My Life with Peter Gabriel, Part One

I was inspired to write about Peter Gabriel’s music after seeing him perform at Madison Square Garden last fall. It was, as they say, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one granted to me as a birthday present from my wife. She told me that she bought the tickets because she knew I wouldn’t have done so and would, further, have regretted it. She was right and I remain grateful. It was one of a handful of concerts I have attended that undeniably changed me in some essential ways. It’s worth noting that Gabriel is the only artist who has had this effect on me twice, once in November, 1986 and again in September, 2023. I won’t go into it any further than that at this point but it seems worth mentioning at the outset, in case you’re wondering why I’m writing this at all.

My life with Peter Gabriel began, as far as I can recall, with the “Shock the Monkey” video and then that of “Games without Frontiers.” It was 1983 and I had just moved back or was about to move back to Rochester, NY (from Annandale, VA) under somewhat troubled if not, though probably, traumatic circumstances. My mother worked a lot and MTV was an important part of latchkey life for my friends and me. In that context of being left to our own devices in modest suburban basements, of smoking cigarettes or pot, of getting to second base or whatever else was happening among unsupervised 13 year-olds, MTV was frequently just on, like regular tv or the radio.

Gabriel’s presence was jarring to my pre-/adolescent mind, and stood out from most of the videos that were in rotation at that time. In Gabriel’s music, there weren’t exactly monsters (were we the monsters?) and there definitely weren’t any parties or particularly festive events, no breakups or rain-soaked night-driven heartache, even if there was rain.

Some of his lyrics, even the hooks, were largely unintelligible to me 1 but their intention was clear as verses or choruses, for example, and I always knew, or thought I knew, where he was coming from. His music was made by machines, a fact that was enmeshed in several cultural conflicts at the time, but it wasn’t exactly electronic music as that was understood. And although he was well-known, the trio of “Solsbury Hill” (which I must have known from the radio), “Games without Frontiers,” and “Shock the Monkey” didn’t add up to the kind of fame I understood to be the goal of popular musicians and artists.

He was weird and I was into it but couldn’t say why. I picked up his first two records, known colloquially as Car and Scratch, and except for “Solsbury Hill” and “Here comes the Flood,” I was baffled. Looking back, those two records seem to be mostly a matter of getting the era out of his system. Much of it sounds like lesser or confused versions of his contemporaries.2 Peter Gabriel 3, also known as Melt, however, was a significant shift. I’m not sure all of the songs were better, exactly, but the focus was clear: each song described or narrated a certain kind of person or their action. So even if, for instance, ”Intruder“ wasn’t your thing, there was no denying that it was intruder music. There were flashes of the kind of complications that bogged down the first two records3 but any record that has ”Intruder,“ ”No Self Control,“ and ”Biko” was bound to hit me where I was living.

And then there was his fourth album, Security, which included “Shock the Monkey” and marked the end of his initial solo phase. To my young ears, this record was from a different planet, one eroded by blurred paranoia and abiding, persistent, and disenfranchised ritual. The message I received was that on a global scale, nothing was working out, and the forces we sought to annihilate or convert weren’t having it.

Our days were numbered. What I was hearing was music from the future, from after the end, from after the flood. Gabriel’s music seemed to offer some answers, to know something we didn’t. However bad things got, there was an after and what were we supposed to do then? This all made sense to a teenager whose recent years had been defined by myriad thwarted and fugitive desires, and seemingly few allies.

(click here for Part Two)

  1. I don’t think I ever believed the line from “Games without Frontiers” was “She’s so popular,” but learning that it was rather the name of a French game show failed to unmuddy the lyrical waters. ↩︎

  2. e.g. David Bowie, Brian Eno, ELO, Pink Floyd, and of course Genesis. The leap in sophistication and the extent to which he established his own voice between his second and third albums is remarkable, and telling with regards to his next two albums. ↩︎

  3. e.g. ”Family Snapshot,” which strains under P.G.’s efforts towards enactment or a theatrical mode that was better suited to his work in Genesis, which is not to say I don’t love it, but rather to say that I came to love it after I fell for So and needed to hear more Peter Gabriel of any kind. ↩︎