The Wrestler and the Cornflake Girl

Ring legend Mick Foley explains how Tori Amos changed his life.

Mick Foley, Tori Amos, and Colette Foley

I can still remember the first time I heard Tori Amos. It was the fall of 1993, and I was in the back of a colossal ‘79 Lincoln Coupe Mark V, embarking on some otherwise forgettable road trip somewhere in the Deep South. On that night, my compatriot Maxx Payne—the wrestler, not the video-game character —unleashed an all-out audio assault: Megadeth, Rage Against the Machine, GWAR, and a few other offerings that made the guys in GWAR seem like sensitive stylists by comparison.

Finally, I tapped out and asked for something a little less combative. “You know, Jack,” he said, baritone booming—I was known as Cactus Jack back then—”I have something you might like.”

I always had an appreciation for diverse musical styles. As a halfway decent college DJ, I had been exposed to some great progressive stuff and always took pride in unearthing musical gems. But up until that night, Tori Amos had eluded me. I was vaguely aware of the name but most definitely not the voice—by turns haunting, tender, defiant, angry, and vulnerable, sometimes within the same lyric. The first few songs of the album Little Earthquakes were unlike anything I’d ever heard.

And then there was “Winter.”

“Snow can wait, I forgot my mittens,” she sang. “Wipe my nose, get my new boots on.” If there is such a thing as love at first listen, I fell helplessly, hopelessly in love from that very first lyric. “When you gonna make up your mind?” she asked me, accompanied by the gentlest, tenderest notes from a Bösendorfer piano. “When you gonna love you as much as I do?” Maxx and Nick Patrick (a wrestling referee and our co-pilot for this particular road trip) had seen her play the song on Leno or Letterman and were interrupting my private concert to discuss her unusual piano-playing style. Apparently, the late-night appearance had created quite a visual memory for them. I didn’t even know what she looked like. But I thought this was the most beautiful song I had ever heard.

It wasn’t until a year and a half later, on a tour of Japan, that Tori Amos and “Winter” started playing a role in my wrestling career. I had just left Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, a bold move that had not been particularly popular with my wife. We’d just had our second child, and leaving a job with a guaranteed six-figure income (low six, but still six) might not have been the greatest example of responsible parenthood. This seemed especially true during my first tour for IWA Japan, a small promotion with a heavy emphasis on wild matches: barbed wire, fire, thumbtacks, and blood—lots of blood.

On the tour’s final night, I was set to compete in a barbed-wire match with Terry Funk. Despite being 20 years my senior, Funk—a mentor and something of a father figure to me—was a wild man in the ring. Only 180 fans braved the cold to attend that show in Honjo, but the national wrestling media was there, and Funk and I both felt that an exciting match could help build this small promotion. I guess the reasonable goal, looking back all these years later, should have been just to get through the match. But back then, my goals tended to be not all that reasonable. As ridiculous as it might seem to me now, my aim that night was to have the best barbed-wire match ever.

There was only one problem: I was terrified. This is a normal human response to the very abnormal prospect of being dropped head first, neck first, and, yes, even balls first on jagged metal barbs. How exactly does a gentle, caring man (me) transform himself into a willing participant in such a barbaric spectacle? I needed to find some kind of inspiration in a hurry.

I looked out the dressing room door and saw the Japanese preliminary wrestlers taking down the ropes, beginning the process of putting the barbed wire around the ring. The wire they used was the real stuff: cold and uncaring, capable of tearing flesh in a hurry. I knew I had about 30 minutes before the wiring process was completed—a half-hour to undergo a drastic mental transformation. I took out my battered Sony Walkman and, after great deliberation, bypassed the obvious hard-rock selections. Finding solitude in a far corner of the frigid backstage area, I saw a cloud of my own breath as I pressed the play button. “Snow can wait, I forgot my mittens/ Wipe my nose, get my new boots on.”

“When you gonna make up your mind?” Tori Amos asked me inside that frigid dressing room. “When you gonna love you as much as I do?”

And then I realize I’m going to be all right. Head first, neck first, balls first—it really doesn’t matter. By the fourth listen, I know I’m going to tear that place apart.

Looking back, that match in Honjo is probably the performance I’m proudest of in my whole career. Perhaps it would have been a great match without “Winter,” but I doubt I’d still be thinking about it 15 years later. What was it about that song, that voice, that person that managed to touch me in a way that nothing else ever had, and maybe ever will? I’ve listened to “Winter” so many times over the years, and I have never failed to receive that tingling in the scalp, that magnificent rush.

Yes, other things in life make me feel that same way. That scene in Rocky when Adrian closes her eyes after watching her man hit the deck. Or the moment in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer when that train with square wheels, the ostrich-riding cowboy, and the rest of the gang on the Island of Misfit Toys hear that first jingle of bells in the distance and realize that Rudolph has kept his word. (Come on, admit it, that scene gets to you, too.) But I’ve never watched Rudolph and thought about barbed wire. And Rocky used to make me do weird things like go jogging at midnight, but it never inspired a single wild match.

Lots of music has moved me, too. “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle, “Diary of a Working Man” by Blackfoot, Nils Lofgren’s guitar solo on the live version of Springsteen’s “Youngstown.” But “Winter” is different. I remember the times. I remember the places. I remember the shows. That no-rope barbed wire match with Funk. The infamous King of the Death Match Tournament in Yokohama, Japan—a day that left me with 42 stitches (distributed over six separate body parts), second-degree burns, and hundreds of tack holes. April 18, 2004: my first singles match in years, the best match of my life, in Edmonton, Canada. April 2, 2006, with Edge in Chicago: My favorite Wrestlemania memory, the match that was voted by WWE fans as the best of the year.

Again, though, why that song? I think it comes down to confidence. In all four of those matches, my anxiety was high, my confidence low. All four matches offered not only the possibility but the near certainty of injury. And in all four of those cases, I sat down by myself, rocking back and forth slowly, letting that voice take me far away from my doubts and insecurities. “When you gonna make up your mind? When you gonna love you as much as I do?”

Most listeners would interpret “Winter” as a song about a father’s love for a child. But the question in the refrain always appealed to the scared part of me, the part that believed I wasn’t strong enough, or big enough, or good enough. It never mademe think of doing wild and dangerous deeds inside a wrestling ring. It helped me believe that I was strong enough to do the things I already knew needed to be done.

Alas, things have changed, and it is highly unlikely that I will ever listen to Tori Amos before a wrestling match again. Her music still moves me, still inspires me to act—just in ways I hadn’t previously considered.

My relationship to “Winter” changed in July 2008, when I met Tori for the first time. She was making an appearance at the San Diego Comic-Con, the same place I was set to sign autographs. I was as nervous to meet her as I’d been before any of those violent matches. It wasn’t that I thought she’d be mean—I’d always heard just the opposite. It’s that “Winter” was so personal to me. I loved lots of songs by other artists, but I didn’t have as much of an emotional stake in the artists themselves.

I eventually gathered my courage and made a pilgrimage to Tori’s side of the convention hall. There she was: bright orange hair, high distinct cheekbones, and a warm smile for each fan who posed by her side. I was about 10 feet from her when she looked over, got up from her chair, and extended both her arms. “I can hug you?” I asked, disbelieving. And then Tori put her arms around me. Though I probably outweigh her by 200 pounds, I felt like an innocent child in the arms of an angel. Laugh if you want, but this is how I remember it—I was a child, and she was an angel.

Tori, it turned out, has a nephew who is a big wrestling fan, and he had told Aunt Tori about the wrestling guy who used to get motivated for big matches while listening to her music. I’m not trying to claim that she was a fan—I just can’t seem to get a mental image of her on a couch, watching Impact or Raw, a beer in one hand, remote in the other, a bowl of chips in her lap. But she definitely knew I was a fan of hers, and she seemed kind of flattered.

After that meeting, I never listened to “Winter” in the same way. Instead, every time I’ve heard the song in the last two years I’ve felt like I could change the world. In January 2009, I sat down in a hotel room in Dublin and wrote the words “Meeting Tori Amos” on a pad of yellow legal paper. At the time, I had no intention of writing another book, or writing anything at all. But that yellow legal pad became the first chapter of my new book, Countdown to Lockdown—a chapter that would eventually make the actual Tori Amos both laugh and cry.

Despite the fact that this is my fourth memoir (putting me one ahead of Churchill at this point), it’s nonetheless incredibly important to me. I can’t help but feel that this book I never intended to write is a gift I’ve been handed, largely through the inspiration of one exceptional performer. Maybe, I thought, I could honor Tori by donating half of my advance to RAINN, the anti-sexual assault group she co-founded in 1994. That was the plan until last November, when I heard Tori’s latest album, Midwinter Graces. Somewhere in the midst of listening, I decided that donating all of that advance sounded like a pretty good idea.

My wife, upon meeting Tori last summer, accused her half-jokingly of having cast some type of spell over her husband. Fifteen minutes later, upon leaving her dressing room, my wife said, “OK, Mick, I completely get it now.” My daughter, 17, will often say, “Dad’s listening to Tori Amos—hide the checkbook.” Hopefully, in time, she’ll get it, too.

In retrospect, I guess my daughter’s right—Midwinter Graces did turn out to be a fairly expensive CD. But I’m thankful I bought it, and I’m thankful for everything Tori has motivated me to do inside, and especially outside, the wrestling ring. For many years, I had thought of the fight against sexual violence as one best waged by women and survivors of assault. But then I heard that voice one night, in my beat up Chevy minivan, on my way home from some other road trip I can’t recall. “When you gonna make up your mind? When you gonna love you as much as I do?”

Since February, I have been a weekly volunteer for RAINN’s online hotline, doing my best to help victims of sexual violence piece together their lives. Last week, I was named RAINN’s volunteer of the month. It’s a tremendous honor, and it’s amazing to think that it might never have happened if I hadn’t heard that haunting voice in the back of Maxx Payne’s car. So many years after that first listen, Tori Amos still inspires me every day. Most of all, she still convinces me to believe that I’m strong enough to do the things I already know need to be done.

Portions of this piece were adapted from Mick Foley’s book Countdown to Lockdown: A Hardcore Journal.

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