Peter Gabriel Hits the Big Time

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That child, Anna, was born in 1974. She had caught an infection in the womb, and her umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. She was born feverish and starved for oxygen, with her lungs full of fluid that she had swailowed in the womb; the doctors were so convinced she would die they wouldn't even let her mother see her for a week. (She recovered, and today she is a healthy twelve-year-old.)

"That was a major drama for me," Gabriel says quietly. "My wife remembers it that before the birth I was away with the band all the time. The band remember it that I was away with my wife all the time. I think it was the cause of bad feelings, because I was the first one of the band to have children, and until you have kids you have no real understanding of the emotional experience that it is. Let alone something going wrong."

"The birth changed him quite a lot," says Tony Banks, "and it was difficult for us to accommodate that, because at that stage in the group's career, we still wanted to do as much touring as we could. And after he wrote ninety-nine percent of the lyrics on The Lamb, I think he felt that he would never get that chance again, that we wouldn't let him do it.

"I tried very hard to persuade him not to quit the band, but he's not quite as taciturn when it comes to people he knows well. He gets a certain set look, and he is obstinate. So he left."

Disgusted with the music business, Gabriel puttered in his garden and wrote songs and shaved his head. "It was a fun thing to do," he says, shrugging. "I just shaved my head because I hadn't tried it before. And I think it's a good experience for everyone." Within a few months, his wife did the same – not for fun, but as an act of penitence for having been unfaithful. "I think at the time it was partly that she didn't like herself," he says, "and she wanted to make a bold gesture."

The Gabriels had another child, Melanie, and Peter Gabriel's solo career got under way in 1977 with an album that mixed orchestral flourishes with raw rock & roll; the songs ranged from apocalyptic visions ("Here Comes the Flood") to an allegorical account of his leaving Genesis ("Solsbury Hill"). His second album, released the following year, was a denser, more forbidding and, he thinks, somewhat unsuccessful collection produced by Robert Fripp and partly designed as a deliberate reaction to the pop-oriented debut.

Then what Gabriel considers his breakthrough came, when he simultaneously discovered African music and drum machines. Turned on by the new rhythms and the new tools, he wrote a batch of tunes that included the chilling "Family Snapshot" and "Biko," the soaring ode to the murdered South African activist Steve Biko. Gabriel's label, Atlantic Records, refused to release an album that it considered not only uncommercial but bad. Atlantic dropped him – "quite a knock to take when you've just put a lot of time and your guts into almost a year's work, and you think it's the best thing you've done." Mercury Records picked the album up, and "Games Without Frontiers" became a hit. "Fortunately," Gabriel says, grinning, "Atlantic's regretted it."

After that album, he signed with Geffen Records and explored third-world rhythms and textures even more fully on his next album, the fourth consecutive LP to be titled Peter Gabriel (except in the United States, where the company put a sticker on the cover that said Security). With a solid reputation as an innovator, Gabriel finally felt free of Genesis.

"It took about six years, really, before I was considered as a separate entity with separate tastes," he says. "It's frustrating, I think, if you perceive yourself as doing something quite different, which I think I was, and still get branded by the same brush. That particularly applies in England, where having been ex-public-school, middle-class and ex-Genesis switches off the majority of the media before they've even heard anything."

Now it doesn't bother him, Gabriel says, though he's well aware that his replacement as Genesis's lead singer, Phil Collins, achieved huge solo success with the help of a drum sound pioneered on the third Peter Gabriel LP. Sure, the old comparisons sometimes come up – say, when Gabriel is reminded of the version of Marvin Gaye's hit "Ain't That Peculiar" that he performed during his first solo shows in 1977.

"I'd like to do something like that again," Gabriel says, chuckling softly. "But I couldn't do a Motown song anymore, because they'd say I was copying Phil."

Sitting in the back of the minibus that's taking him to the Oakland Coliseum, Gabriel looks out the window at Christmas shoppers crowding San Francisco's sidewalks. "I got a little shopping done, but not enough," he says, grumbling. "I'm trying to find something for my kids to give to my wife, because they're not usually very good at coming up with anything on their own."

The unsuccessful shopping trip notwithstanding, the fact that Gabriel is taking presents home to his wife and kids is a sign of progress – because for about eighteen painful months not long ago, he was separated from Jill, Anna and Melanie. "I think this is probably the most positive record I've made, in some ways," he says slowly. "And, um...it's a little bizarre in some ways, because it came after one of the worst periods of my life. But maybe I needed to get some playful energy in there....I think it's easy for me, sometimes, to immerse myself in my work and sort of divert energy that perhaps should be going into personal things."

So when he wrote the love song "In Your Eyes" or the images of guilt and redemption in "That Voice Again" and "Red Rain" or the despair-versus-hope dialogue of "Don't Give Up," Gabriel was undergoing professional and personal changes. "I wanted some of this album to be more direct," he says. "Over the past few years, sort of, I tended to hide from some things, both personal and in my music. And so, if you like, it was part of a coming-out process."

Gabriel opened up and stopped hiding his emotions partly through est (hates how it's marketed but likes how well it worked), partly through a couples' counseling group he attended with Jill. After est, he hugged his father for the first time in more than a decade. Now he also finds it much easier to express anger, "which I've always been nervous of'; now he and Jill are on firmer footing.

"With relationships, for me it's always a case of a work in progress...," Gabriel says, "but we've been living back together again for maybe a year now. And there's still work to be done, but we do really well now, and hopefully we'll sort it out. Part of the problem, I think, is that you're very different people at sixteen and fourteen than you are at thirty-six and thirty-five, so, um...there's a certain amount of growing pains."

The fact that some of those growing pains are reflected on So is one of the reasons Geffen Records is so happy with the album. "Throughout the years, I didn't really know who the man behind the mask was," says the label's Gary Gersh. "With this album, part of the idea behind our whole marketing campaign was letting people know that there really wasn't a mask anymore, that the man was actually touchable. You can listen to the record and get inside his emotions."

There's one subject that touchable man finds himself returning to again and again, and with a little prompting Gabriel locates it. "There is some sense of, uh...," he says, then pauses for a long time. "Alienation is a common theme, which is the struggle to break out of a sense of separation."

And has that been a struggle in his own life?

"Yeah, I think so," he says, and his voice gets even softer than usual. "Definitely."

"Can we turn the lights off in this van?" asks Peter Gabriel, and it's a reasonable request when you consider that he's not wearing any pants. The second Oakland show has just ended, and he and the band have run straight to the minibus, which is now making a mad dash across San Francisco Bay to catch a midnight flight to Los Angeles. The vehicle is a de facto dressing room – but the Coliseum parking lot is full of gawking Gabriel fans, and it wouldn't do to have the star mooning his audience. So the lights are shut off, the band towels off and changes, and they head for the Bay Bridge.

Buzzing with adrenalin from the show, everybody is in a loose, playful mood, passing around the Christmas gifts that promoter Bill Graham put in their backstage stockings: candy, yo-yos, confetti poppers, leis. Gabriel ranges up and down the aisle taking drink orders; when the minibus hits a bump, and he dumps much of his Heineken onto his shirt, there's boisterous laughter from Rhodes, Sancious, bassist Tony Levin and drummer Manu Katché.

On the plane, things calm down a bit, though Gabriel leaves his bright-yellow lei in place as he unwinds a long black scarf from around his neck. Settling into the front row, he declares himself satisfied with the night's show, a bracing and moving piece of rock theater. Using spare but haunting lighting and the expressive body language he has been perfecting for years, Gabriel played the part of an individual struggling for human contact in the face of inhumanity, social evils and dehumanizing technology. But the show was also more fun than most of the performances on his previous tours, and it climaxed with a joyous duet between Gabriel and the Senegalese singer Youssou N'dour.

It ended with the somber strains of "Biko" – and a chance for Gabriel's fans to see the determined activist, who spends much of his time working for human rights, who regularly visits Central America, who roundly denounces American policy there: "By ignoring the needs and rights of ordinary people, the U.S. is alienating not only a lot of Central and South America but quite a lot of the third world, quite needlessly." But instead of preaching, Gabriel simply asks his crowds to participate. That means the fans sing the end of "Biko" themselves: that means Gabriel falls into the audience during "Lay Your Hands on Me" and expects them to pass him over their heads rather than tear him apart.

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