Everyone always says it about her, but Tori was a slow-burner for me. I was too young for her – only ten – when she first broke through. I loved Cornflake Girl as much as everyone alive in 1994 but didn’t bother with the rest for a long time. That odd remix of Professional Widow which somehow got to number one didn’t help matters. But in my GCSE year one of my best friends at school got into her in a big way and did me a tape of Little Earthquakes (yes, I’m the tail end of the age-band that remembers tapes), which I quite liked. After that I tracked down a cheap CD of Under The Pink in Camden Market, and was sold.
In 2001 she released a covers album of symbolic songs written by men, including Eminem’s Bonnie and Clyde – a reworking of a cartoon rap into a deliberately unlistenable creepy synth-string mess, designed to strip away the song’s humour and highlight the underlying brutality. It did that, and made a point about violence against women, in a way far more powerful and effective than any amount of hand-wringing would’ve achieved (current hand-wringers of social media take note…). By then I was a firm fan and my best friend and I went to see her live in London (look up ‘Tori Amos Hammersmith Apollo 2001’ on YouTube – lots of audio files there). At one point, introducing the song Playboy Mommy, she told the audience the story of how she fell down the stairs in heels and suffered a miscarriage, with the ease of someone describing missing the train. Then there was Me and a Gun, the a cappella song about her rape at gunpoint in LA during her club-circuit days. As she sang, the room was completely silent. As always during when I hear it, I nearly cried – it’s hard not to. I was unsettled by it at the time but in the tumultuous years that followed I would understand the importance of opening up to others – indeed, when a friend said he didn’t understand why Tori had to, as he put it, “do her therapy in public”, I should have seen our incompatibility then and there, and not gone on with the friendship for years before we fell out. A classic quote about Tori’s emotional intensity is from a Melody Maker hack who went to one of her earliest gigs in 1992 and exclaimed afterwards: “I feel like I’ve just cheated on my wife…!” (Um, yup, did I mention open-heartedness can be tricky as well…?)
Tori’s music has now been a constant in my life for almost thirteen years. I’ve been to most of her London shows in that time. She’s the only public figure whose birthday I know; the only one I call by first name as though we’re pals even though I’ve never met her, and certainly the only person who can get away with chanting “M-I-L-F don’t you forget!” ten feet away from me in silver leggings (Hammersmith Apollo, 2007 – atmosphere: think, church service with all the rules topsy-turvy…). She’s been the soundtrack to everything from stupid crushes to essays to tired mornings at work to one of my best friends proposing to me in the middle of Victoria as a joke (before a gig in 2010). When one of the first people I ever interviewed journalistically went into an off-track, off-record rant about how her friend’s husband-to-be was a complete bellend *, the incident stuck in my memory partly because at the time I happened to be heavily listening to a live recording of the song Bells For Her, an absolutely wrenching “Don’t marry him” plea played on a prepared piano (* nine years later I also interviewed the so-called bellend in question, in an evening of such hammered extraordinariness even Tori might struggle to put it in a song; but that’s a whole other blog, to be filed on Never the 12th…).
As well as being the soundtrack to my awkward late-adolescence, I believe that Tori has made me a better journalist as an adult. When you follow a career for so long you understand the frustration of seeing lazy writing on something you really care about. From reading so much of her press I can tell an article that’s been cobbled together from other articles. From listening to her music I can tell when someone’s opinion is based on reading other people’s as opposed to hearing any of it. And when I’m writing about anything else I try to imagine there’s someone out there who’s as interested in it as I am in her and isn’t going to like me if I balls this up.
Speaking of balls-ups, a few weeks after I wrote this piece for The Quietus on the 20th anniversary of Little Earthquakes, they wrote to me again offering me an interview with her, which got stuck in my spam box where I didn’t see it until it was too late. It was the culmination of two years of near-relentless bad luck, and I was so inconsolable my friend invited me to her gaff in South London on a weekday and cooked me dinner to cheer me up. I hope one day I’ll either get another chance or be able to refer to the incident without making a dying-whale noise (Tori may’ve made me a better journalist – too bad she hasn’t made me better at managing email…).
There are many days when I could do little or nothing but tweet Tori lyrics for hours straight but I’d have no followers left if I did, so I’ve collected as many as I can think of here below. There are lots more that’ll have slipped my mind, not to mention ‘Best Gig Moments’, which could be another list. You can sample all the songs – and find others – with a simple YouTube or Spotify search. Tori was one of the first artists to have a web presence and a fan base of internet nerds so the internet pretty much has everything on her…
Why have I written this? Oh, yes, because she’s 50 today!! I’ll just give you a moment to process that shall I…?
SOME FAVOURITE LYRICS OFF THE TOP OF MY INSOMNIAC HEAD
Basically the whole of A Sorta Fairytale because falling for someone in impossible circumstances is a bloody load of rubbish innit
“The truth is in between the first and the fortieth drink.” from Concertina
“A cat named Easter says: ‘Will you ever learn? You’re just an empty cage girl if you kill the bird.” from Crucify
“You can laugh, it’s kinda funny, the things you think at times like these. Like I haven’t seen Barbados so I must get out of this.” from Me and a Gun
“I can be cruel. I don’t know why. Why can’t my balloon stay up in a perfectly windy sky.” and “No cigarettes, only peeled Havanas for you.” from Cruel
“Blue isn’t red. Everybody knows this. And I wonder, when will I learn? Guess I was in deeper than I thought I was if I have enough love for the both of us.” from Strange
“I said ‘I’ve got your mind.” She said: “I’ve your voice.” I said: “You don’t need my voice, girl, you have your own.” But she never thought it was enough…” from Bells For Her
I’m Not Stupid, hilarious address to Lindsay Lohan after her drug arrest
“So you’ve found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts. What’s so amazing about really deep thoughts? Boy you’d best pray that I bleed real soon. How’s that thought for you?” from Silent All These Years
“He said ‘The end is nothing to fear. I said ‘Blow the end. Now baby, who have I gotta shag to get out of here?’ “ from Glory of the 80s
All of Raspberry Swirl. When you’re a bookish, awkward, sexually-fluid sixth-former, this song represents joy. In 2001, when everyone else of that description was writing Buffy fan fiction, I had this on repeat instead
“And with a wink and a smile, you toss your instructions on how to catch a train while it’s moving…” “From Jordan to Chicago another child is born. Trusting that we’ll get it right this time…” and “Before I close my eyes at night I can still see you smiling. Before the truth is buried alive did we prize it? Before you change the world, maybe boy you should change your girl.” all from Angels
“Well you can stare all day at the sky but love won’t bring him back.” from Bouncing Off Clouds, written after her older brother Chris’s death in a car accident
“You got you a fast horse darlin’, but all you do is complain it ain’t a Maserati.” from Fast Horse
“I’m down to your last cigarette and this ‘We are one’ crap as you’re invading. This thing you call love, she smiles way too much but I’m glad you’re on my side, still.” from Taxi Ride. This is another song about bereavement and could be read many ways. To me, it’s about the conflict between my generation and the more privileged generations above. A friend of mine had a really fascinating other take on it which I wish I could remember now…