I was 15 or 16 the first time I heard Boys for Pele.
My high school best friend bought a burned copy to my house to listen to while we made art from things found in my mother’s garage. I had introduced her to Amos, but she was the one with the home computer. (Sorry, Tori, it was rural Michigan in ~2002, but I did grow up to eventually buy all your albums.)
I had first stumbled into Tori Amos thanks to my sister’s membership in a mail-order CD club, when completing her order for 5c or whatever led to my selection of Tori’s then-current To Venus and Back (1999). The album didn’t immediately sink in, and it ended up in a discard pile along with another album that would soon become extremely important to me, Ani DiFranco’s Up Up Up Up Up Up (but that’s another story).
Somehow the purple discs did make their way back out of the drawer, largely on the strength of the live second disc. This featured “Sugar,” which I would now stan for as one of the best live rock recordings of the 90’s (how tragic that this was a soundcheck and no one clapped for her!).
Talking about To Venus and Back at school helped me find the other kids at school who knew more about this lavender bean sí, and on the strength of their recommendations I slowly made my way through her catalog.
I can’t tell you what order that happened in anymore. I can tell you the most important moment was putting on Boys for Pele for the first time in my mom’s garage while I smashed and painted and cobbled back together bits of wood.
The moment was not important because we immediately liked the music – I remember a lot of face-pulling and “what the hell is this?” glances before we gave up and put on something else around the third track.
Because let’s face it – Boys for Pele is not music you put on to listen to with other people. It’s not pleasant background noise for you to converse over or hum along to a catchy chorus.
It’s real fucking art. And it’s scary.
Pele sounds like its unnerving visual imagery – which I would of course not see for some time, having just a blank CD. But if you’ve never heard the album, I can comfortably tell you it sounds exactly like a muddy redhead holding a rifle and singing hymns while flanked by snakes and dead chickens. (Or dancing in flames. Or, yes, nursing a piglet.)
Boys for Pele almost rasps into existence. Over an unidentified mechanical humming, for nearly the first two minutes of the record, Amos plays just a single note, a lonely G, as she dreamily scratches out the vocals of the Beauty Queen half of “Beauty Queen/Horses.”
Like much of Amos’ work, the listener is left to infer, as opposed to knowing that these surreal words have meaning:
She’s a Beauty Queen.
In my sweet bean bag in the street,
Take it 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.
You think I’m a queer
I think you’re a queer
I think you’re a queer
Said I think you’re a queer
Pele has a very punk ethos, if punk were made by a noted piano prodigy in an abandoned church in the 90s. You can hear the recording process and energy in songs like “Father Lucifer,” which had revelatory enough content for me, struggling to find meaning in the hell of nowhere Michigan as the son of a preacher man. (Also of note to my impressionable teen mind was Muhammad My Friend, a song in imaginary dialogue with the prophet of Islam in which Amos suggests that Jesus was a woman.) “Father Lucifer” twists its vine into a chorus of Toris who lift their pareidolic, overlapping cries to the heavens:
Everyday’s my wedding day
Though baby’s still in his comatose state
I’ll die my own Easter eggs
Don’t go yet
And Beenie lost the sunset but that’s but that’s OK
Does Joe bring flowers to Marilyn’s grave
And girls that eat pizza but never gain weight
You can memorize the words if you want, but it won’t help. You’re having a psychedelic trip on another world and you don’t speak the language. Best to thank the shaman for her services instead of asking for her crib notes.
Because in general Pele resists literal interpretation. There are songs that are a little easier to follow in a conventional sense, like the gothic turns of southern racism in “Little Amsterdam” or reaching out to a friend in “Hey Jupiter.” But far more emblematic are songs like “Caught a Lite Sneeze,” which reached 60 on the Hot 100, even with its screaming and harpsichord solos. (You can hear Amos recording the absolutely haunting background vocals that characterize “Caught a Lite Sneeze” and other songs on the album in this making of documentary.)
The spire is hot
And my cells can’t feed
And you still got that Belle dragging your foots
I’m hiding it well Sister Ernestine
But I still got that Belle
Dragging my foots
Sometimes the songs come in snippets… Then once in a rare while you’ll have a song like “Marianne” that comes all at once. I was waiting for everyone to finish setting up while we were recording at the church in Ireland and “Marianne” just came out. So what you hear on tape was “Marianne” being written and recorded — words, music, everything — in one take. It rarely happens in that complete kind of form. Songs typically come in 8-bar phrases with the melody and a few key words, and that gives you a blue print to begin building a foundation around. But I don’t always have the tape recorder running when they come. [A Piano liner notes – 2006]
“Tuna, rubber, a little blubber in my igloo…” For me to say that line in another way would just make it really gross and crass. Sometimes it’s just about how something makes you feel. You’ve got to go there, you’ve got to be willing to take that trip.
the weasel squeaks faster than a seven day week
I said Timmy and that purple Monkey
are all down
at Bobby’s house
making themselves pesters and lesters and jesters and my
traitors of kind
and I’m just having thoughts of Marianne
she could outrun the fastest slug
Standin’ on a corner in Winslow Arizona
And I’m quite sure I’m in the wrong song
Two girls sixty five got a piece tied up in the
“Honey we’re Recovering Christians”
Sure that star can twinkle
And you’re watching it do
Boy so hard boy so hard
But I know a girl
Twice as hard
And I’m sure
Said I’m sure she’s watching it too
No matter what she’s got in her right dresser
I know she’s watching that star