Short Story in a Song: Peter Gabriel’s Family Snapshot, by Paul Matts

 

Peter Gabriel is one of the most innovative of solo artists in music. He was originally the singer with Genesis, his swansong album for the band being The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It hinted at the slightly more edgy, disturbing sound his solo material would ultimately take.

It was five years after leaving Genesis before ‘Family Snapshot’ emerged. The song was inspired by the book An Assassin’s Diary, by Arthur Bremer. Bremer attempted to assassinate a politician who supported racial segregation. It is on his third solo record, Peter Gabriel. Famously, the first four solo albums were all called Peter Gabriel. Hardly helps for casual identification purposes. Some term the album Melt, due to the cover art.

Very few things grab news headlines quite like the assassination of a public figure. Even in this age of instant, throw away content. The reports describe the event. Contemporaries, colleagues and officials clamber to get their responses in. The public is stunned, unable to believe what has happened.

The event is, of course, tragic. A life is taken, often in its prime. Millions are saddened instantly. The family are broken. The world seems to turn on its axis. It is certainly in shock. There is no more famous film footage than that of JFK’s assassination, one of the major news events of the 20th century. It is known to all, and people can often remember what they were doing at the time it happened.

There is often a political angle to it. The victim is killed for a purpose. Often to further the cause of a political opponent. Events such as these are littered throughout history.

But what of the direct relationship between the victim, and his killer? The victim is wiped out by a single person, invariably. Strip away the political, ideological dressing, and you are left with two individuals. Apparently, made for each other.

‘Family Snapshot’ deals with such a relationship. Two individuals made for each other.

One is known to millions. He is one of the world’s most famous people;

‘The streets are lined with camera crews,

Everywhere he goes is news.’

He is a person. As is the assassin, too. Human beings, the same species. But something triggered vastly different lives for the two of them. The assassin has chosen not to accept his. He wants his moment of fame. His fifteen minutes.

The assassin narrates the story. His thoughts, plans and feelings are articulated as the day of the assassination begins.

‘Today is different, today is not the same.

Today I make the action.

Take snapshot into the light, snapshot into the light.’

The assassin wants the world to notice him. He wants some action, too. The early stages of the song give his intentions. Not merely to shoot someone. But to make news himself. He cannot really do this by merely shooting a regular person. He needs to shoot a famous figure. A really, famous figure.

‘All you people in TV land,

I will wake up your empty shells.

Peak time viewing blown in a flash,

As I burn into your memory cells.’

He has done his homework. He is listening to the radio. His tension builds as the victim approaches. He knows what is pending. What is imminent. The listener gets a real sense of the parade as the song gets into its stride. Flags waving, crowds cheering. The excitement of it all.

Tension builds in the music. Tempo rises in the music. The listener’s heart rate begins to increase. Lord knows what the assassin’s heart rate must be reading.

‘They’re coming round the corner with the bikers at the front,

I’m wiping the sweat from my eyes.

It’s a matter of time, a matter of will.’

p gabrielThe narration is crucial. It’s a commentary, punctuated with hints of the assassin’s feelings. Music continues to build, almost to a crescendo. And then a momentary drop. As if the assassin is having a small doubt. However, he reveals his justification for what he’s about to do;

‘I don’t really hate you. I don’t care what you do.

We were made for each other, me and you.

I wanna be somebody. You were like that too.

If you don’t get given you learn to take,

And I will take you.’

Back to business. A darkness falls over the music. Until now it has almost been full of vigour and excitement. But these adjectives describe evil too. The moment of destiny arrives. It’s now or never.

It’s now. The shot is fired. The bullet flies.

And now the listener is now taken to another dimension. An empty, hopeless, suspended state. Knowing it is too late. Knowing things will change for good. But, apparently, the assassin has no remorse.

Just an explanation…

‘All turns quiet, I’ve been here before.

A lonely boy, hiding behind the front door.

My friends have all gone home, there’s my toy gun on the floor.

Come back Mum and Dad.

You’re growing apart, you know that I’m growing up sad.

I need some attention,

I shoot into the light.’

The assassin’s motives are revealed. Jealousy, a broken home and a lack of happiness, love and attention. Every day human emotions and events. That effect so many of us. But thankfully, with a different outcome for most.

Sympathy with the assassin is one emotion left with the listener. It makes sense. It just cannot be excused.

The music is stark and full of pathos at this point. It tells the story itself. It leaves the listener numb. The same numb feeling you get when you hear of an assassination. However how many of us put ourselves in the shoes of the assassin, and really get inside the person and ask, ‘Why did they really do it?’

No political justification, in this case. Just two people, made for each other.

Bio: Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His debut novel ‘Toy Guitars’ is due to be published in 2019, and he is the author of the short stories ‘Revenge can be Sweet, ‘The Bench’ and ‘One More season’. He also writes flash fiction, including ‘Hollow Love’ and ‘Family Guy?’ His work has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, WeAreCult and Unlawful Acts. A further novella, ‘Donny Jackal’ is currently being edited. He previously promoted live shows as 101 Productions and owned The Attik night club from 2001-2007. He was also a songwriter and guitarist in The Incurables.

Paul runs a music blog and has recently started a series entitled 101 Significant Figures. This focuses on under-appreciated individuals in the punk and new wave movement. See www.paulmatts.com for more details.

Paul Matts