Sunday, March 04, 2007
The Tori Story
One of my favorite stories - and probably widely posted on fansites - is my Tori Amos piece, written for LA Weekly in 1998. At the time I didn't understand the fuss over Tori, or her music's appeal, or the whole fairy spiritual thing. I just didn't get why some of my friends were Tori cuh-razy at all. Figuring I wasn't the only one, I pitched a piece that would be a sort of layman's beginner guide to Tori and the whys to her following, and the extent to which it goes (I mean, a vocabulary based on Tori??).
I actually grew to like her music a good bit after writing this. And I am quite pleased with it.
Here is the unseen draft version - probably some spelling and/or grammatical errors within - I ultimately turned into the version I turned in and was, after a fab editing by John Payne, published.
Incidentally, I went on to interview Tori again in 2002 for a gay press article. I may post it if there's a demand (hint hint: comment, people!) Meanwhile, you can view my other LA Weekly music features at www.laweekly.com. Do a search for "Lawrence Ferber."
A Tori Story
by Lawrence Ferber
"Well, you think that I wake up and put crystal suppositories in my ass. Know what I mean?” asides Tori Amos, indisputable pop savior to legions of fans worldwide, during yet another conversational inroad. What she’s addressing is the oft-regarded image of Tori as faerie-dust sprinkler, a potentially flaky woman scribing songs on behalf of voices within a red-plumed noggin, an obsessive toiler in religion n’ mythos. Or worse, one aligned with “New Age” sentiment. “I just think that right now, if you have a belief in spirituality, you get aligned with the New Age - 'cocktail spirituality’ - like you wear some ridiculous little red string around your wrist and then go urinate on your coworkers... I'm not interested!”
There’s more, but first some exposition: Rolling Stone’s Steve Daly wrote, “asking her the most straightforward question is liable to produce a radical and unnerving detour into any number of ancient cultures and religions.” It can. BUT she’s not a flake about it. Obsessed, yes, but foremostly practical. Tori continues: “I'm only really interested in people who walk the talk. If you treat the gurus, the shamen, the priests, or the medicine women with respect but then don't treat your coworkers the same way, then you're a hypocrite, and I think there's a lot of hypocrites in the New Age. They go away to their seminar - I lived in LA you have to remember - and of course I did the shamen, I did all that ‘dance around the bloody tea tree sticks.’ But in the end it really came down to, if I'm only open and compassionate when I'm doing these weekends, then what am I like when I'm at Ralphs in line trying to distract somebody in front of me who has a big cart so I can get in front? At a certain point you have to own what you're up to, and that's really what interests me, so any New Age reference I find quite offensive because I do think there's a huge commercial side and not a lot of substance to it."
This particular diatribe sparked while discussing Tori’s recent marriage to sound engineer Mark Hawley. Marriage, it seems, was something pre-spousal Tori wasn’t keen on. "I really didn't feel like I wanted the sanctioning of the church or the state in my private life,” reveals the Minister’s daughter. “I've grown up with the church in my bathroom, my bedroom, in my underwear drawer. I can't wash it off. Every time you try and wash it off, they baptize you again!” Hopping over that baggage, wed they did, an incestuous within-the-industry ("Well, I didn't marry a piano player,” Tori doth protest) coupling which sprung from a well-developed friendship.
Tori’s history has been documented more thoroughly, and often, than some mythologies she’s researched (a habit developed once escaping her family’s hardcore Christian background). “I started to look at Christianity as Christian mythology instead of this is the be all and end all of what exists in the faith system,” Tori says of her myth-mining hobby. “Then I opened myself to many other faith systems that the Christians I was surrounded by weren't open to.” For instance, Native American spirituality - mom’s part Cherokee. “If you go back to traditional Native American spirituality, you have an incredibly grounded way of looking at passion, birth and death that the Christians have really made me feel guilty and shameful about. I like it because it's not "airy fairy." And daddy Amos, his tree’s part Scotch and Irish. “I call it fairy smegma just because I've really studied Celtic mythology and respected it. I know enough that if you want to slag that culture off you should have the guts to go to an Irish pub, find the biggest guy there, and say something really insulting about the faeries. Yeah, that could be fun."
Born in North Carolina during 1963, Tori was infused with enough Christian religion to make holy tea when bathing. Dad’s a Methodist minister, but that didn’t stop him from driving his teenage musical prodigy, who slapped ivories by age 3, to perform in gay bars. A failed musical excursion at 21, “Y Kant Tori Read,” into Los Angeles’ tacky metal pop (and hair teasing) scene, humbled her back to piano, and some while later - viola - the goddess (“That’s ridiculous,” she drawls regarding this elation) emerged. Bleeding pain into piano and lyrics, Tori’s something of a musical phlebotomist. With merely five albums under wing, including 1992’s “Little Earthquakes” and 1994’s “Under The Pink,” her chronicles of loss, most recently a miscarriage (“Music, for the first time in my life, it wasn't priority. Being a mom was."), have borne children of a different kind.
The Lost Souls Club.
Amongst throngs of unofficial websites devoted to Tori is Ears With Feet (http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/9045/tori.html), which features amongst its draws the “Tori-Lexicon.” Nouveau terminology like “Torific: (To-ri-fic) Creme de la creme, the absolute finest there is,” and “Toriocrat: (Tor-ie-o-krat) A person living in a Toriocracy,” is founded regularly by obsessed, hopefully stable votaries. Scary they are but in fairness, unlike those who mushroom media idols to deity status, many “Toriphiles” maintain she’s simply one of them (“Andromeda: "gone andromeda"- when you truly believe the lie that Tori is a Goddess, when actually she’s in the Lost Souls Club like everyone else”) albeit imbued with talents to express their mutual struggles, pain, and triumphs. A friend they wish would call on occasion.
“What drew me to Tori?” asks Erwin Weiss, a Dutch 28-year-old. “A soul crying out like mine did. A feeling of ‘I'm not the only one,’ so that afterwards the weight - of which I was not even aware sometimes - is lifted from my heart.” 18-year-old Nikole Kantor, of Staten Island, NY, adds, “I think she doesn’t want people to consider her music depressing but rather as a release and realization that the bad can make us stronger once we let those demons out of the closet.” And Justin Kadel, a gay 19-year-old from Tori’s NC home state, articulates: “Addressing such issues as loneliness, fear, rebellion, obsession, and rape, Tori touches on the entire gamut of topics I could identify with. Having been raised Mormon... organized religion destroyed me, and Tori identified with that. If it wasn't for her, I would’ve never survived my teenage years.”
Tori seems less surprised than I am by these articulate, grounded responses. “They're not mad stories like I’ve heard other artists tell about - people sending themselves by post in a box and sitting there for three days,” Tori acknowledges (betraying a sense of humor, Tori interposes, “obviously there isn't a Four Seasons ladies' room in the box, so imagine what comes out...”). This is pretty hardcore stuff. One thing that it's taught me: I never, anymore, make a judgment. Just because you get a smiley waitress to serve you coffee with braids in her hair, thinking 'she's got a nice life,' you've got no idea what she's been through in the last 24 hours. You have no idea what she has to wake up to... it’s really quite humbling."
To illustrate this routine fan correspondence, a completely somber Tori relays a harrowing letter from a young girl, habitually raped at knifepoint by a scorned older man. It gets worse. “Finally she couldn't take it anymore - she was ready to commit suicide - so she told her mother. And her mother beat her up and called her a whore, and now she’s run away from home.” Tori pauses. “So that's this week.”
From The Choirgirl Hotel not only marks Tori’s enlistment of full-time musicians in studio and on stage to boot, but rocks. Not that her last album, Boys for Pele (referring to a Hawaiian Volcano goddess, not the soccer player), didn’t. Indeed, it remixed, earning “backdoor” fans who were Torified via Armand Van Helden’s Professional Widow recrafting, which featured breathy “Gotta be big” samples amongst its funky charms. Also, in 1996, she contributed vocals to electronica/remix wizard BT’s “Blue Skies” single (“BT sent me some rhythm and sounds on a thirteen minute tape and said 'do something.’”), making famous Amos’ voice familiar at gay dance clubs from Rage to Roxy.
Might she recreate one of her remixed tracks live for these new, booty-shaking followers? "Well, um, remixing live is kind of redundant,” she opines. “You see, it’s about ProTools. If I'm going to do a remix version, I'll just sit there and play the sample of 'Got to be big' for twenty minutes. I'm not gonna sing it. However, there's an ambient version of 'Raspberry Swirl' that isn't out - 'Raspberry Swirl's Scarlet Spectrum Feels’ by Andy Gray - and it's one of the favorite things that I've heard done. It's playing when you leave the concert venue."
Although remixes were a Pele-era staple, one unwavering Tori trademark, besides religious detours, is cover versions, most famously “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And she does do them in concert. On her methodology (Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” most recently on import copies of “Spark”), Tori offers, “Obviously, you don't do something that doesn't speak to you, but sometimes there are things which have influenced me which I stay away because I know I don't have the right read on them." She moans and groans when pressed to confess a hopeful cover version (Pwetty pwetty pweeze, Tori!), but finally concedes. "You don't have to beg, darling. ‘Dream On’ by Aerosmith, but I don't know. My ‘Like a Virgin’ cover really shouldn't get out, although..."
Although enterprising pirates could do it for her. “Enterprising pirates value their balls," she snips before that suggestion goes further. Speaking of further, Tori’s wrangler paces the room, knotting her face into anguished knots since we’re running 30 minutes-plus later with our conversation than allotted. She’s got to play tonight, so we call it a day. "You've been so wonderful,” Tori says with honey-sweetness. “We've had a very good interview, you and I. So you're going to hold true to what we've done, right?"
As much as enterprising pirates value their balls, Tori.