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.
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.