Listening To My Life: Genesis In the Desert

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When I was 18, my friend Kyle and I were talking on the phone about the cross-country road trip we were going to take that summer with another friend of ours, Eli.

“Have you heard of White Sands in New Mexico?” he asked. “We should camp there”

“No way, sounds amazing” I said and then admitted “I’m a little freaked out to sleep in the desert but I’ll try it man.”

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “There’s nothing out there. The stars are crazy at night… Hey! Have you ever listened to Genesis?”

“Uhh, you mean like, Phil Collins? Yeah, I guess. We sang that song ‘I Can’t Dance’ for a middle-school assembly, remember?”

That’s when Kyle’s tone shifted. This was real talk. “No man, there’s this record, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Peter Gabriel used to be the singer and he had a reverse mohawk! It’s a concept record about this guy Rael. It’s amazing!”

Kyle was a great storyteller, and told me I was going to love this album. At the time, I was trying to rewire my brain by only listening to Gang of Four and Thelonious Monk. Still, my friend’s description of this record by none other than “I Can’t Dance” Genesis got under my skin. I had to hear it. I trusted his taste and I knew he wasn’t that crazy. “Hah, alright…I believe you!” I said. “ A reverse mohawk, huh…Peter Gabriel!?” We both hung up laughing.

Our trip began a month later, heading straight west out of Baltimore. On our first night in the car I was like, “Pop that Genesis tape in the stereo! I want to hear that shit!” He must have thought I was mocking the almighty Pete Gabriel because he answered, “Not yet. This is their first record, From Genesis to Revelation. It’s pretty good but not as good as Lamb.”

“Alright, whatever,” I thought. I suspiciously eyed Kyle’s double cassette tape of Lamb as we listened to their flowery first record made only five years before they climbed to the peerless summit of Mt. Prog Rock. Today, I would have flipped him off and YouTube’d songs from the record in jovial defiance. But way back in 1999, it was either steal that tape while he was sleeping or be patient and go along with the buildup.

As we continued west, we also chronologically traversed the discography of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Fortunately, it got a lot better after Genesis to Revelation. It was with their third record Foxtrot that I finally threw my last bits of guilt out the racing-car window. “Phil Collins is the shit!” I heard myself say. Eli, who had reached this revelation much earlier in the trip and had already collected all Gabriel-era albums in dollar bins around the country, gave me a look as if to say “Glad you finally got your head out of your ass, smart guy.”

We made it to White Sands desert after a few weeks. I fought through my fear of bugs and snakes and slept alongside my two friends under the big sky of the open desert. When I woke up and found a dozen black beetles under my sleeping bag I wasn’t mad. At that point, our trip had taken on a “one for all” spirit that East coasters often get once they head west past Texas. Kyle had started doling out bits and pieces from Lamb and I had a feeling this was going to be all it was built up to be. From the song “Fly on a Windshield,” we were transfixed by the lyric “There’s Howard Hughes in blue suede shoes, smiling at the majorettes smoking Winston cigarettes”.

We reached L.A., and my only memory is that we seemed to always wind up at the stop light on Sunset Blvd. in front of the Scientology center which looks very similar to the Vons supermarket just a block down. Up the coast, heading to Portland where I was going to live with my girlfriend for the remainder of the summer, we made a brief stop in San Francisco. I roamed around on my own a while only to be picked up by my friends who had two exciting bits of news. Eli had sprained his ankle jumping over a bush in the park. That was okay though because, as Kyle put it, “I found the Lamb Lies Down on CD at this cool record store called Amoeba. The booklet has the story of Rael!”

I’ve since made the drive from San Francisco to Portland a dozen or more times. Recently, we’ve been in a crunch for time and take the 5. This first trip, time didn’t matter at all, and we drove through the night north on the 101 into Oregon. With Eli in the back, zonked on pain pills, Kyle sat in the passenger seat and read to me the story of Rael.

“That night he pictured the removal of his hairy heart and to the accompaniment of very romantic music as he watched it being shaved smooth by an anonymous stainless steel razor” Gabriel wrote in the liner notes. “The palpitating cherry-red organ was returned to its rightful place and began to beat faster as it led oucounting out time, through his first romantic encounter.”

“Dude, this is amazing,” I said “ but I gotta take a leak so just hold up a second.”

All this buildup and here we were in the middle of the night, somewhere in the Redwoods, both peeing on the side of the road. The trees shot up, swallowed by the dark. The stars popped in the sky and bugs flew through summer air. West of Texas, Genesis did not suck.

We got to Portland by the morning where I stayed for a month, spending most of my time reading back issues of The Big Takeover. “Who’s this Mission of Burma everyone is talking about,” I remember thinking. Peter Gabriel and the boys were back in the guilty pleasure drawer. My two friends kept on with the trip fueled by equal doses of Genesis, Andrew Dice Clay and Foreigner’s greatest hits. Kyle gave me his cassette copy of Lamb that night in San Francisco when he found it on CD, but it’s been many years since I’ve dug it up. As for Genesis these days, I hear that Phil Collins is a serious collector of Alamo memorabilia. That’s a little strange, right? A Brit spending his fortune on a bit of Texas history. It’s cool though; you know why? Because Phil Collins is the shit.

Carter Tanton has been a member of the bands Tulsa and Lower Dens and a producer for Marissa Nadler and Twin Shadow. His solo debut Freeclouds came out last year on Western Vinyl.