History Puts a Saint in Every Dream
351 · 18 October 01
Tori Amos: Strange Little Girls
Here, for those of you reading this years from now, is the state of what is still our only planet as 17 October 2001 dissolves into tomorrow. The United States military, with help from a few other countries and varyingly tacit approval from the rest of them, is currently dropping lots of very large bombs on buildings and people in the much-abused central Asian country of Afghanistan, home of several nested levels of antagonistic religious militants, some of whom are generally thought to have been responsible for the suicide hijackings of four American passenger jets and their subsequent crashes into two New York office buildings, one DC-area military headquarters, and one reclaimed Pennsylvania strip mine, a little over a month ago. Between hijackings and bombings, there is now, at least temporarily, officially nowhere on Earth so rich or so poor that you do not run the risk of getting blown up for being there.
Why? It may be simpler for your historical purposes to just assume everybody involved was some combination of stupid and insane, but I'll try to explain anyway. The ostensible goal of the bombings is the worldwide eradication of terrorism. How exactly bombings will result in this isn't clear. One theory holds that if you bomb all the places terrorists live and train, they will no longer be able to do either, and will thus pose reduced threats. These particular terrorists, of course, lived in Boston and New Jersey, and trained at a small aviation school in Florida, none of which have so far been bombed. Another theory suggests that if everybody on the planet is thoroughly convinced that the United States is willing to drop the world's most expensive bombs on even the world's most worthless targets, everyone will be more scrupulous about not pissing us off. This plan, however, assumes that the people under the bombs would rather leave innocent Americans alone than be blown up, which they have just finished vividly demonstrating is not at all the case, so again it's hard to see where this line of reasoning is leading.
The stated goals of the people being bombed are various, and similarly incoherent. Some of them apparently want a worldwide war between Muslims and non-Muslims, oblivious to the strident and repeated injunctions against killing in the very scripture they advocate using as the basis of law. Some of them claim to want "peace" over the division of a tiny clump of earth currently assigned to the country of Israel, although the intransigent refusal of the Palestinians and the Israelis to quit shooting each other, even while all this is going on, makes it hard to see how anybody else expects to accomplish much by killing different people elsewhere on their behalf.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, there seems to have been an artificially-instigated outbreak of an obscure sheep disease called anthrax, which most people would never have heard of had it not been a) mentioned in the chorus of a Gang of Four song, b) the name of a heavy metal band who are now hilariously upset to find it's taken on negative connotations, and c) the subject of hundreds of alarmist media bits about the inevitability of an artificially-instigated outbreak of it. As I write there still seems to me to be a chance that we are experiencing an outbreak of anthrax testing more than we are experiencing an outbreak of anthrax, but since anthrax tests were not routinely administered to workplaces before now, it is deceptively easy to assume that they would have found nothing. It is thus currently popular to assume that the apparent anthrax outbreak is both real and the work of the same people we assume were responsible for the hijackings. Those of you from even one week into the future will have been able to test some of these assumptions, but for now that's a lot of assuming. My current personal fear is that the people we have to thank for the anthrax are an entirely different society of idiots with, as if we needed it, yet another idiotic agenda.
You might think this mess constitutes a sufficiently spectacular shit-storm for the rest of the planet to take a few weeks off from their usual routine of contributing to it and just watch, smug in the knowledge that for once the storm is not centered on them, but you would be wrong. So while this is happening, the Ukrainians managed to accidentally shoot down a Russian airliner on its way home from Tel Aviv, the Indians and the Pakistanis are taking pot shots at each other in Kashmir, paramilitarists keep assassinating ex-congressmen in Colombia, Winnie Mandela is on trial for bank fraud, AIDS is projected to account for two thirds of all deaths in South Africa and strip more than ten years off of life expectancy there by 2010, the worldwide economy sucks, the world stock markets all suck, the insurer for next year's World Cup backed out, the entire government of Norway has apparently resigned for reasons I was not able to follow, the crucible of shared trauma in New York hasn't kept New Yorkers from mugging each other, and despite impending-end-of-the-world incentives for everybody to quickly pair up before it's too late, I am still single.
I think I would be within my rights to interpret all this as a giant mass of evidence that humanity has been a colossal failure and its remaining days may be numbered using mercifully few digits. I don't believe in any gods, so I don't even have the luxury of hoping that in the moment of our destruction they will suddenly intervene and provide. I believe we are on our own, and looking around, it's difficult to rationally conclude that we are equal to our challenges. Rationalists usually write off "faith" as the essence of what they're against, but I think I believe there's a form of faith that is just as necessary for a viable secular worldview as religious faith is for religious belief. We must believe that people are good, not that individuals have good hearts or motives or hair, but that the existence of people, at all, is better than there not being any people. (The former nearly follows from the latter; technically you could argue that people are sniveling maggots but they're useful to have around for some other reason, but I hope you won't.) "Essentially," one of the few religious friends I haven't completely alienated yet pointed out, "we differ over the nature of man." On my good days I think man has infinite potential, and on the bad ones I still think man can, as my friend put it, "at least achieve regular mastery over his uglier animal instincts." His wing of religion, conversely, counters with original sin, and concludes that man is "incapable of rising above (or at least far enough above) his own willful shortcomings to sustain a graceful existence." For him, God is the only lever with which we can transcend our natures. For me we are what saves us. And since the perfectibility of humanity is, logically speaking, exactly as exempt from experiment and validation as the idea of gods, our faiths are structurally comparable.
And I'm not sure I would ever have thought to tell you it was wavering, my faith, but it has certainly been under siege. The hijackers might as well have belonged to another species, for all I understand them. Our military responses speak a language I don't understand, either, but the languages I do understand don't provide any ideas I could imagine substituting. So I watch the world tilt, spilling more and more people back across the line I thought we were all glad to have crossed, and even if I cling to something on the right side, eventually I'll be alone over here, and then what? "Crisis of faith" sounds like an abstraction and a luxury, at a time when people are facing crises of bombs being dropped on their heads and crises of contracting anthrax from love letters to Jennifer Lopez, but there's a limit to how scared I can be of bombs and anthrax, because if they do reach me I'll already know exactly how to respond. If I lose my faith, I--. I--. There's no rest of that sentence. At the moment I lose faith, my universe ceases to have a definable form, and I don't even know how to talk about what would ensue. Ensue isn't even right, I can't follow causality or time across that boundary. So there's such a thing as practical solipsism, after all: from my subjective point of view, the only sensible approach is to postulate that the existence of the entire universe, in every quantum particular, is contingent on my retaining my faith that that universe is better with people in it.
So I didn't know how close I was to losing my faith, and it follows that I wouldn't, but I found out Monday night. I found out in the only way you can find out, the only way you can recognize the incremental loss of self: in a perfect, terrible, frozen instant I regained my faith, in all its universe-creating unwieldiness, and in that indivisible moment, as I changed states, I could fleetingly sense the magnitude of the jump. It could have been worse, the universe wasn't quite to the brink of disintegration yet, but it wasn't doing well. The targets of terrorism aren't the people it kills (few, statistically, however horrifically many they are by any other measure), they are the survivors it paralyzes. The anthrax could easily turn out to be far more devastating than the airplanes, even if the death toll from it never gets past one. If you'd asked me if I was scared, I would have said no, not much. I would have been wrong. I was terrified. I was starting to lose the capacity for emotional engagement. The only thing that felt convincingly like comfort was beating strangers in online Scrabble by absurd margins, and if I lost what should have been the last game of the night, I had to keep playing as late as it took to win again. Lack of sleep: impaired immune system: sick. I was still performing routine life functions, but it couldn't have been long before they started suffering. Perhaps they had, already, and my friends have just been being nice to me, hoping it would pass.
And then, Monday night, a human being named Tori Amos walked on to a stage in a building called the Wang Center in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, and sat down at a piano and played some songs for me and a few thousand other humans. For a couple hours there were no bombs and no anthrax, and that would have been enough, all I hoped for by being there. But somewhere in the middle of "Tear in Your Hand", in the middle of the set, she sang "All the world just stopped now", and it did. A spotlight hit a corner of one of the stage monitors and spun out into the audience, and out of the building, and up into the sky to trace pornographic constellations we'll have to look at for centuries until we build the ships to go dismantle them. Here in my city one red-headed girl in a white suit touched the front of her piano with her right hand, on a beat where it didn't have any notes to play, and with that tiny, silent, futile, hopelessly human gesture my beautiful, incredible, heart-breaking, magnificent, inviolable, precious, infinite, indestructible, unfathomable, indescribable, divine universe came flooding back. This is hardly the first debilitating philosophical dilemma I've felt resolve itself in a miraculous moment of music, and I hope and presume there are many still to come, but this is the first time it's ever occurred to me to wonder if I just experienced what will turn out to have been the most profound one. At that moment, in the middle of a concert that up until that point had merely been wonderful in mundane musical ways, something snapped inside whatever makes up me, and I suddenly believed again that we improve the universe. When religious people speak of divine revelation, and say that they "know" in their hearts that God exists and loves them, they are fundamentally misusing the word "know", but I'm fairly certain they've had the same subjective sensation. In that surge of rediscovery it once again became viscerally incontrovertible to me that any species who could write these songs must be preserved at all costs, and moreover, cannot be destroyed even if we wanted to. Maybe tomorrow the bombs will get me, maybe they'll get you, maybe they'll get Tori. It doesn't matter, it's too late, the songs exist. In fact, it was probably always too late. At some point, millennia ago, long before any scripture we've fought over was written, we became a creature that can write songs. We wrote some, and we lost them, but they kept us alive. We wrote some more, and our numbers increased. By now we've probably written millions of them, and saved hundreds. Maybe you've heard one, yourself, by Bach or Bruckner or Philip Glass or Too Much Joy, felt yourself change to account for what a song implies. I've lost count of how many times I've felt that. And it happened during "Tear in Your Hand", but it could have been at least nine other moments during that show: the searing, wordless vocal hook in "Little Earthquakes"; the crash as Tori swiveled back from organ to piano for the choruses of her cover of Lloyd Cole's "Rattlesnakes"; the simmering version of "Crucify" played on Country Joe and the Fish's old Wurlitzer; the version of "This Old Man" with half the words missing, as close as I've ever witnessed performance-art coming to the hypothetical ideal of an actor making you cry by reading from the telephone book; the old-b-side-heavy set list, including a spur-of-the-moment "Daisy Dead Petals" when somebody yelled for it; thousands of people shutting up for the a cappella rape memoir "Me and a Gun", which I'm helplessly grateful she keeps singing, as it's evolved into something I can't begin to quantify, such a defiantly human modern successor to "Amazing Grace" and "She Moved Through the Fair" and "The Sound of Silence" and The Iliad and The Odyssey and every other reason we ever found to live through pain that when she followed it with "Over the Rainbow" it almost felt to me like the same song; a subdued "Cool on Your Island", from the unjustly-maligned Y Kant Tori Read; even the buoyantly sentimental resurrection of "Please Come to Boston", the one song I'd never heard her sing before, from her piano-bar days. Frankly, it could have been the moment she walked onto the stage, after the introductory playing of her icky recitation of Eminem's "'97 Bonnie & Clyde", and I could tell from the way she placed her feet, even from the thirty-second row, that music is still the thing humans are best at, and Tori Amos is still the best musician we've ever had.
And if it helps you keep our frailties and flaws and their underlying irrelevance in perspective, the best musician we've ever had also has a new record out, and other than as an excuse for touring, it's neither good nor important. Tori has done dozens of covers, over the years, in concert and on b-sides, and that's where she should have kept putting them. Instead, Strange Little Girls is a whole album of them. Its nominal premise is that these twelve songs were written and sung by men, and Tori has, without changing the lyrics, re-imagined them from the point of view of their female characters. This is an intriguing idea, but it does not work. It isn't wholly impossible to change the gender of a gender-specific song without changing its words (the definitive example, for me, being Kate Bush's version of Elton John's first-person "Candle in the Wind", but Mary Lou Lord's remake of Richard Thompson's third-person "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" also counts in my book), but it can only be done with certain songs, and only two of these make serious attempts anyway. Worse, unlike on Emm Gryner's similarly constructed covers-album Girl Versions, where all the individual performances are self-sufficiently pretty, many of these have nothing but the failed premise to recommend them, and in several cases I have the distinct feeling that the recording received less attention and effort than the accompanying photograph (the booklet features thirteen pictures of Tori in dramatically different wigs and makeup, meant to correspond with the female characters in the songs, which doesn't work either, as exactly one of the pictures looks for even a second like anybody but Tori Amos). "'97 Bonnie & Clyde" is the worst misjudgment, an ugly song in no way redeemed, and I don't ever want to hear it again, but neither do I really need to hear the repetitive, noisy trudge through Lou Reed's "New Age", the badly underdone and twice-too-long drum-loop sleepwalk of 10cc's "I'm Not in Love", the garish rock cacophony of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold", the concept-collage overlay of lecture samples onto Adrian Belew guitar noodling that helps distend the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" to a vastly unwarranted ten minutes, or the withered and miserably endless version of Slayer's "Raining Blood", which makes the original sound almost peppy. The crowd response at the show suggests that there's something to Tori's version of Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence" that I'm missing (despite actually liking the original), a sweet piano rendition of Tom Waits' "Time" is harmless enough, and the sketchy reduction of the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays" might have been interesting if Tori hadn't opted to play it on the Rhodes, which perversely obscures her performance dynamics, but there are only three covers here I'd bother saving in an emergency, and one of them, of Joe Jackson's "Real Men", only fascinates me because Tori doing it sounds so much like Joe himself doing it. The Stranglers' "Strange Little Girl" is an easy victory, lyrically speaking, as the gender of the narrator isn't represented in the song, so all Tori has to do to retake it for women is sing it, with all her history behind her. Belew sticks to fiery rhythm guitar, Matt Chamberlain's drums are busy and propulsive and Tori's Wurlitzer has a supporting role so it doesn't matter that it lacks her piano nuances. The chorus surges along happily, the background-vocal parts have an unapologetic Kate Bush elfin-ness, and the combined result is one of the few of Tori's covers that I can imagine fitting in on one of her proper albums, and maybe a track with as much commercial pop potential as anything she's done. And my favorite song here, and the only one that sent me scurrying back to the store to buy somebody else's records, is the quietly expansive version of "Rattlesnakes". Tori can't quite do for Eva Marie Saint what Kate did for Marilyn Monroe, since "Candle in the Wind" was about Marilyn while "Rattlesnakes" only invokes Eva as an icon, but here she finally finds a lyric in which a woman seen through a man's eyes can be saved by seeing her through another woman's eyes. When Lloyd compares the girl to the movie, he's losing the real girl in the glow of a symbol; it seems to me Tori is pulling Eva out of On the Waterfront and into the real girl's life, with all its uncertainty and grime and the exquisitely painful possibility of living past the end-credits and finding out what happens next. And if what happens next is bombs and anthrax, and people forgetting how to be human, and fear, and a life without God (or a life as God, whichever scares you more), and the very real chance of everything ending in a second, then it's still better than any alternative, and it still can't destroy us. The last foot of film runs out of the projector, the lights come on, and together, the people we've pulled out of our dreams and us who've been here all along, we walk home along rain-swept streets as it turns into tomorrow. And if we're still here, we begin again.