My Life with Peter Gabriel, Part Three

As my friends and I got a little older, several of us went to rehab or otherwise found some help. Some of us sort of disappeared entirely for reasons unknown, some moved away. Things changed, and if we were still reckless, it seemed less of a crisis than it had a year or so before. I’ll always give rehab and counseling its due but what I think made the biggest difference in our musical lives was cars. Cars had stereos, almost always a step up from the boombox bungee-cabled to someone’s handlebars or shoved into the corner of a sofa.1 Cars also had climate control and windows and lighters and cupholders — what else did one require for basic comfort? For a few years back then, cars meant freedom and privacy, two things that were at times in short supply, and two things that supported deeper and more personal listening. And in the spring and summer of 1986, my friend Chris’s car was the perfect place to get into Peter Gabriel, a secure space in and from which to delve deeply into the music without worrying about whether we sounded cool or even quite knew what we were talking about.

Chris and I were on to some new things, at least for us. Art, poetry, more sophisticated listening. Chris was also rather stylish, and although I wasn’t, being around someone who was made me feel like I knew what was going on, or at least like we didn’t both have to be stylish to be into art. As it happened, I was already a musician and Chris wasn’t, and that served as a kind of complementary osmosis. We were into Talking Heads, Eno (not great in a car), Peter Gabriel. There must have been other things but I can’t remember them now. I don’t recall either of having steady jobs, though we must have been doing something. By the time summer was in full swing, I mostly remember sitting at Chris’s pool, catching rays, smoking Kools, talking about music and books and waiting for early evening to get in one car or another for the rest of the night. Memory provides its own obfuscations and revisions but I’m nearly certain that was our routine for the whole spring and summer, give or take.

And the reason I can approach this time with some certainty is because somehow, Chris got his hands on a promo cassette of the then-forthcoming So album, which was released in May of that year. I have no idea where he got it. I was as surprised to see that an item like that could land in the hands of guys like us as I was to hear the beginning of “Red Rain,” a song that still confounds and absorbs me like no other.2 We agreed from the outset that we hadn’t heard anything like it before. We listened again. And again and again. I dubbed my own copy and had it in my car at all times, just in case Chris didn’t pick me up and I had to make my way over to his house or was otherwise on my own. It was, for some weeks, the only thing I listened to.

This trend continued mostly unabated for at least the next ten years. On average, I listened to So once a day from that Summer of 1986 until at least 1996, and I still listen to all or part of it every couple of weeks or so. It was not a pop sensation for me. I understood that it was popular and a hit, but by 1986 I didn’t watch MTV much anymore (we didn’t have cable in the car) and listened to more records and tapes than radio. I’ve never seen the “Sledgehammer” video all the way through. I know there was a video for “Big Time” and imagine there were others but they weren’t part of my experience of So.

My experience was eventually shaped by my own immersion and feeling of awe for the record, an enthusiastic disbelief that anything that sounded so little like what I had heard before could sound so much like what I thought music should sound like. I’ve had some of this feeling elsewhere before and since, a sense that the sound of the music was so in tune with the proposed musical event that I was left speechless. Gregg Allman on “Whipping Post” was an early example of this,3 as was Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.”4 These weren’t just great performances, they were more than that. 5 They were glimpses into other lives, other life, often more challenged than mine but always, because of their music, larger than mine and in possession of a kind of hope and spirit that presented in spite of the suffering or betrayal or oppression or longing or whatever it was that drove and attracted these sounds, providing lift, each in their own way, where it was needed. And surprise though it was, nothing quite hit those notes more squarely for me than “In Your Eyes.”

(click here for Part Four)

  1. Some cars, of course, featured boomboxes facing up between the driver and shotgun passenger. And although this was adequate, it was generally not desirable and often understood to be temporary. Homes had home stereos but like I said, we were often trying to avoid those places in favor of other spots we could call our own. 

  2. It’s still true to this day. If I’m entering or taking part in a conversation or should otherwise be listening to you and “Red Rain” comes on, you might as well wait until it’s over because I won’t hear a word you say. Instead, I’ll be standing at the water’s edge in my dream or somesuch. 

  3. I almost never think of or hear this song but recently heard it for the first time in many, many years in the ninth episode of the fifth season of Fargo. The opening guitar figure was an outrage, Gregg Allman’s voice a rising tide of anguish. 

  4. Would such an adumbration of feeling good be so remarkable and effusive if it was her usual state? Of course not. She is finally feeling good, and as good as it is, as powerful and even exhausting as it is, it is fragile and perhaps fleeting. A work of frightful force and maturity. 

  5. Later examples become more abstract: The David S. Ware Quartet with Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and Susie Ibarra arrived from who-knew-where to rescue us; John Zorn’s Electric Masada seemed to emerge from the center of the Earth to show us another way of music/life was possible. The list goes on elsewhere.