. "The way I was reared, the role model for women was the Virgin Mary, the sexless thing," she says. "Responsible girls were virgins until they were married. I didn't understand why I couldn't just merge with somebody and have a wonderful time and not have to stay with them forever.

"If I couldn't play, I've no idea what kind of bitter person I would've become," she continues. "Because that's where I was able to express some kind of freedom without guilt. Guilt for passion. Being loved was not the most important thing to me; being respected was. So I suppressed many things because I wanted that respect and put all my passion into my music."

There is, however, no bad blood between Amos and her parents. "When I say that we have our differences," her father says of his friendship with his daughter, "I mean we want to share our differences so that what she has can help me and what I have can help her."

And now with her piano's help, Amos is facing down what she calls "the violent incident" -- the rape -- from her early 20s that has hung over much of her adult life. While she is incredibly open about her feeling stemming from the assault -- including her inability to experience total sexual release and the fact that she has pretended she is "a prostitute in intimate situations" -- her reluctance to discuss the specifics of the incident indicates how deeply she is still affected by it. "I don't wanna give all the details 'cause he's out there," she says. "And he can find me." More than two years after writing "Gun" (the topic is not addressed anywhere on Pink, Amos continues to perform it as part of her recovery. "'Me and a Gun' has been my flashlight," Amos says, "the thing that has taken me by the hand and led me down a very, very, very long recovery path." She also credits her boyfriend, Eric Rosse, who co-produced with Amos four songs on Earthquakes and all of Pink. "With [Rosse], I've made incredible strides. I'm closer than I've ever been to being whole again. I have a few more steps to go, but I'm getting there. I'm being able to open up now.

"There were some days with Eric when I'd say, like, 'Can't you respect what I'm trying to work out here?'" Amos says. "And he'd say, 'Respect? I respect you enough not to pity you. What you do at that piano, you should be able to do in your real life.'"

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