Sugarbutch Says: Happy 15th Anniversary, “Boys for Pele”

It’s one of those events for me, like when Kennedy was shot or when the Challenger exploded: I know exactly where I was on the day that Boys for Pele, Tori Amos’ third major album, was released.

It was January 22, 1996. It was a Monday.

I was in a particularly tumultuous transition, as my high school boyfriend had just two months before gotten into a colossal car wreck, while driving from his home state of Colorado to my home in Alaska, that shattered his left femur (among other injuries) and left him on crutches as his bone healed for more than a year. He had moved in with my family, staying on the extra bed we had in the living room, since Thanksgiving. His workman’s compensation from his insurance company came through around New Year’s and he immediately found his own place. I was still technically in my home life, but being called by my “adult” life, my life after my family, my life on my own as an autonomous, personally responsible person making my way in this world.

I was 16 years old.

When I got home from school, I convinced my dad to take me out the road to Fred Meyer that evening to pick up a few things. It was one of those rare family trips where all of us — my mom, my two sisters, my dad, and me — piled into the family car, the silver Dodge Colt Vista, body rusted through in various places from its years in the rainforest, and filled our shopping cart with various necessities.

I bee-lined for the music section. I resisted tearing open the wrapping in the store, and instead dug through the shopping bags in the back on my way home and tried to make out the cryptic lyrics in the CD’s booklet. It was dark out already. I remember squinting, holding it up to the car’s back window, hoping to catch the light of the street lamps as we drove slowly home on the icy roads.

I listened to it immediately when I arrived home.

In March, Tori Amos began her Dew Dropp Inn tour, the same month I moved out of my parent’s house. I turned 17, graduated from high school, and moved with my boyfriend to the college town in Colorado where he grew up.

“Obsessed” is the right word, meaning “haunted: having or showing excessive or compulsive concern with something.” I was haunted by Boys for Pele. I was excessively concerned with each and every lyric, each and every note on her Bösendorfer piano. I had all the lyrics memorized. I joined mailing lists that analyzed the obscure references: “Cut out the flute from the throat of the loon” in “Blood Roses” was from a Michael Ondaatje poem, “chickens get a taste of your meat” (also in “Blood Roses”) was a nod to Alice Walker’s novel Possessing the Secret of Joy, “does Joe bring flowers to Marilyn’s grave” in “Father Lucifer” is a reference to Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, “too sons too many too many able fires” in “Doughnut Song” is a reference to Cain and Abel, “pretty hate machine” in “Caught a Lite Sneeze” is a clear reference to the Nine Inch Nails album of the same name.

And it’s not just the references — the artwork, too, had endless interpretations. The famous photo of her suckling a piglet was called her “Madonna and child,” and she joked, “My father [a preacher] always wanted me to do a Christmas card.” The cover showed Tori with bare muddy feet and a ripped skirt with a dead cock hanging on one side and a live snake curled around the chair she’s in, a shotgun casually laid across her lap.