Mossman on Music: Tori Amos at the Royal Albert Hall

Amos presents new album "Gold Dust" with the Dutch Metropole Orchestra.

A man in a pub recently told me that Tori Amos is every bit as good as Kate Bush, but people can’t see it because they “don’t actually like her very much”. Perhaps he was on to something. If Bush admitted on Woman’s Hour, as Amos did last week, that she likes to dress up in thigh-high boots and a faux-fur gilet and stand among the cows in the rural Cornish idyll she shares with her husband and child, it would be in-keeping with everything that makes her so attractive. But it made poor old Tori sound like a kook, and not for the first time. For many she does not inspire romantic awe like Bush, but rather the kind of cool feeling we have towards Yoko Ono. Looking at the tiny woman on stage tonight in the turquoise pant suit and specs, a superfan tells me: “Every year she goes somewhere in the Amazon and sees this real shaman and takes all this LSD. She is a proper free spirit!” My first thought is: groo. But I wouldn’t think groo if Joni Mitchell did it, would I?
 
Amos is performing her new album Gold Dust at the Albert Hall, a classical re-working of her songs with the Dutch Metropole Orchestra and two pianos. On this hallowed stage 43 years ago Deep Purple premiered their bombastic Concerto For Group And Orchestra with the Royal Philharmonic. Rick Wakeman and fellow prog giant Keith Emerson have also swivelled here over the years, reaching between multiple keyboards, the latter – like Amos – thrusting his hips out in gestures of neo-classical confidence. Tori may not stick knives in her piano but she does have a habit of punching it triumphantly as each song ends – and shedding her long sheet music with a flourish, letting each page tumble on to the floor like the scarves of Scheherazade. I don’t know when I last saw this kind of behaviour from a “popstar” – though she’s not the only one to have reworked her songs with an orchestra recently; Peter Gabriel and Antony Hegarty have done the same. Like them, Amos strikes you as a bit of a “cold fish” – musical ambition on this scale is intimidating in the pop world, and hard to warm to. It shouldn’t really be so – she grins broadly tonight; she even starts the first piece, 1992’s Flying Dutchman, in a different key to the orchestra and realises after a minute or a so with a great big “fuck! I fucked it up again!”  

 

Artists who baffle or turn off half the population always seem to inspire a burning, protective layer of hardcore fans who keep their career running. Tori Amos doesn’t need press.  Her concerts are quiet sell-outs – intense communions populated with sensitive men and women who dye their hair the same colour as hers. I first noticed the crowd’s hair back in 1994 at the Ipswich Regent, when I saw her with a school friend. I’ve seen Amos four times now, completely by accident, and each time I find the music surprisingly moving. Enhanced by the lush arrangements of John Philip Shenale tonight, it becomes clear how complex these songs are – how they appear to have been written backwards from a piano part, with lyrics forced to follow the strange, rugged path of the music wherever it leads; how the words tumble breathlessly so you lose your thread, and then a simple pearl of reported speech or household wisdom will pop up with alarming poignancy – like “feeling old at 21” (from "Jackie’s Strength"), or "Pretty Good Year" with all its repressed emotion. Amos was always stuck in her own extended adolescence and maybe that’s why these songs still work – her wintry psychodramas send you spiralling back to that claustrophobic but infinite space between childhood and adulthood, in much the same way a Bronte novel does. Who are the modern equivalents? Imogen Heap? Too friendly. Regina Spektor? Too normal. Amanda Palmer? Too much fun. In "Precious Things" she’s still angrily recalling a boy who said, “you know, you’re really an ugly girl” in the seventh grade – and in that respect she’s a bit like Taylor Swift. With the groin of Keith Emerson and the windswept aesthetic of a Scottish widows ad. Whatever, there’s still nothing quite like it.

Tori Amos. Photo: Getty Images

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge