Friday, January 22, 2016
Boys for Pele 20 years later, as my memories intertwine with the songs
20 years ago, Tori Amos released Boys for Pele and changed my life.
I'd already become a die-hard Tori Amos fan with the release of Little Earthquakes. I'd caught the Silent All These Years video randomly on MTV at the end of 1991, then stalked the stores until the full album came out, buying the Crucify and Winter singles along the way and devouring those too. In fact, I bought Little Earthquakes so early in its life that my booklet's pictures are black and white - a rarity before I even knew to start collecting Tori rarities. (I learned, later. I have amassed a very large collection of Tori CDs and memorabilia. Even with the digital world, I can't let go of the Crucify box, the Spark postcards....)
In 1994, I did not connect very well with Under the Pink for a variety of reasons - it came out when I was a college kid studying abroad in London and I was anticipating Little Earthquakes: The Sequel, which we all know is not how Tori rolls. Simply, Under the Pink took a lot of time for me to appreciate. Little Earthquakes was so internal and so my-heart-my-heart-you-heard-my-heart - and Under the Pink, in many ways, was so external. At the time I heard Cornflake Girl and completely missed Baker Baker. I heard God and missed Cloud on my Tongue. It took me time to hear it for what it was and to crawl into it. It did happen, but Pink is not the one I reach for.
Still, I obsessively collected every single that came out - the limited editions! the standard editions! I was in the UK and bought those CDs for one pound, three pounds (for a while they were all worth a lot more money - and then they weren't again), and I found my soulmate song in Honey, that beautiful B side that was left off of UtP. I also saw Tori live in concert for the first time when she was touring in support of UtP (which helped me warm to the album).
So at the end of 1995, despite not loving the second album, I still considered myself a complete and total Tori Amos fan, and I was ALL IN and very very excited for her third. First, I vaguely remember, there was a promotional Internet release (dial up! it took forever!) of a short clip of Caught a Lite Sneeze. I remember it fuzzily - a teaser, a taste of the song up to the "Doo doooo dooo" part. What was coming next?
Then I somehow, in early-Interwebzy-forums-and-AOL-message-board-ways, connected with a guy who was a New York City DJ and who had some sort of in with Atlantic, Tori's label. The next time I was in NYC, I met up with him at a club (in the daytime, while he was prepping for his evening), and he gave me the four-song promo cassette, which contained Hey Jupiter, Caught a Lite Sneeze, Talula, and Putting the Damage On. I ran back to a friend's apartment immediately and we listened to those four songs on repeat. Magic.
And then and then. Another friend who worked at a record store in Boston, a fellow fan, got the full promo of Boys for Pele in the cold and ice and dirty gray snow of the end of 1995 and handed me a cassette copy. I put that in my Walkman, pressed play, and didn't take it back out for MONTHS. I listened while I walked to temp jobs and grad school classes and I listened while I did dishes in my crappy Allston apartment and I listened and I listened. I was 22. The world was full of promise, I was not sure what I was supposed to be doing.
I remember that I couldn't breathe through Beauty Queen and that I cried with the first notes of Horses. It was the entire opposite of my reaction to Under the Pink. I clicked with this album INSTANTLY. I remember before I had listened to the full album that this friend mentioned that people would love or hate Professional Widow - that it would make or break some Tori fans. I loved it. I loved it all. It was a connection with an album that I have rarely found since. It was the album I needed at the moment I needed it.
And that was because at the same time that Tori released her break-up album (an oversimplification but an overarching theme as well), I was going through the dissolution of one relationship while just about to start up another (dear reader, I married him). I remember that I curled up on my apartment floor and listened to Doughnut Song on repeat while I made a critical decision in my life to finally end that old relationship once and for all and to allow the new one to come in.
I listened to Boys for Pele at the end of 1995 and the beginning of 1996 and it told me where I was, what I needed to do, where I might go. It was raw and angry and loud and soft and long and it changed from minute to minute and it was so. so. right. Father Lucifer told me that nothing would stop me from floating. I still float. Damage let me know that sometimes you let a relationship go, but the ghost hangs around you and passes through you and you may have to let it happen - just stay still, let it move, then release it. Caught a Lite Sneeze was there when there were boys all around me - yes, boys in their dresses - and I needed my friends around me, close, to help me puzzle and push through. Hey Jupiter held my hand while nobody picked up the phone and it was just me alone, alone with my decisions and my heartache and me dropping that letter in the mailbox, me the masochist. Blood Roses - that harpsichord, delicate and out of place and then so, so right, an agonized HOWL from the gut and then a reclamation. God knows I've thrown away those graces. And Doughnut Song. He was a sun now. I was wasting all his time, he was wasting mine. I hated him. He was a sneeze, a doughnut hole, a nothing. An everything. It was all breaking apart. It was all starting.
Every song. Every song brings me back to a time, a moment, a year, a decade.
I haven't talked to him in TWENTY YEARS.
I have been his girlfriend, fiancé, wife for TWENTY YEARS.
She sure can twinkle.
Today, I sing Mr. Zebra to my daughter and she sings it right back to me. I walk around the house and make up words about my cats to the tune of Voodoo. Today there are nights, late, dark nights when I pour myself a glass of wine, put on my headphones, and wait for the click that begins Beauty Queen. There aren't many albums from 20 years ago that still resonate with me on a gut level - that I'm not revisiting for nostalgia but that I'm revisiting also to actually listen. Boys for Pele is one of those albums.