David Dombrosky on Tori Amos's From the Choirgirl Hotel
Throughout the past 20 years of my life, I have held a special place in my heart for Tori Amos. In addition to being an insanely talented musician with a distinctive voice, she has a wonderful tendency to reinvent her sound with each successive album. Correspondingly, I find that I usually need to spend a few weeks listening to her discs from start to finish before determining how I feel about it.
This is my process with her work now and was my process with her music back in 1998 when she released her fourth solo album From the Choirgirl Hotel. At that time in my life, I was a wee bit busy holding down three jobs in the York-Lancaster area of Pennsylvania; so I didn't have a chance to really listen to the disc until late summer. I had decided to pack up my life and move to Atlanta, Georgia in order to find work in arts administration. So I loaded up my car and drove off into the summer sun with a deliciously dark album to cool me on my journey.
She's addicted to nicotine patches... From the first line of the first song, I was hooked. I have always been enamored with Tori Amos' ability to write clever, powerful songs with enough mystery to leave you trying to unveil their secrets. I'm a lyrics slut. It's true. I put out for intriguing, funny and heartbreaking lyrics. For me, From the Choirgirl Hotel is a lyrical orgy. I think the Tori-est way for me to talk about this disc's power and relevance is to explore it all lyrically. Don't worry. I'll be gentle.
She's convinced she could hold back a glacier / But she couldn't keep Baby alive / Doubting that there's a woman in there somewhere / Here, here here... – “Spark”
1998 gave us two albums exploring both sides of the birth coin. Madonna's Ray of Light reveled in the joyous event of giving birth, while Amos' From the Choirgirl Hotel delved into the psychological terrain of a woman wrestling with the ramifications of miscarrying a child. While Madge was running around getting all Kabbalah on us, Tori was digging through some serious wreckage:
...then the baby came / before I found / the magic how / to keep her happy /
I never was the fantasy / of what you want / wanted me to be /
Don't judge me so harsh little girl / so you got a playboy mommy... – “Playboy Mommy”
At that particular time in my life, I shrugged off the trappings of adolescence and college to begin my rebirth as a single guppie (aka gay urban professional) in the big city.
Brother lover bougainvillea / My vine twists around your need – “Cruel”
Like many young people starting off on life without the safety net of family or school, my first year in Atlanta was wrought with need – money, community, professional respect, love, desire, a sense of identity, etc. When Amos talks about the album, she often mentions how she envisions the songs as this group of people living their lives in a fictional hotel. As this disc held a dominant presence in the soundtrack to “urban queer” rite of passage, each track felt like a different aspect of me at that point in time.
Many of these aspects would make an appearance within a single night on the town. I would start by getting into my club “drag” - prep, leather, glam-rock – whatever I thought would bring me the most attention.
She's your Cocaine / She's got you shaving your legs / you can suck anything / but you know you wanna be me / put on your makeup boy / you're your favorite stranger / and we all like to watch / So shimmy once and do it again – “She's Your Cocaine”
Then I would hit the bars and clubs to dance, tease the animals, and perhaps make a connection. If I headed to The Eagle, then the DJ would always spin the remix to Tori's “Raspberry Swirl” to get me in the mood.
I am not your senorita / I am not from your tribe / if you want inside her / well, /
boy you better make her raspberry swirl – “Raspberry Swirl”
Often, I would make a connection, although I usually ended up realizing that it was a forced connection rather than a real one.
Met him in a Hotel / Met him in a Hotel / you say he's the biggest thing / there'll be this year /
I guess that what I'm seeking / I guess that what I'm seeking / isn't here – “Hotel”
On rare occasions, legitimate connections were made...and lost two weeks later. I couldn't help it. I was a young Aries. Of course, I would always build the loss up to be more than it was. Drama queen.
Had a Northern lad / well not exactly had / he moved like the sunset / god who painted that – “Northern Lad”
During this metamorphic stage in my life, I discovered that I was HIV+. Invulnerability is a beautiful thing, until you realize that it doesn't exist. So it was now my turn to delve into the wreckage. For many months, I railed against the gods and acted as if Fate had snipped my thread.
I know we're dying / and there's no sign of a parachute / we scream in cathedrals /
why can't it be beautiful / why does there / gotta be a sacrifice – “Iieee”
But in the end, humor and friendship brought me through to the other side of the looking glass.
Stickers licked on lunch boxes / worshipping David Cassidy /
yeah I mooned him once on Donna's box / she's still in recovery – “Jackie's Strength”
If you had told me when I first bought From the Choirgirl Hotel that this album was going to be the soundtrack for arguably the most pivotal year in my life. I would have either sat down to study it like a survival handbook or requested to swap it out for some fluffier fare like Ray of Light.
I suppose it's a good thing that life isn't that prescient. We cloak ourselves in the music we need when we realize that we need it.
David Dombrosky is a nonprofit consultant, arts manager, technophile, and pop culturalist desperately awaiting the next episodes of True Blood and So You Think You Can Dance at his home in Pittsburgh, PA.