How a Real-Life Comet Inspired Rush’s ‘Vapor Trails’ Cover
The 2002 album followed the prog-rock trio's five-year hiatus, a period of immense grief for Neil Peart: His daughter Selena was killed in August 1997 at age 19 following a car accident; 10 months later, his common-law wife of 23 years, Jacqueline Taylor, died after battling terminal cancer.
The drummer and lyricist temporarily retired from the band, logging roughly 55,000 miles on his motorcycle as he attempted to process unthinkable pain. (That soul-searching eventually inspired his 2002 book, Ghost Rider: Travels of the Healing Road.)
Over time, Peart was able to move forward both personally (remarrying in 2000) and musically (rejoining Rush the following year). And he inevitably brought some darker, heavier lyrical themes to the band's 17th LP.
"Fans know that's when the band resumed work after Neil's long, dark journey," Rush art director Hugh Syme tells UCR. "And he was talking about vapor trails, about how our lives, like comets, sparkle and fade. I remember hearing that line and thinking, 'Well, I know what this album's about.'"
Peart had also started brainstorming reference points for visual concepts, showing Syme "all kinds of NASA photographs — all beautiful renderings of comets going through the sky."
Then came the magic — or at least a very bizarre coincidence that Peart describes as a "Twilight Zone moment" in his life.
"During my the week when I was working on the initial stages of that album [art], I was at my studio, which at the time was in Indiana across a small lake we had on our property," he says.
"I went outside to get some air. I looked up and honestly it was the most surreal [sight] — I've seen shooting stars that happen in the blink of an eye, but this one cruised across the sky. It must have taken about 10 full minutes to make its way from overhead to the far horizon before going out of sight. You felt like you could touch it — it was so close to the Earth."
He described the object as a "big ball of fire" with a "long tail" that sparkled. "It had a big head at one end and a little head at the other end," he recalls. "It appeared to be a big galactic spermatozoa. [Laughs] It was really slow-moving, made no noise but really felt close to the Earth — to the point when I went to the horizon, I was bracing myself for a massive impact. Anything that big and that visible from Earth had to have been a sizable mass of material."
After that bizarre event, Syme re-approached the cover with a new perspective. "I remember telling Neil, 'I've never seen anything quite like this. I think we don't want to be quite so literal [about this]. We need to be more gestural, more urgent and passionate,'" he says. "I didn't know quite where I was going with that, except to say I didn't like the relatively dry textbook feel of NASA photography. I said, 'We can do better than that. Plus, [Supertramp's] Crime of the Century owns outer space, so let's not go there again."
Syme did a "quick rendering" of his impressions with a paintbrush and finger painting on a square, 18-inch board. This was only intended as a "sample painting" to show Peart what he had in mind. But the drummer's response was more enthusiastic than expected. "I remember saying to Neil, 'Something like this,' to which Neil responded, 'No, no, that's it,'" he says. "And I said, 'No, no, I'll do it right.' He said, 'That is right!'"
The Vapor Trails cover was an example of Peart using his intuition and playing "creative director," Syme says.
"A lot of musicians will say, 'I did that in the basement on ProTools, but I can do it better' or 'Let's do that take just one more time,' and producers will say, 'We can try, but that was really good,'" Syme says. "Bands will do 15 more takes and then still return to the first take. A lot of musicians and artists stubbornly persist and think they can improve on something.
"I suppose I wasn't seeing the forest for the trees, while Neil clearly was," he notes. "He insisted that be the cover. He also introduced me to the adage that 'perfection is the enemy of good.'"