Distant Early Warning
by Rush

Album: Grace Under Pressure (1984)
Play Video

Songfacts®:

  • Neil Peart (Jim Ladd "Innerview," 1984): The main theme of the song is a series of things, but that's certainly one of the idea[s] (our very tense world situation), and living in the modern world basically in all of its manifestations in terms of the distance from us of the threat of superpowers and the nuclear annihilation and all of that stuff, and these giant missiles pointed at each other across the ocean. There's all of that, but that tends to have a little bit of distance from people's lives, but at the same time I think it is omnipresent, you know, I think that threat does loom somewhere in everyone's subconscious, perhaps. And then it deals with the closer things in terms of relationships and how to keep a relationship in such a swift-moving world, and it has something to do with our particular lives, dealing with revolving doors, going in and out, but also I think that's generally true with people in the modern world where things for a lot of people are very difficult, and consequently, work and the mundane concerns of life tend to take precedence over the important values of relationships and of the larger world and the world of the abstract as opposed to the concrete, and dealing with all of those things with grace. [more of the song is played] And when I see a little bit of grace in someone's life. Like when you drive past a horrible tenement building and you see these wonderful pink flamingos on the balcony up there, or something like, some little aspect of humanity that strikes you as a beautiful resistance if you like."
  • In the October 1991 Rush Backstage Club newsletter, Neil Peart explained that the 'Absalom' reference comes from William Faulkners' 1936 book Absalom, Absalom! 1936. "Absalom" was the son of King David. He killed his half-brother for raping their half-sister. Then, he tried to overthrow David and get the throne. A battle resulted during which his hair was caught in a tree suspending him above the ground. Against David's wishes, Absalom was killed by King David's Mighty Men. David grieved for his son by lamenting, "Absalom, Absalom, my son."

    Said Peart, "After reading the novel, I was curious... and looked up the name in the encyclopedia. Then, while writing that song, I had 'obsolete, absolute' in there, and I thought how similar the word-shape was to 'Absalom.' Since one of the main themes of the song was compassion, it occurred to me that the Biblical story was applicable-David's lament for his son: 'Would God I had died for thee,' seemed to be the ultimate expression of compassion. And that's how it happened."
  • Neil Peart added: "Before I ever knew who or what Absalom was, I always loved the sound of it. I had thought perhaps it was an ancient prayer or something. There is a book by William Faulkner called Absalom, Absalom, which, again, I loved the sound of. I wanted to put it in the song, as a play on words with 'absolute' and 'obsolete,' but I thought I'd better find out for sure what it meant. So I called my wife and asked her to look it up in the encyclopedia. When I learned the real story, and its Biblical roots, I decided that it was still appropriate, as it was the ultimate expression of compassion, which is what the song was really about. 'Absalom, Absalom. My son, my son. Would God I had died for thee.' (Now don't anyone go reading any religion into that!)"

Comments: 15

  • AbsolomabsolutelyIf one pays careful attention to the lyrics, it is clear that the references Cold War and climate change are more context and metaphors rather than the subject matter. The subject is far a more personal one having to do with a parent speaking to child, or even one on the verge of becoming teenager. The global issues are not the primary source of worry but rather how they will affect the child as she/he becomes more aware of them while also serving as metaphors for the inner turmoil and uncertainty that comes with transforming from childhood to adulthood. i only understood the song this way when my children became 10-15 or so…
  • Brian from San DiegoThis song is a definite period piece that can only be understood in the very 1983-84 context where there was a strong growing fear of an inevitable nuclear war, which never took place, and this fear was largely due to media hype and movies like "The Day After". It's also about a father's fear for his child and what the future would bring. The reference to "The Red Book" is a book written by Carl Jung, which explores imaginations and the unconscious directions they can take. Absalom is a reference to the translation "Father of Peace" (and the third son of David). The rest of it is mainly references to the feelings of powerlessness and worry over what is coming, although the "acid rain" remark is a bit out of place, as this was a purely environmental concern of the time (pollution being pretty heavy in most major cities during the 70s/80s). In a way, the song is an expression of a father's imagination run wild about the Earth that his child would inherit.

    I was in high school at the time and my father told me during the time this album was being made that he was worried: "...., and believe it or not I'm worried about a nuclear war!". Funny thing about the band commenting on the song at the time; it is really mature subject matter. So the comments they put out when asked about the lyrics are rather vague, and I get the sense that they kept mysteries about their work due to the fact that many of their songs were loved by patron's that didn't understand it (and that was OK with them). Most of the material put out by other bands during this era was juvenile. I don't think Peart in interviews wanted to really get into the deeper meanings of it because it almost reflects some sort of personal (and perhaps very private) insecurity. That's my take anyway...
  • Dale Troy from Milan, IndianaThe boy in the video IS NOT Geddy's son Julian, it is actually Alex Lant
  • James from Norfolk, VaDealing with Ronald Reagan deciding to go along with the Strategic Defense Initative, aka Star Wars. It would be a budget breaker which would alarm special interest groups who think the money could be better spent. Remember this was still the Cold War raging on with the Soviet Union still powerful. So you have a litany of problems underlining the lyrical structure of this song, while Reagan makes his counterpoints during the chorus. Neil likes to use allusions in some of his songs and DEW is a primary example. Deuterium, cold fronts as an omen, Gene Kelly, William Faulkner, Atlas , Ernest Hemingway, the Roman Colisseum, Sodom & Gomorrah, sci-fi scenarios, and am I forgetting anything? Yes, the original Distant Early Warning for protecting the US, Canada, Hawaii, Alaska, etc. An imaginary line of defenses which would detect any nefarious activity aimed at our borders. Clever use of that for the title of a song. + The video used the "cut and paste" method. It looks pretty ugly IMO. Also a pivotal scene in Doctor Strangelove was alluded to.
  • Jesse from Madison, WiHere's a funny little tidbit of pointless information... The scene when the "bomb" (or missile) is released was straight-jacked right out the movie The Right Stuff. Looking forward from the bombay toward the cockpit was the scene in T.R.S. when the Bell X-1 was released and Yeager broke the sound barrier. I own both this video on DVD and the movie on DVD and they're the same! I've reviewed it a hundred times!
  • Kevin from New York, Ndawesome song why would GEDDY say he son was not in the video???
  • John from Asheville, NcAnother fav from a great album in Grace. Song and album hold a special place for me.
  • Jordan from Port Hope, CanadaJesse - This WAS on the Hold Your Fire tour, but originated on the Grace Under Pressure tour, which this song was from.
  • Jake from Bellevue, IaIn a Rockline interview on May 9, 2007, Geddy said that his son Julian was not in this video.
  • Dave from Cardiff, WalesI love the way that Rush mixed the chattering synth loops and explosive guitar riffs and blended them into a high-energy bass line in this song. The lightning-fast drums sound like they were given far less of a bashing on the Grace Under Pressure album than on Signals, the guitars were treated with less reverb, and in this song, the reed organs (which are featured in each chorus riff) are made less apparent at the climax, and are replaced by a distorted sequencer line, which comes in during that long instrumental just before the song finishes. While not the best song that Rush ever released, it could be argued that this song effortlessly demonstrated the musical versatility at the band's disposal perhaps more than any other song they ever recorded
  • Jesse from L.a., CaOn the Hold Your Fire tour, a "symphonic prelude" was played to introduce this song.
  • Wayne from Halifax (at Present), CanadaWOW, I can't believe what I'm reading.
    I worked on the Distant Early Warning Line (Canadian Sector) from 1982 to 1985. I heard that the song was written by a friend of the band. A woman who's boyfriend worked on the DEW Line at the time. It's about the loneliness those of us experienced who worked on the Line for months at a time and the loneliness and worry of those we left behind.
  • Semor Butts from Cairo, Egyptwhat is wrong with you? the video is flipin awsome! this is one of the best songs ever!
  • Dave from Cardiff, WalesShana - yes it's a good song, alright, but as for the video... like "Red Sector A" (which also came from 1984's 'Grace Under Pressure') album, this song - and its video - appears to be a testament to early 80s life, written in a climate of a society self-destructing and veering towards catastrophe. All the sontgs on 'Grace Under Pressure' had a touch of pensive and sad moodiness about them. Unlike "Red Sector A", which was a 1984-ish look towards hardship in the 21st Century, this song appears to be rooted in the past, reflecting past disasters, and warning that history is about to repeat itself...
  • Shana from Pembroke, CanadaReally good song, terrible video though...so 80's lol
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