|Backstage in 1998 after a Cleveland, OH show|
Like the true Toriphile geek-nerd that I am, I came across a photo of her original demo tape, and the address that is visible in the photo is presumably her first Hollywood apartment. It's literally around the corner from the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, where I work and serve as the piano player on a huge concert grand Steinway most Sundays at 11am. I'm often asked to play a piano reflection before or after the sermon, and more than once, I've channeled a lick from an Amos original. Seriously people, that little apartment is the equivalent of Graceland to an Elvis fan. To think, 30 years later, those pieces would be musically engaging Christians during moments of prayer just a block from where they were born.
|Photo from Undented via YesSaid|
Tori Amos is well known for her stark and strong vulnerability; for the way her hauntingly a cappella song Me and a Gun literally launched a revolution (see RAINN) in dismantling the blaming demonization of female rape victims, even though the radio stations had no idea what to do with it as her first single. She has nodded to the mothers of modern musical feminism like Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush and has carved out even more space for Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor and male artists like myself. She has fearlessly called out the hypocrisies of the Church and our government, but always in a way that is exceedingly fair. Whenever she goes after the evil in another, her albums offer ample moments of holding the mirror on herself. Think, "I can't believe you're leaving 'cause me and Charles Manson like the same ice cream." It's a tragically wicked sense of humor she employs, but it always comes around to make a point about, well, justice. We are all capable of good and evil. If you're going to criticize the speck of dust in your neighbor's eye, first check out the plank in your own. Tori Amos sings about Jesus, both directly and through inference, more than many of the top Christian artists.
|Rehearsing with the Geroso Brothers Band at FPCH, after hours|
But what Rolling Stone and Spin and MTV News never seemed to pay much mind to was how much Tori Amos takes on the issue of racial injustice. And furthermore, in line with the mission of this blog, Tori Amos has always been Dismantling Whiteousness since she regrouped after Y Kant Tori Read. From the indigenous chorale chants on Little Earthquakes of "give me life, give me pain, give me myself again," to her unique "Cherokee Edition" of Home on the Range where she bitterly asks, "America, who discovered your ass?" Tori's critique of America's Original Sin has been constant and significant.
Most fans know this well: Tori's father is a Methodist Pastor with staunch Scottish ancestry while her mother brings two Eastern Cherokee bloodlines together. This naturally created quite a juxtaposition in her upbringing. One set of grandparents fiercely expected her to assume a subordinate role, as was the common Christian attitude towards women in the 60s and 70s (and, unfortunately for many, is still the case today.) Her other grandparents taught through stories of ancestors, especially her "Poppa," values like strength, courage, respect for the land and respect for finding her own voice. Myra Ellen Amos, her birth name, was uniquely positioned, and uniquely gifted, to stand in the crossroads and pay attention. I am so very grateful that she started writing her observations into lyrics and songs that never leave me.
So let's dive into her battle with the status quo's mission to silence and subdue, that overly proud Whiteousness which she often, and rightfully, attaches to American Christian-ism (the warping of a true walk behind Jesus):
Her sixth studio album, Scarlet's Walk, may be the best representation of this mixed upbringing alongside observations of the United States freshly after the attacks on 9/11. It has been championed by Native American activism groups since its release. Part of the creation of the album involved a road-map (included in the liner notes), with each of the 18 songs corresponding to a different region of the country. Tori studied the musical traditions of the land's original people, and together with Matt Chamberlain as her percussionist, a man with Native American heritage himself, they built rhythm sections for each song that paid homage to the indigenous styles of the region. It's a metaphor of her entire career, building songs out of the forgotten stories, the severed narratives, and the folks who've been conquered and silenced by dominating power structures and people. Right there in the actual beats, the subtle but undeniable pulse of her ancestors.
From the title track:
a guest up until
you had moved in
"what do you plan to do with all your freedom?"
the new sheriff said,
quite proud of his badge
"you must admit the land is now in good hands"
yes, time will tell that
you just lift your lamp
I will follow her on her path
Scarlet's Walk through the violets...
Earlier on the record in Sweet Sangria (right), she links the struggles of the natives to our modern day neighbors crossing our southern borders. Today, I was on a hike in the Hollywood Hills, contemplating how this land was originally Mexico.....
Tori Amos lifts the secrets, the untold stories, the ugly alternative American history into the limelight. She's been dismantling the dominant narratives for years, especially the ones that hurt everyone but White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Men. She's been encouraging all who've been silenced to speak up, to gather around and share. I found myself wondering about Cornflake Girl again, even though she describes it as a song pondering the way women betray one another, could her "hangin' with the Raisin Girls" instead of the dry and stale Cornflakes be a poke at Whiteousness that does not value diversity?
And Happy Anniversary Tori Amos and Mark Hawley! (I realized that it was today as I researched elements for this blog). You are my favorite musical power couple....and thank you for your commitment to unearthing that which has been shamefully hidden. I hope to carry that torch in this blog.
I'll close the blog with a collection of Amos' lyrics that continue to dismantle the story of white supremacy and what people of color have had to put up with in order to survive in this country:
Found a little in you, found a little in me
we may be on this road but
we're just imposters in this country, you know
Mama got shit, she loved a brown man, so she built a bridge in the Sheriff's bed.
She'd do anything to save her man.
We laughed in the faces of kings, never afraid to burn.
Our father of Corporate Greed, you absolve Corporate Thieves.
You don't need a spaceship, they don't know you've already lived
on the other side of the galaxy.
Hey, there's a new Jerusalem! Hey, you built on rock that's on sand! For now you have hijacked the Son, last time I checked he came to the light the lamp for everyone!
Will we wake from our rest? Will we wake up and listen to these voices? I pray we do, soon. There's so much us Anglos have to learn and unlearn and relearn.
-Peace, love, and rock and roll,
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