Peter Gabriel: A Boombox God

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I started listening to Peter Gabriel when ‘So’ was released in 1986. The first song I heard off the album that I liked was “In Your Eyes.” I heard the song on the radio. I was in the thrall of “In Your Eyes” before the song was used in the famous boombox-in-the-air scene in “Say Anything.”

Usually, when I heard the song, I was listening to the radio in my bedroom. (I listened to the radio on a boombox. It was the eighties, after all.) I would be getting ready for school, trying to increase my hair’s volume by putting in bendable rollers. I would be attempting to make my eyes look dangerous by applying black kohl pencil and black mascara.

And then I would hear “In Your Eyes.”

Something about the song was so haunting, and at the same time, healing. Those deliberate chords at the start, evoking a feeling of darkness and mystery, would shift the emotional tone of my room into another dimension.

And the words. The song starts with a sense of defeat:

Love, I get so lost sometimes
Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart

But it goes to a place of revival:

All my instincts they return
And the grand facade
So soon will burn
Without a noise without my pride
I reach out from the inside

“In Your Eyes” was one of those songs that always seemed to be playing on the radio exactly when I needed it. If I was stuck in the middle of a bad emotion, “In Your Eyes” could help me find my way out of it.

I bought my own copy of ‘So.’ After that, I could listen to the song whenever I wanted. I found other songs on the album that I liked almost as much as “In Your Eyes.” “Don’t Give Up” and “Red Rain” were a couple of my favorites. Still. Anytime I heard “In Your Eyes” on the radio, I felt as if I had found favor in the eyes of the radio gods.

I started college in 1989 at WWU in Bellingham, Washington. During my freshman year, I wrote a few letters back and forth with a high school friend who was attending college out of state. (These were actual letters, written on paper using a pen, in a faraway time, long long ago, before the existence of email.)

Both my friend and I were fans of Peter Gabriel, but my friend had a more comprehensive grasp of Gabriel’s music. My friend sent me a couple mix tapes of Gabriel’s early work, including songs from his time with the first incarnation of Genesis.

Those mix tapes sent me on a slow voyage of discovery of Peter Gabriel’s music. During the first couple years of the 1990’s, grunge was building to a fever pitch in Seattle. But 90 miles north, in Bellingham Washington, I was going backwards in time, catching up with Peter Gabriel.

His melodies were immediate; they put their hooks in you. I would walk around campus with his songs running through my head. But Gabriel’s arrangements and lyrics were like puzzles, they kept me coming back again and again, hunting for things I had missed before.

I stayed in my Peter Gabriel world for a couple years, sometimes listening to other artists, but always coming back to Gabriel’s music as my home base. He filled every musical need I had at that time: for aggression, for beauty, for melody, for poetry.

Nothing tempted me to move on from Gabriel, until the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Nirvana changed the game. Nirvana’s music enabled me to come back to the musical present, and be open to other bands and artists of the nineties.

But even now, I still go back to Gabriel. His music takes me to a unique place. He’s a part of my musical foundation, for sure. And whenever I happen to hear “In Your Eyes”, “Red Rain” or “Don’t Give Up” in any public place, it still feels like a gift from the radio gods.

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