Listen to this track by musical fusion-cuisine gourmand and art rock avatar Peter Gabriel. It’s “San Jacinto” as taken from 1982′s Peter Gabriel, the fourth album he’d put out under that title, and known in North America as Security.
That record moved Gabriel even closer to the top 40 than he’d been previously on the third Peter Gabriel album. Yet, Security wasn’t more accessible, nor were any of the songs on it in any way in line with anything that was on the radio at the time including “Shock The Monkey”, which scored him an enduring hit single. As for “San Jacinto”, this song would be as far off the beaten track as any song he’d ever written and recorded.
The song, and the rest of the album, was the result of a number of factors in which Gabriel was more directly involved than ever before. One was a more hands-on role in the production chair. Another was his interest in mixing early sampling technology with spare percussion-driven arrangements, which certainly affected the production aspects. And then there is the subject matter of the song, which was in part the result of a personal encounter that would prove to be instrumental in how the song came out.
In 1981, Peter Gabriel took his band on the road. And while touring in the United States, Gabriel met a bellhop working at the motel in which he was staying. Driving him to his apartment to rescue the man’s cat after a housefire, he told Gabriel about himself, and something about his culture. He was an Apache. Gabriel relates the story told to him of a cultural ritual among the Apache in an interview conducted by John Doran:
… Each of them at the age of 14 were taken up a mountain with the medicine man who had a Rattlesnake. Once they got to the top, he would take the rattlesnake out and get it to bite the boy, who would then be left to have his visions. If he made it back down to the village – as most of them did – he was a brave and if he didn’t he was dead.
And so many cultures seem to have that custom where the young man, traditionally at least, is forced to face death in some way. And I actually think that in most cultures where death is ever present, they manage to live life more fully as a result. Later when we were driving through Palm Springs and Arizona we saw the way that the Native American country had been turned into discos and restaurants. There wasn’t a whole lot of respect for the real culture there just the commercial aspect of it. [Read the whole interview with Peter Gabriel by John Doran]
This is the central thematic tension to be found in this song; life and death rituals and cultural connections contrasted against Geronimo’s Disco, Sittin’ Bull Steakhouse, and cultural imperialism as a whole, as if the two worlds are occupying the same space, with one pushing the other out of existance. This song is from a guy who’d spent a number of years straying from the path of Western popular culture himself, and closer into the music and cultures in Africa, a continent that also contains many traditions and practices surrounding rites of passage for the young.
Maybe Gabriel saw himself in that tradition in his own way. He too had been a young man by the time he’d faced the rigours of trying to gain a successful foothold as a musician, and had made his name as a singer by dressing up in costumes, playing silly games – an apt metaphor for fronting a rock band, and a rite of passage all of its own, surely.
The thing that strikes me most about this song is the hypnotic quality of it, the complete lack of pop hooks, the completely unprecedented approach to constructing a song to go on an album aimed at the charts. The electronic loop that forms its shape is percussion-like, blurring the lines between exotic instruments and the latest technology of the time; a Fairlight CMI to be exact.
Ultimately, it’s Gabriel’s voice that is the core of this song, telling a tale full of hallucinations, natural images, and kitsch American culture all mingling, coalescing, and breaking apart again. This is a tale of transcendence and transformation, of cultural inheritance, and forgetfulness. It’s extraordinary.
“San Jacinto” would become a staple in live performances, starting with a version that appears on Peter Gabriel Plays Live, an album that stands as a live document of his tour the very next year. It would also appear on his Shaking The Tree compilation alongside some of his best known hits. It would also be performed by 2011′s New Blood , on which Gabriel would perform this song with a full orchestra, thirty years after he’d written it.
It was never a single, or a hit. But, it endured as one of his greatest achievements and popular live staples, performed in many contexts from its inception, and for decades afterwards. It’s as if he’s still trying to unravel it himself.
Catch up to Peter Gabriel at PeterGabriel.com.