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Peter Gabriel Hits the Big Time

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It's the afternoon of the first of his two Oakland Coliseum shows, and as he sits in his San Francisco hotel room, Gabriel does seem fairly intense and, maybe, a touch eccentric – though in a relentlessly low-key way. Perched on the sofa, in a red-and-gray-patterned shirt, baggy black pants, black loafers and white sweat socks (the only clean socks he's got left), he speaks softly and hesitantly, often apologizing for his reticence. His gaze is direct, his face placid, contemplative and earnest; meanwhile, his hands fidget, and his legs tap out a steady beat under the coffee table.

Mainly, he seems like a nice guy. In Los Angeles, he bypasses his favorite hotel, because others in the band want to stay someplace else; in Utah, when a guest excuses himself to find the men's room, Gabriel instantly jumps up and walks halfway across the dining room of the ski lodge to point the way.

"The strangest part about it is, he's like a mensch," says Gary Gersh, a Geffen Records A & R executive who stayed in close touch with Gabriel during the making of So. "I mean, he's just a sweetheart in the classic sense."

"He can be stubborn, but it's never in a very noisy way," says David Rhodes, who has played guitar with Gabriel since the singer's third solo album. "But he always gets what he wants. He holds out for things – which, I think, is why people are responding so well now, because he's held on to his key beliefs and hasn't sold himself down the line."

Partly, it seems, Gabriel is a thoughtful artist who extensively researches songs like "Family Snapshot" (about a political assassin), "San Jacinto" (about Indian initiation ceremonies) and "Mercy Street" (based on the work of the late poet Anne Sexton); a craftsman who spends months on his records, reshaping the lyrics and the arrangements; a strict vegetarian who owns an isolation tank and is fascinated with all sorts of emerging technologies.

And partly, he's a dry wit, who says he titled his album So because it "has a nice shape but very little meaning." While recording the album, he, Rhodes and coproducer Daniel Lanois dubbed themselves the Three Stooges and would often don yellow hard hats and dance wildly to "Sledgehammer."

"There may be three levels to me," says Gabriel himself. "Level one is a fairly amiable, easygoing person. Level two is a bit darker and determined and perhaps a nastier piece of work. And layer three is a naive little boy. I think I can see all those three at work in different areas, and we all need to allow them to come up for air, to find a place where things aren't being hidden or suppressed. Which is something" – he grins ruefully – "that the English are remarkably good at doing."

The sixties soul sound of "Sledgehammer" may come as a surprise for fans accustomed to thinking of Peter Gabriel as an esoteric art rocker, but for Gabriel it's a return to his first love. When he became interested in music more than twenty years ago, R & B was his passion, Otis Redding his hero and the drums his instrument – all factors that made him stand out on the English farm in Woking where he grew up and at the strict, centuries-old "public" school (in America, a private school) where he first met the friends who became Genesis.

Gabriel's father was an electrical engineer and parttime inventor who came up with an early version of cable TV, read avidly and was eccentric enough to get off the train from London, stand on his head and do a few minutes of yoga. His mother, meanwhile, played music, as did her four sisters. Peter grew up with "piano lessons, dancing lessons, riding lessons, every sort of lesson."

As a kid, though, his interests lay elsewhere. "My favorite thing on the farm," he says, "was to build a dam across the river and build a central circle in the middle of the dam, in which I'd build a fire. Then I'd sit on the bank and wait till the water was high enough to wash over the fire. I'm sure some shrink would have some meaningful analysis for all this."

One of the few boys in a farming community with plenty of girls, he was also "free of inhibitions at that age" – then puberty hit. He grew chubby and became shy and withdrawn; things only got worse when he was sent to Charterhouse, a prestigious, conservative boys' school outside London.

"We were both pretty unhappy there," says Tony Banks, Genesis's keyboard player, who became Peter's closest friend at Charterhouse. "Neither of us liked being away from home, and the restrictions got us down more than they did most people. You weren't allowed to walk through certain doors or across certain bits of ground or have certain buttons undone. So we both got into people like Otis Redding and into the idea of playing music. Technically, you weren't supposed to have record players or radios at school, either, which was one of the reasons it was so exciting."

While at boarding school, Peter met his wife, Jill Moore. He was sixteen; she was fourteen. He was the first boy to arrive at a dance near Charterhouse; she was the daughter of the queen's private secretary and, he says, "the prettiest girl in the room – so it was quite simple." They were married when he was twenty-one.

Peter played drums in a soul and jazz band ("He always had the idea of the beat, but he didn't quite have the coordination," says Banks), then formed Genesis with Banks and two other Charterhouse students, Mike Rutherford and Anthony Phillips. They slowly attracted attention – partly because of their increasingly lavish, eclectic brand of late-Sixties and early-Seventies art rock, partly because Gabriel, their lead singer, took to telling long stories and wearing flower costumes, fox heads and red dresses. The latter two, Gabriel happily remembers, made their debut at a boxing ring in Dublin, "not the most tolerant place for men in ladies' dresses."

There was, Gabriel says, a "great sense of liberation." But he never fully participated in the abandon of those times: "The only drug I was interested in was acid, but I was too frightened by my dreams in regular hours to contemplate that. 'Cause I had very vivid dreams as it was, and I think I was fearful of letting go of control."

Instead, he had two experiences with hash. The first time he giggled a lot and then threw up. The second occurred about five years ago, when Gabriel, ever the diligent researcher, went into his recording studio, ate a lot of hash cake and then sat down at a desk with his notebook and tape recorder. Nothing happened, so he ate a lot more. Then he leaned his head over the desk and felt "these two bolts of metal shoot up the back of my neck, like mercury in a thermometer. They came crashing round the front of my head, and I thought, 'Uh-oh.' And panic began to set in deep."

Convinced he was going to die, he headed for home. "I decided I would try and get home in time to say my last words to my wife and kids. It was about half a mile across fields to where I was living, and I was still carrying the tape recorder, so there's this very funny tape of me thinking that I was going to die. I was sort of getting revelations, as I approached my death, about the meaning of life. I was certain that life was actually organized into five videotapes, which were all running slightly out of sync. And very soon after I came upon this profound piece of wisdom, you hear me collapse into a ditch."

Eventually, he found his way home, where he had milk with sugar and went to bed. "My wife thought I'd been in a road accident," he says and then breaks out laughing. "The strange thing was, my kids didn't think there was anything different."

Genesis was big stuff – and, as is true today, The lead singer got most of the credit. In 1974, Gabriel got an offer from movie director William Friedkin, who asked him to contribute to a proposed film script. Gabriel took a week off from working on the Genesis album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The band wasn't happy, and, he says, "the rot began to set in."

"Genesis, at that time, were not into anyone having extracurricular activities," says Gabriel, adding slyly, "unlike today.

"And there was also a certain jealousy, because as frontman I was being credited as sole creative source of the band, which was really unfair. There were various transitions taking place within the band and within my life – such as the birth of my first child, which was far more important to me than finishing off a Genesis record."

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

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