"You think that I wake up and put crystal suppositories in my ass," lightheartedly scoffs almighty pop oracle Tori Amos during a trademark conversational inroad. The subject she's addressing is her widespread public image as a fairy-dust-sprinkling, religion-'n'-mythos-obsessed songwriting proxy for "voices" that emanate from within a cranberry-plumed noggin. "Right now, if you have a belief in spirituality, you get aligned with the New Age," she complains. "'Cocktail spirituality' - wearing some ridiculous little red string around your wrist and then urinating on your co-workers . . . 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 or religions." And it is. 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 shamans, the priests or the medicine women with respect but then don't treat your co-workers the same way, then you're a hypocrite, and I think there's a lot of hypocrites in the New Age. I lived in L.A., you have to remember - 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 in line at Ralphs trying to distract somebody in front of me who has a big cart so I can get in front?'"
This particular diatribe hatched while discussing Tori's February marriage to sound engineer Mark Hawley. "I really didn't feel like I wanted the sanctioning of the church or the state in my private life," reveals the Methodist minister's daughter of her pre-spousal attitude. "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!" But wed they did, a friendship-bred, incestuous within-the-industry coupling ("Well, I didn't marry a piano player," Tori doth protest).
Amos' history has been documented more thoroughly, and often, than some of the mythologies she's researched. "I started to look at Christianity as Christian mythology instead of this be-all and end-all of what exists," she says of her myth-mining hobby's roots. "Then I opened myself to many other faith systems the Christians I was surrounded by weren't open to." For instance, Native American - Tori's mom is 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 her father's tree is part Scotch and Irish. "I've really studied and respected Celtic mythology, and I know 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 in 1963, Amos was infused early on with enough Christian religion to make holy tea when bathing. Dad, although a minister, drove his teenage musical prodigy, who'd slapped ivories by age 3, to her performances in gay bars. At 21, a calamitous excursion into Los Angeles' hair-teasing metal-pop scene with an act designated Y Kant Tori Read humbled her back to the piano, and some while later - voila! - the goddess emerged. ("That's ridiculous," she drawls, regarding said elevation.) Today, bleeding pain and intensely personal experience into her piano and lyrics, Tori's a musical phlebotomist. And with merely five albums under her wings, including 1992's Little Earthquakes and 1994's Under the Pink, her chronicles of loss, most recently a miscarriage, have borne children of a different stripe: the Lost Souls Club.
Among the throngs of unofficial Tori Web sites is Ears With Feet (http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/9045/tori.html), which features the "Tori-Lexicon," wherein 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 proffered by obsessed, hopefully stable votaries. And then there's the Toriphile contingent, which, unlike those who'd elevate their pop idols to deity status, maintain that Amos is simply one of them ("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.
"What drew me to Tori?" asks Erwin Weiss, a Dutch 28-year-old, in response to my Internet-solicited request for Tori testimonials. "A soul crying out like mine did. A feeling of 'I'm not the only one,' so that afterwards, the weight - of which I wasn't even aware sometimes - lifted from my heart." Eighteen-year-old Nikole Kantor of Staten Island, New York, attests, "I think she doesn't want people to consider her music depressing, but rather a release and a 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 North Carolina 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 never would've survived my teenage years."
"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 attests of her devotees. "This is pretty hardcore stuff." To illustrate, a completely somber Tori relays a young girl's harrowing letter. Repeatedly raped at knifepoint by a scorned older man, "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."
Amos' latest album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, rocks hard while bearing her trademark emotional diadem. Not that 1996's "Boys for Pele" (which refers to a Hawaiian volcano goddess, not the soccer player) didn't. Indeed, it was deemed worthy of remixes (earning her "backdoor" fans), Torified via Armand Van Helden's "Professional Widow" re-crafting, which featured breathy "Got to be big" samples among its funky charms. Also that year, she contributed vocals to remix wizard BT's "Blue Skies" single ("BT sent me some rhythm and sounds on a 13-minute tape and said, 'Do something'"), further ingratiating the famous Amos with clubbers. Any chance she'll interpret a ditty live in its remix incarnation? "Well, um, remixing live is kind of redundant. If I'm going to do a remix version, I'll just sit there and play the sample of 'Got to be big' for 20 minutes. I'm not gonna sing it."
However, in concert Tori does perform another fan-winning staple: cover versions, most famously "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Regarding her selection methodology (Steely Dan's "Do It Again" appears as the import B-side to "Spark"), Tori offers, "Obviously, you don't do something that doesn't speak to you. But there are things that have influenced me which I stay away from because I know I don't have the right read on them." Such as? "'Dream On' by Aerosmith, but I don't know. My 'Like a Virgin' cover really shouldn't get out, although . . ."
Until she lets that loose, or an enterprising pirate purloins the masters ("Enterprising pirates value their balls," she snips), recent Toriconverts can unearth a wealth of Toribacklog to sate themselves, and, of course, there's her current tour.
"We've had a very good interview, you and I," Tori declares with honey sweetness before an escort whisks her off. "So you're going to hold true to what we've done, right?"
As much as Torijournalists value their balls, Tori.
Tori Amos appears at Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, Friday, September 18, and at the Greek Theater, Tuesday and Wednesday, September 22 and 23.
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