How Tori Amos Saved My life

I discovered Tori Amos in my early twenties at the end of a terrible relationship with a lovely man. There is no time Tori makes more sense than when you’re twenty-something, blindsided with grief and reeling in shock and despair. I maintain that this kind of emotional pain you only live through once. Twice would kill you. After that, you get a bit wiser and a bit more resilient. It’s a survival thing. The song was her first hit, Crucify, and I went and bought the CD and drank all day and all night with whoever would sit beside me while I waited for the hurting to stop or, at least, subside. Her lyrics were like balm to my blown apart heart. She put words to the emotions that raged through me, and she spoke the unspeakable. Eventually, after a few years, the pain lessened and went away but my relationship with Tori grew, and in many ways her music has been the soundtrack to my life.

‘Hey Jupiter’ (‘No-one’s picking up the phone…’) for the times I’d sit in the semi darkness with the ring tone in my ear knowing, very well, he wouldn’t be home now, and even if he was, that there was nothing, really to say. ‘Putting the Damage On’ for the first time he took his new girlfriend away on holiday (‘You’re off to the mountain/I guess her skinny legs could use sun…’), and I’m bent double with the hideousness of how he’s moved on and is doing pretty well without me and my histrionics while I pine and lament and wish, with all my heart, that it was me sitting in the front seat of his car with a bottle of Jack between my bare feet and the days ahead wide open and the sky full of summer.

There was just something so arrestingly honest about this woman’s music. It was Girl with a capital ‘G’, and she had been all the places I had been, and she made it okay to be angry and feel sad and confused and fucked up. Like ‘Precious Things: ‘He said you’re really an ugly girl/but I like the way you play/and I died, but I thanked him. Can you believe that?’ The way I would go to school hoping to see The Boy, hoping he would like me enough to say hello that day, and the rejection and misery I suffered when he didn’t. Or the feeling of despair, being schooled in a Calvinist institution during the height of apartheid where any type of free thinking was literally beaten out of you, and her having the audacity to announce, ‘Father says bow your head/like the Good Book says/Well, I think the Good Book is missing some pages.’ Well, bloody well, so did I.

And suddenly it was okay to be a raisin girl and to have different thoughts and to ask questions and not take all you were being told at face value. And there was something very unshackling about that. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the feminist ethos of a lot of her lyrics played a part in forming the person I was to become. Her message resonated more strongly for me than, I think, anything I had ever heard, musically or otherwise. To this day I probably know every lyric to every song, and writing this I have to admit it sounds kinda sad, but it’s the truth. I’ve talked about how we are conduits of truth for one another, and she was that for me. I had nobody in my life at that time to guide me, a clever, headstrong, emotionally messed up young woman with no conception of how to be in a world that felt foreign and hostile and more than a little bizarre.

When I finally made it out of that small town and found like-minded people in the musty lecture halls of the best university in the universe and was introduced to a world of thought where people said no and spoke up and women were strong and fearless I found new ways of thinking and expressing myself and it was a kind of heaven. And still, to this day, Tori has a way of summing stuff up and making everything feel okay. When, 10 years ago, I had the anti-marriage to end anti-marriages in our beautiful, turn-of-the-century apartment in Sweden surrounded by 20 friends in jeans and our baby daughter, Sophie, looking on, it was ‘A Sorta Fairytale’. Like life is. Try as we may, it’s only ever ‘sorta.’ And I always have at least one of her CDs in my car so that, amidst the madness of adulthood and parenting and all that goes with it, her songs are there to remind me of who I really am.

I felt disappointed and a little betrayed when I saw what she’d done to her beautiful face, and I realized that, in spite of her music, she’s not that okay with who she is, after all. But then, like I always say, we teach what we need to learn. Tori is a stunningly talented musician and lyricist, but she’s still a human being and fallible and probably as confused as the rest of us. And maybe that’s why she does ‘real’ so well. And it doesn’t take away from what she gave me when I needed it most. And for that – giving me the voice I never knew I had – I will be eternally grateful.

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The Thing About Unrequited Love

On the Brooklyn Bridge.
On the Brooklyn Bridge. Not the photograph I would have liked to use.

An entirely inconsequential regret I’ve been harbouring for years is of a photograph I didn’t take. It was something I looked up and saw as we walked underneath the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City once, graffiti letters the size of a person and what they said was, ‘But I still love her.’ Those words have lived with me ever since – a simple statement somebody, at some point in time felt compelled to shout out to the world. Maybe (I’ve always assumed it was a guy) he’d gotten to a point where he didn’t know who to tell anymore; maybe his friends had had enough of hearing him say the same thing over and over. And maybe she knew, too, but had moved on and left him behind. And what do you do when that happens? What is there to do?

Few people make it through life without experiencing the searing pain of loving somebody who has moved on. For you, they consume your world like they always did; for them, you’ve become something of a nuisance. You can see it in their eyes, and it’s the worst thing you’ve ever felt. You encounter friends in the same situation, where the truth is patently obvious to everyone but them – the guy just doesn’t want to be there anymore. And they make up excuses for his behaviour, as one time in your life you made excuses and it was your friends’ turn to take your hand and say, what do you see in this guy? You need to let it go now. But you can’t because you can’t, and that’s just the way it is.

I’m not good at letting go of things. I hang on until the bitter end, getting bashed up in the process. While we know on every level how foolish it is what we’re doing; while we understand that the people who love us and urge us to leave it alone already are every bit of right, somehow we have to stay until we are ready to go, and when you’ve loved a lot for a long time, that can take a while. Which is why I can’t judge the ones who are holding on like their lives depend on it. In a way, their lives do depend on it. The heart wants what it wants, and it has its own time – for loving, for holding on and also for letting go.

I wish I could say time heals all wounds, but I don’t think it does, always. I’ve seen too much damage done; people who get broken and don’t ever recover fully. It’s like you get badly hurt one time in your life and you never allow yourself to suffer that way again; a part of your heart gets sealed up never to be re-opened. I hope that that’s not the case for the man under the Brooklyn Bridge. I hope that that anguished night of misery and desperation was a turning point, and that when he eventually took himself to bed and lay alone in a room somewhere in that cold, vast city, he found some semblance of peace. I wonder if the graffiti is still there. I guess I’ll never know.

There was a time I listened to this song often and identified so much with its words. Tonight I dedicate it to him, whomever, where he is in the world and to every one of us who’s been smashed up on those rocks.