'What's a god like you doing in a place like this?" That's the title on the note a flight attendant delivers to Peter Gabriel, who's just about to tear into his second bag of smoked almonds as he flies from Salt Lake City to San Francisco. As Gabriel reads the impassioned, page-long poem from an anonymous passenger, his face is expressionless; when he finishes, he cracks a slight smile.
"I get a lot less of this these days," says the singer, songwriter and technological wizard, who has long been the idol of a sizable and devoted cult. "I used to get quite a few letters from people I visited with my psychic body or told to do all sorts of things with a song."
He shrugs and fiddles with the torn bag of nuts. "I still find that cute," he says.
Peter Gabriel may run across fewer head-over-heels fanatics nowadays, but he's also recognized on airplanes, in hotel lobbies and elsewhere far more often than ever before. Last year was the year cult stardom suddenly turned into something bigger, wilder and more profitable, the year everything worked: he had a Number One hit with the chugging rhythms and florid sexual metaphors of "Sledgehammer"; he turned heads and altered his once cold, artsy image with the cockeyed exuberance of the accompanying video; his sets were a highlight of Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope Tour; and he had a best seller in his album So, a joyful, moving and unexpectedly personal response to his public concern for social ills and his private despair over marital problems.
So as he wraps up a three-day ski vacation in Utah and heads to California for the last four shows of his American tour, it's fitting that Peter Gabriel has just released the deliberately cartoonish, outlandishly boastful "Big Time" as a single. The big time is precisely what this is.
On past tours, Gabriel filled medium-sized halls with hard-core Anglophiles, techno-freaks and fans of artsy innovation, plus the odd mainstreamer attracted to "Shock the Monkey" or "Games Without Frontiers." That audience, says Gabriel's guitarist, David Rhodes, used to consist of "denim guys and intellectuals." Now the crowds are larger and younger, and they include lots more women – some of whom even scream at Gabriel's clunky but dramatic moves, aptly described by his keyboardist, David Sancious, as "dancing by intuition."
From his favorite airplane seat – nonsmoking, on the aisle, near the front of the cabin – Gabriel considers his new audience during a characteristically long pause. "I think," he says slowly, "that as I enter my midlife crisis, it's exactly what I need."
Peter Gabriel, rock star at age thirty-six, budding sex symbol by virtue of his close-cut dark hair, vivid but melancholy blue eyes and sly but cherubic grin, allows himself a quiet chuckle. "Yeah, it brightens up the days a little bit."
It started with a video. It started with singing vegetables and dancing chickens, with model trains circling Peter Gabriel's skull as he sang about lust in a series of luridly silly metaphors. "It was extremely uncomfortable sometimes," he says, sighing, of the eight painstaking days it took to shoot "Sledgehammer." "Lying down under a plate of glass, with a sort of metal rod supporting the back of my head, and fish and fruit being moved around." He grimaces. "The fruit smelt all right after a few hours under the lights, but the fish stank."
It was instantly labeled the most innovative video on the air, but that was to be expected from an artist with a longstanding reputation for hightech experimentation. Crucially, "Sledgehammer" was also one hell of a hoot. "I think the song would have fared okay,' cause it did seem to work well on the radio," says Gabriel. "But I'm not sure that it would have been as big a hit, and I certainly don't think the album would have been opened up to as many people without the video. Because I think it had a sense both of humor and of fun, neither of which were particularly associated with me. I mean – wrongly in my way of looking at it – I think I was seen as a fairly intense, eccentric Englishman.
"I never really thought of myself in quite the way that I think other people do," he continues. "I do have quite a lot of fun with some of what I do, and I don't think that always comes through. But I think it did on this record and in the video. And that, if you like, got people interested in checking out the album, to see if they liked it."
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