May 23, 2020 at 11:51 am EDT | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Tori Amos memoir ‘Resistance’ both profound and opaque
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. 

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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