Wreathed in smoke in Lebanon
We burn the midnight oil
The fragrance of Afghanistan
Rewards a long day's toil
Read full Lyrics
Waterways in Bangkok,
floating market, c 1992 (public domain)
Rush is well known for the epic scope, both musically and philosophically, of their music. They were also capable of lighter-hearted music, however, as proven by "A Passage to Bangkok."
Rush drummer Neal Peart said in the documentary film Classic Albums Presents the Making of 2012 & Moving Pictures
that the song is meant to be funny. In a 2012 interview, Alex Lifeson confirmed this notion when he told High Times
that "A Passage to Bangkok" is "about a fun little journey to all the good places you could go to have a puff." He added that they thought the song would be fun to write and that he felt Peart handled it in a "very eloquent way." He also said that the song was most likely written and sketched out with an acoustic guitar in front of a cassette player in the farmhouse. Rush liked to make initial recordings in that way before going into the basement to rehearse.
Rush was never a band to glorify debauchery or substance abuse, but they were hardly teetotalers. Peart and Alex Lifeson have admitted to recreational drug use. "A Passage to Bangkok" is about "drug tourism," a term used for folks who travel to hotspots of the illegal drug trade to get loaded, ripped, buzzed, etc. Peart has never classified himself as a "drug tourist," but his passion for adventure tourism is obvious in the many books he's written on the subject.
The song actually mentions several locations, including Bogota, Columbia, Jamaica, Acapulco, Afghanistan…a varied selection of places tied together by their reputation as havens for drug production and consumption.
The drug allusions in the song are hardly difficult to decipher. Natives smiling and passing along a "sample of their yield," and "Jamaican pipe dreams," "wreathed in smoke in Lebanon," these things don't require an intense knowledge of drug culture to understand.
The Marble Temple,
or Wat Benchamabophit, in Bangkok
Bangkok is a well-known drug destination. It's the capital of Thailand and its highest-populated city. It's also known as the "Sin City of Asia," not only for its drug trade but for prostitution.
"A Passage to Bangkok" opens and closes with the Oriental Riff, otherwise known as the Asian Riff, which is a musical riff commonly used in movies and songs to denote Asia.
The title of the song is Neal Peart's play upon the E.M. Forster novel, A Passage to India
. In a 2009 Guitar World
interview, Alex Lifeson cited "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin as an influence on the song.
Today, "A Passage to Bangkok" is one of the more popular songs among both diehard Rush fans and casual listeners. It may not be as intellectually heavy as other Rush songs, but musically it's impressively complex, and its story traces a journey around the entire planet in search of a good "puff." Few drug songs are so ambitious. Leave it to Rush to take a thing to the next level.
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He writes for The Prague Revue, and has a blog about Pacific Northwest travel (Northwest Nomad.com). He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at beyondthetempestgate.com.
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