Boys for Pele came out around the time I lost my virginity. This was a very sensitive time in my life, because I knowingly had bad sex with a more experienced partner, and my failure to give her any pleasure resulted in her leaving me for her older, handsomer, and cooler ex-boyfriend who threatened to kick my ass after I obsessively called her dozens of times. I needed a logical reason for why she didn’t want to talk to me anymore because I couldn’t accept that I was an amateur in the sack.
These things happen, and you move on; you continue being sixteen and you eventually get better in bed. I learned early that you must continue trying if you’re ever going to get anywhere and that, in between attempts, it’s totally acceptable to have yourself a good cry now and then–and newly-deflowered me had plenty. I had imagined sex as the third Temple. I wanted to “make love” to a girl, then get married and settle down. I would have a meaningful career and we would share plenty of laughter and happiness forever and ever. I believed all of this because my teenage wasteland was littered with unreasonable thoughts and ideas. I had stupidly built up my first time as the most important day of my entire life.
I was a complete fraud without a clue and had no business attempting the action. My technique was Inspector Clouseau on a bad day; all bumbling and fucking up left and right while we listened to two Shellac songs–as Chicagoland teenagers in the ’90s did while having sex—until it was over. Nothing really magical happened. I laid on my stomach realizing that the seal had been broken, that my innocence had slunk off ashamed. She was on her back thinking only God knows what, but since she broke up with me within the week, it had to be something pretty negative.
After she dumped me I went from being an overly sensitive 16-year-old kid to an overly sensitive 16-year-old kid who just had his V-card punched with a big fat F. I quickly withdrew from my friends and sat around listening to a box of random mixtapes and CDs that contained everything from Boston hardcore to Wire and The Cars. I searched my collection for something to help me heal, and it finally came when I hit the dregs, and fished out Boys for Pele, a CD I’d stolen from the local Tower Records to impress a girl I liked.
I marginally liked Amos, but upon hearing the first notes of “Beauty Queen/Horses,” I was converted. I became obsessed and suddenly Tori Amos was more than just some voice coming out of my headphones; she was my new best friend. I found myself seeking out live recordings, buying books on Tori, and spending time in the Tori Amos AOL chatroom. I was still punk, but I loved Tori Amos. Even though most of the time I had no clue what the fuck she was singing about, I still felt a deep personal connection to every lyric in every song. Some thrust themselves into their work to get over heartbreak; I jumped into Tori Amos.
Tori looked at me and moaned, “I shaved every place where you’ve been boy,” over some spooky, gothic harpsichord, which made everything seem totally okay. She sang songs about friends who were probably figments of her imagination; there was the cathartic buildup of “Hey Jupiter” that seemed to sum up my tiny world. The cover of Tori seated in a rocking chair, with one mud-drenched leg kicked over the handle, and a shotgun in her lap is an image that says, “Fuck or get fucked. Just don’t fuck with me.” It’s an incredibly striking picture, and a big jump stylistically from the images on her first two records.
The core fanbase of Tori Amos in the late 90s was a mass of religiously devoted followers. Like The Beatles, Michael Jackson, or Justin Bieber, Tori’s devotees wept at her very appearance, and to this day, the only time I’ve ever witnessed another musician being showered with flowers was Morrissey. Unlike Bieber and The Beatles, Amos played diety while sitting behind a piano. She didn’t shimmy or shake her crotch across a stage; instead, she banged on some keys and wailed her little heart out.
From 1996 to 1999 I was one of her more obsessive followers, and in those days, it was more acceptable to be a fan of Tori Amos than it is today. Jawbox covered “Cornflake Girl” on their self-titled 1996 album, and seeing her name listed among the fiercest vegan straight edge bands in the Favorite Music section on The Makeout Club (for you youngsters, that’s the hip pre-social network dating site) was common.
There is a picture of me with green hair, wearing a Descendants t-shirt, giving a thumbs up as I enter the Rosemont Theatre with my friend Sarah. All around us are people that now look like relics of Generation X: platform boots, respectable dreadlocks, baggy jeans, and a shared daze that asks “Where the fuck is this all going?”
We were walking into the first of the two-night “Dew Drop Inn” tour, a concert that Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune described as one “[e]xhorted by the kind of adulatory shouts, screams and unself-concious pronouncements of affection associated with 16-year-old heartthrobs like New Kids on the Block or Tiffany, the 32-year-old Amos went about her business as an unlikely icon in an atmosphere bordering on hysteria.”
I was one of those hysterical screamers. For a few hours I stopped thinking about how punk I was and realized I had to do a lot more than just learn to fuck to be a good person. Tori pushed me toward ascending that mountain of psychological manhood, and with her in my ears, I did so without reservation.
It’s easy to feel disconnected from our heroes now that we can monitor them from the privacy of our laptops. It was never like that with Tori in the mid to late 90s. She was the last celebrity I felt a kinship with. Her songs were strange but bright, even during a time when bands like Pearl Jam made millions writing lyrics that were pure gibberish. She genuinely seemed to love her fans as much as they loved her. Tori Amos seemed real and totally batshit crazy at the same time; and to a kid reeling from his first bad sexual experience, listening to “Blood Roses” was a perfect initiation into truthful, gorgeous intimacy.