Tag Archive: Biko


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.

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.