It was in the basement of my cousin’s house, probably in 1996 or 1997. I was 13 or 14. A half-hour about Tori Amos aired on Much Music, Canada’s MTV. I only caught the last little bit of it, because all the classic tunes that made her kinda famous in the early 90s (Crucify, Cornflake Girl, Silent All These Years) were still new to me when I began exploring her back catalogue more intensively a couple of years later.
But “Tori Amos” was a name I had been hearing. People told me I should look into her. I was a piano prodigy and so was she. Piano was what I was good at. It was my meagre passport into the teenage world. I had no real friends. I was an ugly duckling in a small town. I was an excellent student but no one cares about that. But I could play piano, and people did seem to care just a little bit about that. I don’t know why. I could play it fast and loud in a way that wowed people. “Mick!” That’s what my classmates called me, back then. “Mick! Make your fingers go mental!”
And thus I gained a tiny bit of social capital. Very tiny. Not enough to be invited anywhere on weekends, of course. But it gave me an identity other than standard nerdy outcast.
Piano is what Tori Amos was good at, too. She wasn’t particularly popular, but everyone had to acknowledge her talent. I didn’t know it at the time, but her school years also mirrored my own. “He said you’re really an ugly girl, but I like the way you play.” Years before I’d hear that lyric (“and I thanked him! Can you believe that?”), there I was in my cousin’s basement, seeing the tail end of this little half-hour program about her career to that point.
Interviewer: “How do you stop yourself from going crazy on tour, night after night, up there, just you and your piano?”
She cocks her head, mass of red curls tumbling to one side, thinks for a short second, then goes — “I am crazy.”
I am crazy. It went in deep, knit itself into my brain. And somehow, I reached the simple conclusion: oh. Just me and my piano. I’m crazy too, then, or will be, shortly.
I almost told a girl in my class I was gay when I was 14. Sometimes we’d hang out, but even then I could tell it was only when no one ‘better’ was around for her to spend time with. Sitting on the grass in my backyard, on an early summer evening, the words were on my tongue, but I swallowed them. Wisely, looking back.
Why had I been tempted? She was the only possible candidate to come out to. I knew I was gay, had known for a while. I began masturbating at a young age and I knew what images and thoughts went through my head when I did. I tried to train myself to like female bodies, all by myself. I tried my own version of aversion therapy. I tried directing my thoughts towards female breasts (what lay between legs was a step too far). This did not work.
I talked myself into having a crush on a girl in Grade 7. I didn’t want to be gay, and I thought if I could get a girlfriend then that would solve that. I picked a girl who wasn’t too popular, who seemed fairly nice, who wasn’t very pretty. That I was being calculated, cruel, and entitled never occurred to me. When she found out I ‘liked’ her, she violently rejected me — after all, even though I wasn’t necessarily the lowest of the low, I was still an ugly nerd with bad acne, hideous glasses, braces, and no friends. I was booksmart, but I hadn’t absorbed the basic lesson that a tiny bit of introspection would have taught me. I was instrumentalizing this girl, trying to use her as a way to cure my homosexuality. I didn’t actually care about her. Why should she care about me?
Anyway. Nothing worked. I’d tried ad hoc conversion therapy all by my lonesome and it was a bust. Already, by the 8th grade, I knew I was incurably gay. I didn’t know what it meant, I didn’t know what to do with it. But I concluded it was something that wouldn’t go away or change.
And there was no one to tell. Family — unthinkable. Friends? I didn’t have any real friends. This fairweather friend sitting on the lawn next to me that summer evening was the closest candidate. There was simply no one else.
So I almost told her.
But I didn’t, because I realized, even though I ached to let the secret out, that she was too much of a risk. Maybe she’d expose me. We were all cruel and self-interested. So, a little wiser than the year before, I swallowed my words and kept it to myself.
Thought we both could use a friend to run to.
No one’s picking up the phone, guess it’s me and me.
For most of my teens my weekends were typically empty. Spent wandering the quiet rural highway that was the main road of our hometown, or hanging around the little cul-de-sacs that sprouted from it like hairs from a root. Trying to force a place with the other neighbourhood teens. But I was never invited. They never told me what their plans were. Every time I would have to go hunting for them, checking this usual spot, then that one, listening for voices. I was like some kind of inconvenient stray dog who couldn’t be told to go away.
My father would yell at me to get out of the house, to go spend time with other kids my age. I don’t know what his reasoning was. I was clearly miserable, as if being made to do daily five mile marches in shoes that didn’t fit. Did he think I’d make friends and become happier? I was unhappy because I was forced to spend time with people who frightened me, who did not like me and did not want me around. The other boys were stupid and violent, casually homophobic. Most of the girls were a little smarter but, if anything, more cruel. Like wasps, usually only stinging if provoked, but sometimes digging in poison barbs for no clear reason. And yet I wanted them to like me. I wanted that so badly.
Sometimes the emotional strain of forcing myself to spend time with people who didn’t like me and didn’t want me got too much, and I’d spend Friday nights in the basement, playing Super Nintendo, watching Star Trek, listening to Tori Amos CDs. Let my dad thunder all he wanted about what a house cat I was.
We didn’t have the internet yet. The internet would change everything. But that’s another story.
Hey Jupiter is a song on Boys for Pele, Tori Amos’s 1996 album, her third. It was the first CD by her I owned. The weirdest, ugliest, most challenging album she’d ever make. Full of harpsichord and wails. But Hey Jupiter is an aching piano ballad about what desolation remains after the last embers of a love affair have gone cold. With a humming harmonium under simple piano chords, full of Purple Rain-esque whoooos (I had never heard Purple Rain so they felt totally sui generis to me at the time), it’s one of the album’s most accessible moments, and it’s a kind of pure sadness.
Poor little friendless closeted gay teenage me, hiding in his family’s basement, suckled at this sadness as if it would nourish me. I’d never dated anyone. I never knew what it was to lose love. The verses were full of sexual imagery I wouldn’t even understand for another decade or more. But I knew loneliness. I knew what it was to feel desolate, unwanted. To reach out in the darkness, hoping for some little bit of companionship, only to have your overture wither unanswered. “No one’s picking up the phone,” the song starts. “Guess it’s me and me.” And then there was that little lyrical quirk of the chorus that queered the whole thing, even as I was just figuring out what I was, and why it added such a lead weight to the loneliness of my small town teenage life.
Hey Jupiter, nothing’s been the same / so are you gay, are you blue? / thought we both could use a friend to run to
Yes! I am gay! Yes! I could use a friend! Psychic calls out into the depths of space whenever I heard those lines. But, of course, they were unanswered. I had to keep on playing, solo. The best piano player in town. Alone, night after night. How do you stop yourself from going crazy? Cock your head to the side. “I am crazy.”
Hey Jupiter isn’t a showpiece of Tori Amos’s virtuoso piano skills, unlike much of the album surrounding it. Because it doesn’t matter how good you are at playing piano if nobody loves you and you are alone on the darkest night, looking to the distant planets for company. I was good at piano but it brought me nothing I cared to have.
I would stand outside, alone, at night, look up at the small, dim stars, and try to find Jupiter. In my mind, I’d hear those keening wooo-oooh-ooohs.
So are you safe? Now we’re through?
It got better. It almost always does for queer kids, if you can white-knuckle your way through — which isn’t a sure thing. For whatever lucky reason, I never considered harming myself even during the worst of those lonely years. Maybe it was having the piano to play that kept me going.
I found friends in the last 18 months of high school. Friends who I eventually did trust enough to come out to, near the end of Grade 12, and it went mostly fine when I did. Sure, there was a deep, dark need in me to be liked, to be loved, something grown and nurtured in me during those lonely years. And yes, I could not even begin to imagine myself as a sexual being that someone else would honestly and ardently desire.
These things would lead me to make bad decisions, lead me to undervalue myself and overvalue the people who seemed like they could stand to be around me. But it got better. It continues to get better.
As an adult, when I feel sad and lonely, like I have led my life down a path that’s cold and dark, I like to walk alone at night. And I will still look at the stars and try to find the planets, and I will still hear that lonely wail from 1996. Nothing ever dies. The people we were years ago continue to live inside of us. And so, inside of me, usually deep down, but sometimes near the surface on nights like these, there is a lonely gay boy, closeted, good at playing piano, who just wants a friend to run to.