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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Speaking intentionally as a way to heal

crossposted from my Tumblr

[TW for discussion of ableist language]

A lot of discussion I saw this week on Tumblr about ableist language regarding mental illness got me thinking about speaking (and writing) intentionally.

I live with mental illness. And not that it’s anyone’s business, but someone’s going to ask, so I live with bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety and OCD.

Not even I am sure that I can purge my language of words like crazy. First, I use the word crazy intentionally to refer to myself. Second, crazy is so widespread in the language that it feels like trying to get all the dandelions out of a field.

BUT.

That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t task myself to try, especially if other people are asking me to. Even if I don’t know them. Even if it’s just a vague awareness I get from looking at my Tumblr dash.

I remember doing that eye-roll thing so many people do when asked to reconsider their language maybe 10-ish years ago the first time someone told me lame was an ableist word.

Hell, to be honest with you, I probably didn’t know what ableism meant back then. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t my obligation to learn.

Lame was a word that hurt the person I was talking to. So I started to root the word out of my usage. Because there’s no reason or excuse to do harm with your language, especially after you’ve been told that that is what you’re doing.

I don’t know how I feel about the word crazy. But I do know exactly how I feel when someone uses the words bipolar and OCD to make jokes about their own or other people’s behavior. It feels like total shit. Aside from demonstrating a complete lack of what these mental health issues are, it’s like, hello, I’m right here! Your friend with bipolar disorder and OCD? Remember me?

In the past few years, there has been a greater push to get people to stop using the R word. Recently, there was even a star-studded PSA about it. I posted this PSA to Facebook one day… and got like fifty comments from privileged people about how they were being attacked despite their “free speech” rights. Legit, one person said he felt “f’ing persecuted” for being asked not to use the R word.

Holy wow. You have freedom of speech. Other people have the freedom to point of if you’re being ableist (for instance). Someone pointing out your privilege is not an act of oppression.

My argument then, as now, is: don’t be mean. Invite yourself to be asked not to be mean. What is the problem with speaking (and writing) in a more intentional way to consider whether or not what you’re saying is hurting someone?

Even if they’re not there! It’s one thing to not listen to, say, homophobic music when your gay friends are around. But is it not a better thing to ask yourself how you can like homophobic music and gay people?

You not being offended by a word does not give you permission to decided whether or not it is offensive and whether or not it can hurt people. What is so wrong with being asked to check your vocab? Consider it as a chance to grow, to consider other people’s perspectives.

And consider it a chance to keep friends, before they decide that your language is too harmful to be associated with.

Just slow down and think before you speak. It’s not going to hurt you, and it will probably stop you from hurting other people.