Tuesday, May 13, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 133): "COME TALK TO ME" (1992) Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel is 64 today. Picking a song for today presented me with several possibilities. First of all, there was the Gabriel of Genesis, from the late Sixties till 1974 and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, which I remember so well from 10th grade. Another time, perhaps. That Gabriel was a showman of odd costumes and character-types—remember “Watcher of the Skies”?—and then he became an even more avant-gardist type. His first two solo albums—I was tempted to do “Solsbury Hill,” one of his greatest songs, but chose to avoid the Seventies—were transitional from the Genesis Gabriel and are albums unique and distinctive in their way, as good or better than what Bowie was up to then. And then in 1980 his third album was a big jump into a sound with a lot more processed percussion. Gabriel is one of the few people who used well the new digital technologies. This was even more apparent on the fourth album, called Security in the States, released in 1982 when I was, funnily enough, working “security” at the PA Academy of Fine Arts. I thought I would choose something from that album, as it’s the one I got when it came out and all that. Saw that tour too.

Instead, I’ve chosen the lead-off song on Us, released in 1992, four years after his previous studio album, So (1988)—an album from my undergrad days, featuring “In Your Eyes,” put to such good use in the film Say Anything. Gabriel did the soundtrack for Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ in between, but still. By the early 90s he was coming to seem a Seventies-Eighties phenomenon. I happened into a CD store on Nassau Street in Princeton and there was Us, so I plucked it up, purchased it, and forever after today’s song is part of the sound of those fraught years, 1992-93 especially, of the Princeton experience.

This is the album that features investigation of Gabriel’s marital and parenting difficulties. But let’s not gossip. Today’s song seems a heartfelt plea for someone to come clean, to open up lines of communication that were there formerly and haven’t been lately. And those rousing bagpipes sound majestic and mournful.

The lyrics have the usual over-ripeness of Gabriel when he’s trying to shower his theme in poetic petals. The earthly power sucks shadowed milk from sleepy tears undone / From nippled skin as smooth as silk the bugles blown as one. Uh, sure, Pete. I’ll have the same. The amazing thing is that he sings all this with that husky clarion voice of his. Gabriel’s vocals have always been more of a sell than his lyrics—with some notable exceptions—and he knows how to pour his soul into a vocal and deliver certain lines with the full force of an articulate heartache: “Why are you shaking like a leaf?”

The song, as I first heard it, was about someone you know you want and you know she wants you, but you’re both avoiding it and avoiding each other, knowing that if you actually talk about it it will come rushing out, it will sweep away everything else and end the world as we know it. Well, that’s how I heard it. I think the song is actually about a couple who haven’t been speaking and are letting things fall apart and maybe, if they could talk to each other, they could salvage it.

Perhaps I chose this song—or it was given the final nudge—because I just watched Spike Jonze’s Her. An almost comatose film about desire and loneliness that makes future tech seem a mighty drag. Even little humanoid 3-D figures in computer games are a pain in the ass. And the woman in your head who is supposed to save you from all the bitches in your life with their interminable issues, first develops a case of issues (even my wife, watching with me said, “now she's getting bitchy”), then has a transcendent epiphany, and then ditches you and the rest of the meat puppets called earthlings for some kind of free-floating “cloud” where they dig on a reincarnated Alan Watts (yes, that Alan Watts). It’s pretty much a snooze fest but for one fairly hot—thank you, voice of Scarlett Johansson—“phone sex” scene (in blackness but for voices). So, on the one hand the film feels dated (how long ago was Vox? Umm, turns out it’s the same year as this Peter Gabriel song, hmmm), and on the other it’s supposed to be some brave new world where our sad humanity is, like, maybe our saving grace? Even the people talking into their little hand-held gizmos was too much like present day realities.  We know it was the future though because men no longer wear belts. Maybe leather had been outlawed or something.

Anyway, the part when he’s not able to connect with Samantha the girl in the earbud—because she’s uploading a new program or something—had a certain poignancy, and if the soundtrack had launched into Peter Gabriel’s song, it not only would have added immeasurably to the depth of feeling, it would’ve given voice to that deepest of inalienable needs: not the need to talk so much as the need to be spoken to. Addressed. Jonze’s film makes Samantha as accommodating as the most pleasant phone operator / personal assistant / caring ministrant of favors as any imaginary could make her, but, y’know, it won’t last.

I can imagine the moment
Breaking out through the silence
All the things that we both might say
And the heart it will not be denied
Till we're both on the same damn side
All the barriers blown away

That’s the utopian moment in Gabriel’s song. The part that says that human speech can achieve this: interaction, revelation, affinity. Tonalities embrace and we’re in agreement.  But the pleading part of the song seems a bit unsavory, to me: “This all is so unreal / Can you show me how you feel now / Come on, come talk to me / Come talk to me.”  The statement of how one “feels” is always an imprecise manifestation. The use of words is what makes it a lie. Though that absolutism might be mine. And, anyway, Gabriel says “show me how you feel” not tell me how you feel.

In Her, there’s a moment when Samantha goes non-verbal with her other Operating System brethren. It’s enough to drive a man mad when his femme fatale goes non-verbal (when all she is is a voice), but, in real life, it’s often best to go non-verbal. At one point, the main guy, Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) stands in silence in a snowy forest. It should be the moment when he realizes he doesn’t need to hear himself talk.

I said please talk to me / Won't you please come talk to me / Just like it used to be

Gabriel’s song has a line that always stays with me though, even if I didn’t necessarily believe in the “used to be” of such righteous communication, in 1992. I did believe in this: “In the swirling, curling storm of desire unuttered words hold fast.” It’s what we don’t say, but only imagine saying, that drains our contentment from our own psyches. Somewhere, we imagine, is someone who would hear, and answer. Whoever that might be would not be an operating system. Gods, angels, devils, spirits, computer programs, no. I insist upon the carnality of my interlocutor. Vous, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable!

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