14 June 2018

On Chatty Porcupines, and No Puertorriqueño of This World

As I cuddled the porcupine,
He said I had none to blame but me [...]
No time for romantic escape
When your fluffy heart is ready for rape.
— Peter Cuddles With Porcupines Gabriel

After Selling England by the Pound, Genesis collectively felt that they had settled, over their first four-ish albums, into something of an airy-fairy rut.  Part of the idea with The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was, a change in tone (or, something) to a fresh, deep-in-the-NY-street “realism.”  For reasons not germane to this post, the project became a double-LP concept album, and Peter Gabriel took sole charge of writing the words (both the song lyrics, and the rambling prose on the inner gatefold which does not really answer for either clarification, nor synopsis).

It was an ambitious undertaking for a group with more musical polish and acumen than your average pop band.  And I’ll disclose at the outset that, musically, I think it a magnificent achievement, and in spite of the difficulties the band had in the course of its creation and touring.  (It was while touring this album that Gabriel announced to the rest of the band that he had had it.)

The narrator (when the voice is in the first person) is a Puerto Rican youth in New York named Rael.  No, but really.  You hardly get more realistic than that, now, do you?

The second indication that Gabriel did not make sufficient effort to enter the mindset and world of his fictional Puerto Rican:  Rael has a brother named . . . John.  If there was ever a puertorriqueño in New York whose name was Rael (let's be fair—I don’t absolutely know that there has not been), if he had a brother, I bet a jeroboam of Bacardí that the brother’s name was Juan, rather than John.

To repeat, musically I admire this album, practically unreservedly.  All through his stint with Genesis, Gabriel tended to be (to use a charitable adjective) adventurous with words;  and in this Genesis fan’s view, perhaps his successes outnumbered his stinkers, but he misfired with some regularity.  There are IMO cringely moments on all four sides of this double-LP.

Rael is supposed to be a tough city kid.  Again, this is a simple matter of Gabriel failing to focus on remaining in-character.  Consider the following, from “The Chamber of 32 Doors”:

I’d rather trust a countryman than a townman,
You can judge by his eyes, take a look if you can,
He’ll smile through his guard,
Survival trains hard.

The city kid Rael may well trust a countryman better than a city-dweller, though one supposes that his idea of a countryman is theoretical – when would he have soaked in country-living experience?  Theoretical, and therefore possibly a bit romantic.  But, presumably, Rael’s own experience is that survival trains hard in the city, just as much.  The fairest we can say is, this is not a fully-conceived character named Rael speaking;  it’s Author’s Message.  It is not (especially as pop music goes) “bad writing”;  it just doesn’t rise to the ambition of the undertaking.

An unfortunate line that (to my ear) grates worse because he winds up repeating it, riff-like, is that matter of being “ready for rape.”

The sourness of the note is reinforced by my recently reading a similarly unfortunate whitewashing, in Stravinsky’s rather distasteful remark that rape could somehow “be justified by the birth of a child.”

Not to belabor the point (my enjoyment of and admiration for the music is undiminished in either case), the apparent belittling of assault and violation strikes me as, at the least, unseemly.  Products of their time?  Perhaps.

I suppose, though, that in Gabriel’s case, the tone is justified by (what I earlier accused him of failing in) creating a character.

A contemporary-ish counter-example of rape being treated with all due severity, is in Hitchcock’s Marnie, of 1964.  In contrast to Suspicion of 1941, whose ending was modified so that Cary Grant’s character would not be an actual villain, Sean Connery plays a character, not as a rule bad, but who in a moment of weakness is worse than a cad.  Let casuists argue that a husband is “due” the sexual enjoyment of his wife, and therefore it “cannot be” rape;  but, delicately though it is shot and cut, Rutland rapes Marnie, and the consequence is, she attempts suicide.

It is part of our epoch, both that we are faced with a heightened awareness of sexual abuses (of varying degrees) which women suffer as they strive to work in the business world (or indeed, the world at all), and that suicide is on an appalling rise.  I did not set out for this theme, when I started writing this blog post;  nor, having found myself sounding it, do I shun it.  There are those well known to me, of whom it would be a betrayal, if I shrug it off.

Awareness.  Compassion.  Decency.

None of this, is too much to ask.

Awareness.  Compassion.  Decency.

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