The Infinite Jukebox: Peter Gabriel’s ‘Mercy Street’


This is a personal story.
Though I had a lot of mates in the early Seventies who played more progressive music at me than I now care to remember, none of them were into Genesis. Not until the late phase singles like ‘I Know What I Like’ and ‘Counting Out Time’ did I hear or like anything of their music. But I was interested in Peter Gabriel solo from the first time I heard ‘Solsbury Hill’.
Like millions of others I didn’t buy a Peter Gabriel album until So. I loved it then, I love it now. My favourite track is ‘In Your Eyes’, an almost spiritual piece of uplifting music, in a completely different vein to ‘Solsbury Hill’ but not less inspiring.
On the album, it is track five, the former opening track of side two. It’s followed by ‘Mercy Street’, a completely different experience, quiet, mellow, slow, gentle. Though it’s inspired by the works of the poet Anne Sexton, its lyrics, about taking the boat out across the waves has always echoed for me lighthouseman’s daughter Grace Darling.
My first long lasting, serious relationship with someone who loved me as well was with a woman called Mary. She was a couple of years older than me, and we have had no contact for almost twenty years: I have no idea if she is still here. Overall, we were together just short of ten years, although the last half of that period was what you might call volatile: on and off with longer periods of off than on but underneath it all a friendship that kept drawing us back to each other, mostly as friends but irregularly with our all-too-familiar passion. Even when it seemed our love was finally behind us, I would pick up the phone to her inviting herself round, and we’d sit and talk and sometimes it would end up where I still wanted it to end up.
It was a light midsummer evening and, for some reason, rather than share the couch we were both sat on the floor. I had put on So which we both liked, and when ‘Mercy Street’ started, I began to sing along, gently, quietly, and as close to keeping the tune as I could. I could do that sometimes, with some songs, then. She sat and listened to me. In a way, absorbed in the song, it was almost as if I was in a form of rapture.
I had begun singing instinctively, forgetting as I did a line of lyrics that I would eventually reach. I became very conscious of it a few lines ahead. She would hear Peter Gabriel sing the line, and to stop singing abruptly would only draw attention to it. So I carried on singing, closing my eyes but ultra-aware of where she was in relation to me. Dreaming of the tenderness, the tremble in the hips, of kissing Mary’s lips.
Nothing was said, and I continued to the end of the song with my eyes closed. We neither of us spoke about the song or the line. There was, indeed, a kiss from Mary’s lips. Maybe we went upstairs, I no longer remember nor does it matter. Ever since, the song itself, which is still a great favourite, takes me back to the moment of realisation when I knew the line was coming, and the uncertainty of singing it. And to kissing Mary’s lips. Which was once of supreme importance.

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