Tori Amos Saved My Life — And I’m Not The Only One

Earlier this month, I officiated my best friend Sarah’s wedding. After the deed was done, I danced alongside the other guests, who were mostly in their early 40s, to songs mostly from the early ’90s, ate a piece of the charming cactus-shaped wedding cake, and fielded the same question over and over again: How did you meet Sarah?

For many friends, the answer would be fairly straightforward: at school, at work, through a mutual friend, in a book club, or maybe at the dog park. Our answer is more unexpected and, admittedly, unusual: We met because of Tori Amos.

That was 20 years ago. In addition to Sarah, there were seven other friends at her wedding that I’ve known at least as long. We were brought together by our love of the red-headed piano rock virtuoso decades ago, when we were just barely adults beginning to make our way into the world, and we’ve stayed friends longer than most marriages last.

We’re not alone. I could introduce you to dozens (if not hundreds) of other people who have met many of the most important people they know — their best friends, their partners, their chosen families, their communities — because of Tori Amos.

The author and Sarah on her wedding day.
The author and Sarah on her wedding day.

I discovered Tori in 1992 when I was 13, which I now recognize as the first of the worst years of my life. Though I was theoretically in the closet, my queerness was obvious and uncontrollable and exploded out of me whenever I opened my mouth or moved, for which I was punished by most of the people around me.

Then, one afternoon after school, in between asking God to make me straight and fantasizing about the least painful way to kill myself, I saw the video for “Crucify” from “Little Earthquakes,” Tori’s debut solo album, on MTV, and everything turned upside down.

Tori, a piano prodigy who began playing when she was just 2.5 years old, was singing about setting herself free from the suspicion and scrutiny and damnation that came with daring to want something different — and more ― than what the world thought she deserved to have or be.

Though, in many ways, our experiences couldn’t have been more dissimilar, her songs spoke to me about my own life in a language I’d never heard before but instantly understood. It was like every light in every gloomy room in my body suddenly came on and for the first time I could begin to envision a version of myself emerging from the shame and the sadness I’d been submerged in for so long. Maybe I didn’t have to choose between despair or dying after all. Maybe there was another way.

Of course, as powerful as Tori’s music is, it couldn’t alter the material conditions of my miserable existence. But listening to her gave me hope that I wasn’t worthless — or worthy of death — and that hope kept me here.

Not long after, my family got an AOL account and I began spending my nights online looking for signs of emotionally intelligent (or merely less cruel) life outside my small Midwestern town. I stumbled on a Tori Amos message board, where I met others who had found that her music helped to make sense of their lives and gave them a way to help battle the brutality and hurt they were trying to vanquish. I made friends with people in cities I’d never heard of and countries I previously knew nothing about. I realized the world was a much bigger place with many more possibilities than I’d been led to or allowed to believe. I began to plot my escape.

My parents gave me a ticket to my first Tori show as a high school graduation present and I finally got to experience what my new friends — and so many music critics — had claimed would be unlike any performance I’d ever seen. They weren’t wrong.

The ferocity and tenderness that Tori embodies on stage and offers her listeners (she once famously said she doesn’t have fans, we’re “ears with feet”) is incomprehensible if you haven’t witnessed it for yourself. Sitting in that theater filled with others who, like me, had felt beckoned to and embraced by her music felt like coming home to a home I didn’t even know existed. I’ve since seen her over 100 times.

The author (front row, second from right) and Shannon Lambert (left of author) waiting with other fans to meet Tori at a meet-and-greet before a show in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 2003.
The author (front row, second from right) and Shannon Lambert (left of author) waiting with other fans to meet Tori at a meet-and-greet before a show in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 2003.

Courtesy of Shannon Lambert

I left Wisconsin, went to college, came out, and welded together a life for myself that I love, and during and despite everything that’s come my way, Tori’s music has always been there for me and others like me, to tackle and transfigure the trauma and grief and rage and joy we experience in ways that other artists weren’t or wouldn’t — especially 30 years ago.

Tori took on institutions that we felt persecuted by — from the church to the patriarchy — and that we’d never heard challenged in such unconventional and unflinching ways in mainstream culture. Although she’s found tremendous success, many people (including her first record label) didn’t know what to do with her or her music –- but we did. We welcomed every album like it was a new member of our family.

From desire to heartbreak, from betrayal to salvation, from marriage to miscarriage to motherhood, the songs continued to arrive and recognize and unravel and heal the hardest and heaviest parts of our lives. As Tori grew, we grew too. And we didn’t just stay alive, we lived.

But it wasn’t just the music. It was Tori herself and the community that sprung up because of her.

Erin Russell (left) with Tori in Boulder, Colorado, in 1996.
Erin Russell (left) with Tori in Boulder, Colorado, in 1996.

Courtesy of Erin Russell Photography

Though most artists, from the Grateful Dead to Beyoncé to Taylor Swift to Insane Clown Posse, have a dedicated — even rabid — following, Tori’s relationship with and commitment to her fans is unlike any other artist I’ve known. From the moment she began touring, she has held (completely free) meet-and-greets before and sometimes after her shows. And she doesn’t just take photos and sign autographs; she offers the kind of profound potential for resuscitation and repair that only comes from truly being seen and heard.

My friends and I and so many others like us split cheap motel rooms or camped out in some befuddled parent’s living room (“Now hold on ― you’re going where to do what with who for how long?”) as we traveled from city to city and show to show — even country to country — for weeks or months at a time to be a part of Tori’s world. In turn, this let us dream up and construct our own new world.

It was unlike anything most of us had known or thought possible.

People worked odd jobs to make extra money to go on tour and stay on tour. People quit jobs to go and stay on tour. People formed their closest friendships on tour. People fell in love because of Tori. People had babies and brought them to meet Tori.

Eventually, Tori came to know us. She played song requests for us. She asked us about our lives and our loves and our problems.

We cared for and carried each other through breakups and layoffs and deaths. We celebrated each other at graduations and weddings and births. We became who we are now because of Tori. We became family because of Tori. After all these years, we’re still family.

Marco Nieves (right), the author (second from right), Chrissie D'Alexander (second from left) and Berry Perkins (left). "We're at the famed Christ Church in Delgany, County Wicklow, Ireland, where Tori recorded'Boys for Pele,' her third album," the author writes of this photo taken in 2018. "The four of us met because of Tori and have been friends for over 20 years."
Marco Nieves (right), the author (second from right), Chrissie D’Alexander (second from left) and Berry Perkins (left). “We’re at the famed Christ Church in Delgany, County Wicklow, Ireland, where Tori recorded ‘Boys for Pele,’ her third album,” the author writes of this photo taken in 2018. “The four of us met because of Tori and have been friends for over 20 years.”

Erin Russell, whom I met on the AOL Tori Amos message board over 25 years ago, ran away from her home in Los Angeles to see the now-legendary Boulder, Colorado, shows in 1996, where Tori played the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” for her. Erin told me she never had real friends until she met her Tori friends.

“In high school people would talk about their best friends like they couldn’t live without them,” she wrote in an email. “I had friends — they were fine, but I’d never proclaim to be unable to live without them. Then, at 16, I met some Tori fans online, and eventually at my first Tori show, and it clicked for me: OH. This is what those people had been talking about. Family. I just knew these people were my family — and many of them still are.”

Marco Nieves moved to New York City from Puerto Rico when he was 19 because of Tori. “I had only been to the mainland once when I was a kid to go to Disney World with my grandparents,” he told me in an email. “But I had made all of these friends on the Tori message boards and I decided to visit to see my first show in 2001. Two years later I put a post up online asking, ‘Does anyone that lives in New York have a space for me?’ and a fan named Carole said she did. She’s now my best friend.”

Nieves says being part of the Tori community has shaped and defined his life over the last 20-plus years. “The friends I’ve made have become roommates, co-workers, travel buddies, lovers, ex-boyfriends — family. We’ve done everything together, from the most mundane — like splitting utility bills — to the most extraordinary — like changing a tire in the middle of Iceland. We’ve pretty much checked off every life experience box and the common denominator has always been the music.”

Left photo: Shannon Lambert (right) with Tori in Minneapolis in 2014. Right photo: Tori meets Lambert's child for the first time in Minneapolis in 2014.
Left photo: Shannon Lambert (right) with Tori in Minneapolis in 2014. Right photo: Tori meets Lambert’s child for the first time in Minneapolis in 2014.

Some of us were saved in other ways. In 1994, Tori, who wrote “Me and a Gun” about the sexual assault she survived when she was 21, became the first spokesperson for the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, or RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the United States. For the nearly three decades since then, Tori and RAINN have provided resources to thousands of survivors — many of them her fans.

“I found Tori’s music during the hardest time in my life,” Shannon Lambert told me. “I road-tripped to my first show the summer of 1998 and felt like she was singing right to me. Her music was a lifeline. A few months later, I filmed a “20/20” segment about Tori and her impact on sexual violence survivors. We got to meet her backstage before a show and she kicked out the television cameras and talked with us — really talked with us — about what we’d been through. It was incredibly meaningful to have this person I admired so much share so much of herself with such openness and vulnerability.”

When I began working in media in 2007, I suddenly found myself with a strange kind of dual citizenship — fan and journalist — and because of that, Tori and I have talked frequently over the past 15 years, both on and off the record, and eventually became friends. Because of my interviews with her, I’ve heard from countless fans who’ve told me how knowing Tori and her music also came to change them in unimaginable ways.

It’s made me realize exactly what — and how much — is possible when someone shares herself without shame or apology — and how honesty and empathy and generosity can disintegrate loneliness, build communities, and transform lives.

The author (right) with Tori (center) and Sarah in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2015.
The author (right) with Tori (center) and Sarah in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2015.

Courtesy of Noah Michelson

A few years ago, I finally told Tori just that. I wanted her to know how much she’d done for me and so many others. I wanted to say it out loud to her — face to face — at least once.

You saved your life,” she replied. And she’s right, of course. Ultimately, I’m the one who survived — who stayed here — despite everything I’d been through. But it feels unfair and untrue not to give Tori any of the credit, even if I know she would say she was just doing what she does ― what she’s always been called and compelled to do ― and that she’s grateful and humbled that the music matters to so many of us.

In April, Marco and I traveled to London to see Tori play. After the show was over, he told me about a father and his teenage son who had been sitting in front of him. At first Marco assumed it was the dad who had brought his son to experience the wonder of seeing Tori play live. But by the end of the show, after watching this boy scream and sing along and take nonstop photos and videos, he realized the teen had brought his dad to the show.

Maybe 20 years from now this kid will be officiating his best friend’s wedding because of Tori. Maybe not. But I can think of few things as thrilling as young fans discovering Tori and feeling the way we did and do, and hopefully even having their lives seen and saved like we did and still are.

Tori Amos kicks off her summer tour across the United States on June 17 in West Palm Beach, Florida. For a full list of shows and ticket information, head here. For more from Tori, visit her official website, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube channel.

Noah Michelson is the head of HuffPost Personal and the host of “D Is for Desire,” HuffPost’s love and sex podcast. He joined HuffPost in 2011 to launch and oversee the site’s first vertical dedicated to queer issues, Queer Voices, and went on to oversee all of HuffPost’s community sections before pivoting to create and run HuffPost Personal in 2018. He received his MFA in poetry from New York University and has served as a commentator for the BBC, MSNBC, Entertainment Tonight, Current TV, Fuse, Sirius XM and HuffPost Live. Find him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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