We have been returning frequently to the lens of Amos’s eventual reclamation of her Y Kant Tori Read work, mostly in the course of her 2014 tour. And so it’s fitting that we end discussion of that period of her career with the first song from the period that she played live, the album closer, “Etienne.” It happened on April 28th, in her old stomping grounds of Washington DC, about two month into the 1996 Dew Drop Inn tour for Boys for Pele, and five days before she debuted “Cool on Your Island” in a medley with “Hey Jupiter.” It went on to feature twenty-six times over the course of that tour—far from one of the most played songs, but in no way one of the least either, and ahead of multiple songs from all three of her albums up to that point. She cooled on the song a bit past that—those twenty-six performances make up nearly half of the song’s total appearances—but once reclaimed it never entirely left her setlists.
Of course, “Etienne” marks only a part of the Etienne Trilogy—on the CD it’s saddled with a synth-heavy opening by Amos and Bullard entitled “The Highlands” that spends about 90 seconds stalling for time before Amos’s piano comes in for the main song, and given a bagpipe-based rendition of the traditional “Skyeboat Song” as an outro that, at sixty seconds, is almost perfectly designed to finish just as you locate the remote to turn it off anyway. These excesses serve to ground the song within the album, where it would otherwise be an odd fit for precisely the reason it had such an easy time being integrated into Amos’s later career: at its heart, “Etienne” is a straightforward piano ballad.
The simplicity of this similarity, however, poses a trap. Asked in a 1998 interview about whether the song represented “more of what you were wanting to do” than the rest of the album, Amos was withering, replying, “Not necessarily, it was more just me at the piano.” When the interviewer attempted to push the point, she firmly rejected the idea of comparing her solo work to “Etienne,” noting that if there was a similarity between it and “Precious Things,” “Waitress,” or “Cruel” then “I wouldn’t have made the four records I just made.” This is a puzzling claim with a questionable understanding of how artistic development works (does she also reject the idea of comparing those three songs to each other?), but it highlights the problems with treating “Etienne” as though it’s some sort of “proper” Tori Amos song orphaned on Y Kant Tori Read.
Amos eventually threw the interviewer a bone, offering that “‘Etienne,’ as a song, was more of what I was doing before I came to L.A.” We’ve already looked at her pre-L.A. work (or at least, people who back me on Patreon have), and there’s a sense to this: the bulk of those songs are love songs in which Amos seems to be going through a writing exercise of imagining different perspectives and narrators to work with. That’s certainly not the only way to approach “Etienne,” but it works. This time her narrator is a woman whose sense of identity is lost or fragmented. The verses consist of hypotheses as to who she might be—perhaps she’s ”a witch lost in time / running through the fields of Scotland by your side,” or potentially “you’re a knight who saved my life / maybe we faced the fire side by side.” Through this, her lone certainty is her love for the titular Etienne.
Clearly this is not an autobiographical song, although little on Y Kant Tori Read straightforwardly is save, perhaps, “Floating City.” But there is something to the claim that “Etienne” is a more personal work than most of the album. As we discussed back with “Pirates,” Amos has a substantial love of fantasy aesthetics. And so while she is (probably?) not actually witch lost in time, one suspects that this song is one that’s closer to her actual interests and passions than, say, “Fayth” or (since it’s probably our last opportunity to dunk on it) “Heart Attack at 23.”
It’s not that “Etienne” is particularly deep in its handling of fantasy aesthetics. Its lyrics are largely stuff like “here we are again / under the same sky / as the g*psy crystal slowly dies”* that feel ripped from any number of cheesy 80s fantasy semi-classics. Indeed, a solid bet for where the name Etienne came from, aside from just having a pleasantly exotic fantasy quality, is Rutger Hauer’s character in Richard Donner’s 1985 classic of turophilic fantasy Ladyhawke, a film it’s easy to imagine Amos enjoying. But it’s still rooted in Amos’s actual interests and aesthetics. I’ve made the case frequently that the decades-long burying of the album was unfair, and that there’s more of a line from it to Little Earthquakes than Amos or her fans tend to imply. Nevertheless, the Tori Amos that we recognize as a visionary musician is visible only in scattered flashes on most songs, peeking through in a chord progression or a line. A bare handful—”Floating City” and “Cool on Your Island” most notably—feel like outright coherent antecedents. But “Etienne” stands alone as a song that feels, in its entirety, like what you’d expect from a pre-Little Earthquakes Tori Amos song if you knew nothing of Y Kant Tori Read.
In this regard, the chorus takes on a new meaning. Amos’s time-lost witch, after all, is consumed by her lack of self-identity, singing to her half-remembered lover that “by the morning / maybe we’ll remember / who I am.” It’s a question that Amos will shortly answer so directly as to practically be a response song: “here / silent all these years.”
*Given that Eruditorum Press is a committedly leftist site, I am obliged to address the use of the slur, which obviously is not a line that’s aged well. That said, one suspects that Amos in 1988 did not know that the word was a slur—that knowledge has been fairly slow to spread to general awareness. Amos can be more fairly criticized for not altering the line in subsequent performances, but equally, awareness of the term’s racist history remains scarce enough that even the committedly woke hip-hop artist Jidenna used it in his most recent single. Nevertheless, it’s a black mark on an otherwise pleasant song even if it does merely indicate ignorance instead of malice.
Recorded somewhere in 1987 or 1988 at any of half a dozen studios in the Los Angeles area. Only the middle portion, “Etienne,” has been played live, first in 1996, where it was most often used to close the show. It made sporadic appearances on subsequent tours.
From top: The Queen of the Moon, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1988; Etienne, Ladyhawke, 1985