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My Life In Music This Month: Tori Amos
by Will Hermes
Be careful what you wish for. When we asked Tori Amos to compile a list of
the records that have inspired her music, she brought us a 100-pound
carton of stuff handpicked from her archives. Not just music,
either--among the goods was an 1893 geographical survey of the Rocky
Mountains that helped map her last record, Scarlet's Walk, a knotty
travelogue born of her post-9/11 cross-country travels. But don't expect
the master keys to Tori's House of Mystery. "I'd almost release my
gynecological records before I'd spill the beans on my deepest
influences," she says curled up on the floor of a Manhattan hotel suite. "Everything here matters, but if you asked me tomorrow, I'd give you different things." Fair enough. Here's a sampling of Amos' favorite classic albums, genital-shaped flora, and hella-deep reading material.
FLEETWOOD MAC - RUMOURS (Reprise album, 1977) "One of the greatest pop
albums ever made--both for the songs and the sound. The producers and
engineers really knew what they were doing; there was a certain art to
record-making back then. They might have all been coked-up or whatever,
but they still had their ears."
THE DOORS - THE DOORS (Elektra album, 1967) "Jim Morrison was smuggled into
our house by my older brother. That's where I got some of my ideas about
Lucifer and about recognizing the darkness within. Years ago, I was
working with a medicine man, and it was almost as though Lucifer came in a
vision and was holding a little cubbyhole that said TORI on it. He was
very sad and very bored. And he said, 'I hold the dark. That's what I do.
But it's for you to come collect!'"
SYLVIA PLATH - THE BELL JAR (Harper and Row book, 1971) "Madness fascinates
me because I think we're all this close to the line sometimes. It doesn't
take much. One of my favorite sayings is 'You never know the weight of the
straw that breaks the camel's back.'"
ELTON JOHN - GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD (Rocket/Island album, 1973)
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a real trip, a long album you can throw
yourself into. 'All the young girls love Alice / Tender young Alice they
say.' I love that song ["All the Girls Love Alice"]. And the title track,
too. Early on, Elton and Bernie Taupin were one of the greatest
songwriting teams ever. They'd do complicated stuff--chorus A, chorus B,
codas. You have to fight in the industry to do that nowadays, because
everyone is spoon-fed verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-out."
DIANE ARBUS - MAGAZINE WORK (Aperture book, 1984) "When I travel, I'll meet
people briefly, and I often feel like a photographer. Arbus didn't know
all her subjects intimately, but somehow her photos capture their essence.
They're not about the airbrush--they're real people, frozen in time.
Wherever their souls live, I can visit them here."
LED ZEPPELIN - THE COMPLETE STUDIO RECORDINGS (Swan Song/Atlantic box set,
1993) "I'll never give this one up. John Bonham and John Paul
Jones--that's my rhythm. It was heavy, but so sensual. It's all about the
relationship of the voice to the drum. A huge influence."
DEE BROWN - BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE (Holt, Rinehart and Winston book,
1971) "This book made me weep; I think it will make anyone weep. If you
have European blood in you, you have to acknowledge another invasion
before Pearl Harbor and the Twin Towers: the European invasion of the
aboriginal Americas. There was already a culture here, but all we hear
about are the patriots. We're squatters, basically. Scarlet's Walk is
partially about that."
JONI MITCHELL - LADIES OF THE CANYON (Reprise album, 1970) and BLUE
(Reprise album, 1971) "I know everyone mentions Joni Mitchell, but you
have to, really. I can't think of anyone who was doing it like she was
doing it. She was the musician's musician. I've even heard Robert Plant
speak about how she was influencing him! And that makes sense to me--how
could she not?"
BARBARA BUHLER LYNES AND RUSSELL BOWMAN - O'KEEFFE'S O'KEEFFES: THE ARTIST'S
COLLECTION (Thames and Hudson book, 2001) "Georgia O'Keeffe's floral
paintings are about being so moved that your petals drip. How beautiful is
that? This book sits on coffee tables in the living rooms of ministers.
Their wives will look at it and think of things--they'll cross their legs,
uncross them, and then cross them again."
~ ~ ~
Scarlet's Walk review
Let's go, USA! Shortly after September 11, Tori Amos embarked on a
cross-country tour. She came back with material tor Scarlet's Walk, an
impressionistic travelogue that turns the American landscape into an
extension of Amos' own freaky head space. On her 2001 covers album.
Strange Little Girls. Amos Photoshopped herself into Eminem's nightmares
and Neil Young's dreams; here, she projects herself into places, not
faces, blurring her persona into the scenery to highlight deeper truths
Amos may still be best known for confessing deep secrets while bumping and
grinding her Bosendorfer. But her real ax is empathy, and on Scarlet's
Walk, she internalizes everything from porn culture to the legacy of
westward expansion. As usual, her melodies stubbornly refuse to turn into
hooks, preferring to twirl into new territory. But her approach suits the
material, which flows like the colors on a weather map, from Los Angeles
to Nevada, from New York to Virginia, gathering thunder along the way. On
"A Sorta Fairytale." the album's pensive first single, Amos cruises up
Route 101, wondering why good love inevitably lets the bad times roll. On
"Amber Waves," Amos puts the SoCal skin trade on blast, while undercutting
the song's go-along-to-get-along tempo with melancholy piano chords.
The record's climactic tour de force is "Scarlet's Walk," a seance-style
spin through the Gothic South, its title evoking both the deaths of
American Indians on the Trail of Tears and Gone With the Wind's homesick
heroine. All organs, horns, and echoing drums, the song wraps Amos in
layers of down-home creepiness. A man with a badge asks her: "What do you
plan to do with all your stories?" She tells him she plans to bury them
with all the other legends, wisdom, and "medicines" squandered throughout
America's history, then stretches the word terra--signifying both Scarlett
O'Hara's ruined estate and all that blood-soaked, hallowed earth--into a
little earthquake. This is heady stuff. But even when the imagery gets
dense, Amos' generous spirit lets you in; your land is her land. Of thee
she sings. Buckle Up. LAURA SINAGRA
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