With radio-ready hits like Sledgehammer, Big Time and In Your Eyes, Peter Gabriel's 1986 record So represented the biggest triumph in a long, successful career. But that doesn't mean it came together easily. One day, the singer was writing verses in a barn in rural England, while next door the album's producer, Daniel Lanois, readied himself in Gabriel's recording studio. This usually worked well, Lanois explains in his new memoir, Soul Mining, but Gabriel would occasionally wander off for a phone chat.
"Solution: the next time Peter went into the barn, I took these giant railway spikes and nailed him in," Lanois writes. "I'm not sure that all the lyrics came out of that one session, but it was a good tone-setter for discipline, even if it almost got me deported from the West Country of England."
In the 25 years since this bit of makeshift carpentry, Lanois has become one of the most successful producers in the business, the craftsman behind some of the era's finest albums: U2's The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind, Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball (not to mention his fellow Canadian Neil Young's just-released Le Noise, which takes its title from Lanois' nickname). This book bursts with memorable anecdotes about his collaborators, another of the author's many gifts to fans of rock and country.
Soul Mining begins on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, where Lanois was born. As a young man, Lanois built a studio in his mother's basement and soon found himself recording Rick James. One chapter captures the intimate feel of a Dylan recording session: "The Oh Mercy studio was essentially a kitchen. Bob and I sat like two guys on a porch. He played my nice 1952 butterscotch Telecaster that I plugged into an early sixties Fender Concert amp. . . ."
For a man writing something like an autobiography, Lanois is notably circumspect about his personal life. Maybe that's best. With a career this fascinating, there just isn't room for self-mythologizing filler.