Singer Peter Gabriel Reveals His Inner Journey
The British pop star pauses mid-tour to talk of his recent struggles
LOS ANGELES — `The last thing a man will let go is his suffering.'
SITTING in a hotel suite, his gray hair offsetting alert blue eyes, Peter Gabriel says he mulled those words over many times in the past seven years. The depth of their meaning became clear when the breakup of his 20-year marriage and a subsequent failed romance sent the British pop star into an emotional tailspin.
One part of his recovery involved making the 1992 album, "Us," Mr. Gabriel's most personal yet, and the ensuing world tour he has brought to the United States this summer. The show, designed by respected Canadian director Robert Lepage, is an attempt to visually represent the meaning and spirit of Gabriel's music.
Two stages, joined by a motorized walkway are meant to signify polarities: male-female and public-personal. Video cameras, an assortment of props, and an international band help bridge Gabriel's strikingly diverse subject matter - from the political-social song "Biko" to the painful self-reflections of "Washing of the Water," a song from the current album.
"I hate to use the word theatrical, because that's not really what it is," Gabriel says. "The show is meant to be visual information, not spectacle."
To put the tour together, Gabriel was forced to examine the course of his music since he left the progressive art-rock band Genesis in the mid 1970s.
"It was clear, when looking at this body of work - which I had never done before - that one theme dominated," he says. "Transformation."
Gabriel has changed dramatically since he wrote musically dense, story songs with Genesis. As a solo artist, his music took on African and Middle Eastern influences, an emphasis on rhythm and a stark musical aesthetic. But he was still an eccentric cult artist until the 1986 release of "So." The album's hit singles, the funky "Sledgehammer," and the ironic "Big Time," along with innovative videos, elevated Gabriel to an international pop star.
But Gabriel's greatest metamorphosis has been the internal journey of the past few years, he says. Dressed in a blue work shirt and jeans, Gabriel speaks with the calm of someone who has confronted his fears and emerged stronger.
"Change is much harder than we think," he says.
"I'm 43 now. I've spent the past years trying to get conscious of the inner tapes that have been passed down from generation to generation. I know that if I accept my patterned programming, then I have the possibility of changing it."
Only one person in Gabriel's group therapy recognized him as a rock star. "The rest knew me as Peter, a musician," he says with a smile. "Some of them saw me on the Mandela benefit show, and they got quite a shock."
During this period, Gabriel continued to work on music projects. He recorded "Passion," an instrumental-only soundtrack for Martin Scorcese's film "The Last Temptation of Christ." He started the Real World label, which recorded third-world musicians, and he released a "best of" collection, "Shaking the Tree," in 1990.
Last year he turned his attention to WOMAD, (the World of Arts, Music and Dance), Gabriel's 13-year old organization dedicated to promoting third-world artists. WOMAD nearly collapsed for lack of financing, but now a series of concerts has been organized to raise funds. In September, not long after his solo tour ends, Gabriel will embark on a brief WOMAD tour.
Musically, evidence of Gabriel's internal changes are contained in "Us." Although his previous work was intelligent, moving, and compassionate, Gabriel kept his inner feelings in the background, revealing emotions mostly by adopting characters in songs. Personal feelings were handled abstractly.
In "Us," he bares his soul, "the darkness in his heart," as he says in one song.
"I had more confidence in what I was doing this time," Gabriel says. "I felt more openness on this record."
How does he feel about his former persona, who literally wore masks when he performed on stage? Gabriel raises an eyebrow and smiles.
"I consider that a healthy part of growing up. In some cultures, masks are used to externalize feelings," he says.
"Giving yourself permission to be what you are anyway can be very difficult but very liberating. If you're willing to work at it, you have a chance of moving on."
He thinks for a moment and offers another quotation: "The door that locks you in is the door that lets you out."
* Peter Gabriel completes his US tour after Florida concerts tonight (in Orlando) and tomorrow (in Miami). The tour is expected to continue in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.