Tori Amos Live at (le) Poisson Rouge: 20 Years of ‘Little Earthquakes’

In 1992, singer/songwriter/pianist/force-of-nature Tori Amos released her debut album, Little Earthquakes, and began a slow subversion of music and mind. I’ll take a second and note that, yes, I’m aware this wasn’t her actual debut record, but if we get into discussing Y Kant Tori Read I’m quite certain the bounce rate on this post will skyrocket.

At the time, it felt like a moment. In retrospect, it feels like a movement. To paraphrase David Byrne’s awkward-as-hell introduction of Amos on the ill-fated live music television show Sessions at West 54th, while her contemporaries were strapping on the loudest guitars, she hauled out a giant piano. It’s easy, in today’s musical landscape, to miss exactly how revolutionary this is. Certainly Amos wasn’t the first woman to ever sit at a piano, sing, and have that song played on the radio. At the time Little Earthquakes was released into the world, the radio was filled to the brim with angry-at-best, disaffected-at-worst flannel-clad shaggy dudes. This isn’t to say there weren’t women making noise, but to be taken seriously as “important” you needed to be a Bratmobile or a Bikini Kill, with an outspoken political agenda as loud as your guitar (or, yes, yes, Kate Bush. I see you there, anonymous commenter).

Little Earthquakes, with its songs about dismantling the patriarchy and dealing with the physical, emotional and societal ramifications of sexual assault, certainly reads as every bit as important as anything spearheaded in Seattle or Olympia, but its music (and its creator) was also equal parts joyous, hilarious, wildly esoteric, and achingly sad to its core. With one shot, Tori Amos and her beloved Bösendorfer piano made the personal political in a way that combined spirituality, mythology, intelligence, and emotion.

I first discovered the music of Tori Amos in 1996, when I was in junior high. I was in search of something “else,” with “else” being an undefined inside me that didn’t resonate with Kurt Cobain’s (then, to me) banal mumblings or the trite candy on pop radio. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy Top 40 — I did — but it didn’t speak to me. I had a copy of Amos’ then-new album Boys For Pele. It was an album that I was at the time confused by and obsessed with, and an album I still to this day am discovering new facets of. Boys For Pele is a sprawling, brilliant mess of an album, Amos’ third but her first self-produced and blissfully, confoundingly self-indulgent. Minutes upon minutes of the sounds of her piano settling, a track listing/sequencing broken down into multiple sub-categories based on Egyptian mythos, and linguistic non sequiturs pile on top of an album that is, at its essence, among the most heartbreaking, painful, and brave albums in rock history. Additionally, the album’s booklet photographs helped cement the visual element of Amos’ aesthetic as equally important as the music itself, a fashion adhered to by the new weird aesthetic of the likes of Grimes. The shots of Amos setting her piano aflame as seen through puddles of gasoline are still breathtaking, but nothing’s as infamous as the shot of her holding a nursing pig to her bare breast, a shocking photo not in the way that Marilyn Manson’s antics from the time were labeled as such, but in a way that still holds up as true art.

All of this is to say that, in a year celebrating the 20th anniversary of one of the most important albums of my generation, a record that finally made it OK to not be OK, I’m shocked at how little Tori-lauding is going on. The woman has made several truly brilliant, important records, each treading the line between completely weird art and brilliant avant-rock-electronic-whatever, but she hasn’t returned to the indie blog conversation the way, say, Fiona Apple (whose Idler Wheel album, released this year, sticks its toe into the warts-and-all waters Boys For Pele parted) has.

These thoughts hung heavy in my head as I stood in line last Friday at (le) Poisson Rouge in Manhattan for an NPR-sponsored concert in which Amos, promoting her newly released orchestral album Gold Dust, would re-imagine her vast catalog of music with a string octet, performing versions of her songs both familiar and foreign as conducted by her longtime string collaborator John Philip Shenale. While I was in line waiting to get in, playing Final Fantasy (the game, not the violinist) on my phone, I overheard a woman several spots ahead of me giving an interview to a reporter. “Tori’s never made any sense and I love that,” she said, “without Tori people wouldn’t have Grimes or tUnE-yArDs or Fiona.” This struck me, as I’d been thinking about a story related to me recently about Grimes being urinated on by a rat she requested at a Vanity Fair shoot — a similar story to one that had circulated years earlier regarding the video shoot for Tori Amos’ “God,” the chorus of which, at the time controversially, goes, “God, sometimes you just don’t come through/Do you need a woman to look after you?” Again: wherefore art thou, Toriphiles, in the new weird music aesthetic?

The incredibly intimate evening was hosted by NPR’s Ann Powers, with whom Amos had collaborated on her biography Piece by Piece, a book that actually restored my faith when I’d found all the talk of faeries and cupcakes lacking. Piece by Piece is as much an account of Amos as a businesswoman as it is her being a mystical music shaman, and includes a detailed description of Amos’ touring business plan.

Ann Powers’ introduction caught me off-guard, particularly considering how under-appreciated Amos has been in recent years. “My friend just told me Tori saved her 13-year-old’s life,” she began, “and she could’ve just as easily said she saved her 13-year-old life.” Jesus, what artist/musician/anything would ever want to follow that? But it’s true: in a way that seems passé now, Amos has been, through her music and charity outreach for over 20 years now, saving lives.

The show itself, though shorter than the scant few other orchestral shows she’s been doing for Gold Dust, continued to support my nagging feeling that we do music and society a great disservice by neglecting Amos. Mixing a few expected and thusly eye-roll-inducing songs (“Leather”) with a couple of through-the-chest heartbreaking Boys For Pele numbers (“Putting The Damage On” and an orchestral version of the Dakota remix of “Hey Jupiter”), the hour-long set was the finest form I’ve seen Amos in since I first saw her in concert supporting Pele. Orchestral renditions of a back catalog are seemingly en vogue this year (see also: Patrick Wolf), but Tori’s canon actually deserves the flourish. And when she launched into “Taxi Ride,” from her 2002 record Scarlet’s Walk, both the song and the record’s severe, biting anti-Bush sentiment finally hit me. “Taxi Ride,” about her friend/esteemed makeup artist Kevin Aucoin’s death, with the chorus “I’m glad you’re on my side, sure, I’m glad you’re on my side… still…” had never struck me as being the dark, bitter middle finger to the Bush administration that it, in fact, is. And upon revisiting the record in the past few days, there it is: Scarlet’s Walk is one of the smartest, most subversive and political albums to come out during the George W. Bush administration. And it’s emotional, pretty, and playful, too.

It’s this sort of revisiting that Amos’ catalog deserves, a deep and thorough excavation, from her myriad of quality b-sides, like “Purple People,” a Venus-era deep cut that had my table sobbing their eyes out when she performed it live, to her last few studio records, overlooked by her heyday-era naysayers. There’s a lot to learn about ourselves and our perceived societal norms to be unpacked in the lyrics to “Crucify” or “Cornflake Girl” or even “Big Wheel,” and a genuinely bold artistic statement being made in the final few minutes of the original version of “Talula” where nothing’s happening. In this, the 20th year of Tori Amos’s solo career, we’d all be remiss to not dive into an incredibly fertile, ridiculously challenging, and equally just ridiculous musical output.

And, to Grimes: I’ll buy you a copy of Boys For Pele. We could discuss it over a good bottle of Chianti.

[Photo credit: Ebru Yildiz for NPR]