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Tori Amos memoir ‘Resistance’ both profound and opaque

Singer/songwriter writes movingly of LGBT issues, family death while keeping the curtain closed on some aspects of her life and passions

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Tori Amos, gay news, Washington Blade
Singer/songwriter Tori Amos is unusually open about some aspects of her life while glaringly evasive about others in her new memoir ‘Resistance.’ (photo by Des Willie; courtesy Simon & Schuster)

‘Resistance: a Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change and Courage’ 

By Tori Amos

Atria Books

Released May 5

272 pages

$26

A somewhat common — but far from universal — observation in Tori Amos fan circles is that her newer albums just aren’t as good as her definitive ‘90s masterpieces.

This isn’t unique to Amos. Some artists only have one or two good albums in them total (Alanis Morissette, Jewel) but keep issuing new albums that feel creatively spent. Some, like Lauryn Hill, don’t even bother to try. How many artists can keep a decade-long, white hot streak going indefinitely? And continue blowing the minds of fans who just get more jaded and less easy to impress as they, like the artist, age? 

But even Amos herself has seemed curiously uninvested in later albums like “Native Invader” (2017) and “Unrepentant Geraladines” (2014). Her last tour was dubbed the “Native Invader Tour,” yet at her last area appearance in 2017, she played only two songs from the “Native Invader” album (and one was a bonus track at that!). That was typical of her shows that year. This is drastically reduced from her earlier practices. There are always a few standout tracks on each, but the overall impact has felt curiously clinical, musically bloodless. (If you want a super deep dive on this topic, Matthew Barton wrote a brilliant essay this week for The Quietus.)

What has become almost more interesting, though, is what she’s had to say, not sing. She’s always game to do a bounty of press — print and video/TV — with each new cycle (radio, of course, hasn’t played her for ages and never did much anyway) and the Amos we’ve gotten to know in these exchanges (a 2017 Vulture chat is especially good) is wise, illuminating, kooky and engaging. 

Thankfully, a lot of that translates into her new memoir “Resistance: a Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change and Courage,” out this month from Atria Books. It follows her 2005 memoir “Piece by Piece.” Its main thesis — that artists have a social responsibility to combat mercenary forces both political and systemic — is reasonably supported but far from what’s most interesting about it. 

Although Amos has always had queer sensibility (she’s straight), what’s pleasantly surprising about the book is how much queer content it contains. In Amos’ mind, sexism — she argues convincingly it’s rampant in the music industry — and homophobia are twin sins and that’s linked her cozily with gay men since her early days playing at Mr. Henry’s a gay bar in Georgetown where Amos got her start at age 13, an experience the daughter of a United Methodist pastor describes in religious terms.

“Perhaps because it was gay men who took me under their wing when I was 13 and taught me how to survive — even at times through a large dose of reality, spelling out how a teenage girl in Washington could be manipulated — well, that’s its own song and those rivers run deep. Those fairy godfathers trying to teach me a drop of grace can go a long way, a lesson that my inner lioness needs reminding of a lot, but they gave and gave and gave and did not give up on me. Praise Jesus. So they led me, baptized in the barroom, to strength, to visibly blossom.” 

She also writes of a 2014 concert she gave in Moscow on a stage at Crocus Arena where Putin was to appear the following day. Outraged by a 2013 “gay propaganda” law Putin had signed that made it illegal to tell LGBT Russian youth they were normal and give them reliable information on sexual orientation and gender identity, Amos tailored her set list to reflect her inner protest. 

“The persecution of the LGBTQ community was — and is — real and terrifying,” she writes. “My set list in Moscow would speak loud and clear.” 

Amos also writes briefly of a similar experience at at 2014 concert she gave in Istanbul. 

Throughout the book, Amos-penned songs are shared that dovetail the various topics she covers. “Ophelia” closes a section about the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and “Cornflake Girl” is placed with a painful essay on female genital mutilation (it’s way more common in parts of the world than you’d guess).

Things lag a bit in a lengthy passage about the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis in which 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days during a diplomatic standoff. Amos, still a D.C. piano bar regular at the time, writes of the change in the air when Reagan took office. Then Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill even joined her once at the piano to sing “Bye Bye Blackbird,” which she writes of fondly. Although always interesting to hear about, it at times feels like Amos is trying to play up her inside-the-Beltway locale to be of more import than it likely was. She writes of observing Hill movers and shakers conducting business over cocktails but how much could she really have overheard belting away at the ivories? 

For me, the most gripping passages were the ones from Amos’ own life such as the initial rejection of her debut solo album “Little Earthquakes” by Atlantic Records in 1991, her experience being in New York City on 9-11 and her mom’s 2019 death following a debilitating stroke. 

Other standout passages include fresh perspectives on Amos’ fraught relationship with Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory (she was kicked out as a teen but invited back in 2019 to give a commencement address) and descriptions of her artistic process where she’s at times ethereal (she speaks often of the muses that bring her inspiration) and practical describing the often painstaking process of culling her musical noodlings and fragments into usable sonic wheat. 

Her observations are at times profound. She writes of what she believes is the fallowness of the notion of artistic barrenness: “People who are addicted to power … can weaponize the thought of being creatively barren in order to debilitate the artist. They target artists specifically because they know that artists have the ability to reach the public in ways no one else can.” Ever worked with a narcissist? Those words ring true. 

There are handfuls of “Gold Dust” (to use one of Amos’s songs) scattered piquantly throughout “Resistance.” 

Despite the sometimes heavy topics, the essays are fairly short and tight. It feels like a nice, long visit with a trusted ally but she’s sharing not just off the top of her head, but on topics she’s in many cases spent a lifetime pondering — grief, honoring one’s instrument and inspiration, the price of selling out, how to stay in the game when the straight, white old boys’ club hold all the good cards and so on. 

My quibbles are that I was hoping her husband and musical partner Mark Hawley — an artistic enigma who seems to not just enjoy but practically demand staying in the background — had emerged as a more fully formed figure. So little is known about him, yet so heavy has his influence been on Amos’s career, that he looms like a specter over the Amos universe.

It’s also highly odd that Amos mentions the death of her sole brother only in passing (were they simply not close? If so, why?) and that former boyfriend Eric Rosse is mentioned just once. He was the co-producer of her career-defining first two solo albums; their breakup, which Amos has never said much about, in part inspired her masterwork “Boys for Pele” (1996). They’ve been apart long enough now, surely she can assess his contributions to her formative works more unemotionally now, one presumes. So why does she barely acknowledge him? 

And while Amos does write movingly of how mortifying the Y Kant Tori Read (her first band, which bombed with one 1988 album) era was, she’s frustratingly scant on details — did she feel musical kinship with her bandmates? How did they form? When did they officially disband? Did they provide any solace in the failure or accept any of the responsibility? Where are they now? And perhaps, more metaphysically, could there have ever been a “Little Earthquakes” if Y Kant Tori Read hadn’t happened? Amos blames herself for sinning against her art and her instrument and selling out but without sin there’s no redemption, artistic or otherwise. 

That, perhaps, is what’s missing from Amos’ later work. Even with the usual struggles life eventually brings us all — the death of a parent most pronouncedly — Amos is almost too wise, too mature, too stable, too grounded to conjure up the woozy heat of earlier songs like “Bliss,” “Spark” or “Blood Roses.” It’s unfair, one must acknowledge, to expect her to maintain the kind of white-hot streak she had going ’til about “To Venus and Back” (1999). What would a 2020 Kurt Cobain album sound like had he lived? 

Still it’s a bittersweet aftertaste “Resistance” leaves — as warmly as it goes down — that these are considerations a long-time fan can’t help but ponder. 

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Two new books celebrate Old Hollywood glory

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Liz Taylor and Montgomery Clift, who was gay, had a long, close friendship. (Photo courtesy Kensington)
‘Elizabeth and Monty: The Untold Story of Their Intimate Friendship’
By Charles Casillo
c.2021, Kensington
$27.00/389 pages

‘The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock’
By Edward White
c.2021, W. W. Norton & Company
$28.95/379 pages

If you’re queer, especially if you’re of a certain age, old Hollywood is embedded in your DNA.

For those of us besotted by classic movies — there can never be too many books about Tinseltown.

Two new books — “Elizabeth and Monty” by Charles Casillo and “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock” by Edward White — will satisfy your old Hollywood jones.

“Elizabeth and Monty” is the riveting story of the intimate friendship of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.

Few people are loved more by the LGBTQ community than Elizabeth Taylor. Who will ever forget Taylor as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” or as Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?”

Taylor raised millions for AIDS research long before any celeb or politico even said the word “AIDS.” People with AIDS weren’t objects of charity to Taylor. She had many queer friends and hung out at gay bars.

Montgomery Clift, who lived from 1920 to 1966, was a talented actor. Because of the time in which he lived, he had to be closeted about his sexuality. Because of the homophobia in the society and Hollywood then, the support of friends was crucial to Clift and other LGBTQ people of that era.

For much of his life, Clift had health problems that caused him pain. Partly as a result of pain, he had issues with drinking and drug addiction. His behavior could be erratic and uncouth.  (He had a penchant for eating food off of other people’s plates.)

Despite Clift’s troubles, you become transfixed by his brooding intensity – whether you’re watching him in “The Heiress,” “From Here to Eternity” or “Red River.”  

If you have a heartbeat, you’ll feel the chemistry between Clift and Taylor when they’re on screen together in “A Place in the Sun.”

Though Clift was queer and Taylor was hetero, they were the closest of friends.

From the prologue onward, Casillo draws you into their friendship. The book opens on the evening when Clift, driving home from a party, was in a terrible car accident. He’d crashed into a telephone pole. 

Taylor went to Clift who was lying bleeding on the road. “Realizing he was choking on his teeth,” Casillo adds, “she instinctively stuck her fingers down his throat and pulled out two broken teeth, clearing the passageway.”

Taylor stuck by Clift when many of his friends distanced themselves from him.  

Taylor insisted that Clift be cast in “Reflections in a Golden Eye.” She put up her own salary as insurance for Clift when no one would insure him (because of his health and substance abuse issues).

It’s clear from “Elizabeth and Monty” that Clift was as important to Taylor as she was to him. Their relationship wasn’t sexual, writes Casillo, author of “Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon” and “Outlaw The Lives and Careers of John Rechy.” Yet, there was an emotional intensity – a romantic quality – in their friendship.

Clift nurtured Taylor. He coached Taylor, who he called Bessie Mae, on her acting. He thought Taylor was beautiful, yet understood what it was like for Taylor when people only saw her for her beauty.

“Monty, Elizabeth likes me, but she loves you,” Richard Burton is reported to have said to Clift.

There are good biographies of Taylor – such as William Mann’s “How To Be A Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood” and of Clift – most notably Patricia Bosworth’s “Montgomery Clift: A Biography.”

Even so, “Elizabeth and Monty” sheds new light on the intense friendship of two queer icons. Check it out. It will imbue you with renewed love and respect not only for Taylor and Clift but for your own friends.

Without Alfred Hitchcock, I’d never make it through the pandemic.

The COVID vaccines are wonderful! But, I’d never get out of my sweatpants without the suspense and glam of Hitchcock’s movies.

Nothing is more comforting than watching serial killer Uncle Charlie in “Shadow of a Doubt” or, with Grace Kelly, James Stewart and Thelma Ritter, observing the murderer in “Rear Window.”

What is more pleasurable than ogling the gorgeous mid-century apartment where a murder has been committed in “Rope?”

Of course, I’m far from alone in loving Hitchcock. Hetero and queer viewers are Hitchcock fans.

Everyone from your straight, straitlaced granny to your bar-hopping queer grandson has had nightmares about the shower scene in “Psycho.” Or had a crush on Cary Grant or Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest.”

From the glam in “Rear Window” to Bruno and Guy in “Strangers on a Train,” it’s clear that Hitchcock’s movies have a queer quotient and a special appeal to LGBTQ viewers.

There are more biographies and studies of Hitchcock’s life and work than you could count. Or would want to read.

Yet, “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock” by Edward White is a good read.

In elegant, precise writing, White illuminates Hitchcock’s life and work by examining 12 aspects of his complex personality. As with all of us, the whole of Hitchcock’s self was more than the components of his personality. Any life, despite the most assiduous biographer’s investigations, remains somewhat of a mystery.

White explores how “Hitchcock” the phenomenon was invented as well as what made Hitchcock the person tick. He carries out this exploration by writing about Hitchcock as everything from “The Fat Man” to “The Murderer” to “The Dandy” to “The Voyeur” to “The Londoner” to “The Family Man” to “The Man of God.”

Hitchcock was a family man who loved his wife, yet, at times, gazed in, to put it mildly an unsavory manner, at some of the actresses such as Tippi Hedren, in his films.  

Impeccably dressed in a Victorian-era suite, he plotted films about murder and rape with his wife (and frequent uncredited collaborator) Alma at his side.

For a half century, “Hitchcock’s persona was the active ingredient in the most celebrated of his 53 films,” White writes, “the way Oscar Wilde’s was in his plays, and Andy Warhol’s was in his art.”

Hitchcock stands alone in the Hollywood canon, White writes, “a director whose mythology eclipses the brilliance of his myriad classic movies.”

The span of Hitchcock’s career was immense — from the time of silent films to the 3-D era. His work, White, a “Paris Review” contributor, writes, runs the gamut from thrillers to screwball comedy to horror to film noir to social realism.

Read “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock.”  It’ll take you inside the mosaic of the fab filmmaker’s life and work. Then, break out the popcorn and “Dial M for Murder.”  

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Books

Author recalls beatings, discrimination in memoir

‘Punch Me Up to the Gods’ an emotional, rewarding journey

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‘Punch Me Up to the Gods: A Memoir’
By Brian Broome
c.2021, HMH Books
$26/272 pages

Little kids have it so easy.

Somebody feeds them when they’re hungry, does their laundry, buys them toys, and plays with them. Somebody escorts them everywhere and sometimes, they even get carried. Yep, life is good when you’re a little kid except, as in the new memoir, “Punch Me Up to the Gods” by Brian Broome, when it’s not.

He called Corey his “best friend,” but Corey was no friend to 10-year-old Brian Broome. Sure, things were simpatico at first but it didn’t take long for Corey to sense Broome’s insecurities, or to start pummeling Broome, or to humiliate him. Broome’s father hoped that Corey might act as “a form of therapy” for a boy who played with girls too much; Broome endured the abuse and didn’t complain to the adults because he was a little in love with Corey.

As if Corey’s thrashings weren’t harsh enough, Broome’s dad beat Broome for a multitude of reasons, from a pink shirt to frustration over unemployment to racism: he said he’d rather kill his children himself than to let a white person do it. Broome, in fact, often wished that he was white like the people on TV, so he’d have the benefits of it. White parents really seemed to love their kids.

Broome dreamed of moving far away from the tiny working-class Ohio town of his birth, to a larger city where he believed he could avoid the bullying and teasing, leave his life behind, and escape the embarrassment of his parents’ ramshackle existence. He did leave once, for college, but he was deeply humiliated by the racism and homophobia of his roommates. He called his mother then, and she came to get him.

She was one of a handful of Black women who saved him.

Being a man isn’t easy. Being a Black man in America is harder. Being a gay Black man led Broome to drugs, alcohol, and away from his family – although, he says, “… yes, I was loved. Just not in ways that I could understand.”

Be prepared to be messed with here. Your emotions may never be the same.

There’s a tightly coiled, ready-to-strike fist wrapped in melancholy and a miles-long people-watching incident in this book, both giving aptness to its title. “Punch Me Up to the Gods” refers to author Brian Broome’s father’s second-favorite words before the beatings began, and they’ll hit you hard, too. You’re not embarrassed, in fact, to be seen carrying a book around, are you? Because you will, this one.

Happily, there are moments of humor, too, as Broome recalls things that occurred in his youth, or maybe just a few years ago. He surprises readers with similes that are sobering, in the middle of laughter. He steps back sometimes, to pick at something else, turns it over twice to examine it, and pulls it into his tale.

For this, you won’t regret picking this wonderfully companionable, startlingly gracious and compelling memoir. “Punch Me Up to the Gods” is a don’t-miss, devouring it is so easy.

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Books

‘Love and Other Poems’ will satisfy your need for romance

New poetry collection arrives in time for pandemic’s end

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Queer poet Alex Dimitrov’s new work is the shot in the arm we need this summer.

‘Love and Other Poems’
By Alex Dimitrov
c. 2021, Copper Canyon Press
$17.00/119 pages

“I love red shoes. I love black leather,” queer poet Alex Dimitrov writes in his poem “Love.”

“I love the grotesque ways in which people eat ice cream–on sidewalks, alone–however they need it, whenever they feel free enough,” Dimitrov enthuses.

The poem appears in Dimitrov’s fab new poetry collection “Love and Other Poems.”

Nothing could be more welcome as the isolation of the pandemic morphs into “Hot Vax summer.”
We’ve been starved for love — from romance to hugging our friends to dancing at our fave queer bar, to buying flowers — in our city.

Whether you’re an avid reader of obscure poetry journals or you read poetry as rarely as many poets read the tax code, “Love and Other Poems” will satisfy your love jones.

It’s fitting that Dimitrov dedicates the volume to “our city of New York.” From the moment you read the book’s opening lines, you know the collection is a, by turns, ironic, comic, poignant, love poem to New York.

“I don’t want to sound unreasonable/but I need to be in love immediately,” Dimitrov, 36, who lives in New York, writes at the start of the book’s first poem “Sunset On 14th Street.” “I can’t watch this sunset/on 14th Street by myself.”

“You can say New York is beautiful/and it wouldn’t be a headline/and it wouldn’t be a lie,” he writes later in the poem.

“Love and Other Poems,” though wholly original and of the moment, is an homage not only to New York City but to the openly queer New York poet Frank O’Hara.

O’Hara, who lived from 1926 to 1966 and worked as a curator for the Museum of Modern Art, wrote witty, moving poems on Billie Holiday, Lana Turner, his boyfriends, parties, paintings and ecstatically, waking up to love, coffee and cigarettes.

“I live above a dyke bar and I’m happy,” O’Hara wrote in “You Are Gorgeous And I’m Coming,” a love poem.

O’Hara moved poetry from the stuffy realm of the Academy into bars, the movies – the streets. He called his work “I do this I do that” poetry.

Yet, “O’Hara was a first-class intellectual,” Grace Cavalieri, Maryland’s 10th Poet Laureate, told the Blade in 2014. “He just wanted lunch at the foot of Mount Olympus where the party was.”

The same can be said of Dimitrov, who was born in Bulgaria and raised in Detroit.

He received a bachelor’s degree in English and film from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2007 and an M.F.A. in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College in 2009.

His previous poetry collections include “Together and By Ourselves” and the chapbook “American Boys.”

He is the former senior content editor at the Academy of American Poets, where he edited Poem-A-Day and “American Poets.” With Dorothea Lasky, he is the co-author of “Astro Poets: Your Guides to the Zodiac.”

In 2009, he founded Wilde Boys, a queer poetry salon in New York City, which he ran until 2013. Renowned queer poets and writers from Mark Doty to Edmund White to Michael Cunningham read their work at the salon.

Like O’Hara, Dimitrov is a flaneur in New York. In “Love and Other Poems,” we follow him over the course of a year as he lives and goes about in his city.

There’s a fine line between paying homage to a poet you admire and being overly imitative of that poet’s work. Dimitrov comes close to crossing the line. The title of one of the collection’s poems “Having a Diet Coke with You” riffs off the title of O’Hara’s poem “Having a Coke with You.”

Yet, Dimitrov’s voice is his own. The love in his poems is for not only New York but the moon, Stonewall, difficult men, glamour and the dead.

Though filled with darkness as well as light, with loneliness as well as bar-hopping, his work isn’t sappy.
“No one’s allowed to tell/their sad story at my funeral,” he writes in “Notes For My Funeral,” “No one’s allowed to tell/my sad story at my funeral.”

“Love and Other Poems” is the shot in the arm we need this summer.

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