At the end of 2022, between the rains, I spent much of my time at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. I also spent much of my time with Tori Amos. Her first album, Little Earthquakes, turned 30 last year…which makes me an age I won’t say because ladies never do. These two precious things–this ocean and this aged album–pair extremely well together, something I discovered on long contemplative walks. I almost never walk while wearing headphones because a girl can never be too careful, but the sun was out and the neighborhood was alive with wandering families so I took a chance on being minimally alert to what could happen to me in order to focus on what was happening with me.
I come from an ocean-loving people. Music and the sea were very important to us, are very important to me. If I didn’t have access to either regularly, I wouldn’t know where I was. Maybe it’s the restorative promise of salt and and infinite tides. Or the fact that deep sea is endlessly fascinating for the same reason that deep space holds my attention: both are utterly unknowable yet they also explain everything. And, in the winter, the sea is at its most forceful and most beautiful. Cleansing, redemptive, ferocious, and honorific. I’ve relied on Ocean Beach to heal me ever since I was brought here during a storm by a man I knew in college who loved me just a little less than the woman he’s married to now. At least, that’s what I choose to remember. I’ve also relied on Tori Amos to steel me against oncoming storms, seen and unseen, since I found her at the beginning of me.
As I looked for myself while walking through beach snow during December, here is what I found: lyrics that have different meanings to me now but no less impact, lyrics as I heard them and not necessarily as they were written.
From in the shadow she calls. And in the shadow she finds a way. Finds a way. And in the shadow she crawls. Clutching her faded photograph, my image under her thumb. Yes with a message from my heart, yes with a message from my heart. She’s been everybody else’s girl, maybe one day she’ll be her own. Falling down as the winter takes one more cherry tree. Everybody else’s girl. Maybe one day she’ll be her own.
I’ve been looking for a savior in these dirty streets, looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets. Just what god needs: one more victim. Why do we crucify ourselves? Everyday I crucify myself. Nothing I do is good enough for you. Every day I crucify myself. my heart is sick of being in chains.
Excuse me but can I be you for a while. Yes, I know what you think of me you never shut up. Yeah, I can hear it. What if I’m a mermaid in these jeans of his with her name still on it. Hey, but I don’t care cuz sometimes I said sometimes I hear my voice and it’s been here silent all these years. I’ve got $25 bucks and a cracker do you think it’s enough to get us there? Years go by will I still be waiting for somebody else to understand? Years go by if I’m stripped of my beauty and the orange clouds raining in my hair. Years go by will I choke on my tears till finally there is nothing left. One more casualty, you know? Too easy, easy, easy.
If you weren’t a young girl in the 1990s, you’ll never understand the impact Tori Amos (and other women who commanded attention in the music industry at that time) had on our generation. This was the era of Girl Power, riot grrrls, and Lilith Fair that rode our mothers’ second wave feminism into a third swell that still hasn’t fulfilled its promise. I suppose these tides never do overtake the shore they’re rushing, but they never stop coming and they always move the sand around. I am the sea, the sea sees me, in this sea is where you’ll leave me be.
I was too young to catch the initial release of Little Earthquakes but I vividly remember the release of From the Choir Girl Hotel in 1998. Funny what a difference a few years make when you’re that age. Seeing her music videos on MTV in support of that album, I had to have that CD with an immediacy only teenage girls feel. I would have died if I couldn’t own it. I began to acquire Tori’s entire catalog as fast as I could. Although, it wasn’t fast enough because the impatience to grow up caused time to move slower then.
I recently rewatched Empire Records because Hulu’s 1990s movie game is strong right now, and it reminded me of how much time I spent in music stores flipping through stacks and figuring out who I was, what I liked. These choices defined you as a teenager; before you could claim anything in your name, you could lay claim to your music in your room. And we had to work for these acquisitions in the olden times. Before the internet and Napster and iTunes, we went forth and found The Warehouse, Tower Records, and Best Buy. And, of course, unlimited independent record stores where you could listen to music in modified telephone booths without being hassled; where you had a room of one’s own that was also everyone else’s.
My favorite was Canterbury Records on Colorado in Pasadena which THANK GOD still exists. I was nervous looking that one up because My Pasadena can’t take another loss. This is where my Mom spent hours as a teen, as well, and by introducing me to her record store she was sharing Her Pasadena with me. That kind of heritage is hard to find now and even harder to hold onto, but I still have records marked “Jan” or “Clarke” in her handwriting that likely came from this place and that kind of continuity is what keeps me grounded. Music is eternal and Canterbury Records is a sacred site to me–my own personal historic landmark.
I remember buying Little Earthquakes from Best Buy in Pasadena on Christmas Break in 1998. More accurately, I remember my Mom buying me Little Earthquakes in those final vacation days which went faster than the others. I waited patiently as the Best Buy employee dislodged the CD from it’s plastic security case, and I impatiently waited in line at Starbuck’s for Mom’s latte and and my hot chocolate–holding this bag that held new pieces of me. I remember jumping into the passenger seat of her Ford Explorer, pulling it out of the plastic bag, pulling on that tab that ripped through the plastic wrapping that never seemed necessary, and jamming that disc into the CD player before we ever left the parking lot. My childhood was nothing if not suburban and boring–two truths that allowed me the time to find so many worlds beyond my own. It was also littered with plastic.
I hear a voice: you must learn to stand up for yourself, I won’t always be around. Hair is grey and the fires are burning. So many dreams, all the shell. You say I wanted you to be proud of me. I always wanted that myself. When you gonna make up your mind? When you gonna love you as much as I do. When you gonna make up your mind? Cuz things are gonna change so fast. All the white horses have gone ahead. I tell you that I’ll always want you near. You say that things change, my dear. Never change. All the white horses.
I listened to that album so much that winter while listening to the heater in the hall just outside my bedroom door kick on and shut off in waves. Somehow, I still have Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink. The cases are cracked, the discs are scratched beyond listening (I think, although, my CD player from high school JUST DIED, so…hard to tell), but they’re still here. They’ve managed to hang with me through countless moves around California and several different lives. It’s funny what survives the million deaths we all endure and what our grip can keep hold of if we find the strength.
And how this boring, suburban girl came to find a home in a seismic city is what I have thought about most while walking on the beach and listening to Little Earthquakes this winter. I have no fucking idea what I’m doing anymore but I’m starting to remember who I am again. Or, at least, who I was. Here, at Ocean Beach with Tori Amos, I recognized something in myself I had forgotten: I am the sea, the sea sees me, and I sing for the sea in all her unknowableness. I’ve grown up and have many claims to my name, but it’s still this music that found me as a teenager that defines me. As I often say, we only become more ourselves.
These things, these memories, have gotten abstract and more elusive as I age but the rhythms are sequenced into my DNA. My fingers still remember how to play “Precious Things” on the piano…mostly. And the sea, she never stops. It foams up and smells differently and sometimes it’s too cold to get in, but the beach holds steady even as it changes and saves space of all of us to be here together. The key is to finding a way to make time to hear it.
These precious things let them bleed. Let them wash away. These precious things, let them break their hold on me.
Happy Friday the 13th, my dears.
A little Wednesday mellow.
Confession: I haven’t listened to much of Chris Isaak’s catalog.
But he spent time in the Sunset and a friend sent this song to me and everything about it is perfect as we weather the weather in the first part of January, so maybe things will change and I’ll know Isaak better this year.
When things are right, they’re right.