'Born in the U.S.A." "I ain't gonna play Sun City." Lyric fragments that, once heard, become a whole political statement in miniature, a rhythmic testament of pride and conscience. There is another that belongs in their company. It is a simple declarative dedication, really, spoken quietly by Peter Gabriel: "This is for Steven Biko." And Biko begins, it's incantatory drum sounds and eldritch rhythms working some deep magic before Gabriel even gets to the first verse.
Gabriel, one of the most respected and most elusive of Britain's rock elite, meant Biko to be an act of conscientous solidarity. Steven Biko was a black South African activist who died while in police custody, and, as Gabriel performs his tribute, the song takes on the power of a folk requiem. Gabriel, however, has found a resonance in Biko's death that goes beyond outrage or simple protest. The further away history moves, the deeper Biko cuts. "You can blow out a candle / but you can't blow out a fire / once the flames begin to catch / the wind will blow it higher," Gabriel sings. Hearing that song during last spring's Amnesty International tour, or at the June 14 anti-aparthied rally in New York City's Central Park, there was no resisting either its heat or its true moral force. Biko is a song full of ghosts that will haunt any political present.
It also marked an important way station in Gabriel's career, combining activism with intricate, African-inflected rhythms. That soulful style, similar to Paul Simon's recent Graceland excursions but rather more somber, found its fleetest expression in last year's smash album So and Top Five single Sledgehammer, a smoking slice of revisionist 1960's rhythm and blues that turned male sexual braggadocio into high comedy. The album and the single just earned Gabriel four Grammy nominations (awards to be announced Feb. 24), and the singer says that he is "pleased." Then, using a characteristic combination of deflective wit and earnestness, he adds, "I'm a little cynical about awards, but it's different when you're nominated for one yourself. The thing that would be nice is if the Grammy people opened up to Third World music."
As a founder of Genesis, while still at England's tony Charterhouse public school, Gabriel, now 36, has an extensive rock pedigree. When he left the band in 1975 and went solo, he remained a restless creative force but gave up much of his commercial clout. The rhythmic complexities of his songs wove eerie aural patterns through which lyrics chased each other like phantoms from a surrealist serial. The music was simultaneously challenging and forbidding, and Gabriel was typed unfairly as an elitist working in a populist form. Biko began breaking this image down, and the So album has put it to rest forever. The process has received no little help from the raucous Sledgehammer video, which shows Gabriel in novel, self-mocking form, acting like a live-action cartoon surrounded by some nicely beserk animation. "I was lying under glass with a steel pole supporting my head," Gabriel reports. "We'd work 16 hours a day, for eight days, shooting almost frame by frame. It was very painful."
All of So is shot through with hurt and hope. It balances political idealism against personal turmoil, and some of its best songs, like the ethereal Don't Give Up, could stand either as gentle anthems or as personal pledges to keep a relationship going. Gabriel met his wife Jill Moore at school when he was 16 and she 14. They have been married for 15 years, although some of the turbulence in So is a reflection of a recent 18-month seperation. A couples counseling group in London and a dose of est training ("It's got a very bad image, but it was definitely the first thing toward opening me up") put the marraige back on a steadier course. Jill, daughter of Sir Phillip Moore, retired private secretary to the Queen, has now become a marraige couselor. Her husband detects "some irony" in the fact that a portion of his So music is "up and happier than it has been before. It was a dark period for me and one in which I had to become a little more open to the world."
Still, Gabriel likes to keep personal details tuned to low volume, just as he has expunged all traces of his upper-middle-class accent, and just as he lives, with Jill and their two children, seperate from the hot rock social scene in London. The family moved to the West Country, near Bath, twelve years ago "to find a detached house I could afford so I could play my music without people banging on the walls." Gabriel is building what he calls an "experimental audiovisual studio." Always something of a technocrat, he comes alive when he talks about the creative possibilities of electronic wizardry. "The combined influence of technology and the introduction to other rhythms -- from Africa -- from Brazil -- changed my writing," he says. "Typically, I start with a rhythm machine and improvise around a good groove. When the ideas stop, the groove carries on. Get into it, stay with it, and out of twelve hours on the tape, there will be ten or 15 seconds that I like. The programmable drum machine allows not very able, but enthusiastic drummers like myself, to take control of the grooves."
At the new studio, Gabriel dreams of "creating images simultaneously with sound, generating a lot of interesting long-form videos, trying to get unorthodox collaborations like Dolly Parton and David Hockney." He fantasizes about a futuristic, interactive amusement park, even as he is helping to organize, on behalf of Amnesty International, a "human rights caravan for 1988."
Big dreams. Gabriel reflects, "I can't do drugs. I was curious about acid but scared of it. My dreams were too strong." No wonder. Seems like many of them, after a time, have a way of coming true.