Closer to the heart
Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson talks about the hope beneath one of the band’s most personal albums to date
If Rush’s new CD, Vapor Trails, seems like a surprisingly personal record, it’s not a figment of anyone’s imagination.
The band’s lyricist, drummer Neil Peart, has always been known for cerebral, philosophical and oblique lyrics. But on Vapor Trails, Peart created a chronicle of loss, grief and finally spiritual renewal. Considering the events that surrounded Peart over the past five years, this lyrical story seems almost unavoidable.
In 1997, Peart’s 19-year-old daughter, Selena, was killed in a one-car accident. About a year later, his wife, Jackie, succumbed to cancer.
“Well, you know Neil is not a very public person. He’s extremely private,” said Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson. “Even with his lyrics he’s never been very open on a personal level. With this record, it’s really all about that. “Ghost Riders” is about his search for renewal in life, and “Sweet Miracle” is about love showing him the light to get back on the path. The record’s all about recovery, and it’s all about hope.”
Lifeson said that in the aftermath of the back-to-back tragedies in Peart’s life, any considerations about the band were pushed aside as he and the other member of Rush, singer/bassist Geddy Lee, tried to help Peart cope with his grief.
“It was obviously very difficult for Neil to commit to anything, and the important thing for him was to get his life back in order, if that was ever going to even happen,” Lifeson said. “Geddy and I kind of, you know, it just wasn’t important, the band, anymore. What was important was making sure that Neil was going to be OK. He had to go through a very, very difficult period to find his strength and move forward.”
Lifeson admits there were times he and Lee wondered if Rush would ever be a band again. After all, Peart had completely set aside music in the aftermath of the tragedy, eventually going four years without even playing drums.
And as the band’s hiatus continued, both Lee and Lifeson looked to outside projects to remain involved in music.
Lee went to work on his first-ever solo album, the 2000 release My Favorite Headache, and eventually went on a short promotional tour to support the CD.
Lifeson, meanwhile, tried his hand at producing, doing the debut album for the Pennsylvania-based band Lifer, as well as a few yet-to-be-released tracks for 3 Doors Down.
Peart, meanwhile, began to find new light for his life when he met his second wife and remarried in 2000. By the fall of that year, he was ready to return to the studio with Lifeson and Lee, and in January 2001 they began work on the new CD.
But after four months of jamming, the band had yet to hit stride. So the three band members decided to take a short break. Shortly after reconvening, Lifeson and Lee started to lock in on the music, and soon Vapor Trails took shape.
“We spent 14 months on the record, and that was a very long time for us,” Lifeson said. “But it was great not putting any kind of deadline on making the record. It was going to be finished when it was right and ready. And Neil had a long road to go to get back into drumming and to get back to the level that he was playing at, the stamina that he had. At the end of it all I think he came out of it feeling very strong, as we did. We were worn out by it. It was a lot of work, but really so very rewarding in the end.”
The CD that emerged contains some of the rawest, hardest rocking performances of any Rush CD, while still showcasing the intricate instrumental interplay between Lifeson, Lee and Peart.
The opening cut, “One Little Victory,” begins with Peart’s pounding drums, before charging out behind Lee’s rumbling bass line and Lifeson’s serrated guitars. Songs like “The Stars Look Down,” “Peaceable Kingdom” and “Ceiling Unlimited” carry forward a similarly urgent, hard-hitting sound that fits the angular melodies of these songs.
Lifeson said making Vapor Trails helped energize the three band members, and he particularly admires Peart for the way he has come through such a difficult period.
“I think he’s derived a lot of strength from making the record,” Lifeson said of Peart. “He’ll always be scarred by what’s happened, and he’s definitely a changed person than he used to be. He’s softer in some ways.
“But I think he’s learning to really enjoy life again, and he’s committed to starting from scratch. That’s all you can do. I guess if we did learn something, it’s that you shouldn?t plan too far ahead," Lifeson said. "Anything can happen at any time that can dramatically change your life. You should really live every day one day at a time. It’s easy to say that, and people say it all the time, but honestly it’s so very true. Try to appreciate all the things you have every single day."