Monday 4 May 2020

Book Review: Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage by Tori Amos (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020)

With 2005's Piece by Piece, created in collaboration with the journalist Ann Powers, Tori Amos rewrote the rules of the rock star memoir, producing a book that went broad, intimate, playful and deep as it placed her personal and professional experiences in the context of wider patterns, ones reflecting both her Native American and Christian heritage, as well as her Jung and Joseph Campbell-schooled study of archetypes and myth. 

Via an ambitious structure, and in prose as image-rich, perceptive, surprising and witty as her best lyric-writing, Amos and Powers explored formative family influences, music biz machinations, motherhood, creative process, live performance, and much more besides, the book drawing a great deal of its power from its structure as a wide-ranging dialogue between the two writers. 

Seven diverse albums (including the conceptual tours-de-force American Doll Posse and Night of Hunters), several world tours (encompassing band, solo and orchestral set-ups) and a one-of-a-kind National Theatre musical later, the prolific Amos now follows Piece by Piece with a second book, Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage. 

As its title suggests, this new work feels very much like a companion to Amos's last album, 2017's Native Invader, which mostly took inspiration from two events: the 2016 American election result and her mother's debilitating stroke. Over two years on from the record's release, Donald Trump remains in the White House and Amos's mother, Mary, a muse for many songs and the person to whom the book is dedicated, is sadly deceased. Those two facts are pivots for the volume, inspiring Amos to investigate the artist's position and potential in what she defines as an "unprecedented moment of crisis." (And that's before the horror of the current pandemic.)  

A feature of Piece by Piece was a number of "Song Canvases" - short sections focusing on specific songs - and in Resistance the prose sections are juxtaposed with full lyrics from a range of songs drawn from across Amos's catalogue (plus some never-seen-before photos, too). The book begins, appropriately, with Scarlet's Walk's majestic finale "Gold Dust" and Amos's memories of her late '70s/early '80s piano bar days in Washington D.C. Here, from her vantage point as a teenage girl starting her career under the supervision of her father (a minister with "more than a dose of Mama Rose pulsing through his veins" [p.8]), Amos observes the Carter-Reagan shift and right wing lobbyists' rise, finding herself playing in "a hotbed of conservative thinking on its rise to power" (p.13) as she smuggles songs like "The Last Chance Texaco" into her set. 

A lengthy section focusing on the 1979-1981 American hostage situation in Iran indicates the ambitious political dimension of the volume, as Amos aims to trace American foreign policy decisions from reaction to that event through the later Afghanistan invasion and the Iraq war/s. These elements are interwoven with many other reflections, from memories of her return to the piano following her first failed record to events as current as Christine Blasey Ford's testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.   

"[I]ntersecting situations can compel a future work" (p126), Amos writes, and that observation clearly compels the volume itself. Amos shows songs both reflecting and refracting personal and political events, and expanding their meanings and resonances over time. Overall, though, Resistance ends up at once less expansive and less cohesive than Piece by Piece. An associative, place-based fluidity of structure is attempted, and sometimes achieved, but there's a restlessness to the book which often doesn't let an idea settle and develop before moving on to the next. The transitions, though at times arresting, can also be jarring, giving a random, unfocused quality to some chapters.  

"Part of a songwriter's discipline is being ruthless with lazy concepts" (92), Amos notes, and originality of thought and response has defined her as an artist. Still, while the writing here is often striking and vivid - check out the great description of "Cornflake Girl"'s genesis, for one (p.91-3) - some sections resort to rhetoric you could find in a social media post on any day of the week. There are predictable shorthands ("our Handmaid's Tale-like reality"), overused fashionable buzzwords ("gaslighting", "weaponizing"), and a touch of TDS, especially in the accusations of Russian meddling in the US election. (The linked Native Invader songs "Benjamin" and "Russia", with their teasing cryptographic elements, evoked the latter much more subtly and potently.)

But Resistance gets better as it progresses. As Amos writes frankly of the time that it can take for an artist to find their style, about the lessons learned from "failure", about the vital importance of recognising your own story as unique and valuable, so the book itself belatedly finds its shape. Her account of 9/11 and its aftermath, during which she was one of very few artists not to cancel a planned US tour, is powerful - showing how interactions and conversations experienced at that fraught time inspired Scarlet's Walk

The book also broadens out from a US context to take in her experiences in Russia on the mighty 2014 Unrepentant Geraldines solo tour, which she describes as "a turning point for me as a person and as an artist" (p.171-2) and where a highly emotional Moscow concert was followed by an encounter with Putin's heavies. Touring in Turkey, meanwhile, Amos observes restrictions of liberty under President Erdoğan that contrast with her experiences of the city 9 years before, reminding "how freedoms can be taken away before you realise they are gone" (p.175). As such, the book gives a vivid sense of the value of the touring life and its ability to expand the perspective of an artist dedicated to taking the temperature of every city and creating ever-evolving set-lists reflecting current events. (Oddly, though, given Amos's status as at least a part-time UK resident, reference to recent British political strife - Brexit, for instance - is completely excluded from the volume.)

Equally powerful are the later sections dealing with bereavement: firstly, her husband Mark Hawley's grief over the death of his father (an experience that inspired the songs "1000 Oceans" and "Invisible Boy") and then Amos's pain at her mother and friend Beenie's deaths within days of each other last May. As tender and lacerating as Michael Haneke's Amour, these sections find Amos finally taking comfort in her sense of continued communication with her mother, which provides encouragement and inspiration for a new album in development. (A verse from one of these new tracks, the beautiful "Mary's Raven," is included in the book.)

While Amos's creative process - as mystical as it is intensely practical - was more deeply sketched in Piece by Piece, the new book does yield some fresh insights, especially her disavowal of the notion of "writer's block" or artistic "barrenness," which she dismisses as a "delusion" that keeps too many people from making work at all. "Artists don't have 'limited' access to the universal creative force," Amos argues (p.245).

Ending with the lyrics to "Climb", her subtle, spiritual song about abuse and transcendence, Amos presents artistic creation as an endeavour requiring discipline, commitment, risk-taking, trust in one's own story, and respectful attentiveness to the force she figures throughout as "the Muses." Resistance doesn't always bring its strands together as seamlessly as you would wish, but at its best this anti-despair book offers a provocative, intelligent perspective on the necessity of keeping open, present, perceptive and creative in our deeply challenging times.

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