I never knew the magic of being a writer until I began to covet someone else’s words.
I remember the moment very vividly. I was ten years old and I had just spent two weeks worth of my allowance money buying Fiona Apple’s first album Tidal.
Language used in such a complex way was really shocking and intriguing to my ten-year-old mind. I had just wrapped my mind around expletives and I was not afraid to use them. This was in the mid-nineties back when MTV stood for Music Television. They used to play hours of non-stop music. At eleven o’clock each night they had a show called “120 Minutes” that played “cool,” “alternative” and up-and-coming artists.
One night on “120 Minutes” I saw her. A big-eyed, gaunt teenager with brown hair was writhing in a bathtub while an anonymous man ran his foot across her face. She sang, “What would an angel say that the devil wants to know?”
It was not the sexual nature of the act but rather that question that made me want to be a writer. It was subversive, sexual, and provocative. It just gave me weird “uh oh” feeling and made me wish I was smarter.
Two weeks worth of allowance money later I went to my local music megastore and I bought the CD.
I listened to it obsessively. The experiences she was writing about were way beyond me. The vocabulary was thick. I remember getting an old paperback dictionary from my mom’s closet and looking up the word “undulate” from the song “Never is a Promise.” I learned what a simile was from the song “Pale September.” I knew the seasons changed but I never imaged the effect of the seasons on my skin. I had never assigned them weight or texture, hardness or softness. I never knew words could do that. I knew that I had to do that.
15 years later Fiona Apple is still inspiring me to think. Her lyrics, voice and command of language have never gone out of style.
After a seven-year hiatus her fans are more rabid than ever. A short brown kid with green eyes and a track jacket was holding a sign that said, “I came all the way from Israel to see Fiona.” Conversations were buzzing with joy that the seven year drought was over.
This was a bookish crowd. Jeremy, a concertgoer, new friend, painter and student at San Francisco State University, said that Fiona inspired him to write poetry. This comment brought on a chorus of “Me toos” from strangers throughout the audience.
I felt camaraderie in knowing that I was not the only one. Books and Kindles were scattered among the crowd as we huddled together waiting for the opening act to come on. When I asked the people around me what their majors were in college most of them said English or Music.
Released on June 18, 2012, the album entitled The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do throbs with metaphor. She uses startling juxtapositions of not only sound but also lyrics to engage and challenge the listener. It is guttural, beautiful and rhythmic.
The crowd was different from other concerts that I had attended. People weren’t just talking about their favorite Fiona song; they were talking about their favorite metaphor and the use of irony.
She came on stage focused on singing and playing the piano. She expressed each song with intimate emotion that brought many of the audience members to tears. She played all my favorite songs. She was as twitchy and weird and skinny as you think she would be.
Yet, she barely spoke to the audience. It was as if she was giving us a piece of herself while simultaneously not trying to win our favor. The words were enough. She didn’t need a hokey anecdotal story. The charm was in her music. The story of each song was reflected in every wild gesticulation and intense thrash of the piano.
As she sang “Anything We Want” her body relaxed. “My scars were reflecting the mist in your headlights/ I looked like a neon zebra shakin’ rain off of stripes. And the rivulets had you riveted to the places that I wanted you to. Kiss me when we find some time alone and then we can do anything we want.”
She looked up past the ceiling at something only she could see and smiled. It reminded me of that feeling I had when I was ten years old, the first time I had ever thought of seasons as dresses. I smiled too.