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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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Books

‘Before We Were Trans’ explores a complicated history

Scholars ‘need to tread carefully and responsibly’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Seal Press)

‘Before We Were Trans’
By Kit Heyam
c.2022, Seal Press
$30/352 pages

Yes or no: before there were rockets, there were no astronauts.

No, there wasn’t a need for them without a vehicle to go where people only dreamed of going. But yes – the word “astronaut” is more than a century old. Words and labels matter, as you’ll see in “Before We Were Trans” by Kit Heyam, and time is no excuse.

On the evening of June 8, 1847, John Sullivan was apprehended by gendarmes while weaving down a sidewalk in London. Sullivan was wearing a few women’s garments, and was carrying more, all of it stolen. Because it wasn’t the first time he was arrested, he spent 10 years in an Australian penal colony for his crime.

“Is this story a part of trans history?” asks Heyam.

There aren’t enough clues to determine Sullivan’s truth, not enough “evidence that their motivation for gender nonconformity was not external, but internal.” The answer’s complicated by the fact that “transgender” wasn’t even a word during Sullivan’s time. Presumably, Sullivan was white but even so, we must also consider “that the way we experience and understand gender is inextricable from race.”

Surely, then, Njinga Mbande, the king of Ndongo, can be considered trans; they were assigned female at birth but presented themselves as king, as did Hatshepsut of Egypt. In precolonial Nigeria, the Ekwe people were gender-fluid, to ensure that there was a male in the household. Do political and social reasons fit the definition of trans?

In England, it was once believed that to dress like the opposite sex was to become that gender. In prison camps during World War I, men participated in plays to ease the boredom, and some ultimately lived permanently as women. Early history shows many examples of people living as “both.” Were they trans or not?

Says Heyam, “historians need to tread carefully and responsibly when we talk about the histories of people who blur the boundaries between intersex and trans.”

Moreover, can we allow that there’s probably some “overlap”?

The answer to that could depend on your current situation and mindset. Absolutely, author Kit Heyam dangles their own opinion throughout this book but “Before We Were Trans” doesn’t seem to solve the riddle.

Judging by the narrative here, though, it’s possible that it may be forever unsolvable. There’s a lot to untangle, often in the form of partially recorded tales that hark back to antiquity and that are shaky with a lack of knowable details. Even Heyam seems to admit sometimes that their thoughts are best guesses.

And yet, that tangle can leave readers with so much to think about, when it comes to gender. Ancient attitudes toward trans people – whether they were, indeed, trans or acted as such for reasons other than gender – absolutely serve as brain fodder.

This is not a quick-breezy read; in fact, there are times when you may feel as though you need a cheat-sheet to follow similar-sounding names. Even so, if you take your time with it, “Before We Were Trans” may put you over the moon.

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Books

‘Knocking Myself Up’ a hilarious, hopeful read

Queer writer Michelle Tea reveals struggle to get pregnant in memoir

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(Book cover image courtesy of Dey Street)

 ‘Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility’
By Michelle Tea
c.2022, Dey Street
$28.99/304 pages

Most books, no matter how fab, can be put down. For meals, naps, dancing, binge-watching – sex.

This isn’t how it goes with queer writer Michelle Tea’s new book “Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility.” Once you start it, everything else will stop until you finish it. Then, you’ll still be inhaling Tea’s captivating memoir.

Recently on YouTube, I came across the mid-century TV sitcom “Leave It to Beaver.” The show featured an archetypal 1950s family – the Cleavers: white, middle-class, straight – with a Dad (Ward) who worked at “the office,” Mom (June), a homemaker, and two sons – Wally and Theodore (a.k.a. Beaver). They lived in a house with an immaculate lawn and a white picket fence.

This isn’t to dis the Cleavers, who were beloved by many Boomers (queer and non-queer). R.I.P., Tony Dow! (Dow, who played Wally, died last month.)

But June Cleaver, the epitome of white, hetero, middle-class motherhood, would be thunderstruck by  “Knocking Myself Up.”

After being childless, Tea, 40, and living in San Francisco, single, with no health insurance, after much soul-searching, decided to have a child.

From the first word – Tea sucks us into her story.

“Hello,” Tea writes, “This is your narrator, Michelle Tea.”

 “I’m about to bring you into my inner world,” Tea continues, “during a period of time when that space was as wild, messy, hopeful, dizzy, tragic, terrifying and open-hearted as any era I’ve ever lived.”

Tea has become iconic for her queer wit, intelligence and searing interrogation of herself, the people in her life and the culture.

Tea, born in 1971 in Chelsea, Mass., grew up in a working-class background. She struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness (which ran in her family).

Her family members aren’t monsters. Tea’s mother and sister love her. But growing up for her wasn’t a sitcom odyssey.

Her stepfather copped to spying on her (in her bedroom – in the bathroom) through a hole in the wall.

Tea became a scribe when she was in second grade and, since then, has never stopped writing.

She’s the author of more than 12 books, including the cult classic “Valencia,” the brilliant essay collection “Against Memoir” and the speculative memoir “Black Wave.”

Tea has received awards from the Guggenheim, Lambda Literary and Rona Jaffe foundations; Pen/America; and other distinguished institutions. Along with being a prolific writer, Tea has been an intrepid cultural interventionist.

She started Drag Queen Story Hour, co-created the Sister Spit queer literary performance tours, and was the founding director of RADAR Productions, a Bay Area literary organization for more than a decade.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of, what Tea’s bio calls, her “cultural interventions.”

Tea has helmed the imprints Sister Spit Books at City Lights Publishers and Amethyst Editions at the Feminist Press. Tea produces and hosts the Your Magic podcast where she reads tarot cards for Roxanne Gay and other artists.

But Tea’s dazzling  literary status doesn’t prevent her from running into obstacles when she tries to become pregnant and give birth. Professional cred is no match against heteronormality.

Opting to have a baby is a rollicking ride no matter who you are, Tea writes. “You’re setting out to conjure a life,” she adds, “and in the process, deeply unsettle your own.”

But having a child is a hell of a lot more unsettling, Tea discovers, if you’re queer, single and have no health insurance — even if you live in San Francisco (the epicenter of queerness).

Tea finds that fertility clinics are set up for straight people.

During her quest to become pregnant, she finds love and marries Orson, who’s nonbinary. Yet clinic forms and personnel refer to Orson as her “husband.” Because they’re queer, Tea and Orson (unlike straight couples) are required to talk to a mental health professional.

Tea worries that even though she’s married, she’ll have to legally adopt her baby.

Despite Tea’s no-holds-barred stories of these difficulties, “Knocking Myself UP” is far from a downer.

It features a glam drag queen sperm donor, a witch, Tea’s loving sister and tons of info on everything from ovulation to implantation.

“Knocking Myself Up” is a hilarious, compelling, hopeful read at a time when hope is scarce as gold and fleeting as the wind.

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Books

New book puts kibosh on sentimentality of WWII films

‘Mercury Pictures Presents’ a fab read by acclaimed writer Anthony Marra

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(Book cover image courtesy of Hogarth)

‘Mercury Pictures Presents’
By Anthony Marra
c.2022, Hogarth
$28.99/408 pages

“Mercury Pictures Presents,” a new novel by acclaimed writer Anthony Marra, brings the grit and pain embedded in the fabled days of yesteryear, close to home.

I’ll bet that when the news brings you down, you, like me, watch Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca.” Or, maybe, Bette Davis in “Watch on the Rhine,” where Sara (Davis) supports her anti-fascist husband Kurt (Paul Lukas).

Old Hollywood movies set in World War II are our comfort food. It was good back then, we think, watching Victor Laszlo and Ilsa. The U.S. fought to rescue the world from fascism, and its citizens basked in freedom.

If only.

“Mercury Pictures Presents” puts the kibosh on our sentimental illusions.

The novel is set in Los Angeles just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Much of it takes place at Mercury Pictures, a B-picture Hollywood studio.

Maria Lagana, a young Italian woman, works for Artie Feldman, head of the studio.

In many ways, Feldman would fit in well in a Marx Brothers movie or a funny TV sit-com. He’s a gruff, bald, sometimes crude, Jewish guy who names and displays his toupees. But a heart of gold and moral scruples are intertwined with this slapstick.

Artie and his brother Ned (with whom he doesn’t get along) came to America in the 1910s. They owned a movie theater named the “Titanic.” As you’ve likely guessed it didn’t do well. Still, they landed in Hollywood.Maria, Artie’s right hand, emigrated with her mother in the 1930s from Italy to the U.S. to escape Mussolini.

When she was young in Italy her father, a defense lawyer, took her on Sundays to see American movies. (They preferred Hollywood flicks over church.)

But these care-free excursions ended when her dad was arrested for defending anti-fascists.

Maria lives with her mom in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of LA where her elderly, commanding, but loving, always wearing black, Italian great-aunts live. 

Maria’s boyfriend is Eddie Lu, a Chinese American actor, who would love to have roles in films of Shakespeare’s plays.

Maria is overwrought with worry and guilt about her father. He’s imprisoned in “exile” in Italy. Her dad’s letters to her don’t make sense. Because, like her correspondence to him, they’re bowdlerized by government censors.

“Mercury Pictures Presents” is operatic in scope.

Though much of the action occurs at the Mercury Pictures studio (which could go bankrupt at any moment), the story morphs from LA to Sicily to Utah (where a model of a German village is created).

As in real life, tragedy and comedy intermingle in the novel.

A Sicilian photographer escapes Italy (using someone else’s name). Prisoners in Italy live under deplorable conditions. The U.S. may be “the land of the free.” But because she’s emigrated from Italy, a country with which America is at war, Maria and her family must register as aliens. They’re not allowed to travel more than five miles from their homes.

Just as you begin to wonder how much pain you can take, the mood shifts.

Eddie talks with Bela Lugosi about the miseries of Tinsel Town. Hollywood only wants to cast Eddie in demeaning “Asian” parts. Lugosi complains that only one postage stamp has been made with his image. His rival Boris Karloff “has two stamps,”  he says.

Mercury Pictures studio gets a momentary boost, when it, like other Hollywood studios, is called upon to make propaganda films for the War effort.

But there’s a problem when the Army brass expects Mercury’s filmmakers to film the propaganda in actual combat. “A filmmaker needs multiple takes to get the right shot” on a studio sound stage, Artie says, “The idea that you’re going to send a couple guys into a foxhole with a camera and expect to compete with Hollywood just isn’t feasible.”

“If you want the war to look real on screen, you’ll have to fake it,” he adds.

Marra, 38, isn’t faking it. “Mercury Pictures Presents” more than lives up to the promise of “The Tsar of Love and Techno” and “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” his earlier award-winning work. It’s a fab read. 

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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