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15 September 2017

Tori Amos on Tip O’Neill and the happy-hour hucksters of Washington

Tales from the piano bars of Capitol Hill.

By Kate Mossman

In winter 1977, the Russian flu found its way to the United States, and Capitol Hill, then under the eye of President Carter, was not exempt from its snots and shivers. The Congressional Christmas party was to be held at the Sheraton Carleton Hotel on 16th and K (Jimmy had cut back on White House entertaining). Yet as the night approached, it became apparent that all the piano players on the hotel’s roster had caught the nasty virus – except for 14-year-old Ellen “Tori” Amos.

Amos was already somewhat known on the Washington piano-bar circuit. She could be seen every Friday night at Mr Smith’s on M Street, playing songs like “Don’t Fence Me In” for tips. At the Christmas party, White House speaker Tip O’Neill – then at loggerheads with Carter over Congress, energy and increasingly frugal White House breakfasts – took a seat next to Amos on the piano stool, and sang “Bye Bye Blackbird” to the crowd.

“I am not making this up, Kate!” she tells me down the phone. “This is what the British press didn’t know about me when they were lambasting me in the Nineties because I am friends with the fairies.”

Amos watched O’Neill run the room that night – “a political ballet”. And so began her few years entertaining the congressmen and lobbyists of Washington, DC, with the popular hits of the day.

The Reverend Edison Amos may have believed that rock music turned young girls into a vortex for the devil, but that hadn’t stopped him dragging his child round the bars of Georgetown looking for work when she was just 13. She’d already attended the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins – the youngest person to be admitted (at five years old) and the youngest to be kicked out (at 11).

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The heartbroken preacher, “a regular Billy Graham”, was determined to keep his daughter playing, and got her a regular gig at a gay bar, Mr Henry’s – where he sat as her chaperone, his dog collar floating alongside the studded neckpieces of the male clientele. From gay men, the young Amos learned deportment, and “how not to be a slut”. By the time she’d moved to the bars of Capitol Hill, she was dressed in evening gowns with her hair in a bun, and ready for business.

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At the Hilton Lounge, near the White House, lobbyists would come to mingle with the department of the interior. Amos played them Joni, Elton, Billy Joel from 5 to 7.30 every day – but often instrumental versions, because happy hour was prime deal-making time and the bar wanted the men to be talking and thirsty.

As a teenage girl, she was harmless; they’d lean and chat, elbows on the piano, and she’d concentrate on the music – ie eavesdrop. “I know that’s not very mannerly but are you kidding me?” she cries. [Deep voice] “Come on man! OK Don! And I’d have to figure out, who is that on their arm? Is it the wife, the mistress or the mother? I had to be very careful when playing my requests.”

She was making $600 a week. The administration shifted – her sister was an intern in George Washington Hospital the day Reagan was brought in, shot – but the lobbyists remained: guns, oil, tobacco. “Making deals in such a back-slapping, laissez-faire way when people’s lives were at stake,” she says. “And at 16 I realised: this is how policy gets made.”

Around this time, in the same bars, the Koch Brothers  – billionaire industrialists, generous funders of many a hardline Republican cause – were beginning their epic political machinations. The work of the brothers subtly informs Amos’s new album, Native Invader.

“The seeds that were planted in 1979, 1980,” she explains, “came to fruition in autumn 2016. These people turn words upside down. They say freedom, and they are not giving you freedom.”

She continues: “The seeds, given to a harmless piano player, 40 years ago, were replanted in a sonic secret garden that the muse decided to plant!” (And by that, she means her album.)