When the drums kick in on “Professional Widow,” the fourth track on Tori Amos’ “Boys For Pele,” an otherworldly sound rises from the din. It sounds like an especially pissed-off orc being lanced through the gut. You’re imagining the orc, but you’re not imagining the sound: That’s the roar of a bull. It was recorded in County Cork, Ireland, distorted, then mixed in during the making of “Boys For Pele” 20 years ago this year.
That means “Boys For Pele” came out in 1996. I was 16, a junior in high school, and I loved Tori Amos more than anyone I had never met.
That was a good year. I could drive. I was bad in math but not failing. I was dorky but not hated. I had cleared freshman and sophomore status, and though the seniors were elders, they had graduation bearing down on them. Many came back from campus visits with looks of relief on their faces: They had stared into the abyss of total anonymity and were grateful to come back to the kids table. But as a junior, my existence was safe; all quantities were known. I could listen to the nightmarish roar of a bull from a safe place.
And boy, did I ever listen to that roar. I listened to all of “Boys For Pele” obsessively, daily, alone and in the company of my Tori-obsessed friends. We were weird about her. We spent all after-school job money on bootlegs and any magazine that featured even a line of tour news. We drew her portrait. We had our own “Pele” launch party where we ate food referenced in the lyrics (ratatouille, peanut butter), and, though this is physically painful to confess, we played a Tori trivia board game that I made. It wasn’t hard enough, so we lost interest after a couple hours. “Boys For Pele” was played so often in my Honda CR-X, I recorded the CD onto three tapes that year for fear of wearing one out and being left without the option of hearing “Professional Widow” on my way to the gas station over lunch.
“Boys For Pele” is so gothic, so baroque – a harpsichord figures prominently on a number of tracks, religious themes hang from every rafter – you can listen to it for a year and still find things to investigate. I’m speaking as a superfan, obviously, but layers and scope can’t be denied: “Pele”’s got 18 tracks that vary in length and style: “Way Down” is a minute and seven seconds-long fever dream, “Talula” is a lush, four-minute drum machine number. There’s a gospel choir on one track, and Maynard from Tool on another.
“Pele” literally couldn’t contain itself: For each of the four singles released, there were multiple B-sides. Add to that extensive remix releases and there was practically material for every day of the year. (It was an Armand Van Helden remix of “Professional Widow,” replete with orc scream, in fact, that hit number one in the clubs that year; the “it’s gotta be big” lyric was readymade for sampling.)
I hunted down these “Pele” extensions and added all of them – all of them – to my mixtapes. The back-of-my-hand familiarity with every song was just one more way I knew my place in the world that year.
In March, I was admitted to the School of the Art Institute’s (SAIC’s) Writing MFA program. Now I’m a freshman again, and I’m scared like a freshman.
Disorientation creates the fear. When you’re the new kid, you haven’t been able to affix any psychic impressions to school buildings, yet. Eventually, Room 802 will mean something crucial, but not yet and not for a while.
What’s hard about being a 36-year-old freshman is that by now I know how pointless these impressions are. They’re a goofy shimmer of what grad school will be like. Like the summer blockbuster preview guy says: “Everything you think you know about [grad school] is about to change … forever.” I’m dying for school to start so I can be rid of these nebulous images. I want to sit in an actual classroom. I’m too old for this shit.
When I heard “Boys For Pele” was 20 years old this year (Atlantic is set to release a remastered version this fall) I considered where I was when it came out, there in the beautiful confidence of settled-in high school. Twenty years later, I am unrecognizable. The album is locked in 1996, but I’ve been busy. I’ve seen marriage, divorce, hospitals, death, sex, drugs, and hundreds of thousands of miles through the windows of cars and planes since I heard the first track on that album for the first time. What sucks is that I know that all that experience has actually made me a perpetual freshman, more bewildered every year by what can and does happen in a life. My status as a bona fide freshman at SAIC is just a concrete example of the general state of my mid-30s.
The orc roar in “Professional Widow” transfixed me the first time I heard it, and after thousands of listens, my pupils still dilate; the hair still stands up on my forearms. The sound conjures the bowels of the Earth, fiery pits, deep swamps of metaphor and meaning. When Tori’s voice comes in, it’s not exactly consolation: she’s out for blood, too, but at least there’s something familiar in the room.