There is a Light That Shines on the Frontier (Pirates)
Jamaica Inn/Pirates (live, 2017)
1. Captain Blood
Upon joining the project, Joe Chicharelli introduced Amos to Kim Bullard, a keyboard player he’d used on several albums, mostly with the band Poco. Bullard ended up playing most of the synths on the album, and formed a brief writing partnership with Amos that resulted in three songs on Y Kant Tori Read. Two of these became the album’s singles. The third was “Pirates.”
On an album of frustrated love songs, “Pirates” stands out for completely and utterly not being one. It is instead the sort of song that characterizes Tori Amos’s later career, namely one in which it’s difficult to straightforwardly make a statement of the form “the song is about X.” I mean, it’s about pirates, obviously, but not in some straightforward narrative sense in which Amos relates the story of a pirate ship. The pirates exist somewhere between a metaphor and a straightforward subject. In the first verse, they seem to be imaginary—“Traveled far / from my home / foreign streets / paved with stone / deep in my dreams / Moroccan sand / I sail my ship / on dry land.” But the second verse has no obvious escape into the figurative even as it continues to resist straightforward subject matter: “steal the jewel / watch it break / it cuts with an eye/ I cant escape / the ruby heals / alone I stand / when I sail my ship / on dry land.” The chorus, meanwhile, sets them up as a solution, describing how “on a dark night / when you feel lonely / and the world just / can’t understand you” before answering simply “Pirates, yeah.”
If one is hell bent on interpretation—and I think ultimately that’s going to prove an inconsistently helpful approach to Amos—the cornerstone line is clearly “I sail my ship on dry land,” which finishes each of the two verses and cements the sense of distance between Amos and her piratical career, giving a sense of her as a pirate in exile, forced to spend her days fronting a crap 80s band while by night she dreams of the open seas. But this is still visibly incomplete—what on earth does one do about the lacerating jewel and the healing ruby, which may or may not be the same thing? No. We’re clearly on a hiding to nothing here.
Let’s try again. The centerpiece of “Pirates” is clearly the enthusiastic “Pirates, yeah” in the chorus. This is the heart of what the song is actually about: an unbridled enthusiasm for the basic idea of pirates. And while “fuck yeah pirates” may be a tenuous thing upon which to hang an entire pop song, ultimately its novelty wins out. “Pirates” is a straightforwardly upbeat song—around 130 bpm, with no major shifts or evolution in its sound, and with a chorus that’s a straightforward alternating two-chord pattern—that sings the praises of pirates. This is an odd thing for a song to be, and that oddness carries it, especially given Bullard’s particularly vivid synthesizer textures.
A key part of this is that, like “Floating City,” there’s a sense that Amos is being truer to herself with this song than with the endless parade of wounded love songs. Its sentiment may be simple, but one gets the sense that Tori Amos does, in fact, love pirates. Certainly Amos is comfortable working within a landscape of classical fantasy. She describes her childhood as literally talking to fairies, and as her career develops, she is increasingly straightforward about talking in bluntly magical terms about what she does, and one is hard-pressed to find an album that doesn’t invoke a fantasy trope somewhere in the course of it. “Pirates” isn’t even the last song in her career that’s going to talk about pirates. And so a giddily enthusiastic romp about pirates and magical jewels is comfortable terrain for her—a spot of solid ground on which she can in fact, improbably, set sail.
2. Cutthroat Island
The standard shorthand for Y Kant Tori Read involves describing it as Amos’s “hair metal” band. Musically speaking, it is entirely a misnomer—the closest thing to a good old-fashioned power ballad on Y Kant Tori Read is “Fire on the Side,” and the album is on the whole nowhere near as guitar-driven as the genre, which, while it certainly made use of synths and keyboards (c.f. the iconic fake horns riff in “The Final Countdown”) was ultimately still a guitar-based genre.
The reason the album gets that description is straightforward enough: the cover, which sees Amos with titanically blown out hair as she poses seductively with a cutlass while clad in a cleavage-heavy lace bra, arm-length black gloves, and a turquoise dirndl-style bodice. It stands out even within the excesses of 1980s fashion, cementing the album’s reputation for being a joke in a single shot.
Amos, for her part, suggests, “I wish that the LP would sound the way the cover looks. The record is just not heavy. It doesn’t have a clear statement. I mean, when someone plays thrash metal, then that has a point of view. And even if this thrash consists of nothing but noise—that has a point of view.” But Amos, speaking there in 1992 while she was still painfully close to the album, is blurring the issue on several fronts. For one thing, nothing about the cover suggests anything like thrash metal. The hair metal label it’s usually saddled with is emphatically not heavy, which is why just a few years after Y Kant Tori Read it found itself culturally unseated by a bunch of sullen boys in flannel shirts.
The larger problem, however, is that the album cover just isn’t all that hair metal. Sure, Amos’s provocative pose and sizable hair might arguably reflect Lita Ford’s look on the cover of her 1988 album Lita, or any of the members of Vixen on the cover of their “Edge of a Broken Heart” single, the overall style isn’t that far from what Paula Abdul was sporting in the video for “Cold Hearted,” at least if you drop the kepi hat. And as for the hair, it was 1988; everyone had that hair. Unless Dolly Parton is hair metal based on the cover of her 1987 Rainbow album, we’re going to have to just admit that massive hair is not exclusively a genre marker of hair metal.
So why is a piece of middling synth pop routinely mislabeled as hair metal based on a single cover photo? The answer, I would wager, is the pirate sword. The number of musical genres that grapple meaningfully with fantasy aesthetics basically amounts to celtic-flavored new age and heavy metal. And while Amos’s fantasy aesthetic runs more Princess Bride/Labyrinth than Elric of Melniboné/Gormeghast, at the end of the day the line between geek and metalhead comes down to your dungeon master. And since the album cover is clearly not part of the same aesthetic as Enya’s Watermark, clearly it must be metal.
The cover branding is most often attributed to the label, as in Jay S. Jacobs’s biography of Amos Pretty Good Years, which describes how “The marketing department got Amos into a tight spandex outfit and plastic pants and hair moussed to the ceiling.” But the truth is more complex than that; Amos threw herself into the “rock chick” persona, describing herself as “shop[ping] at Retail Slut one too many times.” She even took sword-fighting lessons. And Joe Chicharelli, while his account of things is self-serving in the extreme, concurs, describing how he got her the sword as a Christmas present because of her love of pirates, and was shocked and horrified when Amos came to him with the cover, and implored her to change it. “To be frank, I actually brought her to tears—I will never forget the day […] they brought in the proof of the album cover from Atlantic New York, and she showed it to me, and I remember saying to her, ‘Tori, you can’t put this out, you can’t do this. This looks like some New Wave tramp on the cover. It doesn’t make any sense […] the record is this layered kind of deep record, and this says slutty rock chick on the cover.’”
Amos, however, was adamant, insisting that “this is my pirate cover, I love this cover, I love my sword.” Chicharelli suggested vandalizing it, an idea he took from Monty Python’s Another Monty Python Record, the cover of which involved drawing over the cover for the National Philharmonic Orchestra’s release of Beethoven’s second symphony in black marker and writing Another Monty Python Record into the upper right-hand corner. Amos went and conferred with her boyfriend and future producer Eric Rosse and his mother, and ultimately opted to redo the band logo and draw the pair of odd creatures at the bottom to the image, resulting in the album cover as released.
The promotional bio was, if anything, even less well-considered. Amos explicated the band name at emphatically strange length, describing it as “my decoding rebellious statement, although I want people to read into it what they want, whether it is that she refuses to read because she doesn’t want to be part of the negativity that she might read, or because reading represents an accomplishment, like being a cheerleader, being on the Honors Society, or being a lawyer. We are judged so much by our accomplishments, and Tori refuses to be a part of that. You either accept her for what she is or… will you not accept her because she can’t read?”
But of course, Amos wasn’t the persona she was putting on her album cover, a fact that was pretty clear from the fact that she spends the bio talking about herself in the third person. Amos was a young rape survivor who didn’t know how to sing about the things that were most important to her and so got sucked into doing an ill-advised synth pop album that apparently looked to some people like hair metal. And who really liked pirates.
3. The Curse of the Black Pearl
Y Kant Tori Read was, of course, catnip for interviewers over the years, and Amos has spent thirty years offering various polite and measured disavowals of it. This was never complete—she was playing “Etienne” and “Cool On Your Island” as early as the Dew Drop Inn tour for Boys for Pele in 1996, and both “Fire on the Side” and “On the Boundary” crept into sets over the years. But for the most part the album was officially rejected as a cringeworthy misstep before the real beginning of her career with Little Earthquakes. She kept the album determinately out of print for decades, allowing it to proliferate in bootlegs and mp3s.
Finally in 2014, embarking on a major solo tour for the first time in a decade, she decided to substantially reclaim the album. She started as she had on multiple tours, playing “Etienne” and “Cool On Your Island” in several shows. Then few weeks into the tour, she debuted “Fire on the Side” in Copenhagen. A little over a week later, on June 4th, she played “On the Boundary” in Padova. And then the next month, on the American leg of the tour, the dam broke. Amos walked into the venue for her show in Denver and was greeted by a group of fans in pirate costumes all shouting “arrrrr” in order to request “Pirates.” As Amos put it, “they had wigs, they had brandishing swords, the whole thing, like twenty of them. And I thought, oh my goodness what a presentation, I cannot deny them.” And so she played “Pirates” in a set that already had “On the Boundary.” With many of the Y Kant Tori Read songs, Amos affects an understandable distance. But her live rendition of “Pirates” is ebullient and joyful, the song of a woman who, on balance, still loves pirates.
From there Y Kant Tori Read songs became a frequent treat. Over the course of August she slipped “Fayth” and “The Big Picture” in as head fakes in the midst of covers, while also giving “Floating City” a runout. What had changed? Mostly, Amos had gotten older. In interviews, she talked about how passing fifty had left her with a sense of freedom and about how much fun she was having on this tour. Indeed, when an interviewer expressed that it was nice to see her finally reclaiming the songs, her answer was simple: “at fifty, yes, I can do it.”
Three years later, she finally gave Y Kant Tori Read a rerelease, pirate cover and all. It’s on all the major streaming services today, no apologies made or needed. At last, the album is for more than just pirates.
Recorded somewhere in 1987 or 1988 at any of half a dozen studios in the Los Angeles area. Played once on the 2014 tour, and again in 2017 as a kicker at the end of “Jamaica Inn.”
Top: Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986), Y Kant Tori Read album cover (1988), Vixen’s “Edge of a Broken Heart” (1988), Dolly Parton’s Ranbow (1988), Another Monty Python Record (1971), additional promo photo for Y Kant Tori Read (1988)
September 3, 2019 @ 1:48 am
“[T]he line between geek and metalhead comes down to your dungeon master. ”
This is one of the best lines you’ve ever written.
September 3, 2019 @ 2:00 am
Austin George Loomis
September 4, 2019 @ 2:27 am
she is increasingly straightforward about talking in bluntly magical terms about what she does
That sounds familiar.