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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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‘Fiona and Jane’ an enticing look at lifelong friendship

Two women bicker, fall distant – then meet again

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(Book cover image courtesy of Viking)

‘Fiona and Jane’
By Jean Chen Ho
c. 2022, Viking
$26/275 pages

“Fiona and Jane,” a new short story collection by Jean Chen Ho is an enticing New Year’s present. The captivating volume features secrets, family conflict, queerness, astute cultural observations, and above all, friendship.

We long to fall in love. So we lose our hearts to our lovers and go to pieces when our relationships break up.

Yet, especially, if we’re women and/or queer, we want a best friend as much, maybe more, than we do a lover.

Fiona and Jane, Asian Americans, grew up in Los Angeles. They’ve been best friends since they met in LA in second grade. Jane’s family emigrated to Los Angeles from Taiwan. Fiona, with her mother, came to LA from Taiwan when she was a young child.

In “Fiona and Jane,” Ho’s debut collection, the two friends over 30 years grow from second-graders to 30-somethings. Ho’s linked stories draw us into Fiona and Jane’s friendship as they become, at different times, incredibly close, then distant (both geographically and emotionally) from each other.

Ho, 41, has more writing chops than you can imagine. She is a doctoral candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Southern California where she is a Dornsife Fellow in fiction. Ho has an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her writing has been published in The Georgia Review, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, McSweeney’s, and other publications.

Ho was born in Taiwan, grew up in Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. But, “none of the things that happen to Fiona and Jane are autobiographical,” she said on the podcast “All of It with Alison Stewart,” “I didn’t mine my particular life experiences and put them in the book out of respect to my oldest and dearest friends.”

Fiona is hetero, smart  and attractive. As a teen, she earns enough money to buy a secondhand car (named Shamu, Ho writes, “after the Sea World killer whale because of the corroding white patches all over the black paint.”).

While Fiona’s mother isn’t religious, Jane’s Mom is devoutly Christian. Jane is bisexual. When she and Fiona are teens, they kiss  “to practice” – what kissing’s like. Though she doesn’t tell her Mom, Jane, when a teenager, has a romantic relationship with her female piano teacher.

When she’s young, Jane often does what Fiona does. Because Jane’s tall, she’s often thought of as “Fiona’s bodyguard.” As she grows older, Jane begins to rely more on herself.

Fiona is eager to leave LA. She goes to college, then moves to New York City with her first boyfriend. She enters law school, then drops out.

Jane stays in Los Angeles. She opts to take a gap year between high school and college. The gap year morphs into a couple of years. Jane has relationships with women as well as with Julian, a vet who has PTSD.

Though Fiona and Jane are quite different from one another, they keep circling back to each other. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common: they both have lost their fathers.

In one of the collection’s most moving stories, “The Night Market,” Jane speaks of her visit before she graduated high school to Taiwan where she has come to see her Dad. Her Dad has gone from LA to Taiwan for a temporary job. Jane learns that he’s going to stay in Taiwan because he’s fallen in love with a man there. Her Dad asks her to keep this a secret. But, in her pain at his revelation, she outs him. Jane blames herself for his suicide.

Fiona discovers as a child that she’s never known her father. Her mother raises her on her own.

Over the years, Fiona and Jane bicker, fall distant – then meet again. As teens, they help each other get fake IDs so they can drink. As adults, they help each other through moving apartments, love affairs and mourning.

 “Sixteen years since my father died, and I was still alive,” Jane thinks, “I got up, every morning. I lived, day by day. I had my best friend, Fiona Lin.”

Check out “Fiona and Jane.” Then, text your best friend.

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Books

Seeking love and community in Nicaragua

‘High-Risk Homosexual’ explores author’s youth, coming out

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(Book cover image courtesy of Soft Skill Press)

High-Risk Homosexual: A Memoir
By Edgar Gomez
c.2022, Soft Skull Press
$16.95/304 pages

Here. Try this.

It fits you, but the color isn’t flattering. It’s too long, too short, too tight, too loose. That’s not your style, so try something else until you find the thing that looks like you. The perfect thing is out there. As in the new book “High-Risk Homosexual” by Edgar Gomez, when something’s right, it’s right.

He was 13 when he figured out that he was a problem to be solved.

Edgar Gomez’ mother had left him in her native Nicaragua with his tíos, just for a while because she had to return to Florida to work. He wasn’t there without her for long, but it took years for him to understand that his time with his uncles was meant to make him more masculine.

In retrospect, he says, nobody wanted him to be a man more than he did. He wanted to be liked by other kids and so he told lies in school to make himself stand out. He wanted his mother to see his love of pretty things and say that it was OK. He wanted his brother to acknowledge that Gomez was gay, and to tell him that he loved him.

Instead, after his brother left for college, Gomez got his first boyfriend, a boy he came out to but who couldn’t come out to himself. He was called names in school. He came out to his mother, who freaked out about it. He befriended a drag queen, but “Princess” used him.

Things he wanted: a real boyfriend. Love. A ban on the stereotype of a macho Latinx man.

Things he still had, while in college: his mother and older brother. A tormentor-turned-mentor. A part-time job. His weirdness. His virginity.

Things he wanted to lose, while in college: his room at his mother’s house. His virginity, but that wouldn’t happen until later, during a painful one-afternoon-stand with a hot man who said he had a girlfriend. That hurt, both physically and emotionally but like so many things at so many times, Gomez tried not to think about it.

If he never considered what he didn’t have, he says, “I wouldn’t miss it.”

In a way, you could say that “High-Risk Homosexual” is a book in search of a point. It’s really quite random and told (mostly) linearly, but not quite. It has its peaks, but also low valleys. And you won’t care about any of this, because you’ll be enjoying every bit of it.

Yeah, this memoir is good: author Edgar Gomez’s literary wandering makes it feel much like an honest conversation with readers. There are wince-worthy moments that allow empathy here, and experiences that are unique but oddly ubiquitous, that leave space for a sense of sympatico. There are passages that are so wistfully uncomfortable that you might squirm, or start “snort-laughing,” or want to stop a moment and just think.

And there’s room for that, too, so take your time. “High-Risk Homosexual” is an affable book with just enough seriousness to make it worth a try.

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Books

A lesbian Baby Boomer’s relatable story

‘Audacity of a Kiss’ a warm, familiar biography

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The Audacity of a Kiss: A Memoir
By Leslie Cohen
c.2021, Rutgers University Press
$24.95/235 pages

Don’t move.

Stay entirely still, don’t even breathe. You’re about to become a symbol of something that’s bigger than you are, something you’ll be proud of for the rest of your days. Don’t flinch, scratch, or sneeze, just don’t do anything. Don’t. Move. Unless it’s to turn the pages of “The Audacity of a Kiss” by Leslie Cohen.

Behind every statue is a story, and the one behind those representing four people in Christopher Park in New York’s Greenwich Village is no different. But to explain how this monument came about means also telling a long love story and a tale about a nightclub.

Leslie Cohen’s mother was her very best friend, although there were misunderstandings in the relationship. Seven-year-old Leslie couldn’t see why she received pink girly things for her birthday. In later years, she couldn’t understand why her mother deferred to Leslie’s father and endured his abuse.

The one thing Cohen did understand was that once puberty hit, the boys in her neighborhood were no longer pals to roughhouse with. She was supposed to want to date them and it didn’t entirely make sense, but Cohen went along with it even after she left home for college. She went out with boys and lost her virginity to one, but meeting Beth was the most remarkable thing about higher learning. She was sure she was in love with Beth, but Beth was obsessed with a boy and so Cohen moved on.

She moved on to other men and then women, at a time when women loving women was unthinkable, and the Summer of Love. Cohen embraced her lesbianism, fell in and out of love, and went into a partnership with three other women to open New York’s first lesbian club, where lesbians and straight feminists were welcome to dance and drink.

To be sure, it was a heady time. Cohen worked nonstop, gained confidence and learned to run a bar business. She was busy, but happy.

And then Beth came back into her life.

Let’s face it: author Leslie Cohen’s life story is basically like that of a lot of lesbians born at the beginning of the Baby Boom. A solid childhood, confusion, self-awareness, entrepreneurship all make a somewhat familiar story set apart by one abundant thing: warmth.

Indeed, “The Audacity of a Kiss” is an easy tale. It’s comfortable, like a crackling fireplace and a glass of wine on a cushy sofa.There are accomplishments here, told so that you really share the pride in them. Readers are shown the struggle that Cohen had, too, but experiences are well-framed by explanations of the times in which they occurred, with nothing overly dramatic – just the unabashed truth, and more warmth. Opening this book, in a way, then, is like accepting an invitation to own the recliner for an evening, and you won’t want anything else.

Younger lesbians will get a lot from this book, but anyone who’s been there will relish it. Get “The Audacity of a Kiss,” then sit down and don’t move.

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