Tuesday, May 3, 2011
GENESIS: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
"Mike, if Prince wrote a song about peanut butter, it would sound like this." Nate’s Prince impression was a profound relief. If there hadn’t been one other person on the dreaded Youth Retreat who could make a reference like that, I might have lost my shit.
The Midwest Christian-youth culture in the 1990s was obsessive about what pundits call "the culture wars." There was a cottage industry of embarrassing simulacrum with pseudo-Christian themes, syrupy earnestness and budget-priced production. People in church would actually say things like "They’re sort of like a Christian Pink Floyd, Mike, you’d like them!" Please, friends, contain your nausea. This nihilistic conformation to the ways of the world filled a void created by a party-line mantra that "secular music" was evil. A woman who volunteered with the youth group once tried to explain what a troubled lost lamb she had been. "I even owned a Led Zeppelin album," she told me. It was a lonely moment for me: By that point I owned every Led Zeppelin album, even Coda. I just assumed that my fondness for “The Battle of Evermore” wasn’t likely to be a priority for Jesus.
On this retreat to a Washington D.C. convention, however, it was a priority. (These trips away from home and family are called "retreats." The irony, dear reader, is yours to unpack.) Our youth pastor Jason told the busload of smiling, pimple-marked teenage faces under his guidance that certain among us had brought secular music and were listening to it on the bus. This weekend was supposed to be about drawing closer to God, he said, and those things were distractions.
Of course they were distractions, Jason. Other than talking to Nate about our shared interest in David Lynch and Radiohead (what another kid in the youth group called "all that weird stuff you guys like"), the only thing getting me through the ordeal was the little wallet of CDs in my backpack. Without that, I might have grown up to be Christopher Hitchens.
When our bus stopped at a shopping mall so we could eat in the food court, I slipped away to Harmony House with the money my mom had given me for food. I bought The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway because I had seen a magazine article about progressive rock and I was working my way through the sidebar of "essential albums" with each band name, title and trippy album cover retained like a shopping list of holy relics. By this point I was already obsessed with Fragile, Aqualung, 2112 and In The Court of the Crimson King. Genesis was next in line, even though material put out by more recent incarnations of the band made me reluctant. (The guys that sing "I Can’t Dance"? Seriously?)
Prog-rock was a good fit for an archetypal dork like me. The compulsive rhythms and coitus-simulating guitar wankery of traditional rock music didn't speak to me in any way other than to bitterly remind me of all the fun my schoolmates (the worldly counterparts to the youth group kids) were supposedly having while I listened to Gentle Giant in my parents' basement. Anyway, songs about cars and girls were utterly pedestrian and I fancied myself too sophisticated for that kids' stuff. The satirical theatrics and surreal, stately pomp of Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer was music from another place, music that WAS another place, and I loved that alternate universe, contra-Pete Townshend, sans Green Day. (I know what you're thinking, jaded music snob, but stop right there. The circus-show wackiness and extensive musical vocabulary employed by 1970s prog is no more bloated than the "three chords and TRUTH" pretension preached by Joe Strummer and it’s a hell of a lot more creative than the stolen blues and statutory-rape fantasies of The Rolling Stones.)
Back on the bus, I discreetly leafed through the liner notes. The lyrics were included, along with an absurdist prose piece ("Autoghosts keep the pace for the cabman’s early mobile race...") by lead singer Peter Gabriel (The guy that sings "Shock the Monkey"? Seriously?) that ostensibly explained the rock-opera plot. My little portable CD player, perhaps the most cherished Christmas gift in my young life, sputtered into operation and I heard the opening cascade of piano arpeggios fade up like stage lights. I stared out the window at passing cars and buildings, occasionally pressing the headphones tight against my ears to hear the quieter passages over the hum of the bus engine and the chipper, chaste silliness of my peers.
This is an ideal headphones album, and not just because a young Genesis fan doesn’t want Mom and Dad to hear lyrics like "Erogenous zones, I love you! Without you what would a poor boy do?" (The hilarious answer, delivered in the song’s climax: "Without you mankind handkinds though the blues!") On headphones, the dense arrangements, meticulously produced and stereo-panned, surround you in a subterranean cathedral built from Steve Hackett's inventive guitar, Tony Banks' alien synths, Mike Rutherford’s thick bass lines, Phill Collins' bursting, technical percussion (before he was Lord Pantywaist of the Soft Rock Kingdom, he was an amazing drummer) and Peter Gabriel's arsenal of cartoon voices. Lamb creates the kind of atmosphere that makes you forget you're trapped on a bus with thirty kids who think you're weird. As that bus carried us to the nation's capital, I was winding through purgatory with Rael.
Rael. Or as he’s known in the title-song, "RAEL IMPERIAL AEROSOL KID!" He is nether the grim narcissist of Pink Floyd's The Wall or the hippie messiah of The Who's Tommy. This is a much more dangerous story than those classic rock bitchfests-of-the-famous. Rael is a New York punk rapist who burns things for fun and descends into an underground afterlife that exists only in Peter Gabriel's twisted imagination, where he chases his genitals into a tunnel, or something like that.
I was enraptured with this album. It was dramatic and theatrical, contrasting chaos and serenity, building careful countermelodies and quirky chord changes. The melodies were familiar, but strange, like nursery songs shredded and patched back together. The phantasmagoric allegory in the lyrics particularly captivated me. This wasn't the hollow motivation-speak that I thought surrounded me at church, and it wasn't the winking worldliness that I thought surrounded me at school. This was uncomfortable. There was some dark territory here; rape, castration, damnation, that part where Rael has sex with the snake women and then they die and then he eats their bodies… It took some figuring out. It was ambiguous and confusing. Paced with a number of tension-building passages, it required patience. Filled with meta-textual detail, (quotes from other pop songs, lines about Lenny Bruce, etc.) it presupposed prior knowledge. It demanded a reaction from the listener in order to complete the experience.
Apart from Genesis and Nate's Prince imitation, the retreat was embarrassing or boring or upsetting, depending on the moment. There were loud, earnest presentations. There was dull, swaying "praise music" and lots of showy public prayer. I was terrified at how many products were being sold in the name of Jesus, and when I mentioned to the youth pastor that it reminded me of that business in the temple when Christ chases out the profiteers, he stroked his goatee and said I might be on to something. Of course, this event was not about the Christ depicted in the gospels; it was about Sanitized American Jesus, who lacks all the danger, creativity and disturbing viewpoints of his scriptural counterpart. Real shame, that. I loved danger, creativity and disturbing viewpoints. Whenever I had a free moment, I was back between headphones, absorbing The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, which was filled with all three.
My youth pastor worried that the dangerous messages in the music I liked were distracting me from his ministry and he was right, but this distraction was the very escape I needed. In the denouement of Peter Gabriel's mad narrative, Rael sacrifices himself to save his brother and the Imperial Aerosol Kid is redeemed. The world is haunted and frightening, but if we learn to lay down our lives for others, somewhere in all this mystery even the most troubled lost lamb has hope for redemption.
A dangerous message indeed.