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Women, Sex and Rock 'n' Roll - In Their Own Words
By Liz Evans

book excerpt

Tori Amos

I n t r o d u c t i o n

Tori Amos blew her first shivers down the spine of an unsuspect- ing public in 1992 when her debut solo album, Little Earthquakes was released. Her unnerving ability to pinpoint emotional nuances untied a well-concealed knot of female experience, while her shameless honesty and intricate powers of articulation illuminated cloudy depths of feeling. She was recognised as a genius, Little Earthquakes sold over a million copies worldwide, but her sanity was about to be judged.

Born in North Carolina in 1963, the then Myra Ellen Amos grew up with the pressures of a highly strict religion. Her father, Eddie, and his parents were all ministers of the Church of God, a by-product of Methodism, while her mother was part Cherokee Native American. Able to play the piano before she could talk, Amos was a child prodigy and at the age of five was enrolled at Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Institute for gifted children.

Until she was 21 Amos went to church four times a week, teaching the children's choir and quietly resenting Jesus' demands on her life. Eventually she fled to Los Angeles, reinvented herself with a new name (after a tree), big hair and plastic snakeskin pants, threw herself passionately into the city's decadent rock- n'roll scene of the mid-eighties and released a record _Y Kant Tori Read_. which flopped biotime.

After being mocked as a bimbo by the American music trade paper Billboard and laughed at in local restaurants, Amos recoiled from the hard world of Hollywood show business and had some- thing of a nervous breakdown. She'd also suffered a vicious sexu- al attack in the back of a car and lost touch with the sexuality which had only recently shaken off the guilt of a Methodist child- hood.

The result of all this was Little Earthquakes, a collection of songs through which Amos came to terms with her past. The a capella 'Me And A Gun' dealt with the rape of five years before, while the rest explored the themes of guilt, God and sexuality which had governed Amos' life.

Although they'd handed her a contract, Amos' American record label were unable to cope with a girl and her piano, so they sent her to London where she finally realised her lifetime ambition to make real music, but while many applauded her provocative open- ness, others were baffled into reaching for the nearest convenient trough in which to pitch her. Her acuteness was simply too much for some and too often she was stripped of her individual agenda, tossed in with a string of female singer-songwriters including everyone from Kate Bush to Patti Smith and, worst of all, was said to be mad.

Rock has always celebrated the more romantic side of insanity, encouraging its quirky eccentrics in their agonising struggles to create. Outcasts who find solace in the delirium of their art are more than welcome in the world of popular entertainment, but usually only if they're male. Female artists who function left of center are often treated with scorn, ridicule and ignorance. Amos was no exception.

Even when her second album, Under The Pink, was released in 1994, flying straight into the British charts at number one, Amos was still being touted as some kind of 'kooky babe'. Although this time nobody went so far as to suggest that her only selling point was 'mental decrepitude', Amos' 'fruitcake' qualities were still highlighted at the expense of her extraordinary talent.

Amos isn't interested in being 'normal' although she has been hurt by the unkindness of certain factions of the media. Her main concern is to make music and if her expressions don't tumble out in neat orderly rows, well, so what?

While there is nothing particularly neat and orderly about Tori Amos, there is certainly nothing decrepit about her mentally or otherwise. In coming to terms with her repressive religious child- hood, the sexual guilt it induced, a brutal attack, and more recent- ly the hurt of broken female friendships and the ways in which women betray each other, Amos has developed a highly intuitive emotional vocabulary and bravely explores hitherto silent corri- dors of her own and many other women's inncr lives. To call this a sign of madness is, in itself, mad.

In Her Own Words

My relationships with my family were very different when I was a child, because it was a very disciplined Methodist household. My father was reared in the Church of God, and he was a very conservative, Victorian kind of man. My grandmother, on his side, believed that all girls should he virgins, and that if you didn't come that way to your husband you were not one of God's children and you'd go to hell. She tried to pin that on me-good thing she died before I was a teenager! I was 13 when she died but the damage was done. I don't have ill feelings, but I've had to work through a lot of the things I took on then.

Now, who's to say what I'd be writing about if I didn't have my background? Yet at the same time, this is only a taste of what the church has done for thousands of years. Our whole Goddess culture has been destroyed, and what has the female deity role model become? The Virgin Mary! And for our Goddess, who is our mother of fertility and passion, to be a virgin-well, what do we have to live up to? From the starting block, from get-go, we're minus ten! The idea of virginity has so affected us. And it's not just Christianity, it's all over the planet.

I've written a song called 'God' [single released in America. January 1994] about patriarchal reliegion, and how it's just fucked the whole thing up. Basically I say to Him, 'You know, you need a babe and I've got nothing to do Tuesday and Thursday this week!' lt's unacceptable in how it's affected people. And it isn't just women who've been affected. Men have had to cut out a whole part of themselves too, which is why we have to deal with all that shit from our boyfriends! Men and women are going to have to recognise the female energy that we've cut out.

'Cornflake Girl' [single released in Britian, January 1994] deals with it too. There's a book by Alice Walker called Possessing the Secret of Joy, and it's about mothers taking their daughters to the butcher to have their genitalia removed. That's what the song is about too. It's like cutting a penis off. Now if we lined all the boys up and cut their penises off, I don't think it would be lunch as usual! I think they'd have something to say about it, and yet the mothers are the ones that take the daughters to do this! Obviously the whole society is involved, but when is a generation of women going to rise up, not to fight, not to war, but to honour themselves and each other?

I think the time of the Goddess is coming. I know I have to stop all the shit I took on as a child in my life, because I don't want to pass it down to other men and women. So I've tried to become my own parent, shall we say, and retrain some of those patterns.

I had good memories of who I was before I was five, and then I became everybody else's idea of who I was. Before I was five I was at the piano most of the time, and kind of oblivious to stuff. I mean, I could sense things but I wasn't aware of shame or anything. I distinctly remember having no inhibitions creatively at that age. I think we all remember if we look back. And then I just started to get used to different people's critiques of my being and I let it influence me. It's so difficult to be critical of children because they need to discover themselves. We're always telling them-'No, the tree has green leaves!'

Maybe I've reacted so intensely because it's taken me 25 years to get back to the freedom that I had when I was that age, and I've had to work backwards to get it. The whole idea was for me to be a concert pianist and it didn't happen. It wasn't going to happen because I wanted to compose my own songs, I always knew that. And after a year, it wasn't fun at the Peabody Institute, where I was sent to train at the weekends, because I was disappointing everybody and I felt that I was. It was like 'Oh the girl that has so much talent can't do this and can't do that', and they'd put money on my wrists to get me playing right. I'd be wanting to know when we were going to make up fun songs, but nobody was interested in that. It was all about developing a technique and becoming competitive.

By the time I was 8, I kind of knew what was going on. I didn't really make any friends there, but there was this older boy who kind of looked like Jimi Hendrix who I had a crush on. I wrote a song for him, but he left and I never saw him again. People would come and go and I was there for years. I'd take classes all day Saturday, and then during the week I went back home and went to normal school, so I lived a dual life. It was kind of freaky.

Sometimes I wonder if it would have made more sense if I'd done one or the other. At normal school I had to sit in the comer because they felt I disturbed the class. I used to get bored and talk to my neighbours. They put me in the back, and it was weird-I felt like an idiot! They thought I could do one thing and nothing else, because I was going to the Peabody, and maybe it was true! It's all I did, it's all I do, it's all I've ever done!

As a Methodist, I remember going to church four times a week, and I did that until I was 21. I was teaching the children's choir and I used to get really pissed off that my life was so dictated by when this Jesus guy was born and when he was dying every year. I felt really resentful that I couldn't get on with my own life, because I was so busy with his. Of course the real energy of Jesus had nothing to do with it. When I tune into the real energy of it, I just see a really evolved master teacher who was used to giving people control. But at the time I felt subjected to it, and made to feel guilty when I didn't want to be a part of it, because this was our faith and this was what we believed in. There would be prayer meetings at our house, and I'd think 'How do I escape this?' My song 'Icicle' has a lot to do with it. It's about how this girl masturbates just to survive!

The best thing that happened at that time was when I started working in gay bars at the age of 13. The funny thing is my father used to chaperone me! I think he came to realise that you either supported your kid or you lost them, and a lot of my friends were getting pregnant. A lot of them had had abortions by the time they were 14.

I had a boyfriend but it was very hard for him. I couldn't make it work and that frustrated me. Now I have freedom in my life and I can do what I want, I don't think about it so much except maybe when I'm writing something like 'Icicle'.

The strangest thing was that those church people had the best intentions. But it was never about individuality, and so I could never believe the fundamental beliefs.

Eventually I left, and I moved to Los Angeles when I was 21. I felt like a kid in a candy shop. I'd be driving down the road and-Mmmm! There was a guy and Mmmm! There was a guy!-And I was free on Sundays! And it was 1985 right? That was the time! It was a great time, a very happy, perky time in LA. Everyone you met was in a band. I was slaving piano bar to pay the rent and I lived in East Hollywood, below Mann's Chinese flieatre. A whole bunch of musicians lived there, near Beechwood, and it was very easy going, because we were all in the same boat, and there was a camaraderie which is something I was looking for at the time, instead of- competition which just doesn't help anvbody.

So I was hanging out with friends who were in bands, and partying without feeling too guilty, although I carried a bit of it with me. But to be honest, there are things I'm grateful I didn't do. Like sleep with two bisexual models at the same time! They were so gorgeous and I wanted to be the baloney in between the wholewheat bread but I'm kind of thankful now that I didn't, because that's when so much of the AIDS thing was running rampant there, and I'm glad that I sometimes, sometimes practised caution. Sometimes. Enough.

It was so hedonistic, and it's so nice to know I was there in the decadence. It was healing for me. It was like being baptised, being in Sodom and Gomorrah! I was there with my little chopsticks going 'Isn't anybody hungry?' Really happy, pouring tea and stuff.

I did refuse to look at a lot of stuff in my life, though. I closed the door on everthing I didn't want to look at. Instead of pouring how I really felt into my music, I dressed a certain way and became part of a culture. I was beginning to reclaim a part of myself, I just had to do it through clothes first before I was willing to talk about it. I'd put on my plastic snakepants and they'd feel so good! There was a sense of sexual power feeling them next to my skin, especially when I knew what all those ladies in the soprano section of the church choir were doing!

Being a rock chick like that is so DC Comics, so Rocky Horror Picture Show and eight or nine vears ago we just didn't think about it. All my girlfriends had white hair pumped up with Aqua Net. We were differentiating ourselves from the Reagan generation I guess. we'd been fucked over by the 1960s children so we thought fuck them! You know? Peace my ass! Give me my stiletto boots and if that motherfucker crosses me I'm going to blow his fucking head off! It was all very hard-with a sense of humour.

I joined a band around that time and we made a record called Y Kant Tori Read? But by the time it came out, the band had broken up. We just couldn't get along, so we went our separate ways, and now the drummer is in Guns N' Roses. Actually the guitar player played on my second solo album. Looking at it objectively, the record wasn't that good. As a band we were better. But hey, I did that record. I don't place blame, and hey, I chose to look like that too. I chose to not speak about things, I chose to not stick up for the band when the heat got rough and I chose to turn it over to more male presences. And so the band split up and the record came out and they called me a bimbo in Billboard magazine and people would laugh at me in restaurants in LA. And I think the laughter is what really got to me, because you have to remember where I came from. These people who were laughing at me were pissing on themselves when I could play concertos.

It took me a minute to ask myself why I was making music-for what reason? I wanted to be successful for my father because I never got the doctorate in music, which is what he wanted me to do. But I wanted to do it on my own terms and I fell on my face. It was the biggest gift though, because then I started to see pretty much everything for what it was in the whole music world. And that's when I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I was on the kitchen floor for so long I could count over a thousand tiles.

But I really had to reclaim myself. I had untraditional therapy which I don't really want to define and I started to write Little Earthquakes. I got a keyboard in my apartment, and althougth I hadn't played in years, my chops were up from working in piano bars. And I started to write for the sole reason of expression, which is what I did when I was four. So that's why it took me 20 years to get back to that place. It was strange at first, but it was like a turtle going back into water again. It felt good, I wasn't doing it for anyone else-not to get out of the church, not for boys to like me, not for dad to think I was OK. Just to do it, just to express things. If it's not an expression, why bother?

Little Earthquakes was the acknowledgment of things I hadn't looked at for 15 years. I'd been sexually attacked in Los Angeles and I hadn't dealt with that for five years either. When it was released, a lot of people who'd listened to it or seen my shows told me they'd had similar experiences to the ones I was expressing. It was like sitting round a table at a party where everyone feels better for getting stuff off their chests! But guess what? Soon the party's over and you have to go home and wake up and ask yourself-'How am I not going to be a victim anymore? How am I going to wake up and not feel guilty that I want passion in my life?' When you combine sex and guilt with Christianity, it's insane!

I was shocked bv how many women I met who'd had experiences where they were raped or were about ready to he killed though. And you'd be surprised how many women feel responsible when they don't even know their attackers. I felt responsible when it happened to me.

My attack was very involved-everybody's is very involved. I'm still having to get over what my role was in it, and deal with my hatred towards my attacker and towards myself, because I took on his hatred of me. He hated women and I just took on that hatred. The hardest thing for me to get over is that I really thought it was over. He had said how he was going to murder me and I really thought that was it. And then there's the fear and degradation of it all.

Afterwards I started to think, well it's one thing to talk about it, but it's another to really put life back into life again. To get those pictures out of my mind when I'm intimate with a man. I'm just having to discipline myself, and say 'Well, hey! This is not the same thing period. Period!' And it takes so much will, because if you let your mind dwell on how you feel, it can be very addictive. I think I have at times. And I don't want that anymore.

Now I realise I do have a choice with my sexual role and sexuality has so much more to do with things other than penises and vaginas. It has to do with my connection to the universe and the earth and my whole being, and if I want to share that with another human being, then I can. But my sexuality doesn't stem from needing somebody else to give that to me. I have to give it to myself. Once I start to do that then that violent attack stops being the thing that's taking everything away from me.

So I'm going to work through it. Abuse is abuse and when you're terrorised you're terrorised and sometimes you cut out parts of yourself to survive. I tried to cut out parts of myself before he did and I didn't claim them back. I also cut out parts of myself to survive the Christian upbringing, because it's easier if you numb those parts a little bit, put the ice on them. I don't know, it's your last little bit of power-that you do it before someone else does it. So now what I've had to do is light up some matches and go be a little pyro, and warm up those parts again. And I wrote my second album, Under The Pink, while I was doing that, so really it's the next step of applying what I was acknowledging with the first record.

I think I was still really scared after Little Earthquakes though. I still had to sort other things out sexually. I played 250 cities with this last record, and a lot of women were offended by the way I played piano, and that did something to shake me out of my fear because I had to say 'Hang on a minute, why am I doing this?' I think when you're confronted by people it wakes you up a little bit, so that you do have to question yourself.

These women were supposedly left-wing feminists, saying they were really offended by the way I was playing because I was making myself an object. But I didn't see myself as an object, this was how I felt good playing. And I still do. Not only do I support myself physically, but it is a very passionate thing. Again, it's about sexuality beyond the penis and vagina, so if anyone wants to see it as a shot in Penthouse, then that's their concept, and if I see it as my expression of my sexuality, then that's what it is for me. It's really between me, my piano, the earth and my soul, and how I'm just kind of in this line of energy that's moving down from the top, through me, into tile earth.

Some of these feminists become fascists, because they're saving it- I don't do certain things that they deem appropriate then l'm not a strong independent woman. Bullshit! Whether it's the concerned mothers of America or the left-wing feminists who have to try and censor things and try and attack you. To me it's fascist either way. My whole thing is knock yourself out, do whatever feels good, and if you cross my boundaries where you hurt me or mine then I'll draw my line and naturally stand up for what I believe in. But if you want to do this in your life and it affects you, who am I to say? I don't believe in dictating to people.

Being betrayed by another woman, I think, cuts the deepest. That point, when another woman can't come through for you, especially when you're friends, is so much more painful than anything guys dole out. And guys shouldn't take this wrong, but we expect them to not come through sometimes, or betray us, even if it's not intentional. I can't justify it when women betray me, because I can't think, 'Well, he just wanted to go to the baligame, so of course he got a little confused!' As women we're very aware of what each of us has to go through, so when one of us denies that, and doesn't take responsibility for our part in a relationship, it's really painful.

I've always had this idea about the sisterhood, and it's not about alienating men, it's just about honouring other women, and being more accepting of each other because of what we've been through. But I've found more viciousness from women than men, because men aren't really vicious. They can be ignorant and insensitive, and they sometimes lose control, because it's in their genes and they've done it for thousands of years. But this sisterhood concept that I wanted to look at while I was growing up, and kept wanting to turn to, never materialised. Friends never fulfilled the idea, and the older I've got, the colder the water that's been poured on my head.

You know how manipulative women can be, we can just not say things, which can be very hurtful. You know if you get a job and your friend doesn't acknowledge you or congratulate you or support you in any way, but just starts saying 'Be careful, be careful' as if maybe you're not capable of handling it. So I am beginning to pull women into my life who are really trying to take responsibility for their part in the relationship. It's a recent thing, because I'm taking more responsibility in what I'm dumping.

I've also had to deal with my violence, because sometimes the hurt of being betrayed is so great, it can make me feel very violent. Although I can hold my own in a rough moment, and I can actually feel quite good-like Sven the Viking!-I don't really want to live with that kind of energy. I'd rather just say 'Hey, why am I letting this ruin my week, my day, my month? Maybe we just shouldn't hang out anymore.'

Women who cut themselves off from their emotions so that they can survive in this world of male dominance and logic have a real problem with any kind of emotional expression, because they learn to be analytical and in control. I'm not interested in that because if somebody's moved by something, and they want to get loud about it, that's fine. A lot of people are emotionally cut off from what they're talking about, and when it's a woman it can really hurt sometimes when you're trying to have a conversation, and she says something a guy could say. Like 'Oh, you must be having your period!'

When I'm really upset or fucked up or angry about something, it's not because of my father or because I haven't been laid recently, it's because I'm very fucked off about the issue in hand. In music, a lot of women get approached on an emotional plane, and that's when they cut themselves off. It's very difficult sometimes because when you're creative you are trying to break patterns and become an individual, and often it's not even encouraged by your own camp.

I don't want to be normal, because normal is about the status quo, which I don't want to be a part of. I've never read that people buy my records because I'm kooky though. A lot of the time that stuff just makes good reading. People play games when they've got you under the microscope, and when they don't understand something I say, or an experience that I've talked about, they jump on it and try and make it took silly or insane. I don't know where they come from. I just try and be forthright and give interesting answers. I guess some of the things I've read about me I haven't recognised, but being true to your music is not about press cuttings.

I mean I've done music since before I could talk, and that's why when some music head gives me an opinion, I say 'Look, I don't know how this works, but if it didn't I couldn't sit here and listen to it, I'd he sick, I couldn't keep my spaghetti down!' And keeping my spaghetti down is the test. I'm physically involved with it. And I'm pretty harsh, I'm pretty ruthless which is why I can never play the real difficult piano things twice. I have to make them up every time. It doesn't come from my head, it comes from my stomach, and depends on the moment, and what's happened during the day and how long I pause at that second, and if I hit with my left hand and the rhythm changes-I couldn't get that back! It's a completely physical thing for me, the whole kundalini is very much involved. And you know what, the only place where I've never felt guilty or shameful is when I've been playing. It's the only place where I've felt in touch with my sex- uality and my spirituality and my emotions, and never, ever, ever anywhere else. So my life is a bit tricky because when I'm not playing, I'm just trying to walk down the street!

I have always cut out everything, except when I played. When you feel bad about being a girl and you have thoughts about masturbating and thoughts about doing it with boys-I mean I wanted to do it with Robert Plant so bad!-and you're eight or nine, it's rough. You don't know what 'doing it' is, but you want to do it! And you kind of know that 'it's' the thing that Grandma's been talking about. The last thing you want to do is lose respect from your father, but when you're that age, you're starting to be a pest. You're not so cute, you're starting to develop things but you're not old enough to do anything with them, and it's really hard. But playing was where I had freedom, and even today that's where I have the most freedom.

I think I'd like to get to a place in my life where I'm not destroyed by ugly situations and I won't take them personally. And I can still grow. And maybe if I've done something which has been misunderstood I can say 'Ok, I did that' and I won't have to go away feeling like I'll never make that mistake again. Because I will!

I do tend to work things out in my songs and usually something I've been hiding comes out-a certain feeling-and it's freeing, it's painful and it's liberating. And I really can't walk around and be crippled for the rest of my life. It's false to think that muscians and artists have to suffer for their work. it's a myth. I want to hear from someone who's fulfilled because I want to be in that place where we're not bumbling around anymore.

I think I could lighten up a little more, give it a rest at the dinner table and enjoy the moment a little more because I do believe in hope for anything. If we're tied to the stake and it's over for us, there's still that possibility that Mary Poppins' sister-the one who was making out in the cinema with the runs in her hose-just might come hop- ping down the lane at that time and help us out. And once the match is struck and we're going, I'm still hanging onto that thought-'God damn, she was supposed to come!' And if we have to do it all again. I still think she might.

C r e d e n t i a l s

Signed to: East West Records
Managed by: Arthur Spivak
Select discography:
Little Earthquakes LP (1992)
Under The Pink LP (1994)

t o r i p h o r i a
tori amos digital archive