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theironkurtain writesMusic as Memory: Getting Witchy with Tori Amos

by Kurt Conley

May 30th, 1996, Benedum Center, Pittsburgh, PA

September 12th, 1996, Warner Theater, Erie, PA

When I think about certain musicians, I tend to think of them in relationship terms. Things can start hot and heavy when I discover a new artist, and all I can do is think about them, wanting to consume everything they have to offer. Eventually, things cool off and maybe I stop seeing them. Or we fall into a comfortable routine. Or maybe I just ghost on them altogether.

This is my roundabout way of saying my long term relationship with Tori Amos is a complicated one. It started out carefree and fun in the early '90s. I first discovered her on Canadian television. Erie county is relatively close to Canada, and that allowed for us to pick up Toronto’s City TV station. It was my go-to channel for the many years we didn’t have cable. There were a few programs in particular that would show music videos, and that’s where I saw the video for “Cornflake Girl,” one of Amos’ biggest hits.

I wouldn’t become enamored with her fully until the release of Boys for Pele. To this day, it’s still my favorite Tori album. Dark, sweeping, gothic without being “goth,” and achingly, wonderfully poetic. Around the same time, The Craft had arrived in theaters, and I was all about exploring my pagan side, so Tori’s esoteric lyrics struck me at exactly the right time. I didn’t at first recognize the feminist overtones of lyrics like “I’ve shaved every place that you’ve been, boy,” but it was the audacity of her music that captured my attention. The sumptuous harpsichord of “Blood Roses” thrumming in after the plantive, piano-driven “Horses” left me dumbstruck and smitten.

Unsurprisingly, my dad played her albums even more than I did. At first he listened to her with trepidation. Maybe it was too girly for him? But once he gave them the time of day, he’d play her first two albums, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, almost religiously.

When she announced her “Dew Drop Inn” tour, my dad and I were two of the first people in line for tickets. This was just before the age of online ticket sales. Only a few places sold Ticketmaster tickets in Erie, and if you wanted good seats, you had to be in line early. And the chilly Erie spring made it even harder. But we were resolute. As were the group of girls in line in front of us. Unbeknownst to either of us, these gals would wind up being a significant part of our lives. We called them the Meadville Witches.

I don’t think they ever knew that’s what we affectionately referred to them as, but it was fitting. Even though none of them actually practiced witchcraft. Some of their names escape me, but the core group was Diane, Dee (Diane’s girlfriend), and Emmy. They all lived in Meadville, a town about 30 minutes south of Erie (which was a cultural hotbed by comparison). They were all older than me—graduated high school or just about to—in varying shades of punk and goth, and they all smoked like Dickensian chimneys. Not sure if it was the camaraderie of waiting in the cold for tickets or just my dad’s charming and gregarious nature (at that point I was a notorious introvert), but after that we all became fast friends.

The concert was at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, a gorgeous theater that gives some of the venues in Chicago a run for their money. We had seats in the mezzanine, my dad, Kellea and I. The Witches had seats near the front row. It was a breathtaking show. At one point, my dad had to step out because he got so emotional. About halfway through her set, Tori’s harpsichord broke—Boys for Pele was largely performed on it—she recovered with aplomb, shifting over to her piano and making up a new set list on the spot.

On the way back from the concert, we all stopped at the Denny’s in Mars, PA (about halfway between Pittsburgh and Erie) and ate bad food and talked Tori, with the Witches smoking the entire time. The idea of a smoking section in a restaurant is laughable today, but it was still ubiquitous in the '90s. Cigarette smoke would be a point of contention between me and the Witches for as long as I knew them.

Between then and our next Tori concert in September, the Witches would be a semi-permanent fixture at our house. I’d stay up in my room, though; the aforementioned cigarettes and introverted nature kept me hidden away. And for as cool as I thought they were, I was intimidated by the Witches. They were strange and wild and boisterous and older and I hadn’t encountered anyone like them before. There were times I’d hang out with them, usually when it was just Diane or Emmy or Dee, who’d come upstairs to chat with me about our other favorite musician, PJ Harvey. But when they all got together they were an extroverted force of nature, and I shied away from them.

September came around, and for me a cold came with it. I was on the other side of my illness when our entourage walked into the Warner Theater. It’s one of the coolest places Erie has to offer; a classic theater about half the size of the Benedum but just as beautiful. It was a boon when anyone of note would deign to play our tiny city. And Tori playing Erie was a big deal.

Maybe it was the cold medicine, but the energy in the theater that evening was palpable. It surged and swayed and I felt carried off by it. To this day I still believe that that show cured my cold. By the time she’d done a second encore, I felt entirely fine. In retrospect, my honeymoon phase with Tori ended that night.

The Witches would go their separate ways in the early 2000s; most of them had graduated and moved away, which meant no more hanging out downstairs. We’d see Diane and Dee now and again, but they stopped coming by after a while. Last time we saw Diane, she was getting into heavier drugs than cigarettes and pot, and we eased away from hanging out with her. I still wonder where she is now. Regardless of her drug use, she was an incredibly smart and warm person and I hope she’s out there still causing trouble.

I’d see Dee again years later, in 2007, when I was an undergrad in college. She was finishing up her graduate degree at the same university. We didn’t talk much, but it was nice to see each other in the halls.

Much like my relationship with the Witches, my relationship with Tori petered out. After Boys for Pele came From the Choir Girl Hotel and To Venus and Back, which I both enjoyed, but it felt like diminshing returns. I fell out of touch with her. I’d give each consecutive album a listen, but all with varying degrees of quality. I didn’t necessarily want another Pele—I understood a singular work when I heard it—but much of her later music fails to touch upon that era. To this day we remain friends that enjoy the idea of each other’s company, and might say hello to each other in passing, but we’ll fail to ever reconnect. Just like the Witches and I.

Both the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts and the Warner Theater are still host to a wide variety of performances.

Boys for Pele recommended listening:
“Blood Roses”
“Little Amsterdam”
“Not the Red Baron”
“Doughnut Song”




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Categorized: Rediscovering Our Record Collections

Topics: tori amos

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