The Art That Made Me: Boys for Pele

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CREDIT: Cindy Palmano

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.

ToriAmosBoysforPelealbumcover

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.
What’s more important is the exercise of this strong unique instrument – Tori Amos can “sing pretty,” but she can also forge steel in cauldron of her jowls, and this is the Amos we get to know on Pele.
 
As “Horses” becomes “Blood Roses,” you start to get the feeling that Tori Amos is a champion in a sport you’ve never heard of. Combining church and performance art, the one-woman harpsichord concerto where “I’ve shaved every place where you’ve been, boy” takes a sledge hammer to the idea of a pop song. Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink were good, very good, but on some level they were just music. Pele was the first record Amos produced herself, and it marks the biggest artistic leap of her career. 
 

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
There are things we can read, like references to her childhood piano teacher, a nun named Sister Ernestine. But without lots of outside help, I’d defy anyone to say they know what those words mean. 
 
And this is one of the primary things I love about Tori Amos: she writes songs to complete them the way they ought to be, not to sell records or impress people. Boys for Pele is an oil-soaked rag in a mechanic’s garage, it is a piano bench, and that piano bench is upside down and made of ants. Boys for Pele is an invitation to a once-a-millennium religious rite that exposes and cleanses the American mid-Atlantic of all its sins. And to reach out in this way, it is also the exact sound of an LSD headache, illuming the corners of the mind and sketching the monsters. 
 
The story of “Marianne” is one of the most noted from the record; famously, what you hear on the album is Amos writing and recording the song in real time (with instrumentation added later).
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]
On the song’s strange opening lines, Amos told Keyboard magazine:
“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 song, about the OD death of a friend named Maryanne, combined with other stories, is one of the strongest and most uniquely Tori things in Tori Amos’ career. With enough sign posts to see that Amos is mourning the loss of a friend, the song also deploys powerful, surrealistic and associative imagery to celebrate life. 
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
Songs like the brief “Way Down” live in this same place. Documenting a mysterious decline (“way down”) punctuated by the high life (“gonna meet a great big star / gonna drive his great big car / gonna have it all here on the way down”), the song fuses serial killers with a southern gospel choir in a way so familiar it is almost eldritch. This song, this record, are for people like me – who have sat through a bunch of church and felt a bunch of fear. 
 
The album is in many ways the ‘upside down’ of straight (as in normal) America’s obsession with itself. Tackling The Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” Amos sings in “In the Springtime of his Voodoo“:
 
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
Back seat
“Honey we’re Recovering Christians”
Amos turns the plaint of a white guy with too many lovers into a reflection of what she had given up for stupid men. Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey’s escape car becomes a site of threatened violence at the hands of the fallen. Amos rises to lead herself from the path she shouldn’t have taken, and legions of fans would come to welcome the lamplight. 
 
Boys for Pele is about broken things. Broken America. Broken hearts. Broken souls. Broken beds. But from the offer of a hand in the dark to Talula to her pure faith in a friend in Twinkle, Amos seems to be saying: I’m here. I’ve been there. I’ve cried those tears and I’ve blamed myself. But I’ve visited the real holy people and I’ve listened to their words and I’ve taken their potions, and I’ve tried to learn their lessons. And we’re going to get through this, you and me, with Ayahuasca and Mrs. Jesus and the hills of Virginia and Ireland.
 
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
Tied
I know she’s watching that star
Once I could get alone with it and not judge its lack of conventionality to look cool, Boys for Pele became one of my first proofs that I even deserved to survive my childhood. 
 
I didn’t know, or didn’t really understand that other people suffered from religion and its effects on society the way I did. I felt so alone – rejected by Sky God and his followers but still feeling the flow of ‘something’ through me and out into the universe. For me, Boys for Pele is inexorably wrapped up with feelings of being punished and suffering for being different in Sky God’s America. 
 
It’s an intensely personal album – Tori Amos doesn’t say, “I’m a feminist, I’m here standing up for women and queers” – she invents a whole new feminist language that gave voice and thereby hope to people weighed down by the patriarchy in the parts of America where white Jesus wins elections. 
 
I think Tori Amos really started to believe in herself on Boys for Pele, and it helped me and many others do the same. Amos would go on from Pele to albums like From the Choirgirl Hotel and Scarlet’s Walk, on which she cemented her role as the pantheistic shaman of America’s strange. 
 
The hints of Tori’s spirit leader banner borne out through Pele bloom in the wrenching “Jackie’s Strength” from 1998’s Choirgirl
 
Full disclosure: I just had a much needed cry while watching that video. The juxtaposition of the power of Tori’s friendship with the struggles of outsider life in the video, and thinking that Tori had found the strength to send her light into the world…well, hell if I didn’t start blubbering. 
 
Tori Amos let people like me know that there was hope. I’m not laying my teenage survival at her feet or anything, but hell if I know who I’d be without the path she blazed for me. I don’t enjoy the thought experiment of imagining what my life would be like without Tori Amos’ music. I can’t think of anything that would fill that void. 
 
TL;DR: Boys for Pele is good and if you like America or rock music or haunted houses or firetrucks, you should listen to it. 

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The sand you can’t stick your head in

Hello kittens,

First off, have I mentioned I’m running this new thingy? JK, I know I have, but I do hope you’ll check it out!

Anyway…

I want to write today about the sand you can’t stick your head in.

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(It was a very descriptive title!)

Lots of (*cough* privileged *cough*) people make a point of sticking in their head in the sand when it comes to “politics,” asserting a kind of moral superiority that comes from rising about the fray.

The thing is, your friends’ lives aren’t “the fray,” and fighting for ourselves and each other isn’t “noise.”

Your standoffish attitude doesn’t prove anything but your ability to remain morally neutral in a time of crisis.

If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “it doesn’t matter, my life will go on the same either way,”

congratulations: you’ve just located your privilege.

You have to keep fighting, even when it’s not about you. That’s just Humanity 101.

It is a false equivalence to view Republicans and the people whose lives they’re trying to destroy in the same light, just as it is wrong to believe the truth lies halfway between opposing sides. People cannot overcome their oppression just by thinking about it less, or being less vocal about it, among things average people actually believe we should do.

“Politics” is not an escalating price war competing for your fucking soda dollars. You don’t have to spend 8 hours a day on Facebook. Lord, I hope you don’t! You don’t have to be on top of every situation and cross-post every article and care until your veins bulge out, but JESUS advocacy is not the same as targeted messaging!

No one has limitless fucks. Anyone who says they can absorb an infinite quantity of bad news without ever saying fuck it and acting like you’re never going to check the news again is lying.

But actually doing that is a choice that’s only for you. Own that. You’re agreeing with yourself not to participate in the forward motion of oppressed peoples. You haven’t fold the golden ticket to a clear heart, and your free mind full of bar trivia and fermented vegetable recipes can stew in its own juices for all I care.

You can check out. But don’t you dare act like it’s the “right” thing to do.

And THAT, my friends, is the fastest I’ve ever gotten to a point!

Ever love,
Big Mama Schlomo

There is no benign level of hatred

In the past week or so, I’ve dealt with hate speech directed at me in real life and online, and it barely blipped on my radar. That’s the gay experience I’m having right now; a stranger on the street called me a faggot, and I barely have time to think about it.

(By the way, I live in Ann Arbor, so I’m dying to here about how people don’t get called faggots in liberal urban America…)

Anyway, what I really want to talk about this week is the cascading nature of hatred. I am here to posit that there is no benign level of hatred.

Straight friends often in the past have expressed that I am being a killjoy for calling them out on their shit. Shit like playing music with overtly homophobic lyrics, monitoring each other for “faggy” behavior, making it clear they prefer gay men to be “manly,” and invoking the gender binary as a guide for behavior.

Nothing quite got to me, though, like the way friends reacted when a man outside a book looked me in the eye and said, “You’re a faggot, and I’m going to kill you.”

If you need the context – not that it should matter, but here goes – I was attempting to warn the young women he was creeping on all over town that he was lying about what drug he was giving them. I couldn’t tell what it was, but I had enough experience with what he said it was to know that wasn’t it. I was trying to be discreet, but I guess he found me out. Hence the “you’re a faggot, and I’m going to kill you” thing.

Also, in case you’re wondering, I got right up in his face and I said, “I am a faggot,” and then to the best of my recollection I swished the fuck out of Dodge.

Later when describing this to friends, a shocking number of them went out of their way to say, “well, he wasn’t being homophobic when he called you a faggot.”

Because, in case you’re wondering, straight people are in charge of when people are being homophobic or not. Wouldn’t want my big nelly feelings or lived experiences getting in the way of straighty’s truth bombs.

Maybe…maybe what they meant is that he had no way of knowing whether or not I were gay. Which is maybe true. And wicked so hard not the fucking point.

This reminds me of that straight guy friend you have who will say something homophobic and then bring up how he got called a faggot when he was a kid, so it’s all cool or something.

Straight guys who’ve been called a faggot and therefore think calling people a faggot is no big deal get to feel that way because nothing can take away how fucking cool it must be to be a straight white guy in this world. When some straight guy gets called a faggot he gets to laugh it off because he was the wrong target. He can’t hear that dog whistle.

I want you to really fucking think about what my friends were asking me to believe. They wanted me to feel comforted that he didn’t mean I was going to die because I was gay per se, but because attempting to stop sexual assault was faggy on my part. Because what a brotherly straight guy would have done, I suppose, is go along with his plan to lie to women about what he was drugging them with.

I was supposed to be comforted. I wasn’t a faggot, I was a “faggot.” Well, I’m so glad we got that all cleared up!

This is why I call you out on your acts of hate even when you think they’re benign. Because nominally liberal straight people in liberal urban America will look me in the eye and tell me faggot’s “just a word,” or some other such bullshit.

What you need to believe to make that true is far more insulting to masculinity than anything I could ever do. Thinking that a man ending up dead for trying to intervene in crimes against women is a faggy thing to do is why there is no safe level of hatred.

People do become desensitized to hatred. Our society is a bubbling cauldron of racism and sexism and homophobia. We live under constant exposure to personal and institutional oppression and marginalization, but privileged people have the privilege of not noticing the pervasive air or bullshit.

Singing along to that homophobic or misogynistic lyric means you will tell gay friends hate speech isn’t so bad. It means you will laugh at that next gay joke, and then tell you’re gay friend, “hey, but not you!” Then you’ll start saying things like “people are too sensitive these days.”

And then before you know it, you’re calling a woman who challenges you a slut and then complaining about how “nice guys” finish last.

There is no point at which you are liberal enough to be “just a little homophobic.” Or racist. Or misogynistic. You don’t need to let your hair down or blow off a little steam. And if you, congratulations, you’re actually a bigoted asshole. But if you’ve come to that realization, I welcome you, because you’re easier to combat when you’re not pretending to be the model liberal straight white dude.

Bottom line: I need to know you have my back when I’m not there. And if you think I’m a joke who can’t take a joke, well then I can’t fucking trust you. And if you don’t believe me when I tell you that hate is hate, then why do you even want to say you’re on my side?

Commit to stopping hate when you observe it. I’m tired of trying to infer whether or not someone’s a friend by the tone of their voice when they say something homophobic or sexist. You shouldn’t need your laurels to prove you’re a friend.

Make other straight men accountable to make manliness and masculinity better. That’s something real you can do now and every day.

Ever love,
Big Mama Schlomo

The Absolut Bargain

Hello kittens,

It’s pride month yet again, and this time around I find myself…pretty goddam whipped up. I’ve written previously about the un-nuanced ways a lot of people talk about pride. That is not what has me all frothy this time.

Or maybe it is?

Today on Facebook, I wrote:

I don’t mean to sound like a crank, but I’m glad I can remember homosexuality before vodka commercials.

And I feel like after that, a lot of the grumpy feelings I have been having lately lent themselves some context.

Do I hate pride now? No. But I am genuinely happy that, well…I remember being gay before Absolut pride floats.

Walking home tonight, this phrase came to me:

The Absolut Bargain: The contract between monied white gays, the corporations that want their money, and the allies most visibly associated with monied white gays.

It is, in effect, the widely promulgated belief that everything is ok because now there is gay vodka. Or gay travel websites. Or gay…I don’t fucking know, shrimp forks. … Maybe shrimp forks have always been gay, but I think you know what I mean.

The Absolut Bargain is a shared delusion that visibility and the ability to be marketed to means that we’re basically in the home stretch in terms of LGBT equality.

You’d be forgiven for believing that “the gay agenda” is basically cocktails and jet-setting, because corporations, the gay groups they prop up, and the straight people who have aligned themselves with either or both are themselves visible and invested in making you think this. The HRC and vodka companies and the Clintons can get their respective audiences all frothy about how two white investment bankers in the burbs can’t get married, and so you should make sure to give the HRC, vodka companies, and the Clintons all the *wink wink* *nudge nudge* support you can.

Marriage is an immediately understandable metaphor for what it’s like to be marginalized as a queer in this country, and I’m not prepared to have a shouting match about whether or not marriage equality is important, because, well…I think it is.

But only if you are in all other ways already enfranchised can you carry forth with the belief that everything will be wrapped up in a nice little package of full equality if and when marriage becomes the law of the land.

The Absolut Bargain is a willful misrepresentation of (many if not most) queer realities. Most LGBT people are not white millionaires. Most LGBT people are never going to book a cruise. Many if not most LGBT people cannot experientially believe that marriage or an attendant sliver of other issues are all that stand between them and full equality.

As LGBT people, our communities are fanned out among all other communities – and if we didn’t have the willful obfuscation of monied white gay concern activism to fight against, it would be so much easier to understand that LGBT equality is inextricably linked with the liberation of all humanity from all forms of oppression.

Queerness is not a quirk of rich white cisgender men. Every fight is an LGBT fight because we are everywhere. The Absolut Bargain is no bargain at all – unless you happen to be running a mainstream gay rights org, a vodka company, or a Democratic political campaign.

The fight is not over because of corporate sponsorships, or celebrities with talk shows, or celebrities on magazine covers. Refuse to believe economically motivated political messaging.

And for the love of god, don’t tell your queer and trans friends they should be happy because of all the ‘gifts’ of The Absolut Bargain.

The world is not healed by branded rainbow sneakers, and LGBT people are affected by every other form of oppression. Don’t confuse the narrowly defined agendas of a couple of mainstream organizations with a holistic worldview. There is no LGBT equality without full equality for all.

Ever love,
Big Mama Schlomo