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Peter Gabriel Post-amnesty

July 06, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

NEW YORK — Peter Gabriel was having trouble readjusting to the pop world after two weeks on the road promoting Amnesty International. The amiable but reserved Englishman seemed uncomfortable that he was now back to promoting himself.

"The truth is, I feel a little sad and empty at the moment," Gabriel said, sitting in a chair in a Warner Bros. Records conference room for an interview about his new, best-selling album, "So."

He stared into a freshly made cup of tea for several seconds, then added, "I think we all got quite close on the (Amnesty) tour even if it was only two weeks . . . the gigs, the press conferences, the visiting on the airplane.

"I was a little apprehensive at first about how everyone would react on the road . . . whether egos would surface. I was very pleased to find that wasn't a problem at all . Something happens when you are selling something other than yourself. . . .

"It was a great pleasure for me to be able to talk about Amnesty rather than the new record."

Gabriel, who left Genesis a decade ago for a solo career, was one of the hits of the six-city Amnesty tour that concluded two days before the interview with an 11-hour concert at Giants Stadium in nearby East Rutherford, N.J.

Using striking, highly mannered body language to act out the rich emotional undercurrents in the songs, Gabriel offered a dazzling display of sophisticated, synthesizer-based songs. His themes, sometimes playful, but often dark, revolve around a struggle for identity in an age where science and government can be threats.

For many of the Amnesty officials, the emotional heart of the tour was Gabriel's stark, haunting rendition of "Biko," a tribute he wrote in 1980 to Steve Biko, the black South African activist who died in prison in 1977.

"It's a funny thing about that song," Gabriel said, still finding it easier to talk about the Amnesty tour than his own career.

"My involvement with Biko's story was partly by chance," Gabriel said. "I saw a story about his plight in the newspaper and I began following it. The thing that shocked me was the fact that he died (in custody) after he received all this publicity.

"I had felt quite comfortable that all that worldwide attention would serve to save him. I felt so empty when he was killed. It showed how vulnerable people are when their freedoms are taken away. That's what moved me to write the song."

Gabriel, 36, had spent most of the day after the New Jersey concert resting, but he had been up late doing a syndicated radio talk show and he was trying--a little past noon--to begin a series of interviews.

He had brought his lunch--a king-size grapefruit--with him in a paper bag. He pulled the pieces of fruit apart slowly, as if stalling for time.

Most pop stars have a clearly defined image. Bruce is the working-class hero. David Lee Roth is the ultimate party animal. But Gabriel always seems to have simply the slightly disheveled appearance and unfocused expression of a man who just woke up from an afternoon nap.

He's not the free-wheeling extrovert who can give you an hour of colorful talk on any topic. He's a shy man who finds it hard to phrase concise answers to questions about his thoughtful and frequently complex music.

The interview impasse was resolved by a phone call.

While in Atlanta on the Amnesty tour, Gabriel--an outspoken foe of capital punishment--had become interested in the case of Jerome Bowden, a man with an IQ of 65 on Georgia's Death Row for robbing and killing a 55-year-old woman. The caller was saying that Bowden had been granted a 90-day stay of execution.

(The news would later prove incorrect: The U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant a stay on June 24 and Bowden was electrocuted the same day in Jackson, Ga.)

But the report had brightened Gabriel's mood and he finally was able to concentrate on his new album.

"So" is the singer-songwriter's most accessible album since his 1977 debut. While there was frequently a dark edge to much of his moody, art-conscious music, there's a brightness to the new album that helps explain why it has jumped into the national Top 10 after just four weeks.

Songs like "Don't Give Up"--a deeply moving look at the loss of self-esteem which features Kate Bush on backing vocals--serve as a serious foundation.

But tunes like the playful, dance-oriented "Sledgehammer"--with its exaggerated sexual innuendo--help combat Gabriel's image as an oh-so-serious pop figure. "Sledgehammer" is the first Top 10 single of Gabriel's career. His previous high was the quirky "Shock the Monkey," which went to No. 29 in 1982.

On the question of image, he said, finally loosening up, "Sometimes people do seem to think of me as this white liberal . . . this very serious, guilt-ridden guy. In a way that suggests dullness, and I don't feel I am like that.

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