My favorite Rush album has been, at least going back to April 1984, Grace Under Pressure. I realize that among Rush fans and among prog fans, this might serve as a contentious choice. My praise of GUP is not in any way meant to denigrate any other Rush albums. Frankly, I love them all. Rush has offered us an outrageous wealth of blessings, and I won’t even pretend objectivity.
I love Rush. I love Grace Under Pressure.
I still remember opening Grace Under Pressure for the first time. Gently knifing the cellophane so as not to crease the cardboard, slowly pulling out the vinyl wrapped in a paper sleeve, the hues of gray, pink, blue, and granite and that egg caught in a vicegrip, the distinctive smell of a brand new album. . . . the crackle as the needle hit . . . .
I was sixteen.
From the opening wind-blown notes, sound effects, and sharp keyboard notes, I was hooked, completely. I had loved Moving Pictures and Signals–each giving me great comfort personally, perhaps even saving my life during some pretty horrific junior high and early high school moments.
But this Grace Under Pressure. This was something else.
If Moving Picturesand Signalstaught me to be myself and pursue excellence, Grace Under Pressuretaught me that once I knew myself, I had the high duty to go into the world and fight for what’s good and right, no matter the cost. At sixteen, I desperately needed to believe that, and I thank God that Peart provided that lesson. There are so many other lessons a young energetic boy could have picked up from the rather fragile culture of the time and the incredibly dysfunctional home in which I was raised. With Grace Under Pressure, though, I was certainly ready to follow Peart into Hell and back for the right cause. Peart certainly became one of the most foundational influences on my life, along with other authors I was reading at the time, such as Orwell and Bradbury.
Though I’m sure that Peart did not intend for the album to have any kind of overriding story such as the first sides of 2112or Hemisphereshad told, Grace Under Pressureholds together as a concept album brilliantly.
The opening calls to us: beware! Wake up! Shake off your slumbers! The world is near its doom.
Or so it seems.
Geddy’s voice, strong with anxiety, begins: “An ill wind comes arising. . .” In the pressures of chaos, Pearts suggests, we so easily see the world fall apart, ourselves not only caught in the maelstrom, but possibly aggravating it. “Distant Early Warning” ends with possibly the most desperate cry of the Old Testament: “Absalom, Absalom!” Certainly, there is no hope merely in the self. Again, so it seems.
The second song, “Afterimage,” gut-wrenching to the extreme, deals with the loss of a person, his imprint is all that remains after bodily removed from this existence. Yet, despite the topic, there is more hope in this song than in the first. Despite loss, memory allows life to continue, to “feel the way you would.” I had recently lost my maternal grandfather–the finest man I ever knew–before first hearing this album. His image will always be my “Afterimage.”
It seems, though, that more than one have died. The third song, “Red Sector A,” takes us to the inside of a prison camp. Whether a Holocaust camp or a Gulag, it’s unclear. Frankly, it’s probably not important if the owners of the camp are Communists or Fascists. Either way, those imprisoned inside are most likely doomed. Not only had I been reading lots of dystopian literature in 1984 (appropriate, I suppose, given the date), but I was reading everything I could find by and about the greatest of Soviet dissidents, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. This made the Gulag even more real and more terrifying. Tyrannies of every shape cast a long shadow over the band, and the three members of Rush refused to let the memories of the twentieth century dismiss the horrors of concentration camps and killing fields. As Lee explained in an interview,
My parents were in Poland at the outset of the war, and the Germans came in, and every man they thought could be a threat to them they took out and shot. As the war moved on they were taken to a concentration camp. As the war got a little heavier, they were all moved to different concentration camps. My parents were sent to Auschwitz where they survived, which they thought was a miracle. When they got liberated—when the war was over—they didn’t know what to do. They still lived in the concentration camp, as most people did, trying to collect themselves. When they liberated them, they thought they were the only people left in the world. Can you imagine that? They thought they were the few survivors. They were slowly informed that the world was still going on. Then they couldn’t understand why they were saved. How could it happen? How could God let it happen? They gathered up what they could and came to Canada. They were going to go to New York, but someone said it was nice in Canada.[i]
Just when the brooding might become unbearable, the three men of Rush seem to offer a Gothic, not quite hellish, smile as the fourth song, “The Enemy Within” begins. Part One of “Fear,” this fourth track of Grace Under Pressureoffers a psychological insight into the paranoia of a person. Perhaps we should first look at our own problems before we place them whole cloth upon the world.
Pick needle up, turn album over, clean with dust sponge, and drop needle. . . .
Funk. Sci-fi funk emerges after the needle has crackled and finds its groove. A robot has escaped, perhaps yearning for or even having attained sentience. I could never count how many hours of conversation these lyrics prompted, as Kevin McCormick and I discussed the nature of free will late into the night in our college dormroom.
It’s the stuff of Philip K. Dick, the liberal arts, and the best of theology.
More bass funk for track six and a return to psychological introspection, “Kid Gloves.” But, we move out quickly into the larger world again with the seventh track, “Red Lenses,” taking the listener back to the themes of paranoia. When the man emerges for action, will he do so in reaction to the personal pain he has experienced, or will he do so with an objective truth set to enliven the common good?
In the end, this is the choice for those who do not lose themselves to the cathode rays. Is man fighting for what should be or is he reacting merely to what has happened, “to live between a rock and a hard place.”
Unlike the previous albums which end with narrative certainty, Grace Under Pressureleaves the listener with more questions than it answers, though tellingly it harkens to Hemingway and to T.S. Eliot. Given the album as a whole, one might take this as Stoic resignation–merely accepting the flaws of the world. “Can you spare another war? Another waste land?”
Wheels can take you around
Wheels can cut you down. . . .
We’ve all got to try and fill the void.
But, this doesn’t fit Peart. We all know whatever blows life has dealt Peart, he has stood back up, practiced twenty times harder, and read thirty more books. That man does not go down for long.
And, neither should we.
In the spring of 1987, much to my surprise, one of my humanities professors allowed me to write on the ideas of Peart. I can no longer find that essay (swallowed up and now painfully lonely on some primitive MacPlus harddrive or 3.5 floppy disk most likely rotting in a landfill in central Kansas), but it was the kind of writing and thinking that opened up whole new worlds to me. My only quotes were from “Grace Under Pressure,” drawing a distinction between nature of the liberal arts and the loss of humanity through the mechanizing of the human person. It dealt, understandably, with environmental and cultural degradation, the dangers of conformist thinking, and the brutal inhumanity of ideologies. It was probably the smartest thing I’d written up to that point in my life, and even my professor liked it enough to award me with an “A.”
Of course, the ideas were all Peart’s, and I fondly imagined him as that really great older brother—the one who knows what an annoying pain I am, but who sees promise in me anyway, giving me just enough space to find my own way.
Geoff Barton returned from a hiatus to review the album, calling Grace Under Pressure“the latest link in a truly lustrous chain.”[ii] Soundsgave it four out of five stars, noting that Rush “are making graceful sweeping advances and this album shows just how versatile they are and how much they have got to offer. I have the strangest feeling that I’ve only scraped away at the surface of this record.”[iii] And, of course, Rolling Stonerained on the parade.
The problem, though, is musical. On the record, the lack of melody and any but the most rudimentary harmonic development soon becomes oppressive. In addition, Alex Lifeson is not a particularly interesting lead guitarist, and the strictures of the trio format still result in more splattery drum bashing than you’ll ever care to hear. Rush delivers the goods, all right: strong social statements enveloped in a massive, pounding sound. But it’s old news, and old music, too.[iv]
This piece originally appeared somewhere in the middle of Bradley J. Birzer, Neil Peart: Cultural (RE)Percussions (Wordfire Press, 2015), available in paperback and kindle at amazon.com.
If you’d like a more in-depth progarchy look at Rush, here’s a handy guide:
[i]Scott Cohen, “Geddy Lee: From Immigrants’ Song to Rush’s Lead Singer,” Circus (October 27, 1977).
[ii]Geoff Barton, “Pressure Points,” Kerrang! (April 5-18, 1984).
[iii]Jay Williams, “Grace and Favour,” Sounds (April 21, 1984).
[iv]Kurt Loder, Grace Under Pressurereview, Rolling Stone (June 21, 1984).