Scratching in the Dirt: Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back


As a Peter Gabriel fan for over two decades, it’s difficult to admit that I find myself struggling to appreciate his first new album in years.

There have always been three core things to love about Gabriel’s work: his literate songwriting, meticulous soundscapes, and emotionally expressive voice. Behind the creepily organic album art, Scratch My Back is an experiment in subtraction. It finds Gabriel covering other artists’ songs, accompanied only by solo piano or orchestra (the oddly defensive marketing pitch “No drums, no guitars” says it all). That leaves only the voice. Soulful and gravelly even as a teenage cofounder of Genesis in 1967, Gabriel’s voice should be more than enough to justify anything, so my pat reduction here is not totally fair. Gabriel and John Metcalfe clearly labored over these orchestral arrangements, but I miss the complex sonics of the rock and world music instrumentation that has characterized most of his music for over 40 years.

Gabriel did very nearly the opposite a decade ago, when his high-concept millennium project Ovo made a point of casting Paul Buchanan and The Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser to sing his songs. The most recent collection of his own songs was 2002’s Up, followed in 2009 by the collaborative project Big Blue Ball. Casual fans of his music might not be aware that Gabriel is an active humanitarian, particularly as cofounder of Witness and The Elders, so the temporal gap between his musical ventures is not entirely explained by chronic procrastination (although he would probably be the first to admit he’s easily distracted). Gabriel has stated that he hopes to work on more song-swap projects in the future, but first plans to work on some of his own songs. How long until he prepares a new album over which he can claim sole authorship?

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel told the New York Times:

“I was trying to make a grown-up record […] This is treating people as if they can handle difficult music and words. Not that I’ve courted the lowest common denominator before, but there’s a playfulness and childishness in some of my older work that isn’t present on this record.”

He is presumably referring to the media satire of “Games Without Frontiers” and “The Barry Williams Show”, the randy sex romps “Sledgehammer” and “Kiss That Frog”, and the vaudeville silliness of “Excuse Me” and “Big Time”. Gabriel is one of the few musicians that I first listened to as a teenager, but whose music has aged with me. So I would have expected myself to appreciate an album of him covering many songs that I know and love well (particularly David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elbow, and Talking Heads), but I find that I don’t know what to make of Scratch my Back even after repeated listening.

Many songwriters lose their dark edge as they age (case in point: Pink Floyd’s once tortured, prickly Roger Waters is now a big smiley softie), and by all accounts Gabriel should have been following that track too. After leaving Genesis in 1975 to deal with family issues, his first four solo albums were increasingly dark and sinister. But 1986’s So marked a noticeable turnaround in tone and an apparent psychic healing. Now reportedly still pals with his old Genesis cohorts, aging gracefully into a potbelly and gnomish goatee, remarrying, fathering two new sons, and reconciling with his two daughters from a previous marriage, he seemed to be transforming into a cuddly grandfather figure. A trickle of releases over the past decade showed him favoring directly-worded songs for children, including the Oscar-nominated “That’ll Do” (from the movie Babe), the unsubtle “Animal Nation” (from The The Wild Thornberrys Movie), and “Down to Earth” (from Wall-E).

Suddenly, he appears to have reversed back into depressive territory. Nearly every song chosen for Scratch My Back has been transformed into a mournful dirge. Especially when listened to in one sitting, I find many of the interpretations to be too depressing, and I actually like depressing music. My favorite examples along these lines are Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ cry-your-guts-out cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” (from the movie Donnie Darko), and Elbow’s agonizingly heartrending version of U2’s “Running to Stand Still” (from the War Child benefit album Heroes).

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel’s version of The Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” has apparently become something of a sensation on YouTube, licensed in television shows, and played at celebrity weddings. Perhaps I’m coldhearted, but it does absolutely nothing for me. Songwriter Stephin Merritt says his version was sarcastic, while Gabriel’s is deadly serious:

At first I thought, How hilarious, he’s got a completely different take on the song. But after a few listens I find it quite sweet. My version of the song focuses on the humor, and his focuses on the pathos. Of course, if I could sing like him I wouldn’t have to be a humorist.

Did Gabriel just plain miss Merritt’s point, or did he intentionally transform it into something sentimental, singing the same words but altering the instrumentation and delivery? All that said, something to cherish in Gabriel’s cover is the presence of his daughter Melanie on backing vocals.

Elbow’s “Mirrorball” is one of the most ravishing love songs I’ve heard. Elbow remixed Gabriel’s “More Than This” in 2002, providing a more organic rock structure to Gabriel’s perhaps over-processed studio original. But Gabriel does not return the favor here, turning their gorgeous love song into a depressive bummer.

The once case where Gabriel’s bummer-o-vision may have actually been appropriate is with Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”, which actually does have very dark lyrics.

The original recording of David Bowie’s “Heroes” boasts an unforgettable lead guitar line from Robert Fripp, which by his own rules Gabriel must subtract. He sings Bowie’s Berlin-inspired lyrics in cracked, anguished tones, not an emotion I associate with the song.

The one song I liked immediately was “Listening Wind”. The original is one of the odder tracks on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, and Gabriel rather amazingly draws out a catchy melody embedded in the experimental song.

The Special Edition includes a second cd with four bonus tracks: a cover of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” and alternate versions of “The Book of Love”, “My Body is a Cage”, and “Heroes”. It might have been interesting to also include some of Gabriel’s past covers, including The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields”, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, and Joseph Arthur’s “In the Sun”. I would have also very much liked to hear instrumental mixes of some of Metcalfe’s orchestral arrangements.

Official Peter Gabriel site:

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Dennis Hopper’s Colors

Colors movie poster


Dennis Hopper’s Colors may be a buddy cop flick on the surface, but it’s hardly typical high-concept Hollywood material. It does have a token overarching plot (involving a mismatched pair of cops tracing the perpetrators of a drive-by shooting), but it’s merely a loose thread to hold the movie together. If neither a character study nor a plot-driven thriller, Colors is a portrait of an issue, a setting, a problem.

A prototype for the HBO series The Wire, Colors is actually a portrait of the deteriorated, hopeless situation in a failed American city lost to gangs and the drug trade. But unlike The Wire, which deeply explores the economics of how and why gangs function as organizations, Colors doesn’t offer much detail on how they operate and what they do. However sensitive and balanced Colors may be, it still takes the point of view of predominantly white law enforcement. As such, it’s easy to see why filmmakers shortly turned to films like Menace II Society (read The Dork Report review) and Boyz N the Hood (read The Dork Report review), which would look at some of the same issues from the other side of the milieu.

Sean Penn in ColorsSean Penn in Colors: “You don’t wanna get laid, man. It leads to kissing and pretty soon you gotta talk to ’em.”

The interesting title most obviously refers to the term for a nation’s flag(tying in with the themes of war and the institution that wage it) or the signature colors of three major warring L.A. gangs: the Bloods (red), Crips (blue), and a Latino gang (white). The real colors that divide these groups are, of course, race. The one sign of equality in late 80s L.A. is that nearly everyone calls each other Holmes.

The narrative is loosely hung on several cliches, most notably the trope of veteran cop saddled with rookie partner. Officer Hodges (Duvall) is bitter at being drafted into the L.A.P.D. C.R.A.S.H. anti-gang program, after a lifetime of service that ought to have qualified him for sensible hours, a safe desk job, and more time with his family. Officer McGavin (Penn) is an aggressive, preening dandy, eager to attack the gang problem with the blunt tool of incarceration.

Robert Duvall in ColorsRobert Duvall in Colors: “you got a problem with the whole fuckin’ world, and I’m in it.”

But it’s not long after the movie sets up these cliches that it begins to knock them down. The ostensibly wizened Hodges makes a critical mistake, setting free a young gangbanger on the assumption that a brush with the law would scare him straight, while simultaneously intending it to be a lesson to the headstrong book ’em-type McGavin. The punk turns out to have been a major player in the shooting. Another cliche short-circuited: McGavin romances a local girl from the barrio (Maria Conchita Alonso), but she turns out to be far from the madonna he imagined. Not only that, she rejects him anyway.

Colors ends on a very down beat, not just the death of a significant character, but what comes after. McGavin is forced into the position of imparting wisdom before he’s earned much himself. The film ends with a long shot held on his face (echoed much later in the final shot of mind Michael Clayton – read The Dork Report review) as he most likely ponders his ineffectiveness.

Of note are early appearances by Don Cheadle and Damon Wayans, the latter featuring in a stand-out surreal sequence in which his character T-Bone is out of his mind on drugs. Herbie Hancock’s score has not dated well, nor has the vintage rap soundtrack, including the angry theme song by Ice-T. The opening credits are set to “One Time One Night” by the local L.A. band Los Lobos.

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Where not to go for coffee in Manhattan: M. Rohrs’ House of Fine Teas & Coffees

M. Rohrs' House of Fine Teas & Coffees


M. Rohrs’ House of Fine Teas & Coffees has a complete and utter contempt of their paying customers, and has lost my business, forever. Yesterday afternoon, they kicked out myself and every other single customer, citing a new policy that accused us all of “loitering.” I am not making this up.

M. Rohrs is one of the last remaining coffee houses on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. As others have noted on Yelp, they routinely invent new policies, such as changing the terms of customer loyalty cards (in fact, I think they simply rescinded them altogether at one point). Until the very recent past, any customers that wished to sit down after 7PM must have ordered at least $10 from the menu. That policy was not entirely unreasonable, but it was unfeasible. M. Rohrs is not a restaurant, and it is actually difficult to spend more than $10 at a coffee house. But as of yesterday at least, that requirement has now expanded to all hours, every day. It’s also worth noting that the new policy did not seem to specify a dollar amount, so I suppose they can arbitrarily eject anybody they deem to have spent too little.

Here’s what happened yesterday afternoon at about 4-5PM: I bought a coffee and muffin, tipped, and sat down. About 10 minutes later, the volume of the music suddenly got VERY LOUD (painfully, distractingly so) for no apparent reason. Then one of their employees visited every customer in turn and presented us with a long-worded sign explaining their new seating policy, which used the word “loiter” several times. I don’t think this employee speaks English as a first language, so there was no opportunity to discuss it with him, even if the music had not been deafening. He was not apologetic. Every single customer in the store at that time had only purchased coffee and pastries, so we all had to leave. There were only about a half-dozen customers at the time, so the management can’t claim that we were hogging seats from hypothetical meal-eating customers (of which there were none). If the new policy had been posted up front when I placed my order, I did not see it.

I used to like to go to M. Rohrs occasionally, sometimes for a sandwich or sometimes just coffee. I would usually sit and work or just read for about an hour or two, which I don’t think is unreasonable at any coffee shop, Starbucks not excluded. All the other negative comments on Yelp are true; the service is often rude and neglectful (I once had them completely forget to make my sandwich – but at least they apologized), and they charge for wireless access and for electricity. Worse is their attitude; it would be one thing to simply charge people to plug in their laptops, but the signs plastered about the place couch it in terms of “theft of utilities,” essentially accusing customers of criminal behavior. After the closing of the vastly superior coffee shop DTUT a few years ago, M. Rohrs is pretty much the only place of its type in the neighborhood, so I used to patronize it anyway. No more.

The word “loitering,” as any literate person should know, has criminal connotations, and I suspect the management of M. Rohrs knows this. I deeply, deeply resent being called a “loiterer” despite having paid (and tipped!) for coffee and a pastry. Upon leaving for the last time, I only regretted not demanding my tip back.

Perhaps they intend to transition away from being a coffee house into a restaurant with a take-out coffee bar. If so, they will have to hire more staff, improve the speed and accuracy of their service, toss out the couches, and stop accusing their paying customers of criminal behavior. Good luck with that. If anyone associated with the establishment happens to read this, I invite you to please comment below. I would love to hear your justifications. I signed up for Yelp for the sole purpose of posting a copy of this review, and I sincerely hope lots of potential customers read it.

So that you know where not to go get your coffee, M. Rohrs’ House of Fine Teas & Coffees is located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, at 310 East 86th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues.