PeterGabrielSo1

ALBUMS OF OUR LIVES: PETER GABRIEL’S SO

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Whenever I felt the waves of homesickness approaching during my semester abroad in Vienna back in 1987, I knew what I had to do: button up the grey scratchy Tyrolean jacket I’d bought at a flea market, tuck my yellow cassette-playing Walkman into its breast pocket, and press “PLAY” on Peter Gabriel’s So. I’d never been a fan of Genesis growing up; on our family radio dial, my sister held down Country, I ruled over New Wave, and my brother’s territory was All Things Rock. We were gleefully opposed to each other’s tastes out of principal, and liking anything by Genesis or Gabriel would have felt disloyal to the Cult, Echo and the Bunnymen, and New Order.

But one high school summer during which I worked as a camp counselor, far from a radio signal, a Peter Gabriel mixtape lettered in my brother’s handwriting somehow ended up in my canvas duffel bag. I played “Solsbury Hill,” hit rewind, played it again, and again, and again, stopping only to listen to “Biko” and “San Jacinto” a few million times each. By the time So came out in ’86, I was one of the first people in line at the college record store to buy the cassette.

As a person who had decided at 14 that she would have a career in international business, I was as surprised as anyone to realize during my junior year in college that I hadn’t ever been abroad. My German was passable and Vienna seemed more exotic than Munich, so I found a program there and moved academic heaven and earth to make it happen for spring semester. My advisor let me know I’d have to double up on required courses before and afterwards, but while I was in Vienna I could coast with electives like Viennese Opera and Austrian Artists of the Viennese Secession.

Predictably, the first three weeks living in Europe were thrilling, a mélange of new challenges and strange customs and easy classes and, it being Vienna, toothsome pastries. But reality arrived in a rush of record-breaking winter storms, short-tempered sales clerks, expensive groceries, and an accent that scoffed at my textbook German. That my landlady rented out the single bathroom in our flat to Turkish guest workers who needed a quick bath only added to my sense of isolation.

The only thing that could put me back right was a long walk in the cold along the Danube, with Peter Gabriel singing in my ear. The first bars of “Red Rain” always coincided with my hasty departure from the apartment, which was on the top floor of an ancient building with no elevator. The wide, unheated concrete staircase was always dark, and you had to hit a timer light on each level to see your way down. I’d smack the light switch and pound down the stairs in time to the driving beat of the song, cursing the stupidity of the Viennese for not installing proper lights, by which I meant American lights that stayed on. Through the prism of time I can now appreciate this energy-conserving lighting system, but at the time? “This place is so quiet, sensing that storm…” I was the storm, baby. I was the mother-effing Red Rain.

I’d plunge into the cold and walk a few blocks to the icy Danube cabal, and by the time I descended to the walkway that ran alongside it, “Sledgehammer” was playing. There’s not a better song to get the blood pumping, warming up the digits and exposed facial skin that the Viennese wind was trying furiously to frost. My gait to “Sledgehammer” was the ultimate defiance; I would not let Vienna ruin my study abroad experience.

And then ethereal Kate Bush would chime in with Gabriel to chide me gently. “Don’t Give Up,” she’d sing, “you’re not beaten yet.” It was usually at this point, fifteen minutes or so into my heart-pounding walk, that my shoulders would lower and my jaws unclench. Not quite ready to lay down my bag of self-pity, maybe, I would at least start looking around me instead of at my pounding feet.

As “That Voice Again” and “Mercy Street” flowed past, I began to notice the details: the charming punk couple walking their dachshund in its little green coat. The apartment building with Viennese
Secessionist embellishments that reminded me of something our art professor had told us about Otto Wagner. Graffiti written on a bench in German whose irony I actually understood. I’d execute a pivot step here and start heading back for home.

You cannot listen to “Big Time” without an inward smile at the blowhard narrator, who’s praying to a big God as he kneels in his big Church. It’s a song that reminded me not to take myself too seriously.

So studying abroad isn’t perfect. So the landlady offered you a tray of home baked cookies that you devoured, and only realized in watching her recreate the recipe later that she formed each ball of batter in the palm of her fresh-licked hand. So you blew your entire food budget for the month on a pair of pony skin leopard combat boots. If nothing else, I was collecting good stories.

I’d be nearing the steps to climb back up to my street when that hundred pound gorilla of a song, “In Your Eyes,” came on. As any woman who was a teenager during the ‘80s will tell you, the sight of Lloyd Dobler holding his boom box aloft for Diane Court to hear this song pour out ruined us as romantic partners forever. Unless a guy comes up with a line as stunning as “In your eyes, I see the doorway of a thousand churches” (which one might reasonably argue is an unattainable task) he will always be a little bit of a disappointment.

Yeah, so maybe I’d gained the Viennese Twenty thanks to the wurst stand and the gelato shop that I passed on my way to school, not to mention the “Herzlichen Glückwünsch” cookies that conveyed “Best Wishes” and about 3,000 calories each. But up here in my eyes? I’m a freakin’ cathedral, man, with stained glass and kneeling benches of emotion.

Right before I left for Vienna, I ran into a classmate of mine for whom I pined, at a frat party that was coming apart at the seams at three in the morning. So was on the stereo, and when “In Your Eyes” came on, he silently put his hand on the small of my back and pushed me to the center of the empty dance floor, its perimeter marked by drunken students flopped on couches. Maybe this guy saw my basilicas! We swayed into one another through the very last note, and it became our song even if I left for Vienna before there was time for an “our.”

So even today when I hear “In Your Eyes,” I send a silent Herzlichen Glückwünsch out to my classmate, and to Peter Gabriel, for giving me a reason to keep going.


Nancy Davis Kho is a writer in Oakland, CA whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Morning News, and Skirt! Magazine. An avid music fan, she writes about the years between being hip and breaking on at MidlifeMixtape.com. More from this author →