Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"In This State of Disrepair"

Come Talk to Me - Bon Iver (mp3)
Secret World - Peter Gabriel (mp3)

When Us arrived in the fall of 1992, it was a beautiful downer.

Peter Gabriel’s follow-up to the commercial pinnacle of his career, a.k.a. So, was overgloomy, overproduced, and overwhelming. Not the kind of CD that earns spins in parties where kegs sit in the corner. And, in my junior year apartment, where we played TecmoBowl endlessly and cranked the more intense rock of the Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, little room was permitted for Us.

But in my room, as I would lie in bed unable to sleep, it would play endlessly through my Discman. Anywhere I needed to sink into my own personal and miserable fantasy of wishing I could find a girlfriend who might break up with me and inspire me to write anything half as amazing as Us, I played it.

On my most brilliant mixtape of all time, I introduced each song with audio clips from some of my favorite movies. Back in ‘92, this took weeks. And careful planning. I had to rent many of the videos or check them out from the library. I had to time it perfectly between my VCR and tape player. It was a painstaking art the likes of which shall never be again necessary. Today, a CD of that kind would only take a few hours of consideration and an hour or so of labor. And therefore, because it would come so much easier, it would be loved less. So I haven’t tried recreating it.

The concluding song on this historically famous mixtape was “Secret World.” The movie introduction came from Broadcast News, the scene where Aaron (Albert Brooks) has flopped miserably as an anchor and is drunk waiting on Jane to come home. She arrives, and they sit together on the front steps, and the talk concludes with these lines:
Aaron: "And in the middle of all this, I started to think about the one thing that makes me feel really good and makes immediate sense ... and it's you.”
Jane: "Oh, Bubba."
Aaron: "I'm going to stop right now. Except that I would give anything if you were two people, so that I could call up the one who's my friend and tell her about the one that I like sooo much.”
Those lines felt like the perfect compliment in emotional tone and context to “Secret World.”

Peter Gabriel isn’t the greatest songwriter in the world. His songwriting, while not a tragic flaw, gets weaker the more you inspect it, but he covers this slight weakness brilliantly. He surrounds himself with artists and encourages their involvement, understands the value and import of the theatrical, and appreciates and absorbs what gets lumped as “world music.” He and David Byrne could have been twins separated at birth. Byrne got a tad bit more brain matter, and Gabriel more heart.

No song, and no moment in Gabriel’s fascinating career brings all of his gifts and loves together like his live performance of “Come Talk To Me.” You get the world music influence. You get the dramatic staging. You get some of his better turns of phrase as well as the intense personal sincerity. When he wraps himself in the phone cord, I get short of breath. When it begins pulling him back, I can’t help but cry a little. Every single time.

I used to think Us was about Gabriel’s break-up with Rosanna Arquette. Now, with the benefit of experience, I realize it’s an exploration of why the break-up was inevitable. Us is Gabriel’s public apology to Arquette. That is, it was very much about them together and the many ways Gabriel screwed it up and failed to get past his own demons and ego.

While Us fails to receive the critical acclaim of Gabriel’s earlier work, it is his most intensely personal and therefore the one that, as a whole, can feel the most like real life, which is why it means the most to me even 20 years later.

For a few more BOTG takes on Peter Gabriel, read Bob’s take on “Solisbury Hill” or Billy's take on the disappointment of Up.


Daisy said...

I often wonder what our children will do with their spare time in the teens years now that making mixed tapes and sitting home waiting for the phone to ring are off the table.

troutking said...

I haven't listened to US a lot, but I do like this post a lot. Also, do you think Peter Gabriel has personal demons for leaving Genesis, thus unleashing Phil Collins on the world?

Billy said...

@Daisy - My daughter is making "vlogs" and videos. Which is pretty cool, actually.

@trout - I've always found it strange that both Genesis and Gabriel got increasingly less freaky when they split up. One would think that one of the two sides would have gone fully off the freak end, but both gradually moved more pop, more commercial.

Poor Phil. He just can't hurry your love.

Anonymous said...

Let's be candid: genesis wasn't that great with Peter Gabriel. More experimental and inventive, sure. But better talked about and in theory than listened to.

troutking said...

That's true. I actually loved commercial Genesis at the time--Invisible Touch, etc--so I went back and bought Trespass and Trick of the Tail..and listened to each once. Maybe.