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

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