THE TORI AMOS INTERVIEW. Copyright: Joe Jackson
Tori Amos smiles mischievously and whispers “dare me to go under that table to get it back!” I do. And she does, without asking permission of our fellow diners in a plush London restaurant. They smile nervously as she resurfaces mumbling something about having lost her bottle top. Still staring as she fastens the cap back onto the bottle of mineral water, they are clearly thinking ‘that woman is weird.’
Commentators who are prone to similarly superficial character analysis in the world of rock ‘n’ roll have also slapped much the same label on Tori Amos since she first burst into the charts nearly two years ago, singing what Vox described at the time as “loony tunes.” Q headlined its first feature on the woman “Weird Chick”, a doubly insulting concept that has since been pushed by most music papers who persist in presenting Tori as a person who has obviously lost more than her bottle top.
Indeed this simple-minded perception has become so predominant that the press release accompanying Tori’s latest album, Under the Pink, opens with the quote: “I don’t see myself as weird, I just see myself as honest. That’s just the way I am. I find the truth endlessly interesting.” This, too, is how I see Tori, having spent at least ten hours in her company for this and my original Hot Press interview with her in 1991, and having talked with her in an out-of-interview context on the telephone many times since then. She is, without doubt, one of the most honest, self-analytical, truth -seeking women I have ever known.
“Let me just talk to you at first, tell you what’s really been happening to me, then we can begin,” she says, subverting the interview process neatly at the outset. Later, she agrees that many of those original disclosures should form part of the interview.
Equally, there are bound to be those who will insist that Tori Amos is a “weird” and “disturbed” woman endlessly rambling on about all manner of taboo subjects — including masturbation, sexual fantasies about Christ and rape — rather than endlessly seeking truth. Such claims strike me as not only irredeemably reductive but profoundly insulting also, reflecting a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of self-expression in the 20th century, particularly among women and specifically in relation to art.
Forget the superficial, stylistic similarities between Tori’s work and that of Kate Bush: her organic style of self-expression can be traced back through the post-punk rage of Patti Smith, and the similarly “disturbed” songpoetry of Dory Previn to the kind of demons that drove Sylvia Plath to her death.
During a time which is defined by the ways in which women are wrenching from patriarchal power-structures the right to fully express themselves, she is the personification of that force, and has even written what could be an anthem for the age: ‘Silent All These Years’, from her second album, Little Earthquakes. Her first album was an ill-fated, semi-heavy metal release, Y Kant Tori Read.
Tori Amos was born in North Carolina, the daughter of a Methodist preacher, and has been playing piano since the age of two and a half. Between the ages of five and eleven she was trained at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and grew up with the music of Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix. On one of the singles of ‘Cornflake Girl’ she includes her version of Hendrix’s ‘If Six Were Nine’, playing her piano through a Marshall amp. She also sings Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’ and Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit.’ Why those songs?
“To show that all things are possible, and permissible, for me, as a singer-songwriter,” she explains. “They’re my roots. Joni was part of my life from the moment I hear her. And on the single I want to move from the Keith Jarret jazz plus reggae undertones in ‘Cornflake Girl’ into Joni’s ‘A Case of You’ and make it a seduction, heightening the undertone that was always there, when a woman sings to a man “I could drink a case of you!” (laughs) And what Jimi Hedrix represented to me was ‘be all that you are’. I had idolised Jesus Christ and then it was Hendrix. There’s no difference in terms of the force of the feeling. And ‘Strange Fruit’ is there because that is the South, where I was born and raised and where I directly experienced that kind of racism myself. As a white woman in the South I experienced many forms of racial hatred, deeply, and my grandfather did, because of his Cherokee background. I understand the energy of those racial tensions so well and that’s what I tapped into for ‘Strange Fruit’ which I recorded one morning at 5.30am, having been called out of bed by the forces, to do so.”
Tori knows that this talk about being summoned by “the forces” will indeed seem “weird” to those who do not believe in the power of the spirit, particularly as defined within Native American culture. However, her allegiance to this side of her family history is so strong that when I tell her about the Native American singer-song-writer Bill Miller she immediately makes a note to try get him to support her on her forthcoming American tour (which she subsequently does).
“It’s so fitting that you should tell me that you first saw him when he was singing ‘Home On the Range” in Nashville because I’ve just recorded that song for release on a future single,” she says before crossing her room to play a powerful bitterly ironic version of that song on her hi-fi system.
“I really don’t worry about people not understanding what I said to you about being called by ‘the forces’,” she says, sitting back down on her sofa. “When he’d talk about the blacks and the whites fighting one another my papa would always paraphrase that Indian saying, by telling me ‘they can’t understand each other because you never do, until you walk in another man’s moccasins’. If people can’t see things from the other side that’s not my problem, it’s theirs. And that really applies to racial tensions in America — still. The deepest psychic wound in our country is the genocide perpetrated on Native Americans. The deepest root of our country is being denied and we are a people dislocated from ourselves, our past. We can never be whole until there is re-integration at that level.”
From James Joyce through Schoenberg and Picasso to U2 the theme of the dislocated self in search of re-integration has been a defining factor in art this century. This, claims Tori, is also the central theme of her new album Under The Pink.
“This record is about the research for wholeness and clearly focuses on divisions, even in ‘Cornflake Girl’ which is about Cornflake girls and raisin girls and they represent two different ways of thinking: narrow-mindedness and open-mindedness and how narrow-minded women betray the rest of us. That division is even there between women, which is something I’ve really had to come to terms with. It is often women who say I shouldn’t express myself as I do and, in that sense, women let each other down, no men.”
How does Tori respond when she sees those reviews of her new album which dismiss her as a “weird chick” or reduce her to a sex object?
“It’s a classic case of control, don’t you think?,” she says. “In the States I’m presented as a sex object and questions in interviews usually focus on that an din Britain I’m ‘weird’. Either description is a cop-out and an easy way of avoiding having to face what I’m really talking about in my songs or really want to talk about during interviews. And, again, it is harder for me to deal with when women do it. And they do it a lot, particularly in America, just write about my being a ‘sex symbol’ whatever that is.”
“I understand that they don’t want to fuck me, they want to fuck themselves. Let’s take it to its most naked form here. They see an energy that they want to be part of. Forget about the journalists, they have another agenda. But the people in my audience really do. I believe, want to tap into the energy force I’ve already awakened in themselves and they feel a oneness at that level, which is something higher than simply sex.
“I’ve wanted to fuck guys who had a primitive energy on stage but once I meet them and talk with them I realize I don’t really want to fuck them but I want to get close to where they’re coming from. I talked about this to a wise woman in the desert and she said ‘you want to suck his energy, isn’t that what you want?’ and that’s what it’s all about to me.”
What would Tori say to those who might respond that fucking is indeed just about the physical pleasure involved, particularly a fan’s fantasy of fucking her, or his, hero?
“To me that’s a whole different thing, like someone needing to own, to possess someone else’s energy, to fulfil something in themselves that is empty. Why do we have heroes in the first place? To compensate for what we lack in ourselves. But what I’m saying in all my songs and in every word I speak is that we all have the potential to be all these things to ourselves. It shouldn’t come down to just the act of fucking.
“To tell you the truth I can’t deal with the fact that some fans would just perceive me that way. They don’t have a clue about all the problems that are involved, in terms of my sexuality. If they did, perhaps they’d change their minds!:
Tori Amos, like that other “sex symbol,” Eartha Kitt, is a woman who admits that she herself doesn’t get much pleasure from her own body, sexually. In Tori’s case this is her response to being raped when she was 22, a trauma she still is trying to deal with on a daily basis. She reveals that her problems in this area were compounded over the past year when she was diagnosed as having cervical cancer.
“I had a procedure done and, for a while, I thought it had spread further than it had,” she says. “But it wasn’t malignant, it was benign, meaning that the cancer was stopped. Yet what also happened to me in New Mexico, where I went to write, and record, this album was that at one point I was spraying Pledge polish in a cupboard and I inhaled it and I got a lung infection which meant I couldn’t speak, or sing, for three weeks. And I really though my voice was damaged forever and had to do voice lessons on the phone, with this voice teacher to try and get the natural cortisone back on the chords.
“I was thinking ‘what if I never sing again?’ Then I’d say ‘if I can’t sing what’s the point in being alive, is this person worth anything at all?’ And there were moments where the only answer to that question was ‘no’. then I’d give in to the self -pity that comes out in the song ‘Pretty Good Year’, and in the lyric ‘They say you were something/In those formative years’.”
Did Tori Amos really believe that if she is unable to sing, or play the piano, there is not point in being alive?
“At one point I really did, Joe. And part of it was ‘do I want that girl around if she can’t express herself through music?’ Is she worthy, to me, without that ability? You know what the song ‘Silent All These Years’ is all about. You can see the irony, right? There I was, having found a voice to express myself and suddenly I’m silenced by an accident? That was pretty creepy, to tell you the truth.”
During her time in New Mexico I was forced to come to terms with myself on every level,” she explains. “And what I definitely had to come to terms with is my violence and my withholding, from myself, of my sexuality and how I’d withdrawn from passion in my own life. I know I wrote about my experience of rape in ‘Me and A Gun’ but it’s another thing to really go back inside myself and see how that experience seeped into my cells, how the disease has spread.
“A part of me has been unable to open up intimately since I wrote ‘Me and A Gun’. After so many years I wondered what was it in me that cannot be juicy, that is so dry, expect when I play music? I can go out and channel this energy during a show yet the moment I walk backstage afterwards I close down, sexually. And in New Mexico I did finally realize that I have to take responsibility for the fact that the man who originally violated me is not stopping me now — I am. But, still, there is a part of me that hasn’t been able to open up since I came to terms with ‘Me and My Gun’. And without Eric (Rosse), my boyfriend, I couldn’t work my way through it right now.”
At this point Tori begins to cry gently. She insists, however, on continuing.
“I never talk about this and it helps the healing process to do so. Because people out there must be told about the self-loathing that follows rape and how it’s the greatest breakage in divine law to mutilate themselves, as I have done. Emotionally, I mutilated myself by feeling I’m not worthy of being loved and fucked, and being able to love and fuck, at the same time. I was straining towards that reconciliation the last time we talked but the last frontier was crossed when I got that illness. At that point I had to deal with the way in which I held so much trauma in that part of my body and psyche. I do believe repression of that nature can cause the disease.”
Tori pauses and having gathered her emotions again goes on.
“I also feel that the great frontier was crossed when I confronted my own violence, which is also what the album Under The Pink is all about. Even though I had been working my way out of that violent experience I realised that I would remain a victim of it until I recognised the violence in myself. And my willingness to give up my realising that the withholding of passion and pleasure, from myself, was a form of self-violence.
“I told you before that seeing the movie Thelma and Louise, years after the rape, finally made me feel like I wanted to kill that man but, instead, I now realise that what I did was killed a part of myself, I already had the hatred that women feel for themselves in the Christian Church in terms of their sexual response: that tyranny of believing that love is one thing and lust another, instead of being able to join them together. That was where I first began to be segregated, within myself.
“On top of that I took from the rape that man’s hatred of women, so much so that I couldn’t access parts of myself. It’s as though a computer chip has been put in, to cut out contact with your core self, your central energy source. And that hatred ran so deep that I just number myself to survive. Even sexually, after the rape, I became the vampire, I drank but would not let the men drink. And I had to be a hooker to have sex. Having felt I let myself, and all women, down because of my total vulnerability the night I was raped, I then had to continually tell myself I was in complete control, so I had to feel like I was getting paid.
“Even in ‘Baker, Baker’ on this album, it says I’m the one who was endlessly unavailable, to Eric, even when having sex. And now the only way I’m getting out of all this is with him. The only way back now, having taken so much hatred from one man, is to accept so much love from another. But it’s a long, slow process.”
Having paused again, and sipped from that ever-present bottle of Perrier water, Tori picks up the threads of the conversation, balancing syllables as though each contained a central truth about her life. “Okay, let’s get to the core of it all. What this means is that Eric has to say ‘I am not the man who raped you and I will not accept that concept’. When we make love he’ll leave on the lights and say ‘look at me what’s my name?’ and I’ll say his name. And, even more important, he’ll say ‘what am I doing? I’m Fucking you, say it.’
“And I’ll try to say ‘you’re fucking me’. Then he’ll hold me as tightly as he can and say ‘And I love you, I adore you, I treasure you’. So I am healing that way. And we’re healing, because as you can imagine, I am hardly an easy woman to live with. Or to love. But I am finally ceasing to see myself as a victim, which is the only way out of all this.”
Is Tori suggesting that feminists such as Andrea Dworkin are, therefore, ‘victims’ because they perceive all acts of intercourse between men and women as rape?
“As women we are simply shaming men by saying ‘all men are rapists’ and I don’t believe in shame. That’s just Christianity in another guise, shame as a form of disease, a poison. As a woman I refuse to buy into that anymore. So when Andrea Dworkin says that any form of intercourse between men and women is, by its very nature, rape she is being a victim, yes. And, by extension, she’s also saying that all women are powerless, which, of course, I don’t believe. Women have got to see beyond those easy labels too, and men. Besides, that kind of talk is just the language of violence, which is not, now, how I choose to communicate.”
Tori Amos accepts nonetheless that women these days do increasingly perceive men in general as, if not potential rapists, then the enemy. And that the war between the sexes is escalating day by day.
“That’s another reason I wrote this record,” she explains. “This record and Little Earthquakes both come from the centre of that war zone! But my position differs from a lot of the more militant feminists because all they are concerned about is just the position of women, in the universe, women re-defining their roles. That’s fascism. And that form of fascism is not empowerment at all. I’ve lost women friends over this argument, in the last year. Because all they do is blame men and become bitter because they are dominated, which still allowing themselves to be dominated, in ways. But that’s basically because they haven’t healed the place within themselves that remains both masculine and feminine, is part woman, part man and needs both halves to be in harmony.
“I just can’t accept it when the blanket response of my women friends is simply ‘all me are bastards, let’s just cut them out of our lives, be rid of that male energy completely’. And it’s really disappointing in terms of feminism. They are fascists. And I don’t want fascists in my life. I’ve had this idyllic view of the sisterhood that has been shattered over the past year, that they would never betray each other. But I was wrong and that’s what I write about in some songs on the new album.”
Tori’s recent sense of betrayal was, she says, deep enough to connect her with an awareness of what she describes as ‘women’s hatred for women.’
“The fact is that women have betrayed one another. I agree with Alice Walker when she talks about the cellular memory that is passed down, which all women have to come to terms with. Whether it is the women taking the daughters to the butchers to have their genitalia removed, or the mothers that bound the feet of the daughters, it is often women who betray their own kind, not just men. Likewise the mother that sells her eight year old daughter in Egypt, to the Saudi Prince, or, as I said, women who say I shouldn’t express myself as I have chosen to.
“That’s why I say ‘Cornflake Girl’ is about how I came to terms with the naive notion that all women are the good guys and men are always the bad guys. That, obviously is not always the case. I still feel so much love for my women friends, nothing is more sacred to me than that, except my relationship with Eric. so when we turn on each other it has been devastating.
“Whenever they would seemingly instinctively attack men, or whatever, I’d have to say. I don’t automatically feel that way, I’m trying to rise above such feelings. Hatred from men, en masse, is as poisonous a feeling as shame. And ‘Bells for Her’ is the scream of ‘no’ before you cut the chord and let them go. The song ‘Anastasia’ also has a lot of that stuff in it.”
But surely Tori can empathize with women who do still feel the need to instinctively attack men, as symptoms of the patriarchal power structures that have oppressed women since the beginning of time. “Fine, that may be a necessary first step in the journey, but let’s hope the true goal of those women is self-fulfillment, not just a need to see men crawl as women have been made to crawl for centuries. “Women must understand that simply attacking or hating all men is just another form of disempowerment. A woman has to realize that when she makes a man crawl it doesn’t give her power. All it will do is make her puke, eventually. Rather than say ‘all men are bastards’ let’s say ‘all me are infants, until they decide to be men’. Calling them bastards is boring at this stage. It’s kindergarten stuff, in terms of feminism. Let’s hope we’ve move on from that, from name-calling and making men crawl. That’s kiddie behaviour. “but sure, what you say is true. And let’s be fair here. Women have walked the hot coals for a long time and when there is not let up on the oppression, men have to accept that they created Dobermans and now they have to live with the consequences of that. If men want to heal then they have to take responsibility for what they’ve created, and are creating, which is, in ways, a race of women who are growing more and more to despise, reject or try to annihilate them. How many times can men slap, and slap, and slap women down before they do turn around and say ‘wait a minute, motherfucker’.
“Men have had their boots on womens’ necks for centuries and now we are going to speak, in whatever way we choose. I understand all that, but I reject any suggestion that the only way I now can talk is to use the language of hatred and violence. Though I understand those women who are saying ‘you guys can come to the table or be dragged!.”
Yet surely some women have every right to say ‘we simply don’t want men at the table’ or in our lives or in our beds’.
“Okay , if it’s come to that, it’s come to that,” she says. “And that’s what probably scares most men even more, the thought that women are saying they are a redundant species, unnecessary on every level. But that too is a form of violence, a form of mummification, and severing of a woman’s own full potential. Those women shouldn’t cut the life force off, just to prove a point, politically. Lesbians, of course, often make that choice, anyway.”
Has Tori ever considered having a lesbian relationship?
“I have a dear friend who’s not diesel but she’s definitely dyke and I feel like we are very good friends and I know her girlfriend and everything.
“And she said to me recently ‘the dykes know that you love to suck cock but that you also see the beauty in women and can sit and talk with us about the idea of giving head to another woman and caring about that’. And she said ‘the best thing is that there is no judgement with you’. And there isn’t. But I have never given head to a woman and I don’t really feel the need to. I like to feel myself feeling myself, which I sing about in ‘Icicle’ but I don’t have whatever chemistry is needed to be attracted to women in that way.
“Having said that, when kd lang looked at me over her glasses one time I almost crawled in to her arms. But I did wonder if I was a bit of a sex object for her. Though wanting to crawl in to her arms is not the same as wanting to give her head, is it!? But I do imagine myself being a man, a lot. I said to my friend who’s a dyke, ‘if I had a cock I’d rub you from head to toe’ and she looks at me and says ‘let’s pretend!’ But at least she didn’t say ‘I’ve a spare one here!'”
In Under The Pink’s celebration of masturbation, ‘Icicle’, Tori sings, when they say ‘take of his body’/I think I’ll take from mine instead’. This juxtaposition of Jesus Christ and the orgasm seemed to be a problem for at least some readers of her last interview in Hot Press, when Tori revealed she nurtures sexual fantasies about Jesus Christ. She also did, of course, write that sweetly subversive line which is loved by women yet, no doubt, secretly detested by many men: “So you can make me come/That doesn’t make you Jesus.” Can Tori understand why Irish Catholics, in particular, might find such thoughts ‘blasphemous’?
“I am a minister’s daughter, for heaven’s sake! So, of course I can see why some would regard sexual fantasies about Jesus Christ as unacceptable. But that’s part of what I’m saying in ‘Icicle’, when I tell of how I used to masturbate at home as a teenager, while my father and his fellow theologians were downstairs discussing the Divine Light. I was exploring the ‘divine light’ within myself! (laughs).
“And anyone who sees that as ‘blasphemous’ can go to hell! Like I said to you before, that’s how women are paralyzed, disconnected from their own power by religion. Talk about patriarchal power structures! For centuries the Church has slammed a crucifix between a woman’s legs and even masturbation is a way of dislodging that cross, of self-empowerment. And how dare anybody say that my honoring my woman-ness in that way, my relationship with my own body and my opening to this energy between my legs is a ‘sin against God’, is ‘blasphemous’.
“That was my act of defiance, of asserting myself against the oppressive force of religion which has always made women deny their sexuality. The concept is that Jesus Christ, through the Father, Son and Holy Spirit experienced life – the human form. Well, what I find quite inexplicable is that he could suckle a woman’s breast yet not soil his dinky by having sex! How’s he supposed to experience life at the level of his dick, for Christ’s sake!
“That’s the Church’s core denial of sexuality, right there, alongside the idea that Mary could give birth without ‘doing it’. It’s absurd. So when I say I want to ‘do it’ with Christ it’s not just that I want to sexualize Jesus, bring him down to our level, I want to breathe the earth into his lungs. He came for Heaven and we, as women, come from the earth. So it’s like the idea of the soil beneath the fingers, the notion of, ‘if this blood is sacred, then drink it’. That’s what it’s all about.”
The same theme informs the song ‘God’, from Under the Pink, in which Tori addresses what she describes as “The institutionalized God, ” the symbol of one of the most destructive patriarchal power structures on the planet – the Christian Church.
“The notion of God as a male force is definitely not how I see things. Because that male force is the Christian God who says ‘we are Christians and we love our neighbors as ourselves as long as they believe in our God. If you do, we won’t rape your women, slaughter your children or cut your nuts off’ – which was basically the culture of Christianity, with a male figure as its God-head.”
“That’s why I sing ‘God, sometimes you just don’t come through/You need a woman to look after you’. The God-force must be feminized, perceived more as a God-Goddess. Jesus, his mother, ‘his’ Church all must be redefined. Especially a figure like Mary Magdalene, who I and so many Christian women were taught to despise, because she was a prostitute. Because of that we had great problems coming to terms with the prostitute in ourselves, which again, is something the Church teaches us to deny, and something my song ‘The Wrong Band’ is about when I sing, ‘Ginger is always sincere/But not to one man’.
“That prostitute in woman is someone who is worthy of honor and respect because she comes from along line of Goddesses who understood the balance between the sexual and the spiritual, who carried the blood royal. But her positive energy-force has been reappropriated by the Church and denied.
“The idea that God is sexless is a brilliant form of control because it means we can never be in the image of God unless we’re sexless to,” she elaborates. “So, from birth your sexual organs are ripped off, in terms of self-respect. The message is ‘you’re scum’ if you partake in sex. But we, as women and men, are not ‘scum’ and we are not sexless beings. We are a blend of the spiritual and the physical and to deny either aspect of our nature is like trying to walk on one leg. Nor are women, in particular, simply incubators for patriarchal power structures such as marriage, society, the Church. Patriarchy isn’t working. Any fool can see that. And, again, it all comes back to the question of being divided within ourselves.”
One suspects that Tori Amos’ need to sexualize Christ, and the life force itself, is a necessary manifestation of her desire to re-sexualize herself after rape.
“Perhaps it is,” she says. “But part of the journey back is accepting the prostitute in myself, the kind of ‘bad girl’ I refer to in ‘Cornflake Girl’. The Church depends on our sense of dislocation from ourselves, because the spiritual body is made to feel ashamed of the physical body. That was part of my problem, even before the rape. But now I question this concept of ‘purity’. What does ‘loving purely’ mean?
“To me, now, ‘pure’ is all things. It means the deepest, darkest, dirtiest concept with that flashlight on it, with no judgement being made. Whereas when I, as a ‘good Christian girl’, judged part of myself to be ‘bad’ I cut it out, as I explained earlier. So I have been severed from the physical side of myself in that sense too, as have many Christian women. But now I’m trying to realign myself in a way that reflects the true life force from here to here (her hand moves from her head through her heart to her vagina). People many say I’m obsessed with sex’, but what I’m really obsessed with is this idea of realignment, of making myself whole again.”
It is this process which is at the centre of Under The Pink. Tori’s desire to make herself ‘whole’ again is finally brought into full focus when she bravely chooses to close this interview by reflecting on the specific circumstances that night she was raped.
“I’ll never talk about it at this level again but let me ask you. Why have I survived that kind of night, when other women didn’t,” she says.
“How am I alive to tell you this tale when he was ready to slice me up? In the song I say it was ‘Me and a Gun’ but it wasn’t a gun, it was a knife he had. And the idea was to take me to his friends and cut me up, and he kept telling me that, for hours. And if he hadn’t needed more drugs I would have been just one more news report, where you see the parents grieving for their daughter.
” And I was singing hymns, as I say in the song, because he told me to. I sang to stay alive, I sang hymns to stay alive. Yet I survived that torture, which left me urinating all over myself and left me paralyzed for years. That’s what that night was all about, mutilation more than violation through sex.
“I really do feel as though I was psychologically mutilated that night and that now I’m trying to put the pieces back together again. Through love, not hatred. And through my music. My strength has been to open again, to life, and my victory is the fact that, despite it all, I kept alive my vulnerability.”