'It feels good," says Peter Gabriel on the eve of his first U.S. tour in more than six years. "It was a little fraught getting it together, but now I'm enjoying it."
Except for the packing of course. The Secret World Tour coming to the USAir Arena (the former Capital Centre) Tuesday is an eight-truck, 50-ton spectacle with two stages, a revolving projection screen, and flying domes, trees, and telephone booths. All this is the fruit of the collaboration between Gabriel and Robert Lepage, the Wunderkind French-Canadian threater and opera director whom Gabriel calls the Peter Brook of the '90's.
Gabriel has always used his threatricality and highly stylized body language to establish his stage presence, and he's often relied on high-tech props and creative lighting to underscore the cereoral rock that reached a commercial peak with 1986's 5-million-selling "So" album. This tour is supporting last year's "US" album, the long-awaited follow-up to "So," and with Lepage, Gabriel has created a magical, mystical, multimedia event. The 2 1/2 hour show reflects the emotional nuances of the new album and also the personal transformations of the divorced, 43-year-old rock star. As on Italian critic noted in April: "The music has modern nerves, and ancient skin and sudden openings on the future."
The Secret World Tour has already played in Europe, with critics there calling it "Peter Gabriel in Wonderland" and "a trip in a world where there are no artistic barriers." Gabriel and Lepage designed the 120-foot-long set featuring two stage -- one round and one square -- connected by a conveyor belt that shuttles the band back and forth according to the song's aesthetic undercurrents.
Like Gabriel, Lepage is concerned with building bridges between the imagination of the audience and that of the artist. "Robert has a visionary visual approach to theater that I like very much because it's dreamlike but also very effective," Gabriel said in an interview a few days beforethe kickoff American concert in Rochester. "Initially for this tour, I'd been thinking of doing a whole video thing, but when I saw U2's 'Zoo TV' tour, I thought this has already been done very well. Maybe I should try something different -- something where there is more room...."
Theatricality has been an element of Gabriel performances going back to Genesis, which he co-founded as a teen songwriter's collective at England's Charterhouse School in 1966. Gradually Gabriel emerged as a charismatic front man willing to don makeup, masks and costumes while assuming a variety of guises to further the drama inherent in the group's then-progressive rock. (Lepage has said that his own theatrical vision was deeply influenced by a Genesis performance he saw in Quebec at age 12).
By 1974, Genesis had even recorded and toured America with a rock opera called "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway," but a year later, Gabriel left the group. With drummer Phil Collins taking over as lead vocalist, the band has managed to eke out a career. In a prescient letter to the British music press at the time of his departure, Gabriel explained, "I believe the use of sound and visual images can be developed to do much more than we have done...as an artist, I need to absorb a wide variety of experiences. I want to explore and be prepared, to be open and flexible enough to respond, not tied in to the old hierarchy."
Gabriel went on to become one of the most artful and experimental forces in the music video revolution of the early '80's, also championing innovative video techniques in concert. He was the first pop star to integrate the tribal rhythms and exotic textures of world music -- which he supports through his Real World record label and WOMAD, the 10-year-old World of Music, Arts and Dance festivals that will come to the United States for the first time this fall.
And Gabriel has continued to step forward into the future. A state-of-the-art, micro-sized video camera attached to Gabriel's head beams macro-images of his facial parts during "Come Talk to Me," the concert-opening anthem to non-communication. He recently finished working with filmmaker Brett Leonard ("Lawnmower Man") on what Gabriel calls the Mind Blender -- a music-video-ride that uses flight simulator technology. Housed in an 18-seat mobile theater, it will soon go on its own tour and could become part of Gabriel's long-planned Disneyland-of-the-mind, the Real World Experience Park, which he smilingly calls "a dream in danger of being taken seriously." His collaborators on the park, which may be located in Barcelona, have included Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson.
In planning the tour, the dichotomies of the "US" album played a major role. The square and circular stages reflect, for example, the square and round elements of the album logo. "It was male/female kind of thing, but it could also be urban/rural, man-made/synthetic, fire/water -- there were various opposites and polarities that we related to the theme of the album and the tour, which is relationships. It creates a very simple, rude visual language, but I think it works."
He and Lepage went through a list of songs and put them in different categories, says Gabriel, gradually building their bridges.
"Songs were put on the map in different places, if you like, and some were seen as journey songs. 'San Jacinto' is about the loss of American Indian culture, so the transition goes from rural stages to urban, while 'Across the River' [and unrecorded song about transcendence] goes the other way."
"The more we looked at the themes of different songs, the more they seemed to be about transformation, so that was another thing to plug into the equation," says Gabriel adding, "I don't think it necessarily matters that people understand the symbolism or convoluted logic or whatever was in our heads that got us there. The thing works."
Gabriel concedes that the show's mix of old and new material reflects the personal transformation evidenced on "US." Although Gabriel's low-profile private life rarely surfaced in his songs, "US" was a deeply personal work about failed relationships. Its long gestation saw Gabriel's divorce from wife Jill Moore, a soul mate since childhood; seperation from his two daughters; the breakup of an over-publicized affair with actress Rosanna Arquette; and five years of group therapy in which Gabriel got his hands dirty digging into his own psychie (the inspiration for "Digging in the Dirt").
'I think the experiences and the consequent therapy were crucial to the record," Gabriel admits, adding that the first half of therapy was in a couples group, the second in a singles group.
"Someone pointed out to me that when I arrived, people related to me as adult or child, and when I left, it was much more adult or parent," Gabriel says with a hint of pride. "During this time I began to become a man. That's not always a comfortable transition, but I'm certainly more comfortable in my own skin than I was before and I think that manifests itself in everything I do."
According to Gabriel, "there were more negative and vunerable parts in my personality exposed when I made this record. I used John Lennon as a model in this -- in 'Jealous Guy,' he wasn't afraid of bearing the negative parts of his personality which was positive. If you look in the childhood of a lot of successful people -- whether they be presidents, generals, film stars, or musicians -- you often find something missing in childhood that's compensated for with the attention they receive in adult life."
"You particularly find that in the entertainment world -- where's it's easy to stay in a permanent state of childhood or adolescence -- and I can think of a few well-known examples. To make the transition out of that into adulthood is important."
The song "Come Talk to Me" explores barriers to communication and the need to "unlock the misery," but despite its somber tone, it's a typically elastic Gabriel concoction built on fuzzy guitars, African drum loops, a Russian folk chorale, bagpipes, doudouks and a Sinead O'Connor harmony. O'Connor also does the harmony vocal on "Blood of Eden," a heart-wrenching elegy about spiritual seperation. Though "Washing of the Water" is a plaintive hymn to transcendence, "US" also features lighter moments, like "Steam," a funky follow-up to "Sledgehammer," and "Kiss That Frog," and ode to Prince Charmless.
"'Come Talk to Me' means more to me in the long run than 'Kiss that Frog,' which is more of a throwaway," Gabriel says. "But it's important for me to have both sides present -- different moods, different feelings."
As far back as the late '70's, Gabriel was poised to expand the boundaries of his art. Genesis's rock opera, "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway," was ready to become a film by Alex Jodorowksy of "El Topo" fame, but the funding never came through. Gabriel, who had written the lyrics, still has the script and may try something in the future, though nothing is currently planned. He wrote another rock opera, "Mozo," which also couldn't get funding, though a few songs have seeped out over the years. Gabriel says, "Mozo is resting and may return."
'Mozo's" difficulties led Gabriel to conclude as far back as 1980 that "a theatrical presentation works out more satisfactorily when the music is a collection of familiar songs." While that sounds like a blueprint for the Secret World Tour, Gabriel also sees a lot of connections with a "Lamb" that could someday follow "Tommy" to Broadway.
But Gabriel says he's more accurately multimedia -- art without frontiers.
"Which it should always be anyway. That willingness to experiment and to press forward which first bubbled up in the '60's when I was a teenager is definitely returning in the '90's. We also have the technology now -- CD-ROM, interactive -- which is going to demand a rethinking, in essence allowing the audience to become the artist. That's one of the dreams of the Real World Experience Park -- it throws away the concept of art and music being talent-based experiences and opens them up to everybody."
"It is assumed that you have to have talent to communicate in art and music," says Gabriel, "and a lot of people restrict themselves from that because they weren't given encouragement or don't believe that they have that means to do it. My hope is that the technology and some of the experiences that are going to be created at the park will encourage people to get inside the experience and take elements of other people's work that excite them, and that will give them a sense that they can be artists and musicians, that there isn't this barrier between creative and non-creative people."
Not that it won't be fun too. Take the Mind Blender that Gabriel was programming recently with filmmaker Brett Leonard. "He's well plugged-in to all these future technologies," Gabriel says admiringly. Set to the music of "Kiss That Frog," the video will be shown on a lrage, high-definition screen in a mobile theater; according to Gabriel, the seats "will move in conjunction with the image, like flight simulator technology, and will convince the brain you're inside the imagery and not outside. We've been having a lot of fun -- a couple of days ago I was programming the seats to groove, so they go up and down and from side to side in time with the song as well as coordinate with some swoops and dives."
When Gabriel used to perform "Mercy Street," he did so under a set of bright lights attached to huge mechanical arms, a metaphor for mind-probes and exploratory psychiatry. This time around, he's sporting that head-mounted micro-camera, a late-blooming gadget originally intended for 1985's "P.O.V." tour. "But the camera arrived too late and my head was too big and it wasn't adjustable," Gabriel recalls. Of course, this was before he'd gone to a head shrinker. "Actually, I think my mind has expanded," he notes.
As has the Real World colony in Box, England. It houses the Real World Studios, Real World Records, WOMAD, cottages, rehearsal space and an invisible launching pad for schemes and dreams. A soundtrack for a bio-film about Buddha by Mira Nair ("Salaam Bombay!") bit the dust when Bernardo Bertolucci began his own version. Now, Nair is reportadely working on a film version of the Kamasutra, which says Gabriel, has "a transcendent quality. Though people tend to look at it as just a sex manual, it has other ends."
Perhaps he'll license "Sledgehammer" for the soundtrack. It was that silly and suggestive thumper that powered "So" to multi-platinum sales, in the process revealing such inspirational themes as "Don't Give Up" and "In Your Eyes." The balance continues with songs like "Steam" and "Blood of Eden," and a show that strives for equal parts inspiration and perspiration.
"I think there's always been a mix of objectives and influences on my work," Gabriel says. "Rock music has always tried to ride two horses: one of entertaining and two of delivering a message. It depends which artist you are and which saddle you feel moving underneath you. I've tried to do a bit of both and I believe it's possible to get through information and entertainment at the same time."