Red Sector A: Riffing on the Dignity of Survival
Are we the last ones left alive?
Are we the only human beings to survive?
Neil says some interesting things about these concluding lines to Rush’s 1984 piece “Red Sector A.”
In an interview he gave on the radio show In the Studio with Redbeard in 2011, as part of a promotion of the Sector box sets of the band’s Mercury recordings, Neil said he was struck by a recurring theme in the information he had gathered on the Holocaust and other historical instances in which people were held in isolated camps against their will.
Throughout these cases, survivors say they believed that they were the only people left alive in the world, otherwise someone would have tried to liberate them. Because how could anyone allow such inhumane treatment be perpetrated against fellow human beings?
“When people were released from that kind of incredible confinement and incredible inhumanity, they believed that no one else in the world existed, because they couldn’t believe that anyone else would let that go on,” he said on the show. “With the Eskimos in Canada, it was the same story: that they were just treated so inhumanely that when any of them did survive they couldn’t believe that there was anyone left that could let them be treated that way.”
Although that’s about as dark a picture of humanity as you can find (and the theme appears on other pieces on the album, including “Distant Early Warning”), the overall conclusion of Grace Under Pressure, if it can be said to have a conclusion, is actually upbeat. The good of humanity does survive, and it’s reflected in the grace of the survivors.
Geddy, whose mother was liberated from Bergen-Belsen (pictured above) at the end of World War II, touched on the same theme in “Grace to Grace,” the concluding track of his 2000 solo album My Favorite Headache.
My mother is “a Holocaust survivor,” he said in a Rockline interview when the album came out, “who, along with most members of my family, came over after the war and they went through their own private hell. She’s conducted her life in a completely elegant and heroic way. She had most of her dreams stolen from her as a child and there are so many people like her that have gone through tragedies or wars or whatever and they pick up and just carry on.”
What you can read into that is the humanity of the victims. When they believe they’re the last people in the world left alive, they’re expressing the humane belief that people are generally good, notwithstanding the evil that exists among some of us.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
Here’s Neil’s full comment from the In the Studio interview:
“I’ve done a certain amount of reading, both fictional and biographical, of living through concentration camps of all kinds, but I wanted to make [the song] timeless in a sense. Because I’m not pointing a finger at anybody, because I know [such inhumane treatment] can happen anywhere. You can’t say, ‘Well, the Nazis did that, the Americans did it, the English did it.’ Everyone has done that at some time to someone. It’s strange the sources a [song] like that comes from. The germ of it was outrage at the way the Native Americans were handled, the way native Canadians were handled. Again, not to point a finger, because this happens so many times—in Canada, the inland Eskimos were treated just as rudely as the American Indians, and first-person accounts that I had heard of, or read, of World War II, of course. All these things just kind of came together. And it was an expression of the incredible inhumanity that people can demonstrate. That’s one thing. But that’s almost a cliché. But the other [issue] that was important was how these people reacted to it. And reading all of the accounts I could find, under the most horrible of circumstances, no one ever wanted to die. That was an important issue that I dealt with in that song and an important issue in the other songs in Grace Under Pressure that reflect that situation. But the important thing I discovered through all of [that research] is when people were released from that kind of incredible confinement, and incredible inhumanity, they believed that no one else in the world existed, because they couldn’t believe that anyone else would let that go on. When people were freed out of concentration camps after World War II, when Indian people were confined in the same way, never allowed to communicate with anyone, their relatives, they had no idea if anyone in their tribes lived anymore. And with the Eskimos in Canada, it was the same story. That they were just treated so inhumanely that when any of them did survive they couldn’t believe that there was anyone left that could let them be treated that way. So, that’s a heavy thing, but it’s a common denominator I found in all of those things. There’s no despair there. It’s just wonderment: ‘Are we the last ones left alive?’”
Access the two-part interview in its entirety on In the Studio.
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