Archive for October, 2013


Laser Beam

179 laser beam 02Peter Gabriel has a bit of a history of delving into fantastical, esoteric and sometimes downright bizarre subject matter. He did a song about leaving Genesis in which he draws a comparison between Jesus Christ and himself, sings about sentient plants who want to destroy humanity, and covers such subjects as voodoo, touch healing, and hermaphrodites. And let’s not forget the 90-minute magnum opus of weirdness that is The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.

But once in a while, he turns his attention to the real world, tightly focusing like a laser beam on actual events. And he does it in a way that forces us to focus, too. The things he shows us may be horrifying in one way or another, but we’re completely unable to look away.

179 laser beam 01Jeux Sans Frontières was a game show on the BBC and in other European countries. Different teams representing their country of origin would compete in ridiculous, over-the-top games involving obstacle courses, all of them wearing goofy latex costumes of matching colors. It ran from 1965 to 1999, though just in specials for the last few years.

Seems quite innocent enough, right? But in the hands of someone like Peter Gabriel, it becomes a grand comment on the nature of war and how it’s simply a game to the people who orchestrate it. “Games Without Frontiers,” a literal translation of the French name of the show (it was called It’s a Knockout in the UK), uses sing-songy rhythms and unsettling guitar sounds to demonstrate its point, as well as a lyrical set-up like an international list of children playing Capture the Flag. The total effect is an incredibly creepy song, one that captures your attention and holds in its disturbing sway.

Guest vocalist Kate Bush appears on this song, repeating the tag line of “jeux sans frontiers,” which gets misheard almost as much as “hold me closer, Tony Danza.” For a long time, I thought it was “she’s so funky, yeah…” And the use of Kate Bush adds to the creepiness of the song, her voice being both bizarre and alluring.

Besides “Games Without Frontiers” and the previously discussed “Family Snapshot,” the other place on Melt where Gabriel laser-beams in and makes you stare at the horrifying truth of things is on cap track “Biko.” It starts off with clearly African voices singing in an exotic language one refrain over and over again. It’s the Zulu protest song “Senzeni Na?”, commonly sung at South African funerals where the person being buried was an anti-apartheid activist or martyr. This particular segment is a live recording of singers at the funeral of Steve Biko.

Biko was one of the strongest voices against apartheid in South Africa, and was the very definition of what the South African government at the time termed an “agitator.” He was arrested in late August of 1977, held in custody for several days, and taken in September by police to the Walmer Street prison in Port Elizabeth. There he was interrogated, beaten and tortured by police in room 619, and sustained severe head injuries. At that point, he was transferred to another prison in Pretoria (not a hospital), where he died a few days later.

“Biko” is not only the best track on Melt, but it’s also one of Peter Gabriel’s best-known and best-loved songs. He closes nearly every concert with it, and it has been a regular part of his repertoire since it was first released. It’s supported by a backbone of quiet yet sonorous drums and some tribe-style grunting, Later, the backing chords are provided by what sound like bagpipes. The song has a very slow pace, no guitar heroics to speak of – about 2 chords are played in the entire song – and doesn’t even feature Gabriel’s best singing. Nevertheless, emotions are high in this song which clearly emphasizes that less is more.

179 laser beam 03The song contains some powerful lyrics, but two of them jump out at me. The first is “You can blow out a candle / But you can’t blow out a fire.” The white officials and police could blow out Biko’s candle by silencing his voice, and use extraordinarily brutal and savage means to do so. But they couldn’t blow out the fire that silencing him would ignite. And with the freeing and election of Nelson Mandela, that fire finally consumed them and apartheid ended.

And the closing lyrics of the song are this: “The eyes of the world are watching now.” This isn’t just a historical observation; you’ll notice the lyric is not “The eyes of the world were watching then.” Steve Biko and his death were big deals, but “Biko” is talking about something far less temporal. And it’s not really a call to action or a mobilizing message to the masses – that’s not what Peter Gabriel does. Instead, he’s using his laser beam again, focusing on you and your own heart. What will you do? The next time you see injustice before your very eyes, whenever and however it may come to pass, what will you do?

It’s a hypothetical question, one which we can’t answer until it becomes real to us. And it will – at some point you will need to answer that question. For me, the first person to ask it to me was Peter Gabriel.

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Crash, Ride, Hi-Hat

Roberto is the drummer on the Worship Team at our church. Nowadays, that might not seem like a big thing; churches not only have drummers, but 3 loud guitars, smoke machines, complicated lightning schemes and the most cutting edge worship music available. Some worship bands look more like they’re performing a rock concert than leading people in actual worship. They have “Worship” in their name for a reason, and a lot of worship bands would do well to remember that more often.

But at our church, the fact that we have a regular drummer every week, and he’s an integral and fully accepted part of our Worship Team, is a big step forward for us. One of the biggest problems we’ve ever had at our church is the long-standing resistance to change in the music from the older members of the congregation. Folks who had been at this church 30 years were threatening to leave; first it was because we used choruses (some of which were written in the ‘70s) in addition to hymns. Then it was because we used some choruses that weren’t lifted directly from scripture. Then it was because we started incorporating a drum kit into our worship. Then it was the electric guitar. And worst of all, a few people thought our church shouldn’t do these things because they were somehow un-Christian or satanic.

hmm, maybe it really is satanic... ;-)

hmm, maybe it really is satanic… 😉

Roberto is the one and only drummer our Worship Team has. No backups. When he’s not there, we just don’t have any drums, and the music suffers. In one of his most candid and naked moments, he told me about how hard it is to be such a visible figure of what some members of our congregation (even still) didn’t want. When he got down to specifics, he said what people had the biggest problem with was cymbal crashes. He uses them sparingly, but occasionally in practice he’ll cut loose with some crazy cymbal-snare-tom freak-out, like a little storm that lasts 5 seconds, reminding me distinctly of Neil Peart.

It’s mystifying to me. Cymbals? Really? Why, out of all the features of drumming, do you pick out cymbals to be the top church-disturbing thing?

If I step outside myself for a moment, I can actually see the elder church members’ point, and it’s because my mom has a form of the same point. (You’re not an elder, mom – didn’t mean to imply that) My mom was an MK – Missionary Kid, that is – in Guatemala, so she grew up in a church that was largely cut off from the American Christian experience. In a way, that makes it purer, but it also makes it slower to change. To her, church music is all about hymns. She loves hymns, and I’ve learned to love hymns because I love her. And since her love of hymns reaches so deep, to the very depths of her childhood, it makes her profoundly sad to see our modern church society where hymns are all but forgotten, even disrespected. So it makes sense for her to have some angst directed at what has replaced them. I get it.

But God would not have us be stagnant and unmoving. God is all about our growth and forward motion, both in our individual lives and as a Church (that’s with a capital C). And this has been a hard lesson for me to learn, but for those in the grip of grace, for those who trust in the Lord, there isn’t anything to fear from change. Change is good.

So what about cymbals? Were it merely on a practical level, without all this “IT’S SATANIC!!!” garbage, I think I could at least understand it. Cymbals are, by their very nature, crashing. That’s why one type of them is called a crash. Crashes are typically played on the first beat of a four-measure or eight-measure figure, like at the beginning of a verse or a chorus. And their primary function is to add punctuation to the beat, piercing your consciousness in the process. And let’s face it – old people don’t like having their consciousnesses pierced (or their eardrums). Maybe the reason certain elders of our church’s congregation have objected to cymbals (and drums in general) in the past isn’t “it’s unholy” or “we must avoid the appearance of evil,” but that they simply don’t like them. That, at least, makes sense to me.

Melt by Peter Gabriel is a landmark album for him in many ways, but the most radical is this: it doesn’t contain any cymbals. Not a single crash, ride or hi-hat, not a single hit of the brass anywhere on the album. This was intentional – Gabriel, though he’s a multi-instrumentalist, doesn’t play the drums, so he instructed Phil Collins (who guested on a few tracks) and regular drummer Jerry Marotta that this was his concept for the album. This made the music more primitive, more elemental, and recalled images of jungle tribesmen in Africa with painted bodies and feathers on their clothes. And even though Melt deals with real world issues like no other previous Gabriel album, the inflection of the whole thing is one of elemental human reaction, of listening to your gut above all other things.

Maybe I should sit those elder members of our congregation down and make them listen to Melt. After all, they wanted no cymbals! I kid…

Next: September ’77, Port Elizabeth, weather fine…