The Sea is the Sky (Flying Dutchman)

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Flying Dutchman (1992)

Flying Dutchman (live, 2001)

Flying Dutchman (2012)

Flying Dutchman (live, 2017)

Some time early in Amos’s time in LA, while she was still playing the airport Holiday Inn to pay her rent, a friend of hers helped her move, and asked her kinda sorta boyfriend Rantz Hoseley to help. Hoseley was attending art school in the city, and the two hit it off immediately (Hoseley cameos in the video for “The Big Picture”). A few years later, in the wake of Y Kant Tori Read, Amos called her friend to chat. Hoseley, an artist who wanted to make it in the comics industry, had recently left Los Angeles after a number of setbacks that included being told by Marvel editor Tom DeFalco that he should give up and become a plumber and what he describes s “some very scary near-fatal experiences,” and was living with his parents in Washington, but the two remained close. Amos was starting to bounce back from her own setback and in the early stages of Little Earthquakes, and asked her friend how he’d describe himself. Hoseley’s response, delivered from the depths of his depressive spiral, was to say, “Tori, I’m the Flying Dutchman.” And so Amos began to write Hoseley a song.

By legend, the Flying Dutchman is a ghost ship doomed to sail the oceans forever. The stated origins of the curse are numerous. In some tellings, the ship was cursed after it committed some horrific crime; in others, its captain made an ill-advised invocation of the Devil. In any case, the ship is now cursed to never find a safe port. To sight it is to see disaster, not least as the ship exists perpetually within a patch of foul weather. (In practice, supposed sightings were most likely Fata Morgana mirages.)

The song is a soaring and expansive piece, making liberal use of (sampled) strings and clocking in at six and a half minutes, with multiple different verse structures that get employed over the course of it. (One reporter, rather fatuously, suggested the song has “a kind of movement-like structure,” to which Amos, rather more accurately, replied that “it’s not the structure of your typical pop song.”) Lyrically, it’s a rousing statement of belief, first in Hoseley, who she sympathetically portrays as being constantly badgered about what he’ll do with his life, and in the second verse describing a woman who is chronically misunderstood by the “straight suits.” This is possibly Amos portraying herself after the failure of Y Kant Tori Read. Picking up on Hoseley’s identification with the famous ghost ship, Amos spends the chorus hailing the missing ship, imagining it not as a bunch of lost souls desperate to get home, but as some sort of intrepid explorer of far-out conceptual realms. As she tells her characters, “they can’t see / what you’re born to be.”

Understandably given its use of canned strings, Amos picked the song to rework on Gold Dust, where it’s one of the few songs not to feel like a pale echo of its original. The reworked version pulls the strings back, creating a more nuanced and complex version that can validly stand alongside the camp glories of the original. Where it soared and encouraged, the Gold Dust version is warm and inviting, offering comfort instead of inspiration.

As for Hoseley, he eventually returned to Los Angeles where he crashed at Amos’s house for a bit, during which time he introduced her to various comic book series such as Coleen Doran’s A Distant Soil and Kate Worley and Reed Waller’s Omaha the Cat Dancer. (He introduced her to a third series as well, but we’ll get there in a few weeks.) Eventually he found work in the video game industry, before switching gears to work in comic books. His most notable contribution there was an anthology called Comic Book Tattoo, its name taken from the first verse of “Flying Dutchman,” which featured a bevy of comics creators doing short pieces inspired by Tori Amos songs and picked up Eisner and Harvey Awards for Best Anthology. (Like most anthologies, quality varies—there’s an obvious excess of stories about the misfortunes of women written by men, including the genuinely shocking decision to write a story inspired by “God” featuring literally no women. But there are highlights as well—Jonathan Hickman doing a riff on “1000 Oceans” that is every bit as baroque and high concept as you would expect from him while also remaining tangibly connected with the song. Two contributions from Kelly Sue DeConnick also stand out, and the art is reliably gorgeous.) Most recently, he made a small cameo in The Last War in Albion as the managing editor of Heavy Metal magazine under Grant Morrison’s stewardship, a job he recently departed in order to soar further on in whatever direction it is he imagines.

Recorded in Los Angeles at Capitol Records in 1990, produced by Davitt Sigerson.  Orchestral version recorded in at Martian Engineering in 2011-12, produced by Tori Amos. Played sporadically throughout Amos’s career, a handful of performances on each tour.

 

Comments

rathim kaur 9 months, 3 weeks ago

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order to soar further on in whatever direction it is he imagines.

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Douglas Muir 9 months, 2 weeks ago

Oh, man, Omaha the Cat Dancer. The story behind that comic was complicated and of the three people who created it, two are tragically dead.

It wasn't my thing, but it was an adult comic with a plot and complex characters and something to say. That's still very rare today; in the 1980s it was pretty much unique. It's not surprising that a lot of creative people responded strongly to it.

Idle thought: in the 1980s, the titular Omaha (her real name was something convincingly Minnesotan, Jeannie Swensen or something like that) was a divorced twentysomething. Today she'd be sixtyish.


Doug M.

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