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Graphic Artist Hugh Syme on Collaborating With Rush: 'I Was Grateful Every Time I Was Enlisted'

Hugh Syme
Courtesy of Hugh Syme via Elevate

Hugh Syme

His work on the prog icon's album covers since 1975's "Caress of Steel" is newly celebrated in an expanded edition of 2015's "Art of Rush: Serving a Life Sentence."

Hugh Syme occupies a rare and interesting position: He’s visible everywhere and nowhere.

It’s not his face that’s seen in media, but his graphic art that has been grabbing people’s attention for decades. Syme designs images for subjects as far-ranging as pharmaceutical products and Beats by Dre headphones and Patrón Silver tequila. But his claim to fame is the plethora of album packages he has created: Syme is behind the visual component that plays a crucial role in a band’s persona. From the levitating prisoner on Megadeth’s Countdown to Extinction to the pierced cow udder on Aerosmith’s Get a Grip to the wood-cut totem on Queensrÿche’s Promised Land, his mark on rock’n’roll’s landscape is indelible.

And fellow Canadians Rush are the guys who launched him -- or, to use Syme’s description, incarcerated him. “I’ve always loved the fact that I have been serving a life sentence as art director,” muses Syme, recalling how late Rush drummer-lyricist Neil Peart described his role with the band. “And that he wouldn’t grant me parole.”

Coffee table book Art of Rush: Serving a Life Sentence, originally published in 2015, encapsulates how Syme has fulfilled the terms of his so-called punishment. The tome is an explainer of how the images were constructed for each Rush studio album cover from 1975’s Caress of Steel to 2012’s Clockwork Angels, with a forward written by Peart and a lush array of illustrations. The anecdotes regarding the tasks Syme set for himself to bring his and the band’s visions to life, like Rush’s ever-changing musical dynamic, run a gamut of memorable experiences.

For instance, Syme needed a brain to help illustrate 1978’s Hemispheres. When he worked with one lent to him by the University of Toronto, he felt “not squeamish, but definitely respectful of the fact that this mass of blancmange was somebody’s former thoughts and emotions.” (Its off-putting gray hue led him to use an anatomical model instead.) He again wished he hadn’t opted for live representation of subject matter during the photo shoot for 1989’s, which that captured a fluffle of rabbits on a knoll. Not only did he and the crew have to “tiptoe around the piss and shit” of the untrained animals that were running amok, they had to contend with the little beasts engaging in NSFW behavior. (As Peart says the book: “There’s one thing rabbits are famous for: procreating.”)

Courtesy of IDW Publishing
Artwork by Hugh Syme for the 40th-anniversary boxed set of Rush's "Hemispheres" is included in the expanded edition of "Art of Rush: Serving a Life Sentence." Photo is exclusive to Billboard.

An expanded edition of Art of Rush arrived Oct. 12 through IDW Publishing, showcasing artwork Syme created for 40th-anniversary reissues of such titles as 1976 breakthrough 2112 and 1977’s A Farewell to Kings. The latter-era artwork especially captures Syme’s visual style (which he describes as depicting “improbable reality”) that combines vibrant realism with whimsical compositions and an animated color palette.

His aligning with the progressive rock titans was serendipitous, thanks to longtime Rush manager Ray Danniels. When Syme was the keyboardist in The Ian Thomas Band, he had painted the cover for the group’s 1975 record Delights. Danniels, who also managed ITB at the time, asked Syme if he was interested in doing the art for Caress of Steel.

“I remember thinking, ‘I know they’re not Supertramp or Genesis, but I’ll give it a shot,’” he recalls. “I had no clue that that was the beginning of a wonderful, 40-something-year relationship.”

Syme’s collaborations with Rush -- and particularly Peart, who was the group’s point man for its artwork -- resulted in some of rock’s most iconic symbols, such as the nude “starman” on the back of 2112, and the puppet slumped on an abandoned throne that fronts Kings. Peart’s voracious reading that fueled the music’s libretto gave Syme plenty to work with, and Rush’s willingness to listen to Syme’s ideas also factored into the partnership’s success. At times, “I could tell that the band needed to kind of wrap their head around some of my suggestions,” he notes. “Even a dog sniffing a fire hydrant [on 1982’s Signals], it wasn’t initially understood or embraced, but it became one of their more favorite T-shirts and album covers.”

Sharing a “glib, whimsical, nonsensical sense of humor” helped, too, with the records offering a platform to express it. That mirth is evident in quirky details like Syme giving a cheeky wave in the far background of the cover to 1980’s Permanent Waves and the inner-sleeve photo collection embodying double- and triple-entendres on 1993’s Counterparts. But he never took the wide leeway he was given for granted. Whenever Peart contacted him about a new commission, “I didn’t hang up [the phone] with a sense of, ‘Well, of course it’s time and of course, I would receive the call,’” says Syme. “I was grateful for every time I was enlisted.”

When asked how Rush’s art differs from that of other acts he works with, he calls it “a bit of a tail-that-wags-the-dog scenario,” for musicians often approach him because they are fans of the threesome, like frequent client Dream Theater. He appreciates “the freedoms afforded me by Rush and their faith in me, and their loyalty to me has given me a lot of latitude.”

Courtesy of IDW Publishing
Artwork for the 40th-anniversary boxed set of Rush's "A Farewell to Kings" by Hugh Syme has been added to the expanded edition of "Art of Rush: Serving a Life Sentence." Image exclusive to Billboard.

Indeed, Peart, guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist-keyboardist Geddy Lee worked with many of the same personnel for decades, and those business relationships naturally developed into deeper friendships. So it was a hard blow for Syme when Peart died in January 2020 at age 67 from glioblastoma. He compares Peart’s pragmatic and humorous attitude in the face of the disease to that of multigenre artist Sting when he was to perform a concert in Toscana, Italy, in the immediate hours after 9/11: “You don’t let these things that happen in your life stop you in your tracks,” says Syme. “You celebrate where you can.”

Peart had faced a similar heartbreaking challenge when, in the late 1990s, he lost his wife, Jacqueline Taylor, to cancer at age 42 -- and their 19-year-old daughter, Selena, in a car accident -- within the span of a year. Rush went on hiatus, and during that time, Peart came to grips with the tragedies by crisscrossing the globe on his motorcycle. The journey resulted in his 2002 book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, where he meditated upon his grief, along with the landscapes and people he encountered. Ghost Rider is one of several Peart travelogues that Syme designed covers for, and he says that another book that Peart authored is set to be published.

While Syme isn’t at liberty to reveal the title, he says that Peart “was able to see the artwork for the cover of that book while he was lucid and engaged.” He wouldn’t elaborate on its topic, except to say it was one that Peart was “passionate” about.

To quote the song “Dreamline” from 1991’s Roll the Bones, we are only immortal for a limited time. Peart reinforced this truth in the artwork to 2002’s Vapor Trails, Rush’s first post-hiatus recording, by explaining to Syme that he wanted its cover to denote that “in life, we sparkle and we fade.” So it’s a comfort that more of Peart’s work will one day appear, for Syme misses the “big brain and big words, and big heart” of his “collaborator, my partner in crime.”

But he takes to heart the adage that friend Bob King — who served as the model for the starman figure and the bowler-hatted man on Hemispheres, as well as a moving man on 1981’s Moving Pictures — emailed to him after Peart’s death: “Don’t be sad he’s gone. Be happy he happened.”