Sunday, August 23, 2009

From "Me and a Girl: My Abnormal Attraction to the Music of Tori Amos"

Below is an excerpt from a new essay about my relationship to the music of Tori Amos.

My only way out is to go so far in…. (1997-2002)

After failing to connect with Boys for Pele, my relationship with Tori went on a hiatus that lasted nearly five years. I cannot say I thought too much about it; that’s what happens. Musicians, artists of any type, come and go throughout most of our lives.

And yet during this time, in our own distinct and contrary ways, both Tori and I would take extensive inward journeys, while deliberately broadening our external horizons; we would discover and throw ourselves into true love; and, eventually, we would both arrive at a new understanding of life, the world and, to some degree, our own individual places in it. I’m not saying that my own life is comparable to Tori’s in any other aspect. But I am saying that during the five-year period when my life was only rarely brushed by her music, both of us, in some ways, were undertaking analogous journeys.

For me personally, the years before the new millennium were about turning away from the kind of life I had lived in the nineties and setting the stage for a round of massive changes. From 1998-2001, I worked by day in an office building that stood literally in the shadow of New York City’s World Trade Center; by night I rode the subway uptown to Greenwich Village, where I attended an M.F.A. program for writers. To take seminars on literature and participate in writing workshops with New York artist-types was about as far from Fort Benning, Georgia, as my own resolve and resources were able to carry me. It was the fulfillment of a dream to go to graduate school and train in a craft I desperately wanted to learn well.

By the time those twin towers fell down in September 2001, I had met a woman, fallen in love with her, and became engaged. The month before the attacks, I was transferred to an office in New Jersey, so I was not in Manhattan on that awful day. (Oddly enough, Tori was, in meetings with music executives.) But for me part of the aftermath of that national tragedy became a conscious choice to move forward into love and the family relationships that I had always hoped to experience. In 2002, my wife and I got married, and our journey into parenthood quickly followed.

As for Tori, it turns out she was interested in parenthood as well, but her path towards it was longer and more difficult. Some time earlier, she had become romantically involved with sound engineer Mark Hawley, with whom she’d worked on Boys for Pele; the two married in 1998. As most Tori fans know, the subsequent events in her personal life that would have the most obvious impact on her art were her three miscarriages, occurring between 1996 and 2000. These personal tragedies – the pain of which my wife and I would later learn for ourselves – seemed to have a profound impact on Tori’s psyche, and possibly her soul. Signs of the struggle could be discerned throughout her music of the period, perhaps nowhere as directly as in her 1998 single “Spark”: “She’s convinced she could hold back a glacier/But she couldn’t keep baby alive.” Anyone who has ever lost a child to miscarriage, fathers included, can connect to the bottomless loss underneath these words.

All the while, however, Tori continued to bring new things to life creatively. The recordings I missed during these years catalogue not only an extraordinary emotional and spiritual evolution, but also a seismic shift in her musical direction. Her three major releases of the period – 1998’s from the choirgirl hotel, 1999’s To Venus and Back, and 2001’s cover album Strange Little Girls – opened up entirely new vistas in Tori’s soundscape, mainly by expanding her palette from just a woman with a piano/keyboard/harpsichord to a collaboration with a full band, including the exceptionally talented rhythm section of Jon Evans (bass) and Matt Chamberlain (drums). Tori had become confident enough in her abilities to hold her own recording and touring with other talented musicians, while at the same time wise enough to understand that she needed other committed professionals to continue to mine her creativity.

When I had occasion to come back to these albums after my relationship with Tori was rekindled, for me the most striking aspect of this prolific period was the apparent catharsis Tori seemed to have been going through of a moral and/or spiritual nature. This is a struggle that, in my view, seems to continue. Rightfully so; for who ever decisively concludes this battle?

Since Tori had always known, or thought she knew, who her enemies were, she launched new offensives against God and Man, distancing herself once again from both. However, there were greater indications of doubt than before. For every signature Tori-swipe at the sacred, like “If the Divine master plan is perfection/Maybe next I’ll give Judas a try” (“Spark”), one could find several other horses of a different color:

We scream in cathedrals/Why can’t it be beautiful/Why does there/Gotta be a sacrifice? (“Iieee”)

I can’t find those church bells/That played when you died
(“Playboy Mommy”)

Is that what I taste/In your supernova juice/You know it’s true I’m part of you

My fear is greater than my faith

My only way out is to go/So far in
(“Spring Haze”)

It would be over-reaching to make the case that Tori dropped her defenses and returned to religion on the evidence of these lines. But it would also be silly to deny the evidence here of a person unsure of her footing. These voices are hardly the same one that felt the need to let God know He didn’t always “come through”, and to ask if He required the ministrations of a mortal woman in order to buck up.

A possible counter-argument can be found in Tori’s own words about the various personas she brings to life: “That’s the most misunderstood thing about my work: where or even whether I am in the songs. I don’t think anybody really and truly knows what character I am in a given composition”[i]. As the artist, Tori has a right to say this about her creative and intellectual property, but it feels like a copout.

Either way, the more self-assured, angrier Tori would return on later albums, with every arrow in her quiver sharpened. If anything, the difficulties and tragedies of her experiences in the pre-millennial years would strengthen her convictions against organized religion and patriarchal society. Marriage and, later, motherhood would provide her, as it does for many of us, with deeper insights into human experience, and a broader – in her case, more maternal – perspective on both interior and exterior concerns. After all of her struggles with infertility, Amos and her husband welcomed their daughter, Natashya, in September 2000, an event which, naturally, reverberated in her future work to a profound degree.

What I find interesting about the period is that while Tori seemed to have been experiencing the highest degree of confusion, I was the furthest away from her music in my own life. I find myself imagining how the music she was producing in this period would have informed my own journeys while they were happening. But I had been put off by some of her earlier, slash-and-burn methods, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that Tori’s uncertainty would have further contributed to my own.

[i] Amos, Tori, and Powers, Ann; Tori Amos: Piece by Piece, Broadway Books, 2005. p. 144

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Audacity of Mutt

A Reading Experiment for 2010

Ever since I came up with the idea of the Annual Dickensfest, reading one Charles Dickens novel late in the year, every year, since 2000, I’ve been trying to come up with other challenges to propose to myself as a reader of literature. It may seem nerdy, and I guess it is, but on the other hand, when you’re passionate about doing something well, and you work at it long and hard, eventually you develop a desire to challenge yourself anew with the passage of time. You don’t get better at anything without raising expectations of and for yourself. I know that is how I feel about writing. Why should that not be the case also with reading? What’s the matter with wanting to become a better reader? In some ways, both Duke and I have been trying to do this for our entire lives.

But I like the challenges to have a point, not just to be challenges for the sake of having challenges. Dickensfest has a clear purpose, in fact several of them: 1) to become well read on Charles Dickens’ entire catalogue, indispensible for writers of fiction; 2) to continually observe and in fact study the art of writing novels from one of the greatest practitioners of that art ever to draw breath; 3) to celebrate the novel in general, and become immersed in long, rich, dramatic stories, of which Dickens was the great craftsman; 4) to learn about the past; 5) to entertain myself, which Charles Dickens was also always game for.

A while ago, I blogged about another reading challenge I was toying with imposing upon myself, which ran counter to the way I usually go about my reading. The idea of consuming a number of works in a row by one particular author, whose work merited the time commitment and the intense scrutiny, was appealing to me. Yet I never managed to even attempt my own challenge this year; I was too backed up with other books I wanted to read, and maybe was even a little intimidated by taking on so much of my author of choice, Herman Melville. Interestingly, though, Duke liked the idea so much he took it as his own, and not only that, he actually had the chutzpah to choose William Faulkner. And on top of that, whereas I had only entertained the idea, he actually delivered on it! If you don’t believe me, read his outstanding post on the four William Faulkner novels he read end-upon-end, and you’ve read Faulkner, you know this was no mean feat. An amazing reading accomplishment by Duke.

Partially inspired by that feat, and driven by some other motivators, I have now come up with a far more ambitious reading experiment that I will attempt to execute in order to make up for my earlier failure to complete the Melville exercise. In 2008 I was talking about trying to read anywhere from 4-5 Herman Melville titles in a row in order to bone up on his work and to increase my appreciation for a true American master whose books were grossly underappreciated in his own time. For 2010, what I want to try to do is take that idea and blow it up into a Ahab-like quest: to read books by, or about, Herman Melville EXCLUSIVELY throughout the entire year.

Am I nuts??? Probably! Normally I dislike reading even two books by the same author in a row, but to read only one author for an entire year (or about that author – criticism, biography, etc.) is downright insane, and I am sure I will have a tough time completing the journey. I get impatient to read other things even when I am reading one large book. So why do it?

Part of it is for the sheer challenge – so you might say some of the reason is for challenge’s own sake. Another reason, however, is that Melville is the kind of writer whose work merits close attention and whose genius has only become clear with the passing of time. After all, his best known work, Moby-Dick, furnished the entire world with a universally-recognized metaphor for anyone who pursues something obsessively. Not everyone has read the novel, but almost everyone with half an education knows what it means to have a personal “white whale”, or what it means to refer to an individual on an obssessive journey as a kind of “Ahab”. What a legacy for a writer to have earned. Many of Melville’s other works were visionary, well ahead of their time: he published a fantastical story in 1855 that basically pre-visualized robots ("The Bell-Tower"); his novel The Confidence-Man is a precursor to any story about a con-artist or huckster.

Other reasons I have for doing this are admittedly more abstract. But I got to thinking about where I am going to be in life in that year, 2010. I was born in 1970, and I started writing seriously in 1990. This means 2010 is my 40th year of living and my 20th year of “serious” writing, if any of my writing can be considered serious by anyone apart from myself. It’s an interesting time to do something different as a means of reflecting on where I am, how I got here, where I am going. And I find as I approach these two milestones that I feel a bit like a Melville character. I’m in the middle of some long struggles. I haven’t had the successes I wanted to achieve in some areas, and the true prize of my life journey, from the standpoint of my own vocational ambitions, remains elusive. I keep going after the dream of writing stories and books like it’s the only thing that matters, even though it’s obviously not the only thing that matters; it may not, in the end, matter at all.

In short, even though I am no where near his level of genius creatively, I feel a kinship with Melville. He struggled his entire life with debt, underappreciation, his own artistic visions, his desire to be understood. I feel that way about my own life so far. I’m not saying it hasn’t been happy. A great deal of it has, and I know I am a very lucky man. Nor am I saying my artistic aspirations trump other matters, such as family or spiritual ones, for example. But I am saying that my artistic life is incomplete at best. Melville seems like the right person to study for an aspiring writer arriving at this point and with these things to say about his own accomplishments.

Lastly, because this is how my mind works, to take on an ambitious reading project for me opens a door, however small, to the possibility of an ambitious writing project for the future. I would like to try to take on this challenge of reading Melville for an entire year, but it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t record my thoughts about it along the way, with the distinct possibility of someday gathering these thoughts together and writing about them. In other words, there may be a book in here somewhere. The idea of spending a year with Melville exclusively and then writing a book about that experience is not too far-fetched (see The Year of Living Biblically or Julie & Julia for just two examples), and may make for a very interesting and therapeutic experience for the writer and even for a potential reading audience. One never knows how far one’s ideas can go unless you go after them, follow them, see where they lead. It's true in life as much as it is in creative writing. I even have a pretty good title for the potential book in my mind, but I will save that for a later day.

So that’s my grand ambition, and I am going to try to stick to it. So far the only Melville books I have read are Moby-Dick and Typee, and I’ve read some of his short stories such as the aforementioned “Bell-Tower” and the famous “story of Wall Street”, as Melville himself called it, “Bartleby, the Scrivener”. I have copies of Mardi, Redburn, and Billy Budd/The Piazza Tales waiting for me at home, as well as my copy of Moby-Dick, which I have long aspired to re-read. I also have a critical work entitled Melville: His World and His Work by Andrew Delbanco, and wouldn’t mind reading a full biography too if there’s one readily available. Other books I plan to read during the year but do not have copies of are White-Jacket, Omoo, Pierre or The Ambiguities, and The Confidence-Man.

I’m not sure how this project will effect other projects I have going, such as the writing of my novel, or the annual Dickensfest reading project, but time will tell. Normally I read somewhere around 40-50 books each year, so how am I going to fill up an entire year with just Melville’s work? Well, his books are big, and not very easy to get through, and then there’s criticism, and the idea of reading some books twice. So we’ll see how it all goes.

For now I just wanted to float the idea out there, if you will. Later on, after it goes underneath and runs deep for a while, I will have to set out after it on a vessel and chase it until I defeat it. Or it defeats me.