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Tori Amos' Secret Garden

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Physically, too, the thirty-four-year-old Amos has something of a mythic aura. She is a tiny creature of Tolkienian aspect, with an Irish Spring complexion, piercing gray-blue eyes and a pillowed lower lip on which rest her prominent front teeth. It is no great surprise that the English comic-book artist Neil Gaiman was able to use Amos appearance and persona to shape Delirium, a character in his epic, labyrinthine Sandman series.

"I remember congratulating Tori after a show in Minneapolis, and she said, 'Now we must jump up and down and down, and dance around and around,'" says Gaiman, who met the singer after she name-checked him in her lyrics. "And we did! She has that wonderful un-selfconsciousness that allows one to say exactly what one thinks. That moment at the end of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' when the child stands up and tells everyone that the emperor is actually naked that's very Tori. The mistake people make is thinking that's all there is to her."

How low can you go? How about "not quite getting it together to audition" as a keyboard player for Billy Idol? Feeling genuine elation that you managed to edge out the then-unknown Sarah Jessica Parker for a Corn Flakes commercial? Not mythically low enough? Try working as an extra on a Raquel Welch commercial for Crystal Light and being told by the director that Miss Welch would like you to tone it down, please. Finally, after being sneered at by the casting director of Howard the Duck, you slink off to your regular gig as happy-hour entertainer at the downtown-L.A. Sheraton, where you sing "Send in the Clowns" and "Feelings" in your best "Love Is a Battlefield" outfit.

These were some of the outrageous slings and arrows endured by Tori Amos after she moved to Los Angeles, trying to make it as a singer/songwriter. The sum total of her experience up to that point was playing piano bars in the Washington, D.C., area – her father would drive her in from the suburbs. Now here she was, a big-haired hopeful living in a scuzzy one-room apartment off Hollywood Boulevard, "making friends with the palm trees."

Adrift in Hollywood, sick of day-job degradation and music-industry rejection, Amos ditched her beloved Bösendorfer to form a pop-metal ensemble called Y Kant Tori Read. The band, which played but one live show, was signed by the same Atlantic Records staffer who brought you Twisted Sister and Skid Row.

Billboard used the word bimbo in a review of Y Kant Tori Read's debut album, and the record stiffed. Amos did not leave her apartment for a week. "I cried constantly; I was on my knees," she says. "From child prodigy to musical joke in twenty years – how do you reconcile that? So I went back to the faerie world." And to happy hour at the Long Beach Sheraton.

Q&A: Tori Amos Talks in Tongues

Amos says she got down and sucked the big Böse, rediscovering her self-belief in new, piano-based material that was to become Little Earthquakes. The songs were a little bit Joni Mitchell and a lot Kate Bush, but they were distinguished by their striking personal revelations. Amos' signature track was "Me and a Gun," her stark account of being raped. The record company wanted to hear guitars.

At twenty-eight, Amos had been down that road before. So she drew herself up to her full five feet three inches and pulled her American Indian blanket (worn for "protection and clarity") tight around her shoulders and intimated that there was another company interested in her. It was a bluff, of course, but Amos did not blink. The tracks were released in their original form, and Amos shipped out to London to relaunch her career, slogging away at the bottom of meaningless bills in shabby little venues.

Amos' Virgil in London's underworld was fellow U.S. expatriot Karen Binns. "She looked like a teenage bag lady," says Binns, a fashion stylist who took the late bloomer under her wing, "poor white trash and completely out to lunch. I didn't know what planet she was on, but it was definitely the right planet. I said, 'Honey, I can give you a Galliano dress and tell you you're fabulous, but just keep it real. Reality always sells.'"

Little Earthquakes did, of course, sell. And Tori Amos judgment was never again called into question. By her third album, she had Atlantic renting Sunset Boulevard billboards featuring an image of her suckling a piglet.

Tori Amos strides down a central London street, pulling up her red woolen hood against the driving rain. Despite the inclement weather and the fact that Amos perfectionist ear has found fault with the mastering process of Choirgirl Hotel, there is a distinct glide to her gait. This could be because she just got married.

The happy event was staged just north of London in a church built on a 1,000-year-old pagan site. Very Amos, as was the flowing diaphanous dress she wore. The Church of England ceremony was not, however, quite what you'd expect from a sworn enemy of Christianity. "Yes, I know, the religion that chopped all the women's heads off," Amos concedes, referring to King Henry VIII, the Church of England's misogynous founder. "I thought I was never gonna get married, but it felt right. I didn't have a fantasy of this ritual, and I played at so many weddings."

Amos' groom was thirty-two-year-old Mark Hawley, an engineer on Amos' new record. Her last serious romance was a seven-year union with the co-producer of her 1994 album, Under the Pink, Eric Rosse. "I like men on the tech side of things," says Amos. "They have a different point of view, and I like that – they don't want to be in my world; they want to be playing with knobs."

Keen Tori watchers might have caught the reference to "my wedding day" on "Jackie's Strength," an elegant Choirgirl Hotel ballad inspired by Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy – a most unlikely addition to Amos' goddess pantheon. "The songs just grab me by the throat sometimes and say, 'We're coming in,'" Amos explains. "I saw Jackie as a bride and I used to think I would never be a bride. I started to look to Jackie and how that woman held the country together after she watched her husband get cut down right in front of her."

Choirgirl Hotel's other guests are a motley bunch, indeed, with traditional Amos piano-based arrangements yielding to a band setup. "The piano pulled me aside and said, 'You're boring me to tears,'" Amos says. So I was like, 'Calling all sailors. . . .'" Amos hired a crew of able seamen, who chop out vacuum-packed studio funk in the Peter Gabriel mold; there's even some dance-music dabbling, inspired by Armand Van Helden's abstracted dance remix of Amos' "Professional Widow," a huge U.K. hit early last year. And there are plenty of what they call "treated vocals," the ones that sound like someone is singing through a toilet-paper roll. All in all, nothing that Depeche Mode didn't try five years ago and nothing likely to put her among the popular girls of Lilith.

Then again, applying ordinary standards to Tori Amos music is missing the point by a glorious margin. Earthbound analysis can't diminish Amos in the eyes of the fans who celebrate her freedom to follow her muse all over the map. On Web sites and in fanzines, they breathlessly interpret every line, every nuance of her records; the baroque time changes, vocal mood swings and loopy metaphors only deepen the intrigue. While Amos' work certainly taps into the contemporary appetite for public confession, there is a larger dimension to her appeal: She's part of a culture that's unloved by media trend suckers. This is the widespread fin de siècle tendency to obsessively immerse oneself in complex myth worlds, from Myst and Dungeons and Dragons to Star Wars and Star Trek. And this – far more than Lilith Fair – is the context to which Tori Amos belongs: Think of her as the Anne Rice of rock.

A few years back, Tori Amos was sitting in yet another anonymous hotel room, flipping channels on the TV, when she happened across one of her own concert performances. As she saw herself writhing on the piano stool, furiously tossing her mane, the performer had an odd reaction: She was utterly horrified.

"I know when I'm playing passionately, and it's primitive and it's as old as time," says Amos. "But I know when I look at myself and I'm in anguish, sexualizing myself. At that point I was very cut off – I only knew how to express myself sexually through my instrument. But it left me as soon as I got offstage, so I searched for it and tried to find it in other people. It's painful when you don't know how to be sexual.

"I was so torn apart by the pain of not being a woman. I wanted to experience things I'd heard other women talk about: Like Pinocchio said, 'I want to be a real little boy.' It's real private. . ." Amos adds, trailing off in a rare moment of self-censorship.

Amos began to re-examine her own persona as she was writing 1996's Boys for Pele. "You would not," she avers, "have wanted to have a drink with me during that record." The nineteen-song Pele was no bargain for listeners, either. Produced by Amos herself and recorded in the wake of her split with Eric Rosse, the record is by some distance the singer's least accessible. To her it may have been like "crossing the River Styx into my own psyche" or "the descent of Inanna [of Sumerian legend] into the underworld," but many nonbelievers heard only musical sophistry and emotional incontinence. Amos overeducated fingers got medieval on your ass, hammering seven shades of Scheherazade out of a harpsichord, while her keening anima ran wild and free. This unholy union of progressive rock and self-help literature proved that rock's femme era could rival, in terms of sheer excess, the strutting cock rock of an earlier age.

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