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. 

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. ↩︎

A Record A Day 2023: April

I’m falling further and further behind as the year goes on but am still posting what gets played. My hope is that I’ll catch up during holidays or something. I’m currently 26 plays short for the year, approximately 5 plays per month. Such calculations don’t help much, though. In any case, you can find the available April plays here on Apple Music. Enjoy!

Donald Byrd

I’m Tryin’ to Get Home (Brass With Voices)

I’m Tryin’ to Get Home (Brass With Voices), 1965.