This article originally appeared in the September 1986 issue of SPIN.
She shaved her head as penance. A darkly handsome young woman with regal cheekbones and easy poise, she rashly eradicated her innate dignity, razoring her lustrous mane right down to the scalp.
The act was in atonement for the affair she’d had with a friend of her husband’s, shortly after conceiving their first child. “I think I was just stamping my foot for attention,” she would later say of the 1973 infidelity.
Initially startled, her equally intense, impulsive spouse responded to her baldness by also undergoing tonsure.
“Now, I look back on it as a cheap, exhibitionist gimmick,” says Peter Gabriel. “I wound up using it as a stage device. It was a desperate act to stand apart from others at a time when the completion in the rock ‘n’ roll profession was so terribly intense.”
Art rarely has an opportunity to imitate domestic life with such medieval severity, but then there have been few passages in the rock annals to match the grievous rise of Peter Gabriel. He was born into an upper-middle-class British family in the semirural county of Surrey and educated at Charterhouse, the famed 17th century English “public school” named for the former Carthusian monastery in London in which it was installed. The Charterhouse monks, not to mention the Tom Brown’s School Days—styled headmasters that came after them, were notoriously stern men. So it’s not surprising that “thick, depressive, and pathetically unathletic” Peter Gabriel, as he remembers himself, was burst straight from its gloomy carrels” (private desk nooks) and Gothic dorms into the leadership of a stubbornly phantasmal band called Genesis.
Genesis was British pop’s most intrepid purveyor of rock ‘n’ roll dramaturgy, and Peter Gabriel was its principal vocalist and ominously costumed Grand Guignol character. Gabriel would take the stage in fox-head masks, inverted-pyramid headdresses, giant daffodil casques, glowing-eyes and bat-wing get-ups, abstract Roman-helmet makeup, and eerie, silvery whiteface. Genesis’s rambling compositions, with titles like “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” and “The Fountain of Salmacis,” were brooding, mythical suites punctuated by Gabriel’s tart oboe tenor. One either adored the queer, dense, Lewis-Carroll-like display or utterly disdained its precious, unhurried sense of detachment.
Following the elaborate 1974-’75 tour supporting the release of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Genesis’s two-record rock opera of urban angst, Gabriel bowed out, murmuring that a series of personal and professional crises of confidence were overwhelming him. Drummer-singer Phil Collins took the helm in 1976 and he made it possible for the group to produce such commercial smashes as “Invisible Touch.”
And Peter Gabriel, back from a year of creative solitude and domestic travail, is now the source of the adrenalizing “Sledgehammer” from So, a stunning collection of neoteric Brit R&B spiced with elements of Nigerian high life, Brazilian grooves, and Senegalese griots. Gabriel’s solo presence has long since been stripped of all theatrical trappings and artifice, as was made apparent by his electrifying Amnesty International tour performance of “Biko” at the close of the “Conspiracy of Hope” caravan at Giants Stadium, in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
He stood sentinel-like in high-collared, drab-olive shirt and midnight slacks, sweating profusely as his singing cut the still ninth with the skin-tingling elegy to the slain South African poet-activist Steve Biko.
“This is a song for a man of peace,” Gabriel prefaced, as his new band pounded out a solemn cadence, “and it’s dedicated to all the people of South Africa who’ve just been imprisoned in the last weekend.”
The 55,000 in the stadium were left dumbstruck by the profoundly moving rendition.
“I feel empty and hollow now that this tour is done,” Gabriel confided in a quiet moment after the show.
“I’ll miss the spirit we shared in the face of the horrible pain the prisoners of conscience must face.” One look at his elegantly lined features, the sad eyes fixed in a fiery stare, and it was plain that this was a fellow who understood suffering.
“Nice day to be a bird,” assures Peter Gabriel, the man who composed the soundtrack to Birdy, director Alan Parker’s stunning 1984 film adaptation of William Wharton’s cult novel about a mentally and physically scarred Vietnam vet obsessed with birds and flight. As Gabriel offers the cheery comment, he shows a radiant but characteristically fleeting grin and gazes out over the rooftops of London’s sedate Chelsea section.
“Birdy was about the struggle of the spirit,” says Gabriel. “It was about the interplay between the traumatized Birdy, the wounded victim, and his best friend, who’s ostensibly the tough one. But in the end, it’s Birdy who’s strong and his friend who’s cracking. When I saw the rough cut of the film, I knew I had to do it. It haunted me.”
Gabriel takes a seat at a mall writing desk in a cozy upstairs quarter of his management office, tucked discreetly in the fashionable Walton Street shopping quarter where tony merchants like Saville-Edells and royal hatter John Boyd have their showrooms. It is a sunny day in May, and Gabriel looks as if it has arrived solely to gain his gratitude, as he speaks of the “eighteen months of torment” that overlapped with the start of recording for So.
“I was separated from my family,” he says. A slight pause, and then he elects to go into detail. “This for me was a time of a lot of hurt, pain, and a lot of learning. I ended up in a couples therapy group, which was a powerful, humbling experience.”
“Jill and I were wed in 1971, but we still have a lot to discover and resolve in each other. When you’re looking at other couples who’ve made a similar mess of things, well, you see your problems much more easily on someone else’s shoulders than you do on your own. You think, ‘How can that guy do that, act like this—and then, ‘Wait a moment! I’m doing that too?'”
The separation was ultimately healed with the help of marriage counselor Robin Skinner, co-author, with Monty Python’s John Cleese, of a recent book on relationships.
“I uncovered a lot,” says Gabriel, “and it’s in the songs and on the new album, like ‘In Your Eyes.’ On two recent trips to Senegal, it was explained to me that many of their love songs are left ambiguous so that they could refer to the love between man and woman or the love between man and God. That interested me, because in our society it’s a little like the sacred versus the profane—you know, church music, for instance, expresses a religious type of love, and romantic love belongs to the Devil, if you like.”
“So I began playing in the lyric with a mixture of the two:
“In your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
In your eyes
The resolution of all the fruitless searches
In your eyes
I see the light and the heat
In your eyes
Oh, I want to be that complete”
“There was another song specifically about lust and spiritual love that didn’t make it onto the album,” he continues. “It was called ‘This Is the Road.’ I haven’t finished it. A few others fell by the wayside, songs that will probably surface later. One is ‘Sagrada,’ a working title after the Church of the Sagrada Familia, which Gaudi, the visionary architect, began building in Barcelona in 1884 and was obsessed with until his death in 1926.”
“The song was an interplay between his way of building and that of a lady named Sarah Winchester. She was the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune who, in San Jose, California, started building this enormous home because she was haunted by the ghosts of all the people who had been killed by the rifle. By her death in 1922, she’d added one hundred sixty rooms.”
Gabriel’s songs, both with Genesis and solo, are fraught with the themes of haunting, searching, and obsession; the potential solace and evil entrapments of religion; the desexualized attributes and sensual torments of love; and, most of all, the terrible yet exhilarating nearness of madness.
“Music has always been therapy for me,” says Gabriel. “At one point after the repressive Charterhouse, I was offered a place at the London School of Film Technique, but the choice was between that and Genesis—I went for the relative release of Genesis. ‘I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe),’ a song from Selling England by the Pound , gives a good idea of the kind of themes I was keen on investigating musically.”
“In it I was picturing a formal English scene in which characters were really battling it out. I was influenced by D. H. Lawrence in the way that he has these territorial skirmishes going on beneath the plot. In this case, the blades of a lawn mower were an instrument of violence within the peacefulness of a summer garden.” He grins strangely, a furtive wrinkle. “In the English way of life, beneath the restraint, calmness, and politeness, there’s a seething animal waiting to get out.”
Peter Gabriel was born at 4:30 PM on February 13, 1950, an Aquarian with his moon in Sagittarius. Weekend dairy farmer Ralph Gabriel, an electrical engineer who did critical World War II radar tests, met his wife Irene, like him a scion of a large, well-off Victorian family, while on a skiing trip in the 1940s.
Peter and younger sister Anne were raised on the 100-acre Deep Pool Farm in Woking, a commuter town of approximately 77,000 on the ancient River Wey. “It was an extremely modest village that grew up around a railway stop built on the open heath in 1838,” he says. “Although it was thirty miles from London, it was completely untrained by the city, a world apart from the land of the living.”
When Ralph Gabriel was not delivering cables he was a technician in research and development for the Rediffusion Company in Hastings, where he designed the first fiber-optic cable-TV system. Called Dial-a-Program, a prototype was installed for experimental purposes in the medical department of Case Western Reserve in Ohio.
“Unfortunately, the patent only lasted for fifteen years,” says Gabriel, “and the potential of cable TV was hardly recognized at the time. A lot of brilliant study was not made use of or capitalized on—extremely frustrating for my father.”
The senior Gabriel, who retired to the remaining 20 acres of the farm five years ago, was deterred that his son cultivate a shrewdness he lacked. And so, like his father and grandfather, Peter was pulled out of the local preparatory academy and sent to Charterhouse in nearby Godalming, in September 1963.
The traditional “fagging” (humiliation and enslavement tactics by upperclassmen) of freshmen, as well as the institution’s almshouse-meager meal schedule, were virtually unaltered from the day in 1885 when British essayist and old Carthusian Max Beerbohm pointed out the headmaster’s wife’s fine necklace with the quip, “Every pearl represents a boy’s empty stomach.”
Somehow, the pimpled Peter Gabriel was still able to add pudginess to his other physical flaws, drawing more than his share of the hazing and physical harassment. He received his first headmaster-administered “caning” (beating) at 16 for slipping off by train to nearby Guildford to meet his sweetheart and future wife Jill Moore, the 14-year-old daughter of the Queen’s Private Secretary, Sir Philip Moore.
Back home in Woking, Gabriel’s first acquaintance with rock ‘n’ roll was a radio tape he made of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ “Red Rover Rock.” But it was during an autumn 1963 trip with his parents to various Kent coastal resorts that the diffident schoolboy, daydreaming in the back of the car, was struck by the thunderbolt that was the Beatles pealing “Please Please Me.”
“I immediately bought a copy in a seaside shop,” he says, still charged by the memory. “It triggered a tremendous personal awakening, a leap into a new realm. In no time I knew more than a hundred Beatles songs on piano, and classmate Tony Banks and I used to sneak off from Charterhouse to loiter around a shop called the Record Corner in Godalming. I also began playing the drums.”
Gabriel and Banks started a “flower power” band called the Garden Wall. In the early summer of 1966 they formed a loose bond with guitarist Andy Phillips and Mike Rutherford, members of another school combo called the Anon. Distracted from “hippie rock” by the sound of Stax-Volt soul, Peter moved on to drum in an R&B cover band called the Spoken Word. The shift in tastes had been occasioned by a taboo visit to the Ram Jam Club, the storied underground ska/R&B saloon in South London.
“I don’t think there was a white face to be seen there but mine,” says Gabriel, breaking into a beam, “and it was the best gig of my life as a spectator. Otis Redding was singing, with Wayne Jackson on trumpet, and that very night I found my heroes. Otis tore into ‘Try a Little Tenderness,’ and the rapport with the audience was extraordinary. I stood in the middle of the club, as close to the front as I could get without drawing attention to myself, and decided that I wanted to be a musician for life.”
All consideration of higher education was shelved as the core of the defunct Garden Wall and the Anon combined in the winter of 1967 to become Genesis. The name was supplied by Jonathan King, another Charterhouse alumnus who’d rocked the school in 1965 by writing and singing a worldwide Top ten single on Decca called “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon.” Soon afterward, King got a job as an assistant to the head of Decca Records, and in a rock variation on the old-boys network he began grooming Genesis for the label.
A Bee Gees-delivered song by Gabriel and Banks, “The Silent Sun,” was the first Decca release in February 1968. An album, From Genesis to Revelation, was issued 13 months later, but record buyers found the quasi-Biblical boast a bore and instead bought Cream’s Goodbye.
In 1970, Genesis jumped to Charisma Records, the art-rock stable of the Nice and Lindisfarne. Trespass was recorded, and then lead guitarist Anthony Phillips quit. Ads in Melody Maker led to the hiring of guitarist Steve Hackett and drummer Phil Collins, who powered Nursery Cryme (1971) and Foxtrot (1972) to prosperous sales on the Continent. But the British music critics resented the largely privileged background of Genesis’s lineup.
“In England,” Gabriel explains, “because rock ‘n’ roll is pretty tied up, like football, with working-class mythology, there’s quite a lot of press resentment to any ambitions in rock by middle-class people. That was definitely something to battle with in the first few years.”
There were also mounting clashes within the group as Gabriel emerged as the sole identity of Genesis’s convoluted compositions. Then in 1975, he unexpectedly resigned from the group. It was a jolt to its ultra-loyal devotees, but Peter had planned the departure since the difficult birth of his daughter Anne in 1974. The womb-infected infant nearly died—”What came out was a green lump that was carried away to intensive care in silver foil, like chicken bones.”
As the baby lingered on the critical list, Gabriel lost all interest in rock ‘n’ roll stardom. His band was faced with a leader who now detested the lavish acclaim they’d resented him for. Gabriel pulled the plug on the star-making machine and moved his family to the rural anonymity of the lush Bath valley.
The change in Gabriel was so extreme that some feared for his sanity. “Peter spent the first six months making a vegetable garden and appeared to be going mad,” says his wife Jill. “He would come into the house and play the piano in a very alone world. But I could tell from the way he was playing that he had to go out on his own.”
When Gabriel’s solo LPs began to emerge, they revealed a harrowing flair for flinty introspection and doomsday conviction. Songs like “Solsbury Hill,” a richly uplifting tale of the exhilarating loss of childhood innocences that was an allegory for the breakup of Genesis, were contrasted with apocalyptic keyboard soul-chillers like “Here Comes the Flood.”
Between 1977 and 1982 there were four separate solo offerings titled Peter Gabriel, each with artwork more sullen and unnerving than its predecessor. Happily, the records yielded hits, notably “Solsbury Hill,” “D.I.Y.,” “Games Without Frontiers,” and “Shock the Monkey” but what in hell was transpiring behind the scenes?
A soothing copper glow is settling on central London as Gabriel fetches a piping hot spot of tea and gets comfortable in his Walton Street hideaway.
“I believe that you learn more from failing than from succeeding,” he rules, intently regarding the wisp of steam swirling from his china cup. “Yet we have a built-in fear of failure, a shame of failure, which I think is pretty harmful. The thing with painful experience is that you can handle them and bring them out, or you can bury them. In me there’s a strong urge to bury them sometimes.”
“For instance, looking back on my childhood, I always told myself it was a happy time, but it was actually a dreadful time, me hating and being frightened of school and my own loneliness, unable to ever sleep, feeling so isolated. What I’m interested in doing with my music is communicating relief from psychic pain, probably because I’m exploring it for myself. But there are those who argue that pain is also stored in the body.”
“With mental pain there’s the idea of catharsis, learnt in my realm of interest from the blues. When the blues singer sits there and pours out his heart he’s purging his soul a little bit, and he’s doing so for all the audience, who can sympathize and maybe get a little emotion out, too. I know that when I can get emotion out, I suddenly feel more alive, just as if I was pulsing with new blood in a way I simply don’t when I try to suppress things.”
Gabriel’s first attempt at shedding his physical and mental armor was est. In the course of the controversial assertiveness training, he confronted the gnawing isolation he’d lived with since childhood, particularly the seemingly insurmountable distance he felt from his father, for whom he harbored both a huge unspoken admiration and smoldering resentment for this lack of physical or verbal warmth. Despite all its detractors, est at least enabled Peter to hug his dad for the first time in more than a decade.
“He was a bit put off, initially,” says Peter with an almost imperceptible tremor. “But I think we like and are comfortable with it now.”
While there may be those who deem the current dearth of theatrical disguises in Gabriel’s concerts to be a sign of a healthier self-image, he is not so quick to discount the mask’s powerful ability to reveal.
“Often in our culture we look at a mask as a device to hide behind. But in many cultures—African, Indian—it’s a device through which you can come out. In the traditional masked ball situation you have people behaving a lot more bravely than usual. That’s not an artificial part of their personality but rather an integral part of their persona that’s been allowed a doorway through the mask.”
This also implies that Gabriel may use makeup and costumes again.
“Oh sure,” he says, nodding vigorously. “I’m also intrigued with projected images in performance, as I was in the Genesis days, and I’m looking into the possibilities of more of a visual show for the next time out. When I see someone like Laurie Anderson, with whom I co-wrote ‘This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)’ [a bonus track on the tape and CD of So], her effective use of media makes me itch a bit.”
“I like some of he showmanship and gimmicks of rock ‘n’ roll, whether it’s Chuck Berry’s duck walk, Pete Townshend’s flailing arms, or the Sex Pistols’ anti-promotion. I’ve heard TV producer Jack Good telling how excited he was when Gene Vincet first came to this country to do his television show, and instead of this dark rock ‘n’ roll monster, coming off the plane was a very polite southern gentleman with a very slight limp. Good then persuaded him to dress in leather and exaggerate the limp. It struck me as an early example of rock ‘n’ roll myth-making, however contrived, but I like all that.”
If personal and artistic emergence from his shell are Gabriel’s primary goals, what was the intention behind the generic album titling—which was relinquished only in the States with the naming of the fourth solo album Security?
“First of all, it wasn’t my intention to name the album Security, but rather that of the record company,” he notes with enduring exasperation. “I originally thought I would avoid titles and make my records like magazines. When you look at home at a pile of magazines, you remember them usually by the picture on the cover; I wanted it to look like a body of work.”
“However, in its wisdom, Geffen Records didn’t appreciate this particular line of marketing and was concerned about possible loss of sales to label competitors—Atlantic and Mercury—which had also released records entitled Peter Gabriel. It was made plane to me that if I wanted the record released ,they wanted a title. In 1982 I issued the helpfully named Peter Gabriel Plays Live album.”
“Now, the new record has a universal title so that people won’t end up buying the same record twice. I’m quite happy that that’s happened, because there’s a little change in style—I wanted the album to be elemental, alive, unselfconscious.”
During this period of awakening and self-discovery, has Gabriel had any especially humbling professional experiences that made him confront his possible limitations as a communicator?
“As an artist there was a time, which any performer dreads, who I was booed offstage.” He winces, then bursts into laughter. “This only happened to me once, but it was while opening for Frank Zappa in Berlin in 1980, and it was an audience older than my usual audience.”
“I think they thought, ‘Who is this arrogant little shit getting up and doing these stunts?’ I was coming on strong, mind you, because when I get hostility I probably always come on stronger. But I made myself vulnerable, too, to see if there was any possibility that it would allow a change of mood. It didn’t work.”
“People were throwing stuff at me, wanted to punch me. There was a guy yelling, ‘ENGLISH PIG, GO HOME!’ I crawled back up onstage and started to do ‘Here Comes the Flood,’ which was literally the quietest number I had at that point, and that didn’t work either. I walked off.”
He sighs heavily. “It was my worst night ever as a performer. Up until then I’d always been afraid of it happening. Now it had happened. Once the hurt and shock wore off I began to adopt a different frame of mind. After a day’s break, the next show was in Bremen with Zappa, and even though it wasn’t going over again, I felt relaxed, intact. I began laughing and feeling at home, and the crowd responded. In the end, we did much better—it still wasn’t fantastic—but I’d overcome my fear of being challenged, of being rejected by an audience.”
Gabriel also let go of petty studio phobias about his work. On Phil Collins’s Hello, I Must Be Going!, Collins helped himself to the groundbreaking gated drum sound Gabriel and engineer Hugh Padgham had perfected for Gabriel’s third solo effort. Critics remarked that Collins had stolen Gabriel’s new signature. And some were surprised to note that Peter sang backup on Collins’s recent “Take Me Home” single.
“I respect Phil,” Gabriel says tensely. “I think he’s a natural musician who can sit down and play most things very well. There’s respect between us, and we’ll be happy to do odd pieces together.”
Questions of undue borrowing and the sharing of creative credit inevitably lead to larger issues in the careers of Gabriel, Collins, and other white rockers blatantly influenced by modern funk and African pop.
“For any of us musicians who get ideas from other cultures, we get accused of cultural imperialism,” says Gabriel. “There are things like the Bo Diddley rhythm that I’ve heard beat-for-beat in Congolese patterns. Part of what we consider our fundamental rock ‘n’ roll heritage originated in Africa. Period. If you look at any school of music or art, it steals ruthlessly from anything that excites it. That’s a pretty natural process.”
“A, I think it’s important to digest it a little rather than imitate it. B, I think if there’s a lack of balance, people like me have a responsibility to provide it. At the 1982 World of Music, Arts, and Dance Festival I organized it was exciting to have Burundi drummers playing with Echo and the Bunnymen, Indian dancers with the English Beat, Chinese opera with Simple Minds and myself—a real mixture. Some of the rock ‘n’ roll cynics at the time said there was no way audiences would take this, we’d get booed and have bottles thrown, but nothing of the sort occurred.”
“I’m still seeking out African talent myself. I got Youssou N’dour, the Senegalese singer who’s a Bob Marley-type figure in his own country, into my Bath studios for ‘In Your Eyes’; I think he deserves a much wider audience. And I’m pleased to see that in most record stores in England and the States you see an African section now, the way there was a reggae section ten years ago. Maybe in another decade there’ll be a world-music section.”
“Music is one of the ways that can combat racism and some of the other divisions between the First and Third Worlds, and rock has gotten richer for it.”
“What we’re seeing at the moment reminds me in some ways of the 1960s, but it is in a lot more practical. The social engagement of rock musicians is positive, although I don’t think we can change the world as directly as many people thought was once possible.”
“What we can do is provide information and then let people make up their minds. It seems to me that the ‘Sun City’ project, which I think was very well done, helped—along with news broadcasts—to ignite an awareness in the States of the South African situation. It was a chain of influences. But I don’t want to be preached at all the time by entertainers.”
Nonetheless, there are urgent messages, subtle and unsubtle, on such So songs as “Don’t Give Up,” Gabriel’s heart-tugging duet with Kate Bush, and “Mercy Street.”
“True, true,” says Gabriel, sipping the last of his tea. “The sensitive treatment Kate gave our give-and-take on that song was gratifying, because it’s not just a song about a woman supporting a man in a demanding relationship. The chief thing dragging them down is unemployment, which is presently tearing the social fabric of Thatcher’s England apart. The catalyst for ‘Don’t Give Up’ was a photograph I saw by Dorothea Lange, inscribed ‘In This Proud Land,’ which showed the dust-bowl conditions during the Great Depression in America. Without a climate of self-esteem, it’s impossible to function.”
“‘Mercy Street’ was inspired by the book of poetry and an unpublished play of the same name written by Anne Sexton, the trouble American housewife-turned-writer who, at around age 28, began writing what would become the collection To Bedlam and Part Way Back. A doctor in a mental hospital suggested that she write partly as therapy.”
“When I discovered her work by chance in a book store,” says Gabriel, “I was struck that, unlike most writers, who are conscious of their peers or their audience, she was writing entirely for herself. ‘Mercy Street’ is filled with the messages and imagery of dreams, and a constant search for a suitable father figure, whether it be a doctor, a priest, or God. That search kept her alive longer than many around her perhaps thought she could bear, gave her life meaning, and now her work gives hope to others. That’s a kind of magic, I think. Creation as therapy, both the fact and the gentle endorsement of that, is a thread in the material on So.”
June 4, 1986, backstage at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, 8:45 PM. Peter Gabriel, dressed in a dark smock over a light-blue shirt and billowy black slacks, is a nervous wreck. Knitting his hands and stalking about as a concerned-looking Sting watches from a discreet distance, he seems to be in the throes of a severe anxiety attack. Sting steps over to put a boyishly soothing hand on his shoulder, whispering a few cracks into his ear. Gabriel, his eyelids and brows accented with black greasepaint, chuckles lightly and stops pacing.
Veteran field marshal Bill Graham gives Gabriel and his band their cue, and they scamper up the narrow steps to the platform stage to deliver one of the most superb sets of the entire Conspiracy of Hope tour, cresting with a tumultuous version of “Shock the Monkey.”
Earlier, Gabriel had stated that the song was not about shock therapy but rather “just a love song, although it’s not really seen as that. It just refers to jealousy as a trigger for an animal nature to surface.”
Onstage, Gabriel imbues the song with a vivid dash of affirmation, testifying that humanity has the will to resist its baser urges, just as the jailer, tortuer, and executioner can be dissuaded from their odious duties.
The throng loves the transporting warmth of the singer, and later that evening, as the assembled Amnesty troupe (Bryan Adams, Joan Baez, Jackson Browne, the Neville Brothers, Lou Reed, et al.) rushes before the footlights for the encore on “I Shall Be Released,” Sting spies Gabriel ascending the stage steps.
“Come ‘ere, mate,” he calls out, hugging Peter with a healthy “well done” as they walk up together. Blooming on the old Carthusian’s angular features is the fulfillment of finally belonging.
Several days after the Giants Stadium concert, Gabriel is in the Manhattan offices of Warner Bros. Records, taking stock of the whole whirlwind Amnesty tour and preparing to return to his family in Bath. Attired in his familiar dark clothing, the chats about the future, which may include a select schedule of dates to showcase songs from So. The talk turns to another song about psychic and physical torment that Gabriel decided to put on the new record. “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” is Gabriel’s direct appeal for faith in life. The song refers to experiments conducted in New Haven, Connecticut, in the early 1960s by the late Stanley Milgram that tested obedience to authority versus allegiance to one’s moral code.
“Various volunteers for the experiment were divided into two groups: ‘students’ and ‘teachers.’ The student was connected to electric terminals, and the teacher was put in the laboratory in front of a metal box with buttons that were said to be capable of generating electric shocks to the student. The teacher was then asked to give a memory test to the student and at each mistake was ordered by the scientist conducting the experiment to increase the voltage of electricity—so he thought he was participating in an experiment on punishment and learning.”
“But actually,” says Gabriel, “the ‘student’ was an actor, just acting the effects of electric shocks, and the test was to see how far the ‘teacher’ would go in obeying the order to administer the shocks before he would rebel against authority. In the main experiment, sixty-three percent of the participants were prepared to administer enough electricity to injure the person on the other end.”
“At first this seems a very negative thing,” says Gabriel, “but I was comforted that some had the strength to rebel, and in the So version of the song, which I’ve been performing in concert since around 1980, the emphasis is shifted to the positive side. I find it scary, particularly with the rise of the so-called Moral Majority, that there’s such a readiness to judge other people. In Christ’s words, ‘Judge not, that ye not be judged.'”
In Peter Gabriel’s words, this self-judgement: “There are three layers to me. The first is alert, amiable, and at ease with the world. Then there is the sad, small boy. Finally, there is this instinctive and at times aggressive character. I fluctuate between the three, but to strangers, the third layer only comes out in the music.”
And it is the third layer of Gabriel that he himself knows the least. It is the mighty, adept, efficacious side of himself that he feel in performance but cannot relocate when the fury is spent.
He seeks clues to his nature in his father—”my introvert side”—and in the social, organizational, and musical skills of his mother—”my extrovert side”—but they are not accessible personalities. “They were compassionate, loving parents, but like so many from the English middle class, they had difficulty in expressing emotions.”
Anything felt or thought but left unexpressed becomes a secret, and as he came of age, Gabriel found that neither the education he was assaulted with at Charterhouse nor the compulsory chapel attendance intended to salve his bruised psyche offered any acknowledgement of the secrets of private experience. Only rock ‘n’ roll provided this, and it demands total surrender.
Gabriel has become a confidant of psychotherapist R. D. Laing’s and a disciple of John Lilly’s sensory-deprivation tanks, where in the perfect darkness of saline-solution-filled confines he can float naked and dream without boundaries.
He is also a voracious reader of Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, who warns any would-be rock star that “the [protective] persona is the individual’s system of adaptation to the world. Every calling or profession has its own characteristic persona. The danger is that people become identical with their personas—the professor with his textbook, the tenor with his voice.”
“I have a selfish lifestyle in a selfish world,” Gabriel frets, and he senses the solution to his own dilemma will be more elusive than the one his wife Jill settled on in the wake of their marital reconciliation.
“I was brought up to be a wife and a mother, but around me the roles of women were changing,” she says. “It was OK to have a job. I felt very frustrated.” And so she took one—counseling other married couples. “I used to watch Peter sing and think I’d like a bit of this person in real life. It worried me. And, of course, I resented his success. But I was attracted to it.”
Is there no solution to the conflict between creative spark and personal desire? Carl Jung says in Modern Man in Search of a Soul that when a form of ‘art’ is primarily personal it deserves to be treated as if it were a neurosis. The personal aspect is a limitation—and even a sin—in the realm of art. A great work of art is like a dream; for all its apparent obviousness, it does not explain itself and is never unequivocal.
So the search, the frustration, the longing for transcendence goes on.
Meantime, Peter Gabriel can be found in Bath, raising his daughters, wrestling with new songs like one about murdered Chilean folksinger Victor Jara, or arranging music for exhibits by avant-garde artists Stephen Rollov and Malcolm Poynter. He also wants a greater hand in film scoring than was provided by his work on Birdy and the songs he contributed to Against All Odds (“Walk Through Fire”) and Gremlins (“Out Out”). After all, it was an invitation from director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) in 1974 to write an original script that spelled the last straw for Gabriel and the jealousy-stained Genesis; in the brittle denouncement, Friedkin’s beckoning was forsaken.
Yet not forgotten. What was required, then as now, was a proper facility for brainstorming. To this end, Gabriel is devoting the winter to supervising the founding of a “future arts center” that will have two recording studios and much high-tech audiovisual hardware for the “experience designing” he wants to spend his forties doing.
“The idea of taking the funk on ‘Sledgehammer’ to a higher level of exhilarating, too,” he says. “I used French-African drummer Manu Katche in conjunction with Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns on the track, and it was a commanding blend of parallel heritages. I love writing about romantic sexuality, and I need to discover ways to let my attraction to African funk be mutually enhancing for the participants.”
Surely there’s a well-worn route to that worthy hybrid, one that Gabriel has already intuitively aligned upon. For the word funk is a combination of the Ki-Kongo lu-fuki, meaning “bad body odor,” and fumet, the Creole term for “aroma of fide and wine.” As for any transcultural karmic rewards, well, in Kongo the smell of a hardworking person carries luck to all those it reaches.
Whenever Gabriel leaves his hearth in the west of England during the remainder of 1986, he’ll be on tour, plus hustling other musicians (“I’ve already asked Phil Collins”) into appearing at proposed simultaneous live concerts in East and West Berlin on September 16 to celebrate United Nations Peace Day. “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” will be one of the featured songs in his performance.
“I know why I took so long to record it,” Gabriel mulls. “I think I had to wrestle with the subject matter until I could find and interpretation that identified the heartening side of the story, but that also had the ring of objective reality.” The song’s chorus, which he slowly recites, is simple and eloquent:
“I take dreams very seriously,” he says softly. “I think everyone should.”