Archive for September, 2013


Penny For Your Thoughts?

George Wallace

George Wallace was a politician in the ‘60s and ‘70s who served as Governor of Alabama for the 3rd longest gubernatorial stint in post-Constitutional U.S. history, and was also a losing presidential candidate four times.

George Wallace was notorious as a strict segregationist, which basically reads today as “racist.” But back then, in the time and place he existed in, everybody was a racist – at least by today’s standards. Alabama in the early ‘60s was not a friendly place for black people. Wallace’s most famous incident was when he stood at the doors of the University of Alabama on the day black students were granted the right to admission into the university. And make no mistake – he was standing there in a symbolic gesture of blocking the students from entering. Alabama was being desegregated and a lot of people, Governor Wallace chief among them, were not happy about it.

Arthur Bremer

Arthur Bremer

In 1972, George Wallace was running for president again. He had just won his 2nd bid for governor, and his presidential bid was run on a platform of racism and mudslinging. On May 15th, he was at a mall campaigning, using his extremely vitriolic racist rhetoric. Arthur Bremer was there, too. Wallace gave his speech, but he wasn’t standing on a stage like politicians do today; rather, he was down among the crowd with a small circle of space between him and his constituents. Arthur Bremer pushed his way forward when Wallace was shaking hands after his speech, pulled out a revolver and shot Wallace four times, emptying his gun and injuring three others before being subdued. Wallace survived, but was in a wheelchair the rest of his life.

Bremer didn’t do it because of political rage at Wallace’s controversial stances, or out of some high-minded sense of right and wrong, or even as a hired assassin in a massive political struggle. He did it for a much more elemental, selfish and id-based reason – he did it because he wanted to be famous.

Bremer tried to time the assassination for when it would make the evening newscast. He picked a high-profile and divisive individual, one whose assassination would have a much greater ripple effect than someone who was universally well-thought of. There were better candidates, though. Bremer had first fixated on Richard Nixon, but decided it would be nearly impossible to get near him. And the kicker, he had even thought of a memorable catch phrase to recite when he pulled the trigger. “Penny for your thoughts?” This would further cement him in the public’s mind, perhaps especially because it was so cornball. He didn’t say it, though – the heat of the moment must have driven the phrase from his mind.

Bremer wrote An Assassin’s Diary, published in 1973 shortly after his attempt on Wallace’s life. The book details not only the facts of the incident on May 15th, but also provides a chilling first-person perspective on his motivations and thought processes. In it, Bremer explains that he wasn’t particularly opposed to Wallace’s campaign positions, and didn’t really care about politics at all. Rather, he had an attachment to Wallace, and Richard Nixon before him, because killing such a note-worthy and famous figure would in turn make him internationally famous.

His logic (if you can call it that), seems sound. You usually don’t talk about John F. Kennedy without at least mentioning Lee Harvey Oswald. Likewise, no one talks about Abraham Lincoln without bringing up John Wilkes Booth (except Steven Spielberg). Killing someone famous makes you famous. But why would someone even want to become famous for something as heinous and terrible as murder? Everyone looks at you as the epitome of evil and all that is wrong with the world, at least for a time. Look at George Zimmerman.

There are two reasons for this. One: killing someone is a much easier and faster way to become famous than building something yourself, like the person you want to kill. Destruction is always easier than creation, but it pays much smaller and less satisfying dividends. Two: people who do these types of things don’t care why they’re famous. All that matters is that when people hear your name or see your face, they have an instant and inescapable association with it. The specific nature of the association is not nearly as important as its existence. And the stronger the association, the better.

Peter Gabriel read An Assassin’s Diary, and the result is the song “Family Snapshot.” Gabriel never mentions Bremer specifically, and even the scenario laid out in the song doesn’t resemble the Wallace assassination attempt. Details are mentioned, and it much more closely mirrors Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. The song is in first-person except for a brief section that’s in second-person. Here, the killer addresses his target, explaining that they were “made for each other,” but not in the romantic you-complete-me way. Bremer thought that his and Wallace’s destinies were destined to intersect in this particular way. And in a disturbingly twisted way, he was right.

It’s ironic, though, that so much time has passed and virtually nobody knows who George Wallace is anymore, let alone Arthur Bremer. All he wanted was to be famous, and it didn’t work.

“Family Snapshot” goes through phases that mirror the state of a killer’s mind. It starts with quietness and calm, then gets more nervous and jittery, the drumming becoming gradually more frantic. It builds to a tension-filled climax, and then when the shot is fired, the music instantly converts back to the calm, beatless quiet, where the killer reflects on his early life and what brought him to this point.

This is clearly a new approach from Peter Gabriel. “Family Snapshot” and Melt in general see PG acting like the doctors in A Clockwork Orange, forcing Alex’s eyes open while horrors unfold on the screen in front of him. But instead of standing at a distance and scribbling on his clipboard, Peter’s there with you, holding your hand, and whispering, “Look…”

Next: the “gated drum” technique.

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Treasures

Peter Gabriel - Melt - 5/23/1980

Peter Gabriel – Melt – 5/23/1980

I have no idea what I would do if someone broke into my house. The closest it ever got to that was when a woman knocked on our sliding glass door at about 2am. My wife heard it first. Scared out of her wits, she tried to look up the police – we didn’t have smartphones yet, and the idea of calling 911 apparently didn’t penetrate either of our 2am hazes. I had to deal with the potential intruder. It was a short black woman with wide eyes and no shoes, definitely drunk. Clearly not a robber, she was saying something to me that took me a few tries to figure out. She thought I was a friend of hers, Bernie or something, and she wanted to sleep there for the night. I told her in no uncertain terms to go away. I don’t think my wife or I slept much after that.

As traumatic as that was, it’s not even a thousandth of what it must be like to have an actual intruder in your house, one with evil intent to your possessions. It’s something no one ever wants to think about.

Unless you’re Peter Gabriel, that is. And if you’re Peter Gabriel, not only do you like thinking about it, but you like forcing your listeners to think about it, too. “Intruder” leads off PG’s third eponymous album commonly called Melt, with plodding and doom-filled drumming, then what sounds like glass being delicately cracked, like a window that’s being broken as quietly as possible.

Peter sings this song like a sociopathic lunatic, provoking a reaction of tension-filled dread from the listener. Like Hannibal Lecter’s icy, smiling stare, it’s the quietness of Peter’s voice punctuated by moments of frothing madness that make for the most terror. “Intruder” is one of the most terrifying songs I’ve ever heard, bested in that department only by Bach and his “Toccata & Fugue.”

When I visited my family a few Christmases ago, the men had a discussion about intruders (which is to say they had the discussion and I listened silently), which led into gun control. My brother-in-law, who was going through a gun-crazy phase at the time, wanted to acquire a classic, noisy shotgun. He had a theory that if anyone ever broke into his house, all they would have to hear was the loud CLICK-CLACK of a cocking shotgun and they would high-tail it out of there, but not before making a mess on your floor. He said the gun wouldn’t even have to be loaded, because all you need is the sound to get the intruder shaking in his probably stolen boots.

I think there’s something to that, but like I always do, I’m looking for the root. If you want a shotgun to ward off intruders, you obviously think it’s a real possibility that you will at some point have an intruder. Delusion and paranoia are extremely likely, but let’s assume that attitude has a basis in reality. What is that basis? Do you have a lot of valuable stuff that would attract an intruder? A fancy car, an opulent house, an unnecessarily loud stereo system? Why do you have those? Greed? Inadequacy? A need to feel successful?

Religion would classify those things as “treasures,” and my religion teaches me that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. In a sort of pre-emptive strike, Jesus said to “store up your treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and thieves do no break in and steal.” In short, don’t have too much stuff. Why? ‘Cause having too much stuff chains you to this world, and that’s not where you wanna be forever. (Matthew 6:19-21)

But enough of that.

Peter Gabriel adherents had never really heard anything like “Intruder” from him. It was a revelation of one of Peter’s abilities, one that had only been touched briefly upon with The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. It’s the ability to show you extremely strange and horrifying images and make you want to keep staring at them. Previously, he had done this with fantasy and fiction, but with Melt, he was making you look at the real world. “Intruder,” “Family Snapshot,” and “Biko” deal with fully real moments of violent horror and what they mean to your actual life. No more hiding behind constructs like Blackstone Enterprises or Magog or even Rael, as transparent as he was. Now, it’s just Peter.

Next: portrait of a killer.

Eponymous

"Doesn't that Bible of your have pretty specific things to say about killing?"

“Doesn’t that Bible of your have pretty specific things to say about killing?”

In the pilot episode of Firefly (which was not the first episode aired – curse you, Fox!), Kaylee is waiting outside Serenity trying to attract passengers before they ship out. A man named Book looks at the ship and decides to fly with them, offering real strawberries as his payment. He says he’s a Shepherd (which is basically a catch-all preacher/priest/monk), and he’s “been out of the world awhile; like to walk it for a spell, maybe bring the Word to them that needs it.”

I imagine Peter Gabriel, when he broke away from Genesis after being part of them since even before his adult life began, was much like Shepherd Book. Gabriel quit from Genesis in 1975 after the Lamb tour, and was quite suddenly out on his own without his fellow Genesites. After a short period of inactivity during which he got really bored, he went back into the studio, but this time he didn’t have four other people with an equal share of the decision-making. It was just him. He was out of the abbey and now walking the world “for a spell.”

His first solo album came in 1977, simply called Peter Gabriel. It featured the salient “Solsbury Hill,” which made great strides for Gabriel defining himself as a singular artist. Unlike his fantastical and mythological work with Genesis, “Solsbury Hill” was an autobiographical piece. It addressed the biggest question in his fans’ minds, which was “Why did you leave Genesis?” Watch for the part where he compares himself to Jesus Christ.

Since his next three albums would also be eponymous, this one came to be known as Car for its simple cover art of a man asleep in the passenger seat. The next two would feature Peter raking his fingernails across the cover while looking sinister, leaving white marks where his fingers had been (thus it’s referred to as Scratch) and a simple black and white photo of Peter that’s been messed with while it was developing, making his face look like it’s melting (thus the moniker Melt). His fourth also features an image of Peter, but you wouldn’t know it; the distortion of the image makes his face look like a latex mask. It too is eponymous, but by that time the American market was sick and tired of him not naming his albums, so they named it for him, calling it Security.

Peter Gabriel's four eponymous albums

Peter Gabriel’s four eponymous albums

We as a music-consuming public have a little problem with albums that are named after the artist creating them, especially if it’s not their debut album. When an artist doesn’t provide a way to distinguish one album from another, we make one up. Debut albums with no title make more sense. After all, this is the first statement you’re making as an artist, so it just seems natural that you would begin with “Hi, my name is…”

Peter Gabriel isn’t even the only one to do it multiple times. Yet the public always picks some other feature of the album and refers to that. Metallica is called The Black Album. The Beatles is called The White Album. Led Zeppelin’s first album is commonly called I, and their fourth IV, though that might be because their second and third are legitimately titled II and III. But all Seal’s self-titled albums are named by number, too. And Weezer has The Blue Album, The Green Album, and The Red Album, all of which are officially titled only Weezer. They were planning on not having a separate title for a fourth time in 2010, but they knew that since it simply had a headshot of actor Jorge Garcia on the cover, fans would just call it Hurley, so they gave in.

And in 1988, R.E.M. had a clever little romp when they named their I.R.S.-days greatest hits compilation Eponymous. This probably seems a lot funnier to a wordsmith like me, but I gotta get my jollies where I can.

Peter Gabriel’s first two albums were interesting but very scattered. Car has no idea where it’s going, and despite its bright moments, it also has some pretty deep pits. Scratch has more direction, being one of three albums produced by Robert Fripp in 1978, and part of a loose trilogy (the other two are Sacred Songs by Daryl Hall and Fripp’s own Exposure), but it has neither a defining single or great songs. Melt, however, proved him to be a heavy hitter in the music world, one of the heaviest. He didn’t need Genesis behind him to make great records, and he wasn’t just a One Single Pony in his solo career.

Next: what’s this “real world” of which you speak?