Rock and Roll Book Club: Tori Amos's 'Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage'

Book cover detail: Tori Amos's 'Resistance.'
Book cover detail: Tori Amos's 'Resistance.' (Simon & Schuster)

"Make no mistake," writes Tori Amos in the introduction to her new book. "We are living in a moment of crisis. Of unprecedented crises."

It's uncanny to read that statement now, amidst a pandemic that's created the most profound acute threat to global public health in over a century. Although Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage (buy now) was just published yesterday, it was written before the pandemic hit; the proof I reviewed was dated Feb. 21.

Of course, Amos was referring to the tumultuous situation that was apparent well before anyone heard of COVID-19: the global climate crisis, the rise of authoritarian strongmen around the world, America's rolling waves of deadly gun violence, threats to women's freedom and the deeply troubling increase of hate crimes targeting ethnic and religious minorities.

So there was plenty of crisis to go around. Resistance, though, makes clear (to those who didn't already know) that Amos's art has been born from global turmoil since even back in her days as a teenager singing cover songs at a D.C. gay bar. Even if you're not particularly a fan of Amos's music, Resistance is compelling as a document of what it's felt like to be a person of conscience making music over the past four decades.

Amos had a front-row seat for the turning of the national tide in the late '70s, when the Iran hostage crisis fueled a sense of disappointment in President Jimmy Carter. In fact, Amos even took a request from Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill. (He sang a duet with her on "Bye Bye Blackbird.")

Then, in 2001, she was in New York City promoting the imminent release of her album Strange Little Girls. (The title track was originally recorded by the Stranglers, whose keyboardist Dave Greenfield has just died due to coronavirus infection.) She realized, she writes, that "I was on the road bearing witness. Witnessing how one cataclysmic event can have opposite reactions on people. Reactions that will still be affecting not just America but the whole world eighteen years later."

Fundamentally, Resistance is a book about how that witness-bearing process works. Amos's songs are pointed, but poetic: she's not a folksinger, and as profoundly troubled as she was by the American reaction to 9/11, she wasn't going to be the one to write American Idiot. In passages of recollection and reflection that alternate with the lyrics of corresponding songs, Amos writes about how, as she puts it, a songwriter needs "to care so completely about reaching someone and at the same time staring back the void with a firm F--k you — that is the tension we carry. No — that I carry. It's not fair to assume this particular process for all artists."

The chapters in Resistance don't work like Genius entries or Song Exploder podcast episodes. Although Amos is very open about her process, she doesn't promise or deliver any great precision. Here's a passage, for example, from near the conclusion of her new book.

I consciously choose to see my process as cyclical. If I were to write songs all the time, when would I be gathering new seed concepts to plant in my creative garden? It is only fair and important to stress that the gathering of new ideas is not done by luck or by the roll of the dice.

And so on. Resistance will certainly be gratifying for Tori Amos fans who've been waiting 15 years for a follow-up to her 2005 memoir Piece by Piece. The new book is also full of memoir, but it doesn't proceed in a straight line. The song lyrics appear as connective tissue, some inspired by the events she describes and some brought into new light by them.

"Gold Dust," for example, is a song Amos started writing in 2000, ultimately released in 2002, that she says sweeps up all her experiences from her '60s childhood through her '70s adolescence to her emergence as a recording artist in the '80s and her breakout in the '90s. "We make it up as we go along," run the song's lyrics. "'How did it go so fast'/ you'll say as we are looking back/ and then we'll understand/ We held gold dust in our hands."

One type of resistance Amos has had to make in her life is a resistance to the new style of music she debuted with her game-changing solo debut Little Earthquakes (1992) — the follow-up to the very different synthpop album she released in 1988 with her band Y Kant Tori Read. Amos intuited that her rediscovery of the piano ("or should I say she found me") had led her to newly fertile ground as a songwriter, but her label told her to, as she recalls, "replace all the pianos with guitars."

At this point, Amos realized that she would have to take a page from her former listeners' playbook and engage in the politics of persuasion herself. Her response (via a message from "the Muses") was to read the room and bring four new songs that would give the execs the feeling they were looking for, in exchange for which they'd let her keep the rest of the tracks on the album.

At the time, Amos recalls, she was being told that the piano was passé. Not that anyone told that to Billy Joel or Elton John, she observes. The artist, who's well known for her musical observations on gender discrimination and sexual violence, writes about how troubled she's been by public episodes that have humiliated survivors such as Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, and Christine Blasey Ford.

At the heart of the book, Amos prints the lyrics to "Silent All These Years" and "Me and a Gun" back to back. Amos remembers watching Hill testify against Clarence Thomas in October 1991, just before "Silent All These Years" was released. "A woman of color, she faced a panel of fourteen white men on the Senate Judiciary Committee and said, 'I could not keep silent.'"

In an understatement, Amos writes that "in art and creating, I am not risk-averse." The artist's task, writes Amos, is not to betray "ourselves and our artist souls." Why do artists turn away from the truth? "For commercial success? For fame? Madame Fame is a ruthless mistress to serve. I'm convinced she is a sadist."

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

May 13: Signed, Sealed, and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder by Mark Ribowsky (buy now)

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