Peter Gabriel

On Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch” in a Time of Forbidden Touch

Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch” perfectly captures the agonizing isolation that so many of us have been experiencing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

My unofficial theme song throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch”. Not the polished, light-industrial, somewhat sterile album version from Security (1982), the fourth of his self-titled records, but the live version found on 1983’s Plays Live—which was, incidentally, recently (and somewhat anachronistically) rereleased in its full 2CD format.

My attachment to the live version is prompted in part by the fact that the live music experience has, of course, been one of many social interactions in America to either disappear or take on a hue of contagion since March 2020. This has, somewhat paradoxically, given any concert recording a fresh quality of the archival, the antique. Generally, I don’t enjoy “live recordings”. Why listen to something muddied by indistinct yelling from the audience, errors by the band, and long improvisations when one could engage with a song without mediation? The live recording of 1982’s “I Have the Touch”, however, mediates this experience in quite a different way that is phenomenological and, in these times, highly political.

What makes Gabriel’s song uniquely appropriate to its live setting is its exceptionally clear linkage between content and environment. The song’s narration yearns for contact, which, when heard against the backdrop of the crowd’s presence and engagement, establishes an odd sort of disjunction/connection: Gabriel cries out for touch, which—as the song’s title unequivocally states—is something he already has. He is together, in the concert hall, with others who are touching one another. And yet, he remains apart from his audience.

“Such a mass of motion, do not know where it goes / I move with the movement and, I have the touch”. Outside of a concert setting, the lyrics sound aspirational— they take the shape of observance, or a wish to “speak-into-existence”. And yet a separation remains. There’s the sense that even being with the motion of the moment is not enough to understand it, to connect entirely with those who share the space, to become indistinguishably part of the mass, to comprehend and surrender to its agency. Moving with the movement is not yet enough to take touch beyond the quality of personal ownership. Most of us have touch, possess the sense, have even, perhaps, found movements with which to move over the course of the pandemic. And yet we are still deprived of touching, of that act that requires contact with another.

The isolated stasis during the pandemic is beautifully, agonizingly — if not intentionally — encapsulated by the bridge and outro that close Gabriel’s song:

Pull my chin, stroke my hair, scratch my nose, hug my knees / Try drink, food, cigarette, tension will not ease / I tap my fingers, fold my arms, breathe in deep, cross my legs / Shrug my shoulders, stretch my back, but nothing seems to please / I want contact

Yes, I want contact as well. Maybe you do too. We can touch our own bodies, hug ourselves, distract ourselves with other sensations, assume postures that fold our bodies upon themselves in a simulation of exchange, attempt to stretch and extend the limits of our corporeality. But if it is touch that we crave if it is a tension—an internal tautness—that asks to be released beyond the scope of one’s self, then none of these exercises can satisfy. We become trapped in the waiting, trapped in our somatic limits, prodding at the borders of our bodies, bending and expanding and creasing them in a dance that can only ever fall short of contact.

Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has wonderfully conceptualized the importance and collaborative quality of touch, and I’d like to bring Nancy’s notion into contact with Gabriel’s, allowing them to brush up against one another in precisely the kind of uncertain, undetermined encounter that Gabriel’s narrator longs for. Touching, Nancy tells us, is the very condition of being in the world, of having a world, of coming to know something like reality and matter. What we can touch takes the shape of the known and possible for us—and this is not only, of course, what we can touch with the tips of our fingers but also with our many senses and thoughts, with all of the ways in which we send our bodies out and come to know the world and its others.

As we learn the world and what’s in it, as something we never cease doing, it becomes ours while remaining entirely its own, even while becoming mutually entangled with us. As when I touch your face, had we known one another in the past, had we had that impossibly intimate relationship where such a thing becomes possible: I know you then, differently, feel the give of your flesh, the drop of your cheek, the smooth warmth. That comes into my world as I come into yours—and yet it is not mine at all. “[N]either pure continuity nor pure discontinuity: touching” (Nancy 1997).

This continuity/discontinuity at play together is fully at work in “I Have the Touch”. The gregariousness, the possibility of a happy, somewhat bumbling “chance collision” that Gabriel illuminates, tug at this idea of togetherness, of collaborative welcoming amid total uncertainty. It grabs hold of this Nancean notion of a needful touch that swells and contrasts without assimilating. In touch, Nancy tells us in the first volume of Corpus, “Nothing gets through” (2008). There is none of that penetrative energy at work, that piercing and spearing and even killing that might come to mind when we think of touching someone sexually. Or, more pointedly, the kind of touch that’s at work in the murderous sense of touching someone, of getting them touched, as in, for instance, Three-6 Mafia’s 1995 song “Gotta Touch ‘Em, Pt. 2”.

This is not, of course, to say that sexuality has been sapped from Gabriel’s vision, or Nancy’s, for that matter. Rather our sex, both as our understanding of our identity and our intercourse with others, names the manner in which, touching intimately upon the body of the other, we slide with and up against the other ever so closely, as Nancy writes (2008).

Three-6 Mafia’s possessive form of touch is not, in its outset, far from the touch that Gabriel tells us that he has, but in the former case, the violence of touch is made to retain its insularity to function as a threat, weaponized so that the other might, in being touched, be kept at bay or swallowed up entirely. We will not share this touch, I will impose it upon you. Gabriel’s vision of collaborative touch is in its execution quite different, being rather characterized by a hospitality to a difference that is unknown:

Hello, how do you do? / All those introductions, I never miss my cue / So before a question, so before a doubt / My hand moves out and, I have the touch

We can’t miss the very relatable, slightly goofy, and overenthusiastic energy at work in this vision of Gabriel the overcaffeinated social butterfly. It’s as if he’s rushing about at a bowling alley get-together, say, or an after-work pub crawl, clasping the many hands of his bemused fellows. There must be a practiced tact, of course—he can read the cues—but his earnestness, his insistence, are disarming and mildly amusing. No time for questions, uncertainties, or small talk: an introduction, a smile, and his hand shoots toward the other’s as the contact taking place so briefly and preciously is cherished before he rushes to meet the next person.