Charles Jensen on Tori Amos’s Scarlet’s Walk

This story begins and ends with heavy petting.

The author opted to start this way because recent studies show a majority of Americans enjoy thinking about heavy petting as much as they enjoy heavy petting itself. While the petting was indeed heavy in the first instance, the petting that begins this author’s story, it was also urgent—the urgent heavy petting of two people about to fall in love with each other, who haven’t fallen in love yet, but who want desperately to be in love with each other soon.

The author will slowly introduce the fact that these heavy petters are, in fact, both men. America is warming up to concepts of hot man-on-man action, if the legislature of the state of New York is any kind of litmus test. If you a sensitive reader, it is too late to caution you. The author apologizes if you’ve been scandalized by this revelation. Perhaps you were already imagining heavy petting featuring a particular person of the opposite sex. If that’s the case, the author will allow you to supplant one of the men in question with a person of your choice. But he also wants to encourage you to consider giving this heavy petting a chance on its own, to be assured, silently to yourself as you read, that two men can fall desperately in love with each other as you (perhaps) once did with someone else.

This takes place in a small living room in our solar system, on planet Earth, in the United States, in the state of Arizona, the city of Tempe, which rests just outside Phoenix. Yes, the lights are off. Yes, there are candles, and yes, they are scented. A stereo bleats is sad love-lorn notes through grizzled speakers carefully placed to maximize the surround of sound. The stereo clicks, changing CDs (for this was in the time of the CD).

The next CD plays: Tori Amos begins “Amber Waves” with “Well, he lit you up / like amber waves in his movie show.”

Meta moment: the amber light of the candles flickering as if through celluloid.

The two men, the author and his future love, kiss passionately on an unfolded futon in this light.

Their skin, when it appears in flashes from beneath their clothing, has an amber glow. In each other’s eyes they see the tiny lights of the candles reflected there like far-off stars. These men think to themselves they want to sail to these galaxies and be among those stars.

As the album continues, it leads the men through a journey. Scarlet’s Walk is ostensibly one woman’s journey across America.

On the cover art: Tori Amos stands paused on a country road—is it Oklahoma?—half-turned from the camera. One foot toward the sun. One foot pointing away. A light breeze threads its fingers through her hair.

In the next song, “A Sorta Fairytale,” the singer is on a California freeway, a state these two men will visit by car several times over the next three years. They cannot imagine these trips now. That one of them will end up on a hotel bed in San Francisco crying to the point of breathlessness cannot be known right now. That one of them will almost die in a one-car rollover accident cannot be known right now. “I didn’t know we could break a silver lining.”

The album moves forward: the up tempo “Wednesday” dissolves into the pensive “Strange,” haunted by vibraphones, and then “Carbon” with its icy drizzle of piano notes gathering into rhythmic waves of acoustic guitar and drums. “Carbon made only wants to be unmade” the way two men desperate to love each other want to be unmade, to be taken apart and studied, to be put back together. This is a way of loving. The author underlines this point.

“Wampum Prayer” appears. The a capella chanting may startle one or both of the men, coming suddenly after the first movement of the album. This is a turning point in the collection. “Don’t Make Me Come to Vegas,” Tori sings. In a few weeks, one of these men will visit Vegas without the other. He will think at the time it will be a chance for him to explore some other pastures, but all he does is miss the other, has a horrible time with his bitchy friends, calls often. The one in Vegas buys a mug for the other with London Bridge on it, a sight they visit along the way. It has the man’s name on it. The recipient keeps it for 9 years, 5 years longer than these two men kept each other.

“Sweet Sangria” arrives in its tightest dress and dancing shoes. It may or may not have brought along its pole. The men, in their petting, are negotiating a clothing reduction program, but it isn’t going well. One man wants to feel his skin on the other man’s skin. The other knows this is a slippery slope, that shedding a shirt leads to shedding pants, and shedding pants—well, the author is certain the reader won’t need a diagram.

“If the rain has to separate from itself / does it say / ‘Pick out your cloud’?” she sings in “Your Cloud.” The men, at an undetermined point in the future, will pool their belongings into a home. Framed pictures will appear on those walls, furniture arrives, and a domestic calm settles around them like a net through which they will see but feel they cannot move. Ultimately this net, initially what holds them together, they believe, will hold them back. From what, the author cannot say. They will separate. They will pick out their clouds. Their belongings, by this point, have lost their identities as “his” or “his.” The dog, just a puppy, they opt to share, but this arrangement doesn’t last long. The author had already named this dog Arden.

This was in the long, uncomfortable wake of September 11, so when “I Can’t See New York” fills the room, both men feel a great sadness weigh on them.

Folksy “Mrs. Jesus” leads into “Taxi Ride,” written for Kevin Aucoyn. “Just another dead fag to you / just another light missing on a long taxi line.” The line, its meaning, resonates. It is in this room one man will receive an anonymous voicemail in which a male caller threatens to rape the man in this story for being gay. But this night, months before that, is a night in which they feel safe together, unknown by the outside world. They are fully themselves.

The last four songs are another movement. The men leave behind the sadness of the last few songs. They have their lives to live. In this night, they are concerned with only each other, with the way this feels. The music fills the room like a liquid. Like a liquid, their lives will take the shape of the years they will share together. It always finds its own level. Things are good until they are no longer good. In ten years, they will not know each other anymore.

These last songs: wistful, knowing. The lush strings of “Gold Dust” enter: “Sights and sounds / pull me back down / another year.” At the end of things, the author knows he has loved and been loved. But things change. The past is not changed—the past stays back where it is and lets us go.

“How did it go so fast / you’ll say as we are looking back / and then we’ll understand / we held gold dust / in our hands.”

The author promised to end with heavy petting and will stay true to his word. This album, played so many nights while that futon warmed beneath the author and his soon-and-former love, became a tour the author attended at a venue down the street. He goes in, he listens to this performance, his first and only experience seeing her play live, playing many of the songs that have become inextricably linked to the telling of this story. He sits in his third balcony seat and looks down at her. He is thinking of his love when he hears these songs.

Somewhere in that auditorium is the man the author is going to marry.

Somewhere in that auditorium, listening to these same songs, loving this same album, is a man he will meet years down the road, whom he will meet at the worst possible time and under the worst possible circumstances. Someone the author will almost let pass by like a taxi he decides he does not need. Someone who will fall asleep during his first viewing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Someone the author will realize is the man he has been looking for and, dear reader, unlike many movies, our author has this realization just before it is too late, before this good man has passed him by and left him alone with his record collection and his big empty bed and his dog, who has grown and grown and become a lady.

Somewhere in that auditorium, the author’s future is listening.

When they kiss, no music plays. The music is always there between them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s