“You’ve never seen fire until you’ve seen Pele blow” –from “Muhammed My Friend”
The first time I heard Tori Amos was right around the time that Boys for Pele was first released in 1996. “Caught a Lite Sneeze” was the first single from the album, and the local rock station in San Diego played it pretty frequently, something I can’t imagine happening today. This song sounded completely different from everything else on the radio at the time, hypnotic and from another universe that communicated through harpsichord, howling, and unintelligible lyrics. I taped it onto a cassette straight off of the radio and listened to it on repeat, trying to decipher the lyrics, the sounds. I’d never heard anything so dramatic, so operatic, so strange and so exactly what I felt running through my veins seemingly all the time; I was twelve-years-old, depressed, and achingly lonely, like most twelve-year-old girls, I think. Nothing seemed to fit, not me or any of the world I lived in, but here was this song that felt like a dagger womb, something both comforting and frightening.
I bought Boys for Pele soon afterword and everything changed. I became some other kind of animal. Not only had I found Tori Amos, whose person and music would become an obsession and passion, a light at the end of the endless tunnel, but I’d found this album that expressed every dream, feeling, and experience I’d felt or imbibed in a language I’d never heard before, hadn’t realized could exist. It really felt like BFP had landed from another planet, sent expressly to be my best friend and wisest teacher and safest home. BFP was a road map for survival, for walking through fire and coming out the other end with a weird gummy smile, and bleeding.
I saw Tori play live for the first time that following June in 1996, my mother accompanying me. As soon as Tori sat down at the piano and hit that G note for “Beauty Queen” I started crying. I’d never had an emotional experience like that before, where a stranger splits open their life for you and you can feel it all acutely, pouring off the stage and vibrating the whole room. The room gave back, too, of course, all of us silent and pulsing back at Tori with love and gratitude and power, power, power, that kind of power that has nothing to do with money or status but instead some kind of gut fire that burned up the atmosphere and fed us on its drippings. I think now of my hunger at the time, my teenage girl hunger for a mirror that would open its arms to me and fashion me into something else, not a body at all, and Boys for Pele offered that, even demanded it. I’ve now seen Tori live something like twelve or thirteen times, not a dud night among them. I know that if I’m spending a night with Tori I’m spending a night in a church of The Tower, that tarot card I’m eternally picking that promises destruction and renewal.
(I do wonder why some of my favorite artists– artists who seem to have certainly taken a page from Tori’s good, weird book– never mention her as an influence. I’m thinking Joanna Newsom, Bat for Lashes [doesn’t “Moon & Moon” scream UTP era Tori?]; I look for her stamp on music and see it frequently, but no one lauds Tori, names her as a familial presence. Tori has never been cool: one only has to arrive at her early-to-mid ’90s wardrobe of cut-off jean shorts with leotards and sneakers to see that. She has never cared about being cool, has been so entirely herself, thanking the faeries in her liner notes, talking sacred goddesses and masturbating and bloody cunts. How could you not love her, not scream that love from mountain tops! And yet whenever I, or someone else, makes a post about her on Twitter or FB we all go wild, writhe around pronouncing how she saved our lives– that vital.)
I’m so thrilled to offer this tribute to Boys for Pele here. An album now twenty years old and nothing, not one thing, has ever come close to it. It sounds like nothing else on earth; it feels like nothing else on earth. I am, thankfully, not twelve anymore, but this record remains my home, my sonic mother. The lyric booklet is my favorite book of poetry ever written– I learned how to use language from these lyrics, learned to be playful and silly and wild with words and images. I hide allusions to Tori’s lyrics in my own poems sometimes, tiny love notes to fellow listeners. Cindy Palmano’s photographs (some of which are shown above) that accompany this album remain some of my favorite photos I’ve ever seen, perfectly evoking the dreamscape in which BFP takes place, sad and spooky and heavy and joyful and ruined and renewed. Thank you to all the participants who created words and images in response to each of the eighteen songs that comprise Boys for Pele, all of whom I know feel this record as deeply in their selves as I feel it in mine. Song by song we offer tributes to the record, accompanied by live videos of each for your listening/viewing pleasure. Pele: this is for you, forever.
Beauty Queen (by Gina Abelkop)
“Beauty Queen” is the portal to Pele. The album opens on this quiet so quiet you think it must be silent, but then, if you’re listening carefully (you are), you hear a small “click”, a sound I hear in my head as an image of a fan being plugged in and turned on in front of Tori’s signature Bosendorfer piano. This buzzing, heady silence ensues, the song of air moving and tension expanding. Suddenly, a strong G, one note, comes floating out. Then:
She’s a Beauty Queen
My sweet bean bag in the street
Down out to the laundry scene
Don’t know why she’s in my hand
Can’t figure what it is
But I lie again
Like many of Tori’s lyrics, one can’t be sure what the laundry scene is, or conjure up a sweet bean bag. But your heart knows it regardless, sung in Tori’s spooky clear high register, hypnotic and slow. Everything is very understood, all at once, though you couldn’t verbalize what it was you’d understood. Accept that. Vibrato hangs in the hair all shiny; it couldn’t have started any other way.
Horses (by Leah Umansky)
I fell in love with this song the first time I heard it. Its innocence. Its honesty.
I got me some horses to ride on to ride on
The fairy-tale element
So I got me some horses to ride on to ride on
As long as your army keeps perfectly still
The song, of the girl and the song, of the girl and the horse and the song, of the girl and the horse and the army and the song and the camera always on, always watching, of the girl, and the horse, and the song and, well, Neil.
And maybe I’ll find me a sailor a tailor
And maybe together well make mother well
We are always weaving. Our truths. Our lies. Our stories, the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we throw out to the world. Here, her weaving, her sewing of oceans, of tales, of heartbreaks and healing. All the maybes aligning on the horizon…
I was drawn to the longing. To her longing. I am always drawn to the longing. To the longing and to the fear inside that longing. And isn’t that what life is about?
You showed me the meadow and milkwood and silkwood
Immediately I was drawn into this other world out of time, of meadows, of the world outside of Long Island, New York, where I was a sixteen year old, listening over and over to “Horses” in my bedroom.
And you would if I would but you never would
Then, that longing again. What were the woulds and why wouldn’t the you abide…
I spent hours contemplating that, ruminating the thought, tracing it through my favorite 19th century British novels, and through my own life: what would I wager? What would I do for love?
So I chased down your posies your pansies in my hosies
Then opened my hands and they were empty then
I imagined a chase. I imagined a quest. I imagined a search for answers but I saw hands full of flowers, hands full of flowers turned to weeds, hands full of flowers turned to anything but flowers. I imagined hands full of someone else’s hands, hands once full, and then empty. Alone. Lonely. Splintered. Crestfallen.
Then, the camera watching. In love we are that vulnerable. We perform and we display and the heart follows like an old friend. But sometimes friendship isn’t enough. Sometimes, love isn’t enough.
Cue those flat chords and her direct address, her turn from the piano to you. She pleas:
And if there is a way to find you
I will find you
It resonated. Even as a 16-year old, I felt love had no bounds. I still feel love has no bounds
Another image: And threads that are golden don’t break easily
Back, back into the weaving of tales. Goldilocks, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty. Every story is another story. What is golden is valuable. What is golden is strong. What is golden is pure. Love is pure.
Love should be golden in any light.
Blood Roses (by Gale Marie Thompson)
What I remember most about this song is that I used to play it over and over again in the car when my dad would pick me up from soccer or speech & debate practice in high school. Yes, I was that asshole at 14, 15 years old, who couldn’t understand why the whole world wasn’t listening to Tori (or Fiona Apple, or Ani Difranco, or…the list goes on). I have no idea what went through my dad’s head, but I would hop in the car and play my burned “Tori #2” CD without asking, and listened for its distinctive beginning—the eerie harpsichord followed by these intensely sexual, hyperventilating moans. This doesn’t mean that I was not incredibly embarrassed by the song, and I was definitely not interested in sharing all of this with my father, but I couldn’t get home without hearing it. It was like an itch.
The thing about scars, if you’ve ever had a thick one, or had keloids, is that they itch; they are a deep itch, and the tightness of the skin makes the itchiness even more intense. The thing about itching is that it is always forgoing at least a bit of pain in order to feel a bigger pleasure, a cathartic opening-up. Itching, I learned, has many similarities to the sensation of pain; the main difference between the two is that pain provokes a withdrawal reflex, whereas itching causes virtually the opposite–scratching. I was so terrifyingly curious, and obsessed, with Tori’s aggressive rubbing into pain to make pleasure, with her body-ness—through her voice, lyrics, through each discrete note plucked on the harpsichord. I couldn’t get over how a song can be both beautiful and scare the shit out of me at the same time.
I was not an organic body; I don’t think anyone felt like an organic body as a teenager. I felt overwhelmingly material, like I could control none of it. It was too much body, too much skin, hair and then too many scars. My scars built on each other, became keloids, compulsively itchy in their growth. A lightning field across my body. There was way too much, it was considered woman, and it was all over. The line “I’ve shaved every place where you been, boy” has so little to do with a romantic breakup for me and more to do with its pleasure of control over the body’s substance, materiality, the parts that extend (/and are accessed by men): “You’ve cut out the flute / from the throat of the loon.” Sometimes you can be “nothing but meat” to yourself, too.
It sounds bleak, and maybe it is, but I don’t think there was a more powerful song I needed at the time. I still search everywhere for that embodiment in mine and others’ poems, and when I find it, it’s a revelation. Thank you thank you Tori.
Father Lucifer (by Caolan Madden)
Hi, she says at the beginning; it’s Tori breathiness, piano business, but Wikipedia tells me she actually met him. With his drizzle he’s epicurian, baudelairean, he’s goth, he’s that Neil Gaiman version of Lucifer. My theory is that Neil and Tori are both made worse by their friendship. Too precious, you guys. Self-parody.
Nothing’s gonna stop me from floating
It may have been this song on my cheap stereo in the living room, alone at home some weeknight, sixteen, watching my face in the mirror. It floated above my navy-blue cardigan, warped, turned gold, blue, flickered.
He says I run from him and then I run
I didn’t tell any of my friends that I was listening to Boys for Pele on repeat; by 1996, Tori was already uncool. What were they listening to? Like, Joy Division. Lightning Bolt? (We lived in Providence.) They did acid that summer, just like Tori, they probably met him too, made fun of his frock coat.
He wiped a tear and then he threw away our apple/seed
With my mom at a secret meetup for feminist Catholics, joining hands and breaking this paper chain. Each of us eating a tiny piece of an apple. I was little and I can’t remember anything except the apple, the chain, I had a sense of firelight. Religion as decorative, diminutive: How’s your Jesus Christ been hanging? As masculine threat, minimized, dismissed. How’s it hanging.
Every day’s my wedding day
All that spring, in England, I lay awake listening for intruders. Robber bridegrooms. Earlier: I’ll never let the devil have my soul, chanted on the swingset. Compulsively, endlessly. Think about the devil and that’s it, that’s an invitation. My ability, always, to Secret darkness. If you can think of a man in your dishwasher. If you can think of the devil in your left nostril. In the summer, at home, I listened to Boys for Pele on repeat, September came, I listened to Boys for Pele on repeat, I did my homework, I had to get up for school, I started sleeping again. Tori healing every girl with blasphemy.
Still in love with that milkmaid
The next spring I went to a writer’s conference for teens and I met my first poets, and my first diehard Tori fans. I learned that there were boys who loved Tori and wrote sensitive poems with blood in them called “inundation” (no caps), and who were still stuck-up mansplaining tools. I learned that there were girls named Anais whose parents knew Leonard Cohen. There was frost on the grass and people sang madrigals. O I met you, precious Lucifers, Boys, girlfriends. I forgot you for years, but you preciouses, you lifesavers, happy birthday.
Professional Widow (by Alan S. Bergeron)
When Boys for Pele was released,
Professional Widow was the Queer Pagan War Cry
I had waited for…
A white faggot in a black,
predominantly section 8, community,
set in a Baptist, Republican, military town.
I was always,
So many ways to be told you don’t belong,
should smudge yourself out of existence.
By the time this song came out, I was a senior in high school,
I knew in my gut my whole existence,
was a giant “Fuck You,”
so I made my attitude,
a giant “Fuck Off.”
Tori sang of my desire,
desire to be wanted,
desire to fulfill my own desires,
desire to belong,
but mostly to stand my ground,
to build my own territory,
to defend myself against all those that sought…
(“Everywhere a Judas”)…
to Annihilate me.
And she sang of my salvation…
“Give me peace, love and a hard cock.”
Hello Mr. Zebra (by RKG)
Jealousy rattles my bones when I think of those who are able to lure pretty men into their worlds–before destroying them. There is jealousy because I think I am the one who has too frequently been destroyed. I am not the destroyer. I am the one who has too frequently been destroyed and I think about the bread crumbs our paramours throw down, one by one, leading us to the promise of True Love. It is not True Love, it’s a pit of shit, unfortunately. I think about how gullible I am and that with regards to True Love, I don’t seem to learn. I see the bread crumbs and I forget how much it hurts when I get sucker-punched. This has happened multiple times to me and yet, I make the same mistake over and over again. I am being toyed with, I am something my paramour can swat with his clawed paw. Nothing hurts worse, of course, than when we go from honey-dipped bon mots to silence in the span of two text messages.
I think of the line “‘Too bad the burial was premature’ / she said and smiled” and I smile. I smile because there is a parallel universe where I am the one doing the destroying, not the one getting destroyed.
Marianne (by Matias Papapietro)
Caught a Lite Sneeze (by Gina Abelkop)
My first love, my first Tori song. “The spire is hot/and my cells can’t feed” still gives me shivers whether I read or hear it, despite the fact that I must have read/heard it thousands upon thousands of times by now. “I need a big loan from the girl zone” was such a sad, aching lyric to feel at age twelve, girlfriends disappearing and forgetting and leaving when I needed them so, so badly; over time the way I engage with these lines morphs and shifts, but the intensity of my recognition does not: they always connect, they always feel immediately applicable to some part of my life. If this song didn’t exists I really don’t think I’d be the person or woman I am now– Caught a Lite Sneeze opened some vein I never knew I had and connected it to the rest of my circulatory system, a DIY veinjob. I remember watching Tori perform this song on SNL too– have they had a harpsichord on stage before or since?– I used to copy all of Tori’s television appearances onto VHSs, all of which I still have. I’d watch them over and over and over again, in awe every time. Tori was (and still is) so intense, so inside those songs when she’s singing them. I wanted to feel like that, inside of an experience, so inside that nothing outside existed. This song taught me how to have a body at a time when my body was rebelling in all kinds of terrible ways, acne and body hair and blood. It taught me about making a secret feral body that you could rub up against a sound, a poem, a feeling.
Muhammed My Friend (by Kristen Stone)
Hey Jupiter (by Robby Bailey)
Some leavings erode your insides quickly. Overnight you become some sort of cavernous creature. You resemble more mineshaft than man. It’s loneliness that does this- trickles through you like some little black river. Yet, you haven’t got a word for it yet – you haven’t found the voice. So you have to look for it. The voice that says to you hey babe I know but you have to keep on.
You find yourself lost in a menagerie of crooked and clinical steps for heartache but the thing is, no one explains to you that Loneliness like this can cave in.
That one night you will pull over on the side of the highway because the pain hurts so bad that you cant see through the tears and you yell at God and the stars because everything feels heavier. Then there are the days when gas station coffee is the only thing that is keeping you going. The nights when you hop from one bed to another hoping that body heat and whiskey and attention will somehow right your insides.
But then there is the driving and the playlist labeled For Absence. And on that playlist you find a voice that’s echo bounces off of you building support as she goes.
Hey Jupiter…Nothing’s been the same…So are you safe? Now were through? Thought we both could use a friend to run to…
Way Down (by Hope Hilton)
Little Amsterdam (by Megan Milks)
Little Amsterdam / in a southern town: from the first nervous chords, the piano keys stick in the sickening heat; the secrets come frothing forth. We’re way down in the album’s heart of darkness, Faulknerian in design, deep gothic, high drama. I’ll tell you a secret: I only claim southernness when it suits me. This song draws the south in lurid colors. Like True Detective, this is powerfully alluring; unlike True Detective, we’re in a feminist fable, and our narrator is the ghost of Sylvia Plath. By the end of the first verse, the air is heavy with dread, rank with off-sweet sweat, when that high-pitched whine twitches on, a police radio presence crowding the sound, while Caton’s guitar smarms in spurts, channeling the sheriff’s cocky surety, his big gun. Mama. It wasn’t her bullet. Or was it. Something catches us, the sly snarl, the curled lip. The rifle held sure in her hands. The insistence. This song is murderous. He dies again and again.
Talula (by Elinor Abbott)
The way I saw it, anger meant permission. So I cut all my hair off. Peeled the narrative from everything I’d written. Every phrase became laced in adjectives, bright and painful, fixated on beauty’s reign of terror. I tried to follow the stream in my brain, jot it all down with a bic pen covered in bite marks. I thought being a woman meant submission, and if that was the only option, I’d choose wrath instead. Bright and sticky as a paint bomb. Bleached and angular. All night diners. Bad friends. Wondering if this was how you did it, how you broke out from inside yourself. I was seventeen and burning. I carried a harpsichord so that I could bang the keys, tell it how every feeling was new. Brutal and alive. And all the while the future was sucking me through its narrow straw, trying to make me palatable. But I never went down smooth. If anything, a tornado in a white dress is worse than the wild wind itself. It must be worth losing if it is worth something, I thought, and unzipped the dress. I had to find my way past wrath. Beyond seventeen and burning, to something that existed before, the place where the story began. A girl waiting for me, unburdened by a harpsichord. Baring nothing but her own voice. A tender little choirgirl soprano, ringing out inside the dark.
Not the Red Baron (by Kristen Gallagher)
I listened to this album almost exclusively for two years, taped from my own CD onto cassette to be played on my cheap Motorola walkman, a hard black plastic rectangular box, covered in bumps and scratches, silver paint of the brand name completely rubbed off from use. Ear buds were a fairly new thing but I had them.
I listened to this album exclusively. My life kinda depended on it, like medicine. I was walking away from Kensington, what does that mean, I lost the love of my life to heroin, what does that say about me, I lived with a band, what kind of band, a band of misogynous addicts who sort of played music, what happens in the life of a girl, what kind of girl, who asks that, but who would do what I did.
It took years, mostly I walked, Philly is good for walking. I went back to school, cassette playing on my 40 minute walk to and from each day, I survived in those increments, measured recovery song by song from the beginning, never stopped the tape mid-song, ever. If I had to go to an ATM I’d walk in a way that would get me there at exactly the end of a song. Every walk began where I last left off, push door open, exit, step out and down onto sidewalk, simultaneously hitting play. I can still hear the layered plastic click of the play button pushing the mechanism to engage the tape.
“Not The Red Baron” comes pretty late, at the end of the third quarter, we’ve already been thru hell, maybe things are easing, it’s one year later, September, the leaves are changing and this song matches, the funereal marching rhythm slows things down, almost like stopping to turn back as you make a final exit from a disaster scene.
I won’t analyse the words, the interpretations out there are varied and excellent, I want to focus on the dirge. The song comes after the rare moment of lightness, “Talula”, a twirly music box Bösendorfer ballerina dance song, still dark, but twinkly and with a little fig newton wrapped in a papoose, all words cute and sweet no matter what they mean. Then silence.
Slowly, quietly emergent. Dark, ambling piano, softly escalating, each low note reverberating inside the Bösendorfer, volume slowly increasing with the pressure of her attack on the keys. The overall effect feels like a landscape after apocalypse, a razed town, a forest burnt to the ground, black and gray, rubble, ashes, smoke. Another and another and another “pilot down.”
Boys are not faring well at this point in our journey. For its creator, we know it is in part about leaving her male producer and boyfriend who tailored her image and her art too much for her, so she wrote an epic about going it alone as a girl. For me, this song, that September, marked a kind of first real letting go of what I had been trained to expect from men, done in service to myself and my writing. Not the Red Baron, no, not Charlie Brown, not Charlie’s wonderful dog! Yes, even them, into the volcano, all of them.
Women spend too much time talking about men and dating. Women spend too much time letting men have opinions about them. It’s like, take the Bechdel test in YOUR LIFE. This song was when I burned it all down.
Agent Orange (by Natalie Eilbert)
Gotta tell you what I heard. I was new to driving and found my high school boyfriend walking along the highway. I almost didn’t stop. He hadn’t called in days. I loved him so much I could have burned through the car seat and straight onto the moving road. His journal, I learned recently, was full of another woman’s skinnier, paler body. That sound right when Tori Amos begins “Agent Orange,” that quirky intake of breath, it is an intake of breath I will hear when I suck through my teeth with sour folly after a purge years later. Yes he’s down and bare and everywhere. The song would come on seemingly years after “Hey Jupiter,” and her pain there was also an intake of breath that moved in her like a jagged rock of gold. I fell in love with my first woman that year and though our fingers entwined beneath the Reese’s Pieces and though she said I was beautiful and loved, she said I also reminded her of that other skinnier, paler woman in my boyfriend’s journal. We smoked cloves and they tasted of perfumed tang, a long-defeated battle. I wanted her to cup my face between her hands and see my desire for cruelty instead of the malleable skin and the soft spirit. I wanted to be revered in such a way that my image would blast into a certain iconography. something hot crisp and delectably identifiable. The week I was grounded for staying over a man’s house despite being taken there against my will and taken against my will, I swam in my pool. I could speak to nobody. I would not. The water felt like my former life, the warmer spots loosening my limbs against suffering. I will read Sappho later and hear for a long time, Eros, again now, the loosener of limbs troubles me.
Doughnut Song (by Benjamin Almeida)
Boys for Pele is one of those albums that have a chronological sequencing to it, although not too obvious in places. Boys for Pele is not just an album about breakup or about the mess that’s left after the breakup and how to even begin to pick up the pieces. It’s an album about starting from scratch; it’s about realizing it’s time you had a little self-worth before putting yourself out there. And Doughnut Song might as well be the centerpiece of it all (which makes sense being the last songs she recorded for the album).
To fully grasp the place “Doughnut Song” comes from, we’d already have been through the fresh pain of heartbreak (“Horses”), the rage (“Blood Roses”), the fear of growing up (“Marianne”) and the apparent lack of self-worth for fear of being alone (“Hey Jupiter”).
Simply put, “Doughnut Song comes” from a place of maturity. It’s an ode to “honestying” oneself into ease. Admitting to yourself what you knew all along.
“Had me a trick and kick and your message- you never gain weight from a doughnut hole”- where the hole represents what’s been fed to the narrator in a relationship – nothing.
“Then thought that I could decipher your message – there’s no one here, dear”- no one else could deal with what I have dealt with because I have it all and it still wasn’t enough.
I’m guessing that the chorus is pretty self-explanatory so I’ll move on to my favorite line in the song-
“Copper to steel to a hinge that is faltered that lets you in, lets you in, lets you in…”
Copper and steel can’t be molten into a mixture, and obviously these represent each party. However, a mixture was made, and it had a faltered outcome. But this outcome was exactly what the narrator craved. Here the narrator is taking responsibility for her own damage doing and, more importantly, allowing herself to leave the girl behind.
For many years I somehow have felt this album as an older aunt to Joanna Newsom’s Ys because of all the universe references and imagery.
Having been so deep into this relationship and having invested so much, the only way out for the narrator is through, so that might mean calling things for what they are. In a non-defensive, non-vengeful way, the last verse suggests a reunion, if momentary, of sorts, where the counter part of the story is a sun “now”, with his own “devoted satellite”; this I take to mean that he is seeing some other girl that is shackled as the narrator once was and he is enjoying it.
“Happy for you but I’m sure that I hate you”…
And finally we have the sun/son Abel and Cain reference/symbology- “two Suns, too many able fires”- two whole beings attracted each other until the collision caused the death of one of them.
This is the quintessential Boys for Pele song to me because it captures the fragile beauty of it, both musically and lyrically, while still being totally powerful, structurally perfect, delicate, natural and empowering.
In the Springtime of His Voodoo (by Niina Pollari)
A PIECE TIED UP IN THE BACKSEAT
“In the Springtime of His Voodoo” is one of the weirdest tracks on an already weird album. Appearing after the reticent “Doughnut Song,” “Voodoo” is a dark gamble with a lot of threatening hissing and breathing; to me it feels like a car trip you really didn’t want to take — something from the TV showFargo, but set in the deep south (“Got a piece tied up in the backseat, but honey, we’re recovering Christians.”) But then there’s the chorus. Tori Amos uses the harpsichord wisely on Boys for Pele, but nowhere as wisely as on “Springtime.” It comes out of nowhere for the enigmatic titular pronouncement; for a second the song is almost medieval, something plucked in court on a psaltery or zither. But then it disappears again into the warp speed of the song, to someplace where “You gotta owe something sometimes.”
And the song morphs. On BFP, it’s a dextromethorphan hallucination in the backseat while the muddy-legged Tori from the album’s cover speeds behind the wheel; off-album, it becomes a collaboration. The spectacular MTV Unplugged performance of “Voodoo” that Amos did with Steve Caton, the guitarist who played on most everything she did from Y Kant Tori Read all the way until To Venus and Back, is the best example of this. Besides Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham doing the end of “Landslide” in the 1997 at Fleetwood Mac’s reunion concert for The Dance, this performance is my favorite example of two musicians working together with empathy and impeccable timing. Theoretically, I couldn’t tolerate such loud guitar over Amos (who ever wants loud guitarring over piano? Men?), but here, only here, it’s some kind of voodoo.
Putting the Damage On (by Will Walton)
My art teacher had it on her iPod. She brewed coffee, and we were allowed to help ourselves. I pretended to be her. I brewed my own at home and listened to Tori on the computer. The iTunes was linked to my father’s credit card. I clicked “Buy,” anyway.
I shook as it downloaded—the whole thing.
In those days, I played basketball and tied and retied my shoes obsessively because they went flying off once in the middle of a game and got me into serious trouble. My hands shook often and I pinched my skin on occasion. I wore loose shoes that squeaked, high socks, short shorts, and a too-large jersey with a sagging V-neckline. It slid off my shoulders when I played. My damage costume. I wore it with bright red forearms.
I kept a journal in my gym bag. I wrote prayers in it.
One time a bully asked, “What are you listening to?” I just looked past him. My best Angie Dickinson. When my headphones were in, I was convincing. I wore them on the bus as we drove to Away games. I sat next to the stats keeper. He didn’t make sense on that bus either.
If we lost an Away game, it wasn’t unusual to wear your headphones on the bus. Most everyone put them in because nobody, including the coach, wanted to talk about losing. I kind of liked when we lost. Specifically this one time after we lost it was dark out. There were Christmas lights lining the street. I don’t remember feeling sad. But I remember the horn-sound at the start of “Putting the Damage On.”
It was probably past ten and almost definitely a school night. I almost definitely had homework to do when I got home. Actual excerpt from my journal: Well, I’ve definitely made sure the odds are stacked against me this time.
But Pele heard the prayer or something, because She came over me with this peace.
I guess that’s how you know a song is good, when you remember the feeling specifically.
Twinkle (by Robert Vaughan)
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
Going Last. I was often the last kid picked up at camp by his parents. I’d pretend I didn’t notice how the counselors just wanted to leave, but couldn’t. I was usually the last kid chosen for dodgeball, or basketball, or soccer. I’d cringe when we had to play any team sport. I still do.
So, here I cringe with the last song of an album. Not my first choice, by far. Still, in this case, as in most others, Tori’s words spoke directly to me, stunned me the first time I heard Boys For Pele. I had to play “Twinkle” back, as I have dozens of times since I landed this piece.
I’ve played piano (like Tori) as my chosen instrument since I was a child. That simple opening of this sad, but inspirational song always tinkers with my fingers over some imaginary keyboard. It sounds as if a kid is just sitting down while his mom is busy making dinner, plopping out any keys. But these are not just any keys. They play the repeated backdrop for Tori to croon out these simple, wholly complex lyrics.
What does it mean… “gonna’ Twinkle”? Especially when Twinkle opens up with the word “Sure?” Does that mean anything/ everything is certain, or predictable? Do we all twinkle, even when we are not aware we are? Some light shining from within, or without?
Boy so hard- we all known boys like this. Hell, I’ve been one- hard-headed, hard to know, hard on the outside, thick sculled when coming off a motorcycle or running into a pole during a downhill ski race. Hard boys, get harder. Hardness is a measurement that can be both precarious but also doubly, or sexually important. A boy so soft is not the same. A boy so hard is ready. But for what?
girl twice as hard… let’s start with “the tie’s she got in her right/ dresser tied.” Is she a cross-dresser? Haven’t we all been? Tried on our father’s suit or greasy jacket, or mom’s fall, or her shoes, or bras. Or does that tie refer as something to tie around a barn rafter? Does Tori want us to consider some other possibility that is going on here? Are we all one step away from our demise?
And the idea of hiding in an abbey. Hiding from a murder. What are you hiding from? Where do you hide best of all? Are you hiding now, from the daytime sun, or the night sky? Do you hide from yourself? What part of you do you kill in order to hide even better?
Tori can see that star. “When she twinkles.” She convinces us all that we can, too. Even as she utters that last trademark breathy “d” sound of the last “har-d” of the song, the last lyric of the entire Boys For Pele, we know this is how life is. Stars that twinkle, and ties in our dressers, and hard boys, and hard girls. Deaths. Hidden abbeys. Hard. So Har-d.