Isaac Asimov wrote an essay about writing styles, called “The Mosaic and the Plate Glass.” In it he defines the terms – people who write a ‘mosaic’ are trying to create a work of art, and while the story might be a masterpiece, the reader has to pour over the text to get the full impact of it. Those who write like ‘plate glass’ are trying to tell a story as simply as possible. Both styles have their merits, Asimov admits grudgingly, but he himself prefers the plate glass.
I prefer it, too, which is why I had a difficult time with Tori Amos: Piece by Piece. It’s not a book you can browse through – you have to concentrate on every sentence to understand what’s being said.
And “what’s being said” is the right phrase, for Piece by Piece consists of a series of monologues on various topics by singer and feminist Tori Amos, told to writer Ann Powers. (The monologues are entitled ‘Conversations between Tori Amos and Ann Powers, but there is no conversation – it’s all Amos!)
It must be admitted that creating this portrait in this way makes a subtle statement. It’s a stereotype – grounded in truth – that women are always “chattering” away and that men never listen to what they have to say. But anyone who wants to get inside the head of Tori Amos has to, in effect, listen to her.
This isn’t a biography, this is an exploration of the creative process and how it is driven by events in Amos’ life, from her childhood in a Christian household, her Cherokee ancestors, her rape and recovery (although not a lot of time is spent on this), her first CD release and why it was so disastrous and what she learned from it, to the desire to have a child, to her dissolution with her long-time label Atlantic Records, to her music.
Amos is a talented woman, strong mentally, knows what she wants and who stands up for herself (a woman who would be termed ‘feisty’ by some and a ‘ballbreaker’ by others).
A piano prodigy, she was accepted to the Peabody Conservatory at the age of 5…and was kicked out at the age of 11. She started out playing in piano bars and gradually moved up the musical path.
Her first CD was a disaster (Y Kant Tori Read), more from the image the record company insisted she present than from anything else.
She continued on, taking control of her own musical life after that, and now has 9 successful albums – for all that her music gets little exposure on the radio. (I first heard her on the soundtrack of the movie Toys, singing “Happy Workers”. Hated the movie, loved her song, and have been hooked ever since.)
Piece By Piece is a fascinating read, but give yourself a lot of time to work your way through it. It will be worth it.
Interspersed among Amos’ conversations are insights by her touring crew, various members of her band, husband and friends. It all completes the portrait.
Corn Mother: Genealogies – her heritage as an American Cherokee
Mary Magdalene: The Erotic Muse – “I don’t only serve the Magdelene, I serve an idea. The idea of the resurrected Feminine. “
Saraswati: The Art of Composition – “The goddess Saraswati is the consort of Brahma, lord of creation; she is Vak, the guardian of speech; she nourishes all who make music, write poems, and love to learn.
Demeter: The Journey into Motherhood – “Like so many female high achievers, she thought she would accomplish this next goal as she had so many others. She soon discovered that the goddess guide who walks you through life’s passages might not be the one you’d hoped you’d meet.”
Dionysius: Bringing the Music Forth – “If you don’t want to relate or commune with an audience, stay home. Do the studio thing. Be a Radio Star.”
Sane Satyrs and Balanced Bacchantes: The Touring Life’s Gypsy Caravan – “To be a real leader you have to be able to deal with confrontation. You have to be able to say, “Dude, this is uncomfortable to talk about, but we need to deal with it.”
Venus: Creating a Public Self – “Sometimes artists get overconfident about their content, and that’s their downfall. But musicians can make the opposite mistake. I’m including myself here, so let’s be clear. They put on an image without thinking of how it relates to their music and forget that live performance is also visual.”
The Lioness: Surviving the Music Business – “In the music industry, like Dr. Faustus, you sign your pact in your own blood.”
Broadway Books. 2005. 350 pages, 8 pages of photographs, no index or discography. ISBN 076791676X. Available from Amazon.com for $16.29.
Y Kant Tori Read (1988)
Little Earthquakes (1992)
Under the Pink (1994)
Boys For Pele (1996)
From the Choirgirl Hotel (1998)
To Venus And Back (1999)
Strange Little Girls (2001)
Scarlet’s Walk (2002)
Tales of a Librarian (2003)
The Beekeeper (2005)