Continuing the series on quirky and obscure songs with personal importance   is this song that is older than I am. Given the singer (Peter Gabriel), it is hard to determine if the meaning I take from it is intentional or a consequence of my own particular religious beliefs, but I thought it worthwhile to give fair warning that the importance and joy of this song springs from the religious meaning I see in it, and not only its pop brilliance. The song is Peter Gabriel’s “Solbury Hill.”
It should be noted that one of the semi-official fan sites for Peter Gabriel views the song as an explanation of why he left Genesis and went out on his own, searching for exciting new opportunities and being true to himself and the musical direction he wanted to take . This stance led him into worldbeat music, film soundtracks, and daring music videos for such songs as “Sledgehammer,” “Steam,” and “Growing Up” that are amazing and brilliant, even as his lack of interest in the fuss of the pop music scene has led him to record very infrequently from the mid-1980’s onward.
Nonetheless, part of the beauty of the song seems to be in its ambivalent treatment of a Christlike figure (that’s probably the best way of putting it) whose struggle between his own will and the will of God appears to be put in terms not unlike Christ’s own anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. Thus it appears that whatever personal meaning is present in the song about Peter Gabriel’s own need to pursue his muse that the additional referent to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ makes the song even more deep and meaningful and worthwhile. With that in mind, let us examine the meaning of the song in light of both the meanings posited in the song.
The lyrics to “Solsbury Hill ” show that the song is one of the unusual numbers without a chorus, but with an effective instrumental hook. Another song of this type from the same time period was Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” a similarly reflective tune. Verse one of “Solsbury Hill” goes as follows: “Climbing up on Solsbury Hill, /I could see the city light. /Wind was blowing, time stood still. /Eagle flew out of the night. /He was something to observe. /Came in close, I heard a voice./ Standing stretching every nerve, /Had to listen had no choice./I did not believe the information,/I just had to trust imagination./My heart going boom boom boom./”Son,” he said “Grab your things,/ I’ve come to take you home.””
For a songwriter as mystical as Peter Gabriel, nothing is ever really straightforward (not that this indirect approach is a bad thing). From the perspective of Gabriel’s departure, it appears as if Peter had a mystical experience of some sort that led him to feel unfulfilled about his time in Genesis, and indicating he was somewhat suspicious of the information he was getting. It is possible that in the context of this meaning the voice may even be coming from himself.) However, the song has a second degree (at least) of relevance as well. The experience that Peter Gabriel claims to have had sounds similar to the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, which prompted the bird to fly down with a voice from heaven saying, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Verse two of Solsbury Hill goes as follows: “To keep in silence I resigned./ My friends would think I was a nut./ Turning water into wine,/ Open doors would soon be shut./ So I went from day to day,/ Tho’ my life was in a rut,/’Till I thought of what I’d say,/Which connection I should cut./ I was feeling part of the scenery,/I walked right out of the machinery./My heart going boom boom boom./”Hey” he said “Grab your things,/ I’ve come to take you home.”/ (Back home).”
In terms of the meaning of the song that refers to Gabriel’s departure from Genesis, it would appear that Gabriel’s desire to turn in a more mystical direction conflicted with the desires of Genesis to become more straight-ahead rock (witness their work with Phil Collins, for example), and led him to be quite about the direction he wanted to take in fear of being thought as a lunatic. Meanwhile, his silence about what he really felt made him feel as if he was hiding in the background even as he tried to escape the ‘machinery’ of the rock star life. In terms of the messianic meaning of the song, the reference to turning water into wine (the miracle of the wedding of Cana, Christ’s first miracle) and the reluctance of Christ to perform that miracle because it was not yet time for him to show himself to the world as the Messiah, and yet He did so. Additionally, there were numerous times in which Christ ‘withdrew’ from the crowds to a wilderness area, to avoid premature martyrdom as well as the demands of being mobbed by a restive populace who did not understand His true calling.
The third and final verse of Solsbury Hill reads as follows: “When illusion spin her net,/ I’m never where I want to be,/ And liberty she pirouette/ When I think that I am free./ Watched by empty silhouettes,/Who close their eyes but still can see./No one taught them etiquette./I will show another me./ Today I don’t need a replacement,/I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant./ My heart going boom boom boom./ “Hey” I said “You can keep my things,/ They’ve come to take me home.””
In the context of Peter Gabriel’s search for authenticity his exit from Genesis suggests that he found freedom elusive, felt that lots of unfriendly people were constantly looking at him (maybe the press or early paparazzi), and that he was resolved to show another side of himself. Nonetheless, he was resolute, at last, that going solo was something he needed to do for himself, to not be held back or contained by a group any longer. In that sense, his choice for the personal rather than for the group is much like the choice Christine McVie made in “Temporary One .” In terms of the messianic meaning of the song, in the Garden of Gethsemane Christ too had to choose the will of God over His own will, understanding that He came to deliver mankind from bondage and not be ‘free’ to do His own wishes. He too needed no replacement, and left that which belonged to Him to others as he returned to heaven to be with the Father.
It is striking that this song makes sense in two such radically different contexts. There is a very strong case that can be made for the song referring both to Christian as well as personal themes, from the lyrics Peter Gabriel writes. The scriptural references and personal references are both strong. The fact that the ‘personal’ meaning is mystical aids the dual impact of the song, and the fact that the song seems to posit a somewhat ‘reluctant Christ’ is something perhaps a bit more out of “Jesus Christ Superstar” than the Gospels, but clearly in the air of the 1970’s culture and mindset that Peter Gabriel was reflecting in this piece. Nonetheless, the fascinating blend between personal and biblical makes this song a compelling listen.