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The inevitability of Peter Gabriel: creative inspiration

Today is Peter Gabriel’s 74th birthday, and it’s good timing. Lately I’ve been thinking about the way his Genesis years influenced my writing.

It might not be obvious mainly because he’s a musician and I’m a writer. Of course, though, in Genesis he did write most of the lyrics he sang. And, oh, those lyrics. So absurd, so vividly narrative. Par exemple:

With the guards of Magog swarming around
The Pied Piper takes his children underground
Dragons coming out of the sea
Shimmering silver head of wisdom looking at me
He brings down the fire from the skies
You can tell he’s doing well by the look in human eyes
Better not compromise, it won’t be easy

666 is no longer alone
He’s getting out the marrow in your backbone
And the seven trumpets blowing sweet rock and roll
Gonna blow right down inside your soul
Pythagoras with the looking glass reflects the full moon
In blood, he’s writing the lyrics of a brand-new tune

That’s from “Supper’s Ready,” or as I like to call it, “Supper’s Cold” because it’s 23 minutes long. It’s definitely a good choice for a desert island disc because it’s like seven songs in one (and the lyrics are just part of the reason it’s one of my favourite songs).

Despite the obvious fantastical elements in his lyrics, they don’t always influence me directly. Rather, I’ve just always been inspired by him in general, his commitment to his own creativity. Even though I’m nowhere near as out there as Gabriel was in Genesis, I’ve always craved his no-fucks-to-be-had energy for my own work. I mean, just look at him.

Three photos of Peter Gabriel from Genesis: One of him wearing a red dress and a fox head costume onstage, a black and white photo of him sitting and looking at the camera while wearing a bat wings on his head, a photo of him wearing a flower mask onstage

Peter Gabriel was just so wonderfully weird in Genesis, performing in character wearing elaborate costumes, whether his bandmates liked it or not. Sometimes he sang his weird lyrics with seemingly his entire being, as if someone was trying to take singing away from him. He was the personification of “artistic vision.”

When I wrote the first draft of Seeker of the Lost Song I listened to Genesis’ Foxtrot, Selling England By the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway albums over and over again. By osmosis I received Gabriel’s delicious fantastical weirdness and filtered it through my own lens into my writing. While Seeker is a character-driven fantasy novel, its magic thrumming in a more restrained way than a Genesis song, I can see the echoes of Peter Gabriel’s inventive, mythical writing in it. He inspires me to play with language, to fall backwards into emotion and imagery.

And even earlier than Seeker, I wrote a short story called “Onstage, Slouching” inspired by the way he performed in Genesis, about a woman who felt like an outsider, striving to create as she liked and bristling when she couldn’t.

The funny thing is, I’m not really much of a fan of Gabriel’s solo work after Genesis. Some songs, sure, but just a handful*. And I’m certainly not a fan of Phil Collins’ Genesis. Yet somehow that ultra pickiness makes the Gabriel influence even sweeter to me. He was in the band for eight years and six albums. Not much, considering how many albums both he (solo) and his former band created afterwards. So when I want to tap into that particular flavour of Peter Gabriel weirdness I crave, I have a small amount of options to choose from.

But the good thing is, I always get what I need from those limited options. My writing isn’t as theatrical as Gabriel’s performances, but that’s why I need him. I never have more fun than when I just open the tap and create unrestrained. I need a little nudge to just let go, to embrace what my curiosity and imagination want me to do, and fuck everything else. This is true of writing, photography, or both. That “fuck it, get weird” feeling is something I’ve been drawn to for most of my life, but also something that can feel difficult to hang on to.

A composition of four black and white photos, featuring Peter Gabriel making faces (stills from his "Games Without Frontiers" video), with photos of me mimicking those faces beside them.
I will forever find a weird Peter Gabriel picture to relate to.⁠ (I’m a bit annoyed about how I wasn’t smooshy enough in the second one but the important thing is my eyes weren’t closed fully, so it’s nice and creepy.)⁠

 

Oh, and let’s not talk about how Peter Gabriel was in his early-mid twenties, like, half my age when he was in Genesis creating his absurd magic. Will I ever get over that? The hell I will. Instead, we can talk about how I was in my early twenties when I was introduced to Genesis by my friend and then-roommate David. I’m sure he explained why he liked Gabriel so much, but maybe it was unneeded. Maybe he sensed the inevitability of Peter Gabriel in my life. Maybe he knew he just needed to crack open the door and I’d slide the rest of the way down myself. And for that I’ll be forever grateful.

A photo of Peter Gabriel in a black shirt, with white face makeup and dark purple colour over his cheeks, against a purple background.

I’ve never really been a technical singer as such, or a musician. I’m someone who goes for the feel of something and tries to build pictures.

– Peter Gabriel, Louder

Collage of three photos of me: Standing on a tree stump hoisting a bunch of leaves over my head, Me with short spiky hair holding an old camera in front of my face, Me wrapped in a blanket and bent at the waist, looking at a box of tide.

*(Though I do appreciate the way his creative weirdness still pops up in some of his solo stuff, like the video for Games Without Frontiers, from which I got the screenshots in the black-and-white photo montage above.)

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