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King Of Intimidation
By Julene Snyder
BAM, July 20, 1995
On a freakishly hot Saturday in San Francisco that found temperatures peaking at 96 degrees -- much to the confusion of locals used to bone-chilling fog in mid-July -- nearly a thousand people stood crammed together in a parking lot. Waves of heat rose from the asphalt, meeting the blistering rays from above, then bouncing among the bodies on the concrete until they nearly melted together into a single sweaty organism.
But not a word of complaint was heard, even when the reason the throng stood packed cheek to jowl kept them waiting past the appointed time. They'd left the cool shores of beaches, abandoned air-conditioned movie houses, pulled their sodden bodies from public pools and flocked to this jammed North Beach parking lot to witness a free show from an artist virtually none of them had heard of six weeks before.
Alanis Morissette is the name of the singer they came to see, and if you haven't heard of her yet, you will. She has a voice that yelps and soars, bites and howls, drifting along with implausible sweetness here, exploding with passion incarnate there, the appropriate emotion surfacing upon demand.
She's got the sort of innate gift that singer/songwriters like Liz Phair and Polly Jean Harvey have -- not that Morissette sounds even a little bit like either of these women, just that all three share an excellence in vision that shines through like an unexpected gemstone found buried in the muck. It's a pure ability to translate emotion directly to sound and lyric, a sense that the usual layers of bullshit have been sheered away like so much dead skin, leaving behind a glittering shard of dangerously beautiful talent.
She played only five songs that sweltering afternoon, but judging by the excited buzz that swept through the crowd like an inferno in the Oakland Hills, this young artist is on fire. With her first tour of small clubs barely underway, it's guaranteed that they'll all be sold out well in advance, due to an immediate public response that most musicians can only dream of.
The album that's creating such a stir, "Jagged Little Pill," is the 21-year-old Morissette's major label debut. And although it had been released a mere month before the throng baked in the sun that Saturday, hundreds sang along with every word, nodded their heads in precise accompaniment to every beat and roared adulation when Morissette shook her long hair out of her face, flung out her hands and grinned, "Welcome to my parking lot!"
"You Oughta Know" is the single that's prompting such rabid, instantaneous adulation for the singer/songwriter, catapulting "Jagged Little Pill" up the Billboard charts -- at press time peaking at number 14 -- and getting her offered a slot on Lollapalooza's main stage to replace Sinead O'Connor (although the slot ultimately went to Elastica). The song is a bitter, implausibly catchy howl of rage that's taken over MTV's "Buzz Bin" and garnered untold amounts of air time on modern-rock stations nationwide.
The track opens with Morissette purring out the opening line: "I want you to know, that I'm happy for you/ I wish nothing but the best for you both." Then a vortex of sound builds like the wave of emotion prompted by the dreaded phrase "we need to talk"; and the singer goes on to inquire with ominous sweetness, "Does she speak eloquently?/ And will she have your baby?/ I'm sure she'll make a really excellent mother."
The song builds into a howl of utter fury, the exact sound of a woman scorned -- perhaps trolling for revenge -- climaxing when she growls one repeating line that sums up the rage and heartbreak with the power of a backhand across the cheek: "And every time you speak her name/ Does she know how you told me you'd hold me/ Until you died, 'til you died?" And she lets loose with a banshee's shriek, "But you're still alive."
Morissette rides the wrathful wave like a hell-bent dark angel, alternately purring and spewing venom. It's a chillingly authentic snapshot of what betrayal feels like, burning the gut and slashing every red door in its path with gouges of black. "Did you forget about me, Mr. Duplicity/ I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner/ It was a slap in the face how quickly I was replaced/ Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?"
Taut as a length of cat-gut stretched to the breaking point, the recording of "You Oughta Know" enlists Dave Navarro on guitars and Flea on bass, but it's Morissette's genuine wrathful ache that makes the track soar. Like Marianne Faithfull's "Why D'Ya Do It," the crude language and lust for revenge transcends one woman's experience to become heartbreak's new theme song. When she howls, "Every time I scratch my nails down someone else's back/ I hope you feel it," it's the precise sentiment of discovering that everything you once believed in is based on lies.
Later that night at the mobbed Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco -- which feels, temperature-wise, remarkably like an overcrowded sauna -- she rips into what everyone in the audience recognizes as "that song." And before her a sea of faces look up, mouths wide open, screaming along with the chorus in response to the slight figure before them, "You, you, you, oughta know."
Alanis, eyes closed, smiles slightly. She knows.
Alanis Morissette is used to having people mangle her name. In fact, when the first single off "Jagged Little Pill" started to take off on radio, DJs pronounced it differently every time they said it. (For the record, it's pronounced like "Atlantis," but without any T's.) In conversation she's highly articulate, with a direct, clear gaze that pierces past surfaces to find the bedrock below.
While her stage presence finds the singer occasionally hiding behind a mane of burnt sienna hair -- sometimes rolling her eyes back and flailing her arms like a woman possessed -- sitting across a cafe table drinking fruit smoothies reveals a more tranquil persona. The Ottawa-born singer is preternaturally calm, serene and eloquent, naturally beautiful without a hint of makeup, her wide, expressive brown eyes snapping with energy as she talks about a path she's been following since she was a child.
"I started making music because I could; it was never an issue of thinking that someone else should do it for me," she says. "I was just always writing lyrics. At first, for obvious reasons it was more creative writing and less personal. When I was nine years old I didn't have enough life experience to draw upon, and I wasn't secure enough when I was *really* little to be disclosing too many personal things."
There's good reason that this young woman is so incredibly self-possessed: she's been an entertainer for more than half her life. Now based in Los Angeles, Morissette was an actress on Nickelodeon's "You Can't Do That On TV," and put out three dance/pop records herself while still in her teens. Not that those recordings are anything she feels compelled to revisit.
"My first little record was called 'Fate Stay With Me.' The then there was one called 'Alanis' and then 'Now is the Time.' I couldn't re-record any songs off of those records," she laughs in response to a question. "It was such a different era, I'd just be sort of going through the motions."
But times have changed, and writing "Jagged Little Pill" found Morissette and her collaborator/producer Glen Ballard tapping into a creative side they'd only suspected existed. "I had never written in this way in my life before," she marvels. "And now that I have, I'll never write in any other way. It was the most stream of consciousness writing that I've ever tapped into.
"All the songs were written so quickly; [the song] 'Hand in my Pocket' was written in about 15 minutes. All the songs took about an hour, 45 minutes, each," she laughs, thinking of it. "And the music and lyrics were all written at the same time; it felt as if it was being channelled through. We just sort of gave ourselves up to it. There was nothing conscious about the way this record is written; it was very accelerated. A lot of times we'd listen to it the next day and not even remember having written it at all."
Ballard, who's worked with Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul in the past, elected not to go on tour with Morissette, preferring to remain at home with his wife and children. So the singer/songwriter auditioned until she found just the right group of musicians to back her up on tour.
"Me and Glen were set up to work together through MCA Publishing, recalls Morissette. "At that point I had become pretty disheartened with the whole collaborative process; in three years I wrote with over a hundred people." She sighs, remembering. "I did not connect with *anybody.* But I knew there was this synergy you can tap into with two people because I had tapped into it very briefly before. And then I was set up with Glen." She laughs, eyes gleaming.
Morissette is not only willing to share the credit for the album, she insists. "When we got together we were so connected intellectually and cerebrally and musically, that it was very much an unsaid thing."
She attributes much of the album's success to Ballard. "He's a true artist. I knew he hadn't had many opportunities to do his own art, to start with a clean slate and do whatever he wanted. He's the kind of person that if there's an artist that needs a song, he can write it. He can write anything. He's perhaps the most talented person I've ever met in music. I think because of our musical pasts they thought we would come out with something quite different than what we did."
The 12 taut tracks that make up "Jagged Little Pill" are a far cry from the usual pop/rock pap; there's not a clunker in the bunch. Each one resonates with the sort of emotional clarity that jumps straight for the universal jugular. Which is especially remarkable given the little detail that these songs were each written -- from start to finish -- in less than an hour, and several were recorded on the first or second take. Which is not to say that careful thought didn't go into which songs made it onto the album -- and which didn't.
"We were ruthless," Morissette says flatly. "We started a whole bunch of other songs that, technically and musically, were really beautiful. But because of the way we knew we *had* to write, we'd discard them. We have pieces of another 25 songs that may have been technically beautiful, but didn't have that intangible thing about it. We knew that was what our goal was; we tapped into it for the first time when we wrote 'Perfect,' which was one of the very first songs we wrote. Then after that, it was 'OK. We've set our precedent here.'" She laughs. "It was a drug at that point."
"Jagged Little Pill" -- to hear Morissette tell it -- is the result of a euphoric high brought on by sheer creative bliss. "It was probably the most spiritual experience of my life," she says reverently. But beyond the rush of creation, the power of the album is deeply connected with a very personal rage on the one hand, hope and faith on the other."
While the singer candidly admits that many of these songs have an autobiographical base, she's loathe to talk specifics. Who can blame her, with lyrics like "You Oughta Know"'s query, "Is she perverted like me?/ Would she go down on you in a theater?" and "Right Through You"'s scathing take on music industry weasels. ("You took me for a child/ You took a long hard look at my ass/ And then played golf for a while ... You took me out to wine dine 69 me/ But didn't hear a damn word I said")
"I had a dream last night that one of the men I wrote 'Right Through You' about called me crying on my answering machine," she confesses. "I don't know what that means. I felt so terrible in the dream. The funny thing is -- the difficult thing for me -- is that songs like 'You Oughta Know' and 'Right Through You,' are not written for the sake of revenge. They're written for the sake of release on my part.
"That's what people are misconstruing," she sighs. "Because of the anger and how cutting some of the lyrics are, they presume that I Federal Express these songs to the people they're about and force them to listen to it. But I don't do that." She laughs. "A few people that the songs are inspired by -- for them to even think for a minute that it's about them -- well, that in and of itself says something about the person."
As in, "you're so vain, you probably think this song is about you?" "I've gotten a reaction from one person," she confesses. "Obviously, I feel badly about it if it's coming out of my subconscious in my dreams. But I never meant to hurt anybody. I write for the sake of release in different ways; running the gamut of emotions. Some of it was confusion, some was hope and some was really positive."
But the rage in some of these songs are also valid expressions of feeling, she insists. "Obviously I was not willing and not ready to deny myself the darker part of it -- I'd done that for years. Part of what led to the overt floodgates opening of anger was that I had repressed it for so long, I'd vowed that I wouldn't do that anymore."
Before Morissette's set at the Bottom of the Hill, the line of fans clutching tickets like talismans in their sweaty palms stretches down the block. It's a very young, remarkably good looking crowd. Beautiful girl/women in midriff tops and low-slung pants show off their impossibly taut tummies and silver navel rings; fresh-faced boy/men with goatees and soul patches mingle among them. Everyone is excited, but all the young flesh is just a bonus -- they're here for the music.
Paul, age 27, is carefully removing a promo poster from the wall. He wants to get an autograph after the show to bring home to his pregnant wife who wanted to be here, but can't go to smoky clubs for a few more months. When asked how he first heard of Morissette, he says -- like virtually everyone else -- that he ran out and bought a ticket on the basis of "that song I heard on the radio." He's speaking, of course, of "You Oughta Know."
His friend Laura, age 22, agrees. "That song is *so* catchy, plus she really has her own style. Every woman has gone through a stage like that. I can relate to it; it's a woman's blues." And at the Live 105 promo table in the corner of the patio, Jeff and Monica nod when asked about "that song."
"From the first time we played it, we'd get five or six calls every time," Jeff says. "People wanted to know who that singer was." He claims that Live 105 was one of the first stations in the country to give the single major play. "It was first played as part of Steve Masters' new music challenge. I have never seen a song take off like this one has."
The night before, when quirky lo-fi singer Chris Knox played the same club, one man was heard remarking to a friend, "Oh yeah. *That woman's* playing tomorrow night. You know, the one who hates men." But tonight, Paul's pal Laura disagrees, arguing that the special sensation of being brutally dumped is one that everyone can connect with: "You know, it's like that Offspring song -- the one about low self-esteem. That one's not just for men, and this song's not just for women; everybody can relate."
Morissette shrugs off worries that her vitriolic lyrics might be misconstrued. "We wrote 'Right Through You' after we had shopped the album for a long time," she snickers. "But we hadn't met with Maverick yet -- Really! I tell them that all the time. It's funny, because sometimes I say 'Mr. Man' as a term of endearment, and no one seems to like that."
Who can blame them? The culminating verse finds a triumphant Morissette crowing, "Hello Mr. Man/ You didn't think I'd come back/ You didn't think I'd show up with my army/ And this ammunition on my back/ Now that I'm Miss Thing/ Now that I'm a zillionaire/ You scan the credits for your name/ And wonder why it's not there."
Still, when she speaks of her search for a simpatico label to hook up with, a teensie bit of that bitterness remains. "We shopped the record around to a lot of people," she sighs. "I didn't know if I should attribute my difficulty to the fact that I was young, or because of my gender, or because of my nature --which was sometimes too selfless and too giving and not necessarily assertive enough." She takes a breath, thinking. "Still, I take responsibility for the times I was taken advantage of. Even though I was young, I'm the last person to want to blame something on my youth. It doesn't work."
And why shouldn't Morissette hate to be pegged in some sort of youngster rock diva category? After all, at this point, she's been a pro in the business for more than a decade. "From the time I was really young, I always knew that I wanted to be in the entertainment industry," she confesses, though it's hardly a surprise.
"But as I got older, music took on a whole different light for me; when I started out performing and singing, it was more of an entertainment thing, but as I evolved as a writer, it became more of a communication/release thing for me. There's no better feeling," she says fervently.
"To me, right now, the reason I feel so fulfilled is that I know that I'm doing what I was meant to do on this earth. My twenties have been the best years of my life."
She may be smiling, but she's not kidding -- even though she just turned 21 in early June. "I think a lot of the reasons there's been a lot of internal success for me -- I'm not talking about external success right now -- the reason I've arrived at the place I'm at right now personally and spiritually is because I made so many mistakes. And I don't regret any of them. The main advice I'd give to young musicians is 'don't be afraid to fuck up.'"
She laughs, a joyful sound. "I sure did."
Julene Snyder is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com