Distancing #49: Grace Under Pressure - Believer Magazine
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Distancing #49: Grace Under Pressure

by Trevor Quirk
September 14th, 2020

My father bristled with energy when I returned home from a semester at college wanting to talk about Rush. The Canadian progressive rock trio was his longtime favorite band, but I, as a boy, had found them sort of weightless and dithery. Yet Rush is a band of staggering longevity (eighteen studio records over half a century) which, matched with Neal Peart’s lyrical proclivity for the archetypal, creates the fan-attested effect of mapping the moods of their albums onto what many of us might consider the general stages of life. Such that, when I discovered 1983’s Grace Under Pressure, its sonic wash of longing, nerve, paranoia and Weltschmerz resonated so fully with my college experience that many of its anxious tracks remain stored in my mind note for note, like old pristine piano rolls.

When I mentioned that I couldn’t stop listening to that album, Dad winced in that rueful manner that suggests you’ve made the one available bad choice. “I can’t hear that one anymore,” he said. “Too many memories of nuke school.” By this he meant his younger days in nuclear power school, where the Navy produces technicians for its shipboard reactors through a legendarily brutal regimen of physics, applied mathematics, and chemistry, a kind of bootcamp for eggheads where you do little but ingest calories at the cafeteria and burn them marching through a thermodynamics course in a margin of time that would break the mind of a civilian physics student (which, coincidentally or not, I was).

I do sort of get his reluctance to recall the album now. Its ethereal vistas and dopplering sirens conjure memories of staring wearily at some monstrous triple integral on a whiteboard, smeared in erased failures; or the heat on my nape standing between my class and a differential equation our professor had instructed me to publicly solve (the bastard). Physics students at my tiny Franciscan college were a small and close company; we took the same classes, lived in the same dorms and townhouses, were graded on the same curves. And somehow these became the parameters of a consuming intellectual competition I didn’t know I could harbor. The only thing I obsessed over more than my comparative performance (Was his grasp of nuclear physics progressing faster than mine? Did she really solve Putnik’s weekly problem entirely on her own? How on Earth did he nab a fellowship with NASA?) was whether this competition made itself felt as urgently, or at all, in the minds of my friends. Their every gesture, utterance, and decision—even their absences!— seemed to hint (doubtfully, possibly, probably) at some petty calculus of domination, at an invisible unspoken war I was always losing. I was perpetually addled by the figments of uncertainty like those in the song “The Enemy Within”:

Suspicious looking stranger
Flashes you a dangerous grin
Shadows across the window,
Was it only trees in the wind?

I still think of Grace Under Pressure as fundamentally psychological music, even if it uses the maximally distortive language of Cold War paranoia and animosity. The geopolitical overtones are evident in the album’s motif of the color red (“I see red / It hurts my head”) and in the specter of nuclear fallout in “Distant Early Warning.” But what’s interesting is that these global conflicts are often portrayed as interpersonal struggles (“You sometimes drive me crazy / But I worry about you.”) The band members—Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee, and Peart—were all in their thirties when they wrote the album, which makes sense, because Grace Under Pressure is conceptually premised on a realization that tends to arrive in that decade, when, after sloughing off some of the narcissism of your twenties, you begin to look outward and see that the envy, insecurity, and fear you’re just beginning to overcome in fact order most of history and threaten, at any moment, to blight the horizon with mushroom clouds. And so your reaction often consists in an urge to warn others of the perils you barely escaped—to warn the whole damn world.

The album’s meticulous timbre evokes these projected concerns: reverberating, glistening, and airy sounds with the menacing suggestion of oceans and gales, the swelling and breaking of forces more powerful than you. It’s an album full of growing pain and dire cautions blared on primitive synthesizers. Lifeson’s guitar is appropriately discordant, his reverb canyonesque, his solos alarmlike. Lee’s vocals achieve a new emotional range; the melancholy he developed in the band’s middle period is now paired with an unsteady confusion, enabling him to return to choruses with desperate, jolting inflections. Every song feels like a fraught dialogue between the self and the world, between the older identity and its remembered youth, between the living and the dead, between hallowed wisdom…

But I see the tip of the iceberg
And I worry about you
Absalom! Absalom! Absalom!

… and indignant ambition:

I’m not giving into security under pressure
I’m not missing out on the promise of adventure
I’m not giving up on improbable dreams

In the book of Samuel, the rebellious initiative of Absalom, beloved son of King David, earns him three darts through his head. I still suspect that, even if I then preferred the latter passage’s adamance, some quieter, wiser part of me was indeed worrying over what my jealous ambitions might earn me, what was augured by the kind of pressure largely generated by a petulant inner tyrant. Whether it comes from within or without, pressure has a tendency of revealing people, to others or themselves, by forcing them to mobilize their most substantive motivations. I didn’t like what I learned about myself in those years: the wounded pride, the mindless striving, the militant adherence to the ethos of meritocracy however much I outwardly disparaged it. I suppose college is, among other things, the last time we can believe that we’re not subjects of titanic forces, that our ambitions aren’t mostly futile struggles against the angular momentum of history, caught as they are “between the wheels,” the title of my favorite song on the album:

Bright images flashing by
Like windshields towards a fly
Frozen in the fatal climb
But the wheels of time
Just pass you by
Wheels can take you around
Wheels can cut you down

Whatever defines grace in such a stage of life, I did not possess it then (though I sometimes wonder if my father did in his own teeth-cutting days.) After grad school, the pressure, as they say, got to me. I cracked, then imploded. I moved near home for what became a season of relearning the basics: I spent a couple years rebuilding myself, writing book reviews and working at a pretentious restaurant owned by glad-handing cokeheads. It was good; my expectations were low. The summer before I left New York, I developed the post-shift habit of taking my brass one-hitter on long walks through the pine-shrouded suburbs of my adolescence. These were some of the best nights of my life, and I’m reminded of them when listening to one of Rush’s most popular songs, “Subdivisions.” (That track is on Signals, the album before Grace Under Pressure, but I discovered it afterward, in keeping with my tendency to explore the discographies of my father’s favorite bands backwards.)

“Subdivisions” famously “gets” what it feels like to grow up in planned neighborhoods “sprawling on the fringes of the city in geometric order… In between the bright lights and the far unlit unknown.” The great empty lots and fields that fade into abstraction, the immense distances—between developments, houses, and neighbors—stir alienation, and the regular reminders of a way of life that overshadows your own (“Drawn like moths / We drift into the city”) breed outsized ambitions. You can’t wait to get the hell out of there, to experience the vibrant citadels of incongruity, difference, and consequence. Yet what’s rarely noted about the song is that the longing the suburbs cultivate might end up being our greatest source of exhaustion. The fantasy of escaping the suburbs is part of their design, and so its children eventually “start to dream of somewhere to relax their restless flight / … Somewhere out of a memory, of lighted streets on quiet nights.”

And that was me, sauntering through remembered streets well-lit. Mildly high, alone, I allowed my thoughts to veer and venture wherever they pleased, mouthing sentences to myself I didn’t know I could create. What I loved about these thoughts was that they were eternally private (even when I wrote them down, they didn’t cohere to the sober self that later pulled the message out of the bottle), that I could, for an hour each night, behold their tiny half-lives and watch them dissipate unrecorded and unmeasured. It was peace. The muscles in my face would melt in a stressless droop until I smiled at all the lights—pale windings of bollard lights, lone and crystalline post lights—that were some hue of blue or white-yellow, radiant polygons blurred at their edges; constellated quiescent signs of habitation above dark, full, cool grass, the air sleepy and lambent. For a few summer months, that was all I needed, before I summoned the courage, or that dangerous pride, and returned to the world.

— Trevor Quirk
Asheville, NC, day 56

R.I.P. Neil Peart (1952–2020)

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