A Personal History of Music, Day 16: “Tear In Your Hand,” by Tori Amos

John Scalzi

There are any number of reasons why “Tear In Your Hand” has remained in my mix of Highly Significant Songs, but possibly the most important reason is that it’s rooted into a very specific place and time for me: Fresno, California in the early 90s. This is where I had gotten my first job out of college, as a film critic for the Fresno Bee newspaper. At the time I was listening to quite a lot of music, but almost all of it was from bands or musicians I was already listening to before I had come to this new town. Tori Amos’ album was, at least as far as I can remember, the first new music from a new artist that I really connected with —

— well, okay, I just checked and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out literally the week I started my job with the Fresno Bee. But! “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” is not a song I associate with Fresno, and Nirvana is definitely not a band I associate with my time in that place. I don’t know, maybe it’s because (to play off the title of Amos’ album) “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a large earthquake, literally the sound of popular rock music being wrenched into another shape entirely. I didn’t feel ownership of that song or that band; who could?

“Tear In Your Hand” and Little Earthquakes, on the other hand: Here was music that was speaking to me at that time in my life, and in that place, where I did not yet have a solid context and was looking for things to help set me there. Here’s Tori Amos bleeding onto her piano with intimate and occasionally terrifying songs, the prettiness of the compositions distracting you from the words until they were well and truly sunk into your brain. It’s inaccurate to say Little Earthquakes was not a popular or influential album; it’s the work that established Amos as a force in pop music, and was a touchstone for all manner of artists who admired and followed her. It may be more accurate to say Little Earthquakes was a slow burn of an album; not everyone found it, but those who found it, cherished it.

I certainly did. It went into heavy rotation on my CD player and “Tear In Your Hand” in particular got a workout; when Amos sang “There are pieces of me you’ve never seen,” that was a sentiment I wholly understood, and the drama of the song in general fit my mood at the time. I put it on repeat enough at the time that whenever I listen to it (or any other song from the album) now, I get a jolt of “You’re 22, you’re in a new place, this is your first job, whoa.” It only lasts a second, but it’s still a bit of a rush. As it turns out I (mostly) liked where and who I was in 1992, so it’s a pleasant remembrance.

I have other Tori Amos music for other times and places too, but none quite as strong a sense memory as “Tear.” Which is fine. One can have only so many madeleines, if you know what I mean.

As an aside, the first time I listened to “Tear In Your Hand,” I had a nice little moment of recognition when she sang “If you need me, me and Neil will be hanging out with the dream king.” This line was referring to Neil Gaiman and his comic book series The Sandman, which at the time was beloved of goths and comics nerds but otherwise had not broken into the mainstream of culture. Amos making a reference to it endeared her to me; it meant we were in the same kinda-secret club. Then she sang, “Neil said hi, by the way,” and I was all, like, whoa, she actually knows the guy, and my estimation of her went up a couple of levels, because how cool was that, she hangs out with Neil Gaiman.

As it turns out, when she wrote that line, she didn’t know him, she just admired his work. My understanding is he heard the song, reached out to Amos, and then they did hang out, and became friends. In fact, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Little Earthquakes, there’s going to be a graphic novel in which various writers create stories about the songs on the album — and appropriately enough, Neil’s doing a story about “Tear In Your Hand.”

I’m kinda seriously geeked out that. I’ll have to tell Neil the next time I chat with him. Neil says hi, by the way.

— JS

10 Comments on “A Personal History of Music, Day 16: “Tear In Your Hand,” by Tori Amos”

  1. (Neil actually does say hi, folks. I ran the last couple of paragraphs by him to make sure it’s accurate. And for the record, I met him rather later than Ms. Amos did.)

  2. One of my most favourite songs (and albums) ever. And, about the time I was getting into this album, I’d also happened across an interesting-looking book at MediaPlay in Savannah, Ga called “Neverwhere” by one Neil Gaiman. So, when I connected the dots that the Neil that said “Hi”, by the way, was the same Neil who wrote what has become one of my favourite books of all time, I thought “Hmmm…I’ll have to check out Sandman.” I didn’t get that chance until the posh leatherbound volumes came out several years ago, but I treasure those collections. When the first one arrived, I thought, “I’ll just read the first couple of pages and get back to my painting”…I sat and read for hours before I could tear myself away.

  3. I really like today’s entry. The fact that you mentioned Smells Like Teen Spirit in today’s post was especially remarkable because Tori did a lovely cover of that song. What’s really interesting about her cover is that she swapped two of the chords in the chorus (as only she could) to great effect.

  4. This is one of those songs that takes me right back to not only where I was but WHO I was when I first heard it. I was so in love with the woman who played it for me and whenever I hear it all these decades later the joy and later pain over that relationship floods back. Ah, young love, so dramatic, I don’t MISS it, but I kind of miss it.

  5. Ahhhh I feel like I’m listening to Q101 back in high school! And sandman was(is?) so huge. And my friends would have died to have met Neil Gaiman… or Tori Amos for that matter.

    (Oddly, I met someone in grad school who knew not only Neil Gaiman before you or Tori Amos did, but also knew a number of other famous spec fic authors living where he grew up and briefly dated one of their daughters. We would have died so many times over. #NerdCelebrities)

  6. That’s never been my favorite off that album… but that’s only because it’s such a strong album. I think the specificity of lines like “He said ‘you’re really an ugly girl But I like the way you play.’ And I died, but I thanked him Can you believe that?” I can fully empathize myself with this person, even tho I have never been in the same situation. (I’m not ugly, or a girl, and definitely can’t play.) :)

  7. The sound of her voice takes me back in an equally specific way, also speaking directly to me … unfortunately in that terrifying way.

  8. We’re in close alignment here, though I didn’t discover Tori until the early 2000’s . A co-worker handed me the CD and said he thought I’d like it. The song for me is Silent All These Years which shook me to the core and still does. Anyway, I asked my colleague who this “Neil” guy was and the answer was a turning point in my life. It was very much like discovering an entrance to London Below in Neverwhere. In fact, I discovered you through his blog.

  9. Now that’s interesting, because I’m not a big pop music listener and “Little Earthquakes” is one of the very few such albums that means a lot to me. Far more even than subsequent Tori Amos albums.
    It doesn’t ‘take me back’ as it does for you, because I’m older than you and was already pretty settled by that time. I listened to it a lot at the time, and while it went back on the shelf, it stayed with me. Not long ago when I heard Billie Eilish for the first time, I thought “Well, that’s pretty good” but instead of listening to some more, I found that what I wanted (and did) was to get out and play “Little Earthquakes.”
    The strange thing is that “Tear In Your Hand” is just about my least favorite song on it! I mean, I don’t dislike it at all, it’s just fine, but the mere title doesn’t bring the song flooding into memory the way that “Crucify” and “Silent All These Years” and – oh god – “Winter” and “Happy Phantom” and “China” and “Leather” – talk about a four-puncher! – do.

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