Friday, August 22, 2008

It’s hard out there for a Tori Amos fan.

Not only do you have to deal with the inevitable "She's just a poor Kate Bush for the nineties!", but you also have to defend her while at the same time acknowledging that her body of work includes The Beekeeper. She appears in public sprouting off about faeries. She indulges in tedious dress up games. She cannot edit her albums for shit. All these things are qualities that would usually turn me off an artist immediately, but because of the entirety of Little Earthquakes, Under The Pink, From The Choirgirl Hotel, Boys For Pele bits and pieces of Strange Little Girls, Scarlet's Walk, and American Doll Posse, the live disc of To Venus And Back, the odd interview in which she can be hysterically funny and a whole load of b-sides, I make a huge exception for Tori. She can release half a dozen albums that are on the same level as The Beekeeper from now on, if she so feels like it (I hope she doesn't, obvs) but because of that back catalogue, I'm an Ear With Feet for life. So, in honour of her 45th birthday, I'm making a Top Ten Tori Tunes list.

Even leaving a handful of her studio albums off the longlist, a top ten will be hard to compile especially taking into account all the b-sides and covers and live tracks available. Lady is prolific. And I'm so fickle, this list will be obselote tomorrow, when I decide that 'Winter' or 'Cooling' or her version of 'Famous Blue Raincoat' or 'Tear In My Hand' or any number of other songs deserve a placing. You get the picture. But for now, here they are:

10. Father Lucifer

An example of how her left-of-centre interviewee style sometimes works really well can be found during the VH1 Storytellers concert. This song opens that concert, and I laugh every time I hear her introduction to it: "And my dad and I...I...I really do love my dad, it took us many years to, um, I think, respect each other's spiritual beliefs. So, um, when I came home, I guess it was a Thanksgiving because I remember a bird, and forks going down at the table, when my father said to me, "Tori Ellen, I can't believe you wrote this song about me". And I said "I write everything about you, what are you surprised about?". And he said, "No, but I'm really hurt about this one." And I said, "Well, which one is it?". And he said, "Well, you call me Satan." And I said, "No! I was taking drugs with the South American shaman and I really did visit the devil, and I had a journey!" And he went, Oh praise Jesus!". The version above isn't necessarily my favourite (like I said before, I love the Storytellers version, and you can't beat the studio cut) but it's still fantastic.

09. Mr Zebra

This only negative thing I can think to say about this song is that it's way too short. At 1 minute and 6 seconds, its over before you get a chance to appreciate all its jaunty, wry offerings. My solution: play on repeat. I listened to this song on repeat every morning during Transition Year, while walking up to school. It was like my own personal theme tune. That last line! "Too bad the burial was premature, she said. And smiled."And watch the above live video, where she completely screws it up but manages to save it just at the last moment.

08. Northern Lad

Okay, ignore the stupid homemade video and just listen to the song. I could've chose a live version to put here, but the studio version makes me cry. It's the only song I can think of containing an f-bomb that can make me well up every time it comes on. I think it's the line "I guess you go too far / When pianos try to be guitars".

07. She's Your Cocaine / Raspberry Swirl

Shoot me. I couldn't choose between the two, so they can jostle for space together at number seven on my list. Both are on From The Choirgirl Hotel (at times my overall favourite), both are fast, sweaty and slightly sleazy. Love it.

06. Playboy Mommy

The saddest Tori song, bar none.

05. Talula

I surprised myself by putting this on the list. I came to Pele later than most of her other stuff, so I'm not as familiar with some of the tracks on it in the same way as, say, Little Earthquakes. Yet this song stays in the mind for a number of reasons. The harpsichord and mandolin are possibly my favourite instrumentation of every Tori Amos song, but I think it's this section:

I got big bird on the fishing line
with a bit of a shout a bit of a shout
a bit of an angry snout
he's my favourite hooker of the whole bunch
and i know about his only bride
and how the russians die on the ice
i got my rape hat on
honey but i always could accessorise
and i never cared too much for the money
but i know right now
that it's in god's hands
but i don't know who the father is.
I love the phrasing of that whole piece, it's great to sing along to. When she suddenly breaks out the falsetto on "and I never cared too much for the money", she sounds like Prince.

04. Muhammed My Friend

Every time I listen to the studio version of this, the introductory piano solo drives me insane. I can't wait to delve into the main body of the song, goddamit! And yet, I couldn't do without that piano solo. It creates a tension, an anticipation, a pause before that triumphant opening couplet. I hate David Letterman, but the above version is worth a watch.

03. Siren

Anyone remember the 1998 Great Expectations movie, directed by Alfonso Cuaron? No, me neither. Looking it up on IMDB, the castlist is crazy: Robert deNiro, Anne Bancroft, Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, Gwennie Paltrow. Maybe it's just me, but I had no idea any of those people were ever in a film together. Anyway, I'm thankful for it because it gave us one of Tori's best recent songs. I always think of circles when I listen to it. That chorus. It sounds elliptical
to me, or something.

02. Take To The Sky

I never actually told anybody this, but 'Take To The Sky' was the unofficial sponser of my Leaving Cert year. Anytime I felt grumpy or tired or bogged down in exam revision, I listened to this. It's defiant and quietly furious, catchy as all get out and features some bitchin' piano slaps. Exams? "Here I stand with a sword in my hand!". (Yeah, I know how lame that sounds. But it worked like a charm!)

01. Precious Things

I said that this list is exremely subject to change, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this will always be numero uno. It was the first Tori Amos song I absolutely fell in love with. Let me flash back for a second, to Christmas 2003. I was heavily in the throes of my Nirvana phase, but I spotted a review of an best-of album called Tales of a Librarian in some music mag and liked what I read. After downloading 'Cornflake Girl' as a taster, I decided to buy it and so I purchased it the next time I was in town. I had liked 'Cornflake Girl' (who doesn't, right?) but when I heard this song, I was blown away. It opens the collection and is the absolute best primer a newbie could hope for. Everything essential about her is contained in this one song: beautiful piano playing, a novelistic sense of storytelling, the Catholicism, spurts of sudden rage - those jarring bursts of electric guitar still give me the shivers - humour, even the Trent Reznor friendship ("those demigods / with their nine-inch nails"). I always associate this with Margaret Atwood (I think I was reading Cat's Eye for the first time around this period). The song and the book kind of bleed into one another, both are extremely important to me. To borrow a line from another song not on this list, "They say you were something in those formative years". Yeah, I was something. Obsessed with this song. Still am. Listen!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The man who walked on air

Yeah, I know. Long time no blog. There's no particular excuse or reason, other than general ambivalence towards it, but I had to post about the most recent film I saw in theaters, James Marsh's film, Man On Wire. Give and take a Wall-E here and a The Visitor there, this is one of the best films I've seen all year. Come to think of it, all three have something in common. The critically-adored Pixar smash, the low-budget immigration story buried inside Tom McCarthy's character based second film and the award winning documentary about wire-walker Philippe Petit all share a common feeling. Watching each of the three, I felt the urgent need pressed upon me to really appreciate life, to take chances, to create art. Believe me, I know how cheesy this all sounds. But watching Philippe Petit dancing across the empty space between the twin towers, his only support a tiny cable, I felt truly exhilarated. There's a beautiful moment when he spots a policeman on the top of one of the towers, urging him to come back to safety, and Petit's face breaks into this beatific smile. It's hilarious, extraordinary, terrifying (at this moment, he's 400 metres up in the air).

The basic story has been told and retold to death. Petit, a French street performer and self-taught wire walker (a much classier term than tightrope walker, don't you think?) became obsessed with the World Trade Centre towers as they were being built. He followed their progress in the French newspapers, all the while formulating a plan in the back of his mind. He wanted to walk across them. He needed to walk across them. The towers became a full blown obsession for him. So he acted on his obsession: gathering a town, scoping out the towers, reading, sketching, making diagrams. Insane preparations. He rigged up a mock cable in a Frencg field and got a bunch of friends to jump up on down on it as he crossed, to stimulate the probable wind conditions. He had notebooks filled with complex instructions and doodles. He made contacts inside the WTC, so his team could have mock I.D. cards. 6 years of intense planning, all culminating in 45 minutes on a clear August morning in 1974. Having snuck up to the highest floor, hidden from the guards and rigged the cable across the two towers (an incredibly complex manouevre), early birds in New York city were treated to the spectacle. Petit crossed back and forth 8 times, pausing at different points to kneel, lie down and look up at the clouds and, insanely, to actually look straight down. I'll repeat that: he knelt on the wire and gazed down into New York city, 400 metres above it. I get dizzy climbing the stairs into the attic!

It's an interestingly constructed film, mixing talking heads, archive footage and artful reconstructions in order to dazzle the audience. Petit himself, now 59, is a lively, engaging storyteller. His wide eyed retelling of his escapades are amusing, but his gleeful joie de vivre is set off by some of the other contributers. His former girlfriend, Annie Allix and one time best friend, Jean-Louis Blondeau, both provide moving accounts. They are both impressed and saddened by Petit. After the feat, his relationship with both people fizzled out; perhaps a necessity after collaborating on something that intense. It's one of the things I liked most about the documentary, its focus on the intense planning of the 'before' and the bittersweet letdown of the 'after', as well as the glorification of the event itself. Go see it, please. It's the most thrilling, moving paean to art and the creative impulse that you'll see in the cinema all year.

More on Petit:

I observed the tightrope 'dancer'—because you couldn't call him a 'walker'—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire....And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle....He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again....Unbelievable really....[E]verybody was spellbound in the watching of it

- the eyewitness report of Sgt. Charles Daniels, the officer assigned to coax Petit down.

'Many people use the words "death defying" or "death wishing" when they talk about wire-walking. Many people have asked me: "So do you have a death wish?" After doing a beautiful walk, I feel like punching them in the nose. It's indecent. I have a life wish.'

- in his own words. From an interview with the Observer.

I also discovered that Paul Auster (i.e. my favourite writer) has a connection to Petit! Living in Paris in the early seventies, he encountered Petit as a street performer. Captivated, he followed his career with interest, which ended up with a meeting between the two men. Auster helped Petit with getting his book, On The High Wire, published, and he also translated it into English from the French original. In the preface to the book, Auster writes a piece on his appreciation of Petit and I have it in my Collected Prose. Here's a short excerpt, describing his first sighting of Petit. He taps into what's so magnetic about the man:

"Unlike other street preformers, he did not play to the crowd. Rather, it was somehow as though he had allowed the audience to share in the working of his thoughts, had made us privy to some deep, inarticulate obsession within him. Yet there was nothing overly personal about what he did. Everything was revealed metaphorically, as if at one remove, through the medium of the performance. His juggling was precise and self-involved, like some conversation he was holding with himself. He elaborated the most complex combinations, intricate mathematical patterns, arabesques of nonsensical beauty, while at the same time keeping his gestures as simple as possible. Throught it all, he managed to radiate a hypnotic charm, oscilliating somewhere between demon and clown. No one said a word. It was as though his silence were a command for others to be silent as well. The crowd watched, and after the performance was over, everyone put money in the hat. I realised that I had never seen anything like it before."