Tag Archive: Genesis


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.

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?

In “The Colony of Slippermen” and the beginning of the fourth side of the vinyl, Rael meets a group of grotesquely deformed men; the Slipperman costume Peter Gabriel wore for the Lamb tour was the same as what’s described in the song. Upon meeting one of them, Rael discovers that he is indeed one of them, all having fallen prey to the lamias’ charms.

Rael’s brother John makes his 3rd appearance – the first being during “In the Cage,” the second in “The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging.” He, too, has become a Slipperman, and the only cure for their condition is… um, castration.

If you’ve never heard “The Colony of Slippermen” before and you’re learning about it for the first time now, I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too. I believe the modern way of conveying the sentiment is WTF??!!?!?

you have issues, my friend...

you have issues, my friend…

Against my better judgment, I’m gonna dip my toe into the ocean of psychosis Peter Gabriel is revealing here. So the progression goes Rael meets the lamia, Rael becomes a Slipperman, Rael visits Doktor Dyper to get castrated, Rael is cured. The rather obvious parallel to the lamia sequence is that there’s an inherent connection between sex and devouring, like a black widow killing and eating her mate. Likewise, the parallel to the Slippermen sequence is this: sex causes deformity, and elimination of the sexual urge cures the deformity.

Again, WTF??!!?!?

Anyway, there’re some bits about John abandoning Rael again when he’s needed, Rael having the chance to get out of this nightmareland and back to his beloved N.Y.C., and saving John from drowning only to find it’s not John but (GASP!) himself.

Honestly, the story of Rael and his journey lost me a long time ago. I agree with Tony Banks when he says that the story aspect of The Lamb is the weakest thing about it. It contains some simply amazing musical elements (the mind-bending heaviness of “In the Cage,” the timeless beauty of “The Carpet Crawlers,” the brief but epic keyboard solo in “The Colony of Slippermen,” others…) and the lyrics present some great ideas, but the actual plot is bizarre and directionless. I get that it’s a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress and that it’s more about the journey than the endpoint, but it winds up more like Naked Lunch without all the drug references.

Speaking of endpoints, the last thing that happens in the plot of The Lamb is Rael finding out that John is really himself. While this brings up questions of the definition of self and other existential issues, it’s quickly forgotten about with the instant segue into the capping track, “it.” The sweeping and epic tone of “it” are offset by its breakneck tempo; it’s easily the fastest song on The Lamb. The lyrics to “it” are very philosophical, descending into a soup of all the things it is. “It is chicken / it is eggs.” “It is real / it is Rael.” By the way, I’ve tried turning “it is Rael” into “it Israel” and making that mean something – it was futile.

The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway marked a change in the way the band operated, a way that proved unsustainable. With Banks, Rutherford, Hackett and Collins composing the music without Gabriel’s input, and Peter writing the lyrics alone, it put strains on what was before a very democratic band.

Partway through the writing process, Peter got his ego stroked by William Friedkin; Having just directed The Exorcist to great success, he wanted to remake Hollywood by bringing in all new people, including Peter as an “ideas man,” based on one of his song intro stories printed on the back of Genesis Live. After the band made it clear that he couldn’t work on the album and be Friedkin’s hanger-on, Gabriel said goodbye to Genesis. Horrified that he might have been responsible for Genesis breaking up, Friedkin backed off, and Gabriel returned to work. But the rest of Genesis could sense the beginning of the end, because they then knew that this could happen at any time.

Add to that the birth of Peter’s first child and the innumerable difficulties with the delivery. Doctors initially didn’t think Anna-Marie Gabriel would survive. Quite naturally, that ordeal became the center of Peter’s world in both thought and deed, and that meant his work with Genesis was dwarfed. But rather than responding with caring and humanity, the other band members were very unsupportive. That, I think, sealed the deal on Peter Gabriel leaving. He had the courtesy to finish the album and the following tour, but it was a poorly-kept secret that this would be Gabriel’s last hurrah with Genesis.

To me, The Lamb is kind of like a train wreck that explodes in glorious fireworks. It’s quite an awful sight, but a beautiful one too. It confuses me, frustrates me, fascinates me, and ultimately leaves me wanting more. Even though it never has a payoff, I can’t walk away from it – I don’t even want to, because it’s such a fantastic mess. It does what a precious few great pieces of art can, and that’s constantly being ALMOST within reach of its spectators… but not quite.

The Slipperman

The Slipperman

I’ve already noted Peter Gabriel’s tendency toward the dramatic and propensity for wearing costumes during Genesis performances. There’s the bat hat he wore for “Watcher of the Skies,” and the flower head and Magog, both for “Supper’s Ready.” There was also a character named Britannia he created for “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight,” and of course the famous fox head that started it all. But for the live performances of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway,” arguably Genesis’ most theatrical work, Peter only  donned two costumes for the entire 90+ minutes, and one of them was fairly nondescript.

The Rael costume involved little more than black jeans, a plain white t-shirt, and a black leather jacket. Peter used some make-up , mostly some black around the eyes to make him look more gaunt, but nothing else. As Rael, though, Peter didn’t look like Peter, which is of course the point of wearing a costume.

Rael

Rael

Even though The Lamb involved only two costumes, Peter’s showmanship wasn’t waning. While Rael wasn’t all that difficult, the other Lamb costume was his flashiest, his trickiest, and arguably his most famous. It was also something the entire band hated from the first time Peter wore it, especially Peter himself. The Slipperman was a bunch of green foams balls piled on top of each other, with holes for the arms and tights for the legs. It looked like a wretched, cancerous mass, barely distinguishable as a person. It worked very well in a story sense, since it matched the lyrics of “The Colony of Slippermen.”

His skin’s all covered in slimy lumps / With lips that slide across each chin / His twisted limbs like rubber stumps / Are waved in welcome, say “Please join in”

However, it was a nightmare in the practical sense. Peter needed a significant pause during the performance to get the costume on, which was the reason for “Silent Sorrow In Empty Boats,” a 3 minute instrumental that didn’t involve Peter. This was 1974, before the days of wireless mics or headsets. The only way for Peter’s voice to be amplified was for him to hold a mic like normal. The problem was the Slipperman costume didn’t really have a head. Not only was Peter blind, but he had to guess on where he was holding the mic. It’s amazing he could actually sing with that monstrosity on. Then after the song, the costume was a pain to get off and he needed the instrumental “Ravine” to go backstage and remove it. It was a lot of work for 8 minutes, but he did it every night.

Back to the story. After waking to find himself among people crawling on their hands and knees (who might be drug addicts) in “The Carpet Crawlers,” Rael finds himself in a room with 32 doors (“The Chamber of 32 Doors”). He gets out with the help of an old blind woman (“Lilywhite Lilith”) who was just leading him into the hands of Death himself (Anyway” and “Here Comes the Supernatural Anesthetist”). He survives his encounter with Death, and then comes across “three vermillion snakes of female face” (“The Lamia”). In a grand/weird/disturbing metaphor for sex, Rael gets into the lamias’ pool, shedding his shredded clothes, and the three lamia sensuously glide along his body. They then start to devour him, literally, taste-testing with their tongues and then nibbling his flesh. Rael is in ecstasy with this devouring, but the lamia convulse in pain and die. Then, in a final act of barbarism, Rael decides to eat the flesh of the dead lamia.

142 showmanship 03Clearly, this is the most disturbing thing on the record so far. Up until now it went from straightforward to surreal and slightly bizarre. With “The Lamia,” it takes a turn for the grotesque, and you don’t really see it coming. It reminds me of the first time I read Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor. The first few chapters are about a dude on a train and a street vendor selling a potato peeler gadget, and then suddenly Enoch is showing Hazel this mummified dwarf on display in a museum. My initial reaction was, “did that just happen??!?”

Next: jeez, what kind of sex are you having, Peter Gabriel? Never mind, don’t answer that…

Two figures mentioned on the second disc of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway are the Lilywhite Lilith and the Lamia, both having their own songs. These are two figures that come from Jewish mythology, but my first experience with them doesn’t come from either Genesis or Judaism. It comes from Final Fantasy II.

Lilith and Lamia were two random enemies you could fight in that game. They’re snake-like enemies with the power to charm your party members, making them attack your other party members without your control. The two enemies use the same graphic but different color palettes. They apparently have other permutations in other games from the series, but I know them from II.

Lilith (L) and Lamia (R)

Lilith (L) and Lamia (R)

Aside – Final Fantasy II is really Final Fantasy IV, but since the actual II, III and V were originally only released in Japan, American markets used to call it Final Fantasy II even though it was really IV, and the same is true for VI (they called it III). Okay, nerd moment over.

It would have been much more erudite and scholarly for me to first tell you about how Lilith and the Lamia are figures from mythology. I guess that’s one more opportunity missed. Nevertheless, the idea of Lilith comes from Jewish mysticism, and she was the original mate created for Adam. Unlike Eve, who was created from one of Adam’s ribs, Lilith was created at the same time and from the same earth as Adam. According to the legend, which first appeared in Jewish texts during the Middle Ages, she left Adam before the creation of Eve because she refused to submit to his authority. She left the Garden of Eden for good, and mated with the archangel Samael, who is known in Jewish traditions as the Angel of Death. Samael is where the iconic image of the Grim Reaper comes from. Lilith really traded up, lemme tell ya…

If you’re my age but didn’t have a love of Final Fantasy II when you were a kid, you might still know Lilith from the Lilith Fair, Sarah McLachlan’s estrogen-fueled festival from the late ’90s. The summer music festival featured a roster of all female performers or female-fronted bands. McLachlan founded the Lilith Fair in 1997 (with a bunch of men) to give woman fans an opportunity to spend all that disposable income. The male business executives McLachlan approached were all too eager to tap that market, drooling and slathering as they were.

The festival had an undercurrent of “Men suck! Lesbians rule!” to it, but it had a very impressive array of female artists on the bill. It had three stages going at the same time, and nearly every female artist or female-fronted band of note from the past 20 years was featured. Most of the stars were of the girl-strumming-an-acoustic-guitar variety, singing about their journey of self-discovery and the men who’ve impeded it. But it stuck to its mission statement, which was to give female artists a voice. All that was required to play the festival was a vagina, musical style notwithstanding.

The lamia is a creature from Greek myth, originally the beautiful queen of Libya in northern Africa. She became a child-devouring demon, at which point she mutated into a snake-like hybrid. The lamia is classically described as having the upper body of a beautiful human woman who becomes a serpent from the waist down. The word “lamia” comes from the Greek word from “gullet,” referring to her propensity for eating children. Lamia is sometimes identified as the daughter of Poseidon.

The Lamia

The lamia

Over the years, the legend of the lamia became something European mothers used to frighten their children into obedience. “If you’re bad, the lamia will get ya.” In the original Greek myth, Lamia is a mother driven mad by the deaths of her children. Zeus tries to placate her by giving her the gift of prophecy, but she becomes a monster, taking revenge on mothers who still have their children by devouring them. It’s pretty awful.

Interestingly enough, they share something in common. In the Bible, the book of Isaiah features 39 chapters all about how nation-states who oppose or disobey God are in for a real bad time, right before 27 chapters of how God’s kingdom will one day be restored and everything will be cool. In Isaiah 34, there is talk of the land of Edom and how screwed it is. In it, Isaiah lists a bunch of animals that are unclean, most likely with demonic associations. “Lilith” is among them, but in the Latin Vulgate, the word “lilith” is translated as “lamia.” Quite obviously, neither Lilith nor the lamia originate from the Hebrew Bible, but come from ancient mythology. Lilith even goes back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, composed in 600 BC, long before Isaiah was written.

Do you care? I thought not. Back to Genesis!

Next at AO: costumes are awesome…ly horrible.

Their American fans may forget this at times, but Genesis is British. The fact that they came from across the Atlantic didn’t matter to me when I was 11. I guess I knew it, but that they were English didn’t really mean anything. But that fact became more present as I became more aware of the world around me. “American” was just the default position when I was younger, but Genesis is distinctly not American.

The biggest evidence of that is the album Selling England By the Pound, which not only has its country of origin in the title, but contain themes and subject matter that pertain particularly to Great Britain. By that time, Genesis had carved out a place for themselves in the British musical landscape. And then, at the end of 1974, they busted out of the box by centering their newest album, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, on New York City, the epitome of American-ness. Furthermore, the main character of this rock opera-ish is not a knight or a minstrel or a member of the Royal Guard, but a greasy Puerto Rican kid with a spray gun and a hairy heart.

Rael

Rael

Let me explain that last part. Rael’s heart, in the metaphorical sense only, is very hairy at the start of the story. From the best I can understand, this means he’s ruled by emotion rather than reason. The “hair” on his heart represents id-based urges and desires, unconnected to societal norms or restrictions. As a punk greaser with a rebellious attitude and a chip on his shoulder the size of the Chrysler building, Rael wants what he wants and doesn’t care who he hurts…

Until the song “Back In N.Y.C.” In this part of the journey, we get some of Rael’s backstory and start to understand this nightmarish world he’s stumbled into by accident. He’s nothing more than a juvenile delinquent, sent to Pontiac (a juvenile detention center in NY that, as far as my web search could find, doesn’t exist) and released when he was 17. “Back In N.Y.C.” is the moment where Rael shaves his hairy heart, shedding the flailing chaos of being controlled by his desires and moving forward with a measured and reasoned attitude. It’s not unlike Pink in the movie version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Pink shaves off all the hair on his entire body, and after that becomes a totalitarian dictator. Didn’t work out too well for Pink, and Rael’s result is… I’m not really sure.

It begs the question: is it better to rule over our desires or to have our desires rule us? Here’s the same question with a different spin: is it better to do what we want or to do what we’re told? Let me put it a third way, one that uses the language of The Lamb: do we shave our hairy hearts and eliminate all desires and live like robots, or do we let the hair grow and be slaves to our own whims and momentary wants?

My answer to all those questions is “neither.” The desires of your heart are called “desires” for a reason, and they should be at least listened to. But your heart isn’t the end-all-be-all of who you are, much as it tries to be sometimes. The pat phrase “follow your heart” ticks me off, simply because it’s so flagrantly unwise. You should listen to your heart, but you shouldn’t do everything it says. It’s a very good resource on a lot of things, but it’ll lead you astray from time to time. After all, your heart can lie to you. Rael learns this a little later in the album, but we’ll get to that.

Kind of in reverse order, we learn why Rael shaved his heart in “Counting Out Time.” Herein lies the tale of Rael’s first sexual conquest, and the song reveals that Rael was living with his selfish desires out of control. He was operating only on getting what he wants, not caring who he does wrong.

Peter Gabriel broke pattern with the rest of the album in writing the lyrics and music for this song, which was really his first taste of being in complete charge of the musical direction of a song. It shows, too, because “Counting Out Time” doesn’t fit into any category Genesis has used before. While the rest of The Lamb is brooding and a little dour, “Counting Out Time” is downright goofy. The guitar sound during the solo is particularly off-the-wall. It bears resemblance to “Moribund the Burgermeister” and “Excuse Me,” two tracks on Peter Gabriel’s first solo album from 1977. The pinnacle of the silliness comes with the lyric “Honey, get hip! It’s time to unzip! Zip-a-zip-a-zip, whoopee!!!”

“Counting Out Time” is among the more straightforward numbers on The Lamb. It details Rael’s exploration of the sexual realm, and his acquisition of a book called Erogenous Zones and Difficulties in Overcoming Finding Them. This might be an actual book, but there’s no hard evidence to prove it. Rael follows it to the letter, but forgets that there’s an actual person he’s practicing on. What strikes me most about it is the supreme selfishness with which he goes about learning about sex. Sex is a two-person act, and you can’t learn about it in a sterile, consequence-less environment. You have to learn by doing, and it’s all on the record.

Next: if The Lamb is about any single thing (which it’s not), it’s about sex.

There a several different arguments for what The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is ultimately about, which really means isn’t not about any one particular thing. That element makes for good art, but also makes my job much harder. The best I can do is provide insight, and you’ll have to figure the rest out on your own. You’re supposed to, though; when someone tells what a piece of art is about and you don’t come to it on your own, it’s not art.

The next section (“Cuckoo Cocoon” and the intro to “In the Cage”) have one interesting interpretation: heroin. In the plotline, this is Rael’s entrance to this other world, a world that’s bizarre, hellish and nightmare-filled, but populated by his innermost fears, desires and drives. But alternatively, “Cuckoo Cocoon” could be about Rael’s first taste of heroin. The description of a soft feeling all around him (“wrapped up in some powdered wool”) and the awareness that it’s too good to be true (“I feel so secure that I know this can’t be real, but I feel good”) are similar to the sensations of a heroin high. I wonder what Lou Reed would think of this, being a sort of PhD on this subject.

Rael then drifts to sleep and wakes up with “sunshine in [his] stomach,” which is an arty way of saying he’s gonna puke. Again, this is consistent with heroin. I’ve never been on the drug myself, but I imagine everything is worse when you come down from a high. Nowhere else on the entire album can a case be made for the songs being about heroin (with the possible exception of “Carpet Crawlers”), but it’s interesting, anyway.

Then we get into the real meat of “In the Cage,” and come to the place where the themes of The Lamb really take shape. Now that the “high” of “Cuckoo Cocoon” has worn off, Rael discovers his situation to be startlingly and distressingly changed, the powdered wool turning to cold stone. Stalactites and stalagmites close in on him to form a sort of cage, and Rael is trapped.

It’s is here that Brother John makes his first appearance. As Rael’s despair is growing, he sees his brother outside the cage and calls to him for help. But like the callous, selfish child he is (and as we all are), he turns away. The name “John,” which is one of the most common male given names in history, suggests John’s anonymous nature and his ability to be any one of us, someone we’re meant to use as a stand-in for ourselves. Even some religious imagery is employed with John’s tear of blood; in some Catholic traditions, Jesus is said to have cried blood at his crucifixion.

“In the Cage” is one of the big showpieces on The Lamb, which is mostly made up of shorter songs (or at least “shorter” by Genesis standards). It clocks in at over 8 minutes and features the first of several spectacular synth solos courtesy of Tony Banks. For that little piece of keyboard awesomeness, we have only Tony to thank. Peter Gabriel penned almost all of the lyrics for The Lamb, leaving the rest of the band to come up with the music. It was a very different way of composing for them. Genesis was used to writing songs using a more organic, natural method – all of them sitting with their instruments and creating ex nihilo, contributions coming from all members. Here, Peter went off into his own space in a singular fashion, and the music was composed as a four-piece.

Peter must have liked that I’m-the-boss mode of songwriting, because The Lamb was his last album with Genesis. He soon embarked on a very successful solo career spanning another 30+ years, and most people know him more for his ‘80s solo singles than anything he did with Genesis. In fact, he’s mostly just known as the dude with the train tracks around his head.

When I first heard “In the Cage,” it was on the Phil-era live album Three Sides Live. “In the Cage” was the first part of a medley that included segments of “The Cinema Show” and “The Colony of Slippermen.” Before I bought that 2-tape copy of Three Sides Live, I didn’t know any of these songs existed. Now, I appreciate it (as well as the late ‘70s live Seconds Out) as Phil’s interesting take on Peter songs. Some Genesis fans think it a sickening travesty that Phil would even touch Peter’s songs, and it does seem strange considering the wildly different direction Phil steered Genesis into during the ‘80s. A few of the more vocal (read as “stupid”) Genesis fans would have rathered that Genesis just dissolved after Peter left.

But not me. It can’t be denied that Phil Collins is a consummate performer, an expert showman and a dynamic frontman. He’s the Dave Grohl of the ’70s – the drummer behind a shiny star of a lead singer that becomes an even shinier star once the first star makes its exit. And as such, Phil does Peter in a way that Peter never could (and wouldn’t really want to); the result is fascinating. He’s added colors of interpretation to each pre-Phil song he’s chosen that simply weren’t there before, and that’s worth something. He doesn’t subtract anything from Peter’s base – just makes it different.

2013. Twenty thirteen. Just like the past thirteen years, the name of the year hasn’t been uttered a lot, not nearly as much as it will be in the year to come. It’s a new beginning, or it at least seems that way to the millions making earnest but unrealistic resolutions they’ll break in 8 days. Then it’ll be back to the same, back to comfort, back to complacency, back to normality. Normality sounds like it has a negative spin, but does it? After all, I think after the inevitable zombie apocalypse, we would thirst for a little normality.

I can imagine Genesis’ benchmark rock opera The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway taking place on New Year’s Day, 1974. It’s New York City, and much revelry and carousing (not to mention millions of incidents of synchronized smooching) have occurred a mere 7 hours earlier. Even after a bad hangover, life still goes on, and indeed never stopped in the City That Doesn’t Sleep. The “all-night watchmen” (the police) haven’t batted an eyelash; this happens every year in Times Square, and isn’t all that different from what happens every day in Times Square – it’s just bigger.

The first track, titled “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” begins with a fade-in piano trill. Our main character, Rael, is introduced by the hiss and acidic smell of a can of spray paint. The 42nd St. N station has a new marking, but it’s not really noticeable among the thousands of others except that it’s on top, being freshly created. This was long before Guiliani came through with his broom and swept away all the drug dealers, strip clubs and graffiti. Rael’s own graffiti says simply that – R-A-E-L.

As Rael exits the subway, the strangeness is set in motion, and the album is off and running. It starts with what the album draws its name from, literally a lamb lying down in the middle of Broadway. While this action doesn’t actually have anything to do with the plot, it’s filled with possible metaphorical and allegorical meanings. The image of the lamb translated very simply is “the lamb dies in New York,” which could be expanded to “God sacrifices himself for the sin of the world.” This interpretation will bear out in the rest of the album, but I don’t want to give anything away.

Peter Gabriel as Rael

Peter Gabriel as Rael

Okay, I’ll give a little away. Rael is a Christ figure. He sacrifices himself (in a number of ways) to save the life, sanity and body of his brother John, a character we meet a little later. Despite his brother Rael’s selfless acts, John is ungrateful and undeserving. Kinda looks similar to our relationship with God, don’t ya think?

Anyway, back to New York. We have a lot of the trappings of Manhattan life, in particular porno theaters, strippers working the night shift, and cabs zipping around like they own the place. The steam through the grates lends a shadowy haze to the streets, an indication of the dreamy world Rael is about to enter. Rael seeing the lamb is strange enough, but it only gets stranger.

“Fly On a Windshield” segues gently from the title track, but there’s a shift in musical modes. “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” was solidly paced and excited, but “Fly” is troublesome, like a storm that hasn’t hit yet. What Rael sees is more than just a lamb now. A black cloud descends on Times Square, forming tightly into a vertical surface that extends to the sky, a “wall of death.” It moves forward, becoming like a movie screen, projecting in 2 dimensions what is behind it. It’s moving towards Rael.

Suddenly it hits, the music indicating it. At the beginning of “Broadway Melody of 1974,” parts of New York culture and American culture in general weave, twist and morph around in a cyclonic maelstrom. References are drawn to everything from Lenny Bruce to Winston cigarettes. All the disparate elements gyre and gimble till they’re almost unrecognizable, at which point Rael is completely in the other world, where he spends most of the remainder of the album.

The division between “Fly On a Windshield” and “Broadway Melody of 1974” is a contentious issue. The remastered CD version, for some unfathomable reason, has the third track starting over a minute after “Melody” actually begins, and after all the lyrics are already sung. According to all the CD versions, “Melody” is only 30 seconds of soft, beatless guitar that segues into the fourth track, “Cuckoo Cocoon.” Let the record forever show that “Fly On a Windshield” is NOT 4 minutes and 12 seconds, and “Broadway Melody of 1974” starts on the measure when Peter Gabriel sings “echoes of the Broadway Everglades…” Thank you.

Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway - 11/18/1974

Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway – 11/18/1974

In 1973, Peter Gabriel was concerned about including some sort of English conceit in the title of Genesis’s next album. He was aware that there was a sentiment among their English fandom that they were getting too American. I’m not really sure what that looks like, but I think I can imagine what getting too British might be. If Bruce Springsteen were to suddenly take an interest in cricket or start saying “bloody hell” in more than an ironic sense, I might get suspicious.

In reaction, Peter and the rest of Genesis doubled down and made their 1973 record Selling England By the Pound particularly and conspicuously British. The cover art was by a British painter, the first two songs had a British feel to the lyrics, and the title both had “England” in it and was drawn from a contemporary English political slogan. There ya go – English fans sated.

13 months later, that concern was apparently all gone. Just as their 5th album had “England” in the title, their 6th had “Broadway” in the title. What American isn’t familiar with Broadway? And just as Selling England featured Britain and British attitudes, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway centers on New York City and things Americans understand. The main character of this concept album lives in Manhattan! The story starts in Times Square! If Gabriel is still trying to soothe his British fans into thinking he’s still British, he’s doing a really crappy job.

artwork from The Amory Wars saga

The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is a concept album, which as I’ve explained before is a mostly useless term. In The Lamb, however, it finds its most useful definition, as well as other albums like it. The term “rock opera” better describes The Lamb and other albums like it (Quadrophenia and Tommy from The Who, Snow by Spock’s Beard, The Hazards of Love from the Decemberists, as well as the multiple Amory Wars albums by Coheed and Cambria). They do more than simply tell a story – Sgt. Pepper and Ziggy Stardust do that, but they’re not really in the same division as rock operas.

The Lamb is one of the only rock operas I like. The rock opera is fraught with peril – when you write one, you’re balancing on the razor edge between legitimate and ridiculous. What’s meant to be serious can very easily come off as stupid. The slightest miscalculation on your part, and your audience becomes aware it’s all a show, and starts to laugh. When that happens, you’ve lost them. It’s like a marionette show – the best ones are the ones where you can’t see the strings.

On The Lamb, Genesis plays some pretty risky games with plot and characterization (like the only cure to a horribly disfiguring disease being castration…), but it comes out clean on the other end due to… I’m not really sure what. The only explanation I can come up with for my high regard for it is that I first experienced it when I was a teenager, after my gaga-for-Genesis phase, but before I became a really critical thinker. I still swallowed some things whole, and Genesis still had that sugary candy coating. And I guess it’s still there in my stomach, unlike most other rock operas which sped through my system quite quickly.

But I also love The Lamb because it’s so fascinating. Every inch of it takes deep analysis and concentrated study to understand, and even then you only scratch the surface. In that way, it’s very similar to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”; isn’t it ironic that what draws me in about The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is the same thing that keeps me at arms’ length from “The Waste Land”?

Next: Rael, Imperial Aerosol Kid

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

Since high school, my favorite poet has been T. S. Eliot. As a poet myself, you couldn’t really tell; my style is much more similar to Emily Dickinson and Alfred Lord Tennyson, with a little Byron thrown in there. But Eliot remains my favorite, in part because I can’t imitate him. Every time I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and especially “Journey of the Magi,” I am defeated by his rhythms, choice of words, but most of all his content. My poetry is good for what it is, but there always a sneaking doubt in my mind that says, “well, I’ll never be as good as T. S. Eliot…”

My least favorite poem by my most favorite poet is “The Waste Land.” I know, some of you fellow Eliot enthusiasts are gasping in horror. “The Waste Land” is Eliot’s undisputed greatest work, his magnum opus, if you will. And I recognize that it’s a seminal work in the craft of poetry and represent a shift in style for the entire art form. But I’ve only read in completely though once, and that was for a college class. Each time I try, I get frustrated – not with the poem, but with myself, my lack of focus, and my inability to understand it. And I’d wager that this is a feeling that a lot of “The Waste Land’s” readers have felt at least once, even if they won’t admit it.

Tiresias, the blind prophet

Tiresias, the blind prophet

A central figure in “The Waste Land” is the character Tiresias, the famous blind prophet from Greek myth. His most famous appearance is in Oedipus Rex, where he reveals what eventually ends (spoiler alert) with Oedipus poking out his own eyes. The highlight of his appearance in “The Waste Land,” however, is his experience as both a man and a woman.

The myth, when boiled down to almost nothing, says Tiresias was a pawn in a bet the gods had going about which of the genders enjoyed sex more. Tiresias, being a mortal man, was transformed into a woman to compare and contrast the pleasures of sex from both perspectives. His answer? If 10 is the total enjoyment of sex, women enjoy it 7 and men enjoy it 3. Being men, this pissed the gods off something awful. In a true shoot-the-messenger fashion, they instantly struck Tiresias blind. As a consolation prize, though, they gave him the ability to perfectly foresee the future. A fat lot of good it did him; when he told people what would happen in the future they never listened to him, despite the fact that he was always right.

“The Waste Land” isn’t about Tiresias directly, but uses him to further explore the intricacies of gender, the differences between them, and what it means to be male or female. I’m surprised David Bowie didn’t do an entire album based on “The Waste Land,” since this is right up his alley. Instead, we get a little retelling/recasting of the whole Tiresias/Waste Land characterization in Genesis’s “The Cinema Show.”

Now, “The Cinema Show” is NOT “The Waste Land.” When they stand next to each other, you want to push them apart. In fact, if “The Waste Land” were a human body that suddenly sprouted a second head and the two heads started arguing with each other, the second head would be “The Cinema Show.”

There’s a passage from “The Waste Land” that talks about a woman simply referred to as “the typist” and a young man and their sexual encounter. “The Cinema Show” has similar characters, but Gabriel calls upon another source (Shakespeare) and calls them “Romeo” and “Juliet.” Eliot’s account of this encounter is dark and unsettling, filled with harsh and alarming physicality. In it, we have the injustice and imbalance of the man taking by force exactly what he wants from the woman, and the woman not even trying to resist. At the end, the woman is left empty while the man is full. In Peter Gabriel’s recasting of this story, however, it takes a near-180; it’s a little silly, a little playful, and dare I say romantic. The only hint we have that it’s the same story is the imperative of Romeo’s words: “I WILL make my bed with her tonight…” But why WILL he? ‘Cause he brought her chocolate. Giving the typist free candy probably isn’t something that would even occur to Eliot’s “young man carbuncular.”

Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel

If we only have the two options of Eliot’s somber and hopeless approach to the gender divide and Gabriel’s “whatcha cryin’ about?” attitude about the same thing, I’d choose Gabriel’s. But it strikes me, as it does with a lot of things, that there must be a third option. If I’m looking for something and I’m not happy with what I find, I’m gonna keep looking.

From my own perspective, gender and its offshoots are not universal for all people… at all, really. There are as many different ways to be men as there are men. But at the same time, I don’t hold with the loose and fast “gender-don’t-mean-a-thing” attitude that’s so prevalent in our society today. Despite some people trying to deny it, men and women are just different. That’s not a limiting thing, or at least it doesn’t have to be. But there’s nothing wrong with the exploration of what it means to be a man or a woman, or even if it means anything at all. I’ve always thought that questions lead to answers if you ask the right person. I believe there is an answer to the question of the gender divide, and it’s NOT as simple “boys play sports and girls play with dolls.” Whoever said that lacked imagination.