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The Measure of a Life: Considering Neil Peart and Rush

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Photo by Craig Tuten.
Photo by Craig Tuten.

The greatest band in the history of the world is coming to the Pacific Northwest.

No, Mötley fans, I’m not talking about them, but kudos to the band for coming to Anchorage. And playing two dates!

I’m talking about Rush, truly the greatest band of all time, the definition of the power trio. They are currently on their R40 Live North American tour, celebrating over 40 years of playing together.

Unfortunately, the closest that the tour will come to Alaska is Vancouver, but band members have said this is likely the last Rush tour of this scale. Tour updates posted at the Rush is a Band blog seem to support this.

Therefore, it is imperative — imperative, I say — to consider the many accomplishments of the band, specifically those of Neil Peart, the greatest drummer the world has ever known.

It bears repeating. Neil Peart is the greatest drummer the world has ever known. He wrote the quintessential rock drum fill, a part so good that a video of a puppet playing “Tom Sawyer” garnered over 600,000 hits in a month.

And there’s the small matter of Peart’s contribution to the greatest song ever written, “Force Ten.”

These are facts.

That Rush is still playing together at the top of their game is a testament to their bond, but particularly, a testament to the inner strength of Peart.

The first Rush album I ever bought was a live triple album titled Different Stages. I was in high school. When I opened the album jacket, there was a liner note, the opening line from Rush’s song “Afterimage:”

“Suddenly, you were gone from all the lives you left your mark upon.”

While I was discovering Rush through this album, Peart was criss-crossing North America on his motorcycle. In 1997, Peart lost his daughter to a car crash. The following year, his wife died of cancer, prompting him to begin a lonely 55,000-mile ride that lasted, off and on, for over a year.

Peart’s travels, chronicled in his second book, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, took him from his home in Quebec as far south as Mexico and Belize and as far north as Inuvik. He writes that he just squeezed into Fairbanks before the onset of winter, in September of 1998. There, he was able to service his motorcycle before continuing south to Anchorage and around to Haines, where he caught the ferry to Prince Rupert.

While Peart was riding and recovering from his loss, Rush was on hiatus. Bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee recorded an excellent solo album, but the members of Rush did not play together again until they wrote and recorded Vapor Trails, released in 2002. The mix on the album has been criticized, even by Lee and Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, but as one might expect after six years of unreleased creativity and anguish, it is a stunning combination of primal scream and hope.

Peart on Religion

religionBy the time Vapor Trails came out, I had nearly every Rush album. What prompted me to buy the first one were Peart’s lyrics. The first Rush song I remember hearing on the radio was “Freewill.”

Relative to other Rush songs, the composition of “Freewill” is simple. It starts in 4/4 time, transitions to the 6/8 instrumental break via a little 5/4, then finishes back in 4/4. Yet Peart’s lyrics stand out. It is right after the last major time change that Lee hits you with this Peart couplet:

Each of us, a cell of awareness, imperfect and incomplete;
Genetic blends with uncertain ends on a fortune hunt that’s
far too fleet.

It’s hard not to get excited by inspired writing like that.

Though Peart is a consummate musician and a perfectionist, it is his work as a lyricist that reveals more about him. In “Freewill,” for example, Peart makes it perfectly clear that he would choose freewill over a number of belief systems in which he would be a pawn or have some predetermined fate.

Religion has been a frequent theme of Peart’s writing. “Freewill” was published in 1980. Rush’s next album, Moving Pictures, became the most popular among fans. Like its predecessor Permanent Waves, it was written during the rise of the Moral Majority, deeply offensive to Peart for its effort to impose its brand of Christian morality on others.

Behind a string of hits on Moving Pictures, there is a deeper cut titled “Witch Hunt,” the first published in a four-part series spanning 22 years, Fear. (It must be noted that the fourth segment, “Freeze,” is a masterpiece.) Without naming them, and in lyrics that could have applied to any decade since, Peart decries religious extremists of any stripe:

Quiet in conscience, calm in their right,
confident their ways are best.

The righteous rise with burning eyes of hatred and ill will;
madmen fed on fear and lies to beat and burn and kill.

They say there are strangers who threaten us, our immigrants
and infidels.

They say there is strangeness too dangerous in our theatres
and bookstore shelves.
Those who know what’s best for us must rise and save us from
ourselves.

Peart continued his excoriating commentary on religion. In 2007, he wrote:

And all the preaching voices, empty vessels, scream so loud
as they move among the crowd.
Fools and thieves are well disguised in the temple and marketplace….

I don’t have faith in faith. I don’t believe in belief.
You can call me, “Faithless.”
But I still cling to hope, and I believe in love,
and that’s faith enough for me.

His most sardonic lyric on religion is from 2010:

All is for the best. Believe in what we’re told.
Blind men in the market buying what we’re sold.
Believe in what we’re told until our final breath,
while our loving Watchmaker loves us all to death.

Until our final breath, the joy and pain that we receive
must be what we deserve, I was brought up to believe.

Bleeding Heart Libertarian

Peart’s antipathy toward religious zealotry is at least partially informed by his libertarianism. In the 70s, libertarianismthis manifested as Randian libertarianism. The very first track on a Rush album featuring Peart was titled “Anthem” after the Ayn Rand book by the same name.

Going a step further, a liner note in Rush’s magnum opus, “2112,” reads, “With acknowledgement to the genius of Ayn Rand.” Peart later said in the documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage that “2112” was about “the individual against the mass.”

“Live for yourself,” the “Anthem” lyric reads. “There’s no one else more worth living for. Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more.”

Ironically, Peart told Rolling Stone in 2012 that he now considers himself a “bleeding heart libertarian:”

Because I do believe in the principles of Libertarianism as an ideal – because I’m an idealist. Paul Theroux’s definition of a cynic is a disappointed idealist. So as you go through past your twenties, your idealism is going to be disappointed many many times. And so, I’ve brought my view and also – I’ve just realized this – Libertarianism as I understood it was very good and pure and we’re all going to be successful and generous to the less fortunate and it was, to me, not dark or cynical. But then I soon saw, of course, the way that it gets twisted by the flaws of humanity.

Just as Vapor Trails was about Peart’s recovery from personal loss, Rush’s subsequent album, Snakes & Arrows, was about faith. In the George W. Bush era, faith intersected with government and foreign policy.

In “The Way the Wind Blows,” Peart held neither neoconservatives nor Muslim extremists harmless:

Now it’s come to this. It’s like we’re back in the Dark Ages.
From the Middle East to the Middle West, it’s a world of superstition.
Now it’s come to this. Wide-eyed armies of the faithful.
From the Middle East to the Middle West, pray, and pass the ammunition…

Now it’s come to this. Hollow speeches of mass deception.
From the Middle East to the Middle West, like crusaders in unholy alliance.
Now it’s come to this, like we’re back in the Dark Ages.
From the Middle East to the Middle West, it’s a plague that resists all science.

“What am I supposed to say?” Peart asked of governments infused by belief. “Where are the words to answer you when you talk that way? Words that fly against the wind and waves.”

Least Pop-y Lyricist Outside of Scandinavian Death Metal

Individual liberty and religion haven’t been Peart’s only subjects. Likewise, Rand wasn’t Peart’s only literary inspiration in the 70s. He drew overtly from J.R.R. Tolkien (“Rivendell” and “The Necromancer“) and the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“Xanadu“). In “Cygnus X-1 Book Two: Hemispheres,” Peart envisioned a battle between the followers of Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus as a metaphor for the struggle between the heart and the mind.

In the 80s, Peart began to write more about social issues and the human condition. In addition to the aforementioned Fear, Peart wrote a whole album’s worth of material on power at the height of the Cold War, Power Windows. He wrote another about pressure, Grace Under Pressure, the last track of which deals with everyday people caught between the Goliaths of their time. It affects me deeply every time I hear it.

Peart has written about the “restless dreams of youth” (“Subdivisions“), aging (“Time Stand Still” and the stunningly beautiful “Losing It“), and death (“Nobody’s Hero“). In “The Pass,” he has also written what could be the anthem of suicide prevention.

As if these subjects weren’t heavy enough, Peart has tackled the difficulties of communication multiple times. “It went right by me,” Peart wrote simply in “Open Secrets.” “At the time it went over my head. I was looking out the window. I should have looked at your face instead.”

A touch more poetically, Peart wrote in “Entre Nous,”

We are secrets to each other,
each one’s life a novel no one else has read.
Even joined in bonds of love, we’re linked to one another
by such slender threads…

Just between us, I think it’s time for us to recognize
the differences we sometimes fear to show.
Just between us, I think it’s time for us to realize
the spaces in between leave room for you and I to grow.

But if communication breaks down with someone mean-spirited, “all that you can do is wish them well,” Peart wrote in 2012.

Thank your stars you’re not that way.
Turn your back and walk away.
Don’t even pause and ask them why.
Turn around and say goodbye.

The Measure of a Life

Rush’s latest studio album, Clockwork Angels, is a concept inspired by steampunk (!) and features a Peart narrative. His character, echoing Peart’s own sentiments, says, “Victimized, bereaved, and disappointed, seemingly at every turn, I still resist feeling defeated, or cynical. I have come to believe that anger and grudges are burning embers in the heart not worth carrying through life. The best response to those who wound me is to get away from them – and wish them well.”

measureThis reflects a wisdom and sense of peace that all the band members, including Peart, have achieved. As a consequence, they are visibly as happy as they have ever been and playing at their best.

Rush’s attitude in their fifties and sixties seems to make them more accessible than they were in their twenties or thirties, when they were labeled pretentious. They’re having fun, and people want to have fun with them.

As such, their music has made appearances in Beavis and Butt-head and American Dad cartoons. The band personally appeared on the Colbert Report in 2008, as well as in 2009’s I Love You, Man, starring Jason Segel and Paul Rudd. Segel and Rudd later reprised their Rush-obsessed characters in a Funny or Die video featuring the “holy triumvirate.”

Rush has even graced the august pages of The Onion.

(A comprehensive list of Rush pop culture references is available at 2112.net.)

After being disregarded by critics for many years, Rush has finally started to accrue much deserved accolades in the last decade. From their website: “[Peart] and his bandmates are Officers of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor — as well as recipients of the Governor General’s Award, the country’s highest artistic honor.”

In 2013, at long last, Rush was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with an epic speech from Lifeson.

Most of the recognition Rush has received has come after the hiatus. Perhaps several years without Rush taught people to count their blessings.

Since Peart’s return, he has published five books, written the lyrics for and played drums on three albums, and participated in five tours.

True to form, the last track of their (hopefully not) last album is inspired by Candide. Peart writes, as his traveler character, “There is a metaphorical garden in the acts and attitudes of a person’s life, and the treasures of that garden are love and respect. I have come to realize that the gathering of love and respect – from others and for myself – has been the real quest of my life.”

“The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect,” adds Peart’s lyric, “the way you live, the gifts that you give. In the fullness of time, it’s the only return that you expect.”

Peart certainly did not have to return to music after so much tragedy. His art, particularly following the hiatus, is truly a gift.

“It’s the measure of a life.”

__________________________________________________________________

Rush will be in Vancouver on July 17, Seattle on July 19, and Portland on July 21. Ticketmaster still shows availability for all three dates, although there are “not many left” in Seattle.

Oh, did I mention? Rush!

Craig Tuten moved from Florida to Alaska with his wife Rachael in 2006. He studied history at Florida State University while everybody else was having a good time. It is hard to list a low-wage job he hasn't briefly held.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Wow, great article! I’ve been a big fan of Rush since discovering them in high school. I was able to see them in concert once in Nürnberg, Germany on the Roll the Bones tour. Neil, Alex and Geddy are super talented in their own right, but combined…just awesome!! Thanks for a great write up.

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