Rush songwriter-drummer Neil Peart widely remembered for his libertarian idealism, individualism

The lifelong libertarian idealism of Neil Peart, the Rush songwriter-drummer who died Jan. 7 and whose passing the LFS noted in a previous blog, has been highlighted in several of the major media essays and obituaries that have followed his death at 67 after struggling privately for three years with cancer.

Neil Peart, Rush drummer and songwriter Credit: Creative Commons

In  a short note titled “Farewell to Rock’s Greatest Drummer (and Randian),” NR writer and New York Post columnist Kyle Smith offered high praise about the Canadian musician’s talent, positive ideas and legacy:

“Fan polls routinely agreed he was the greatest rock drummer of his time (or indeed of all time, I would argue, though some would go with Keith Moon). I’m not sure any rock track boasts drumming that can match Peart’s breathtaking work on the 1981 song “Tom Sawyer.”

Unusually for a drummer, Peart also wrote the big majority of his band’s lyrics, which were among the most ambitious ever attempted in the hard-rock space. Like many other rock lyricists (Roger Waters, Pete Townshend), Peart was a genius at tapping into the restless alienation of late-teen boys who think they’re smarter than everyone around them. It occurred to me many years later that it’s an odd kind of gift, to keep your mind stuck in that mode of detachment, anger and frustration as you advance into middle age and accumulate mansions and supermodel girlfriends. Peart told Rolling Stone four years ago, “I set out to never betray the values that 16-year-old had, to never sell out, to never bow to the man. A compromise is what I can never accept.” Well, no one wants to hear rock lyrics about property taxes and the failings of the kitchen staff.”

Consider then the lyrics to “The Trees,” his Prometheus Hall of Fame-nominated Rush song released in 1978 on the Canadian group’s album Hemispheres.

The song – which in concise haiku-style fashion imagines trees as conscious social creatures like humanity in their power dynamics… a premise that might well be the foundation for a modern fantasy/sf novel – weaves a metaphoric fable about envy, revolution, and coercive egalitarianism among the different kinds of trees that make up a forest.

“There is unrest in the forest
There is trouble with the trees
For the maples want more sunlight
And the oaks ignore their pleas

The trouble with the maples
And they’re quite convinced they’re right
They say the oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light
But the oaks can’t help their feelings
If they like the way they’re made
And they wonder why the maples
Can’t be happy in their shade?

There is trouble in the forest
And the creatures all have fled
As the maples scream ‘oppression!’
And the oaks, just shake their heads

So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
‘The oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light’
Now there’s no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet,
Axe,
And saw”

Rolling Stone 
magazine also published several tributes, including an essay by Hank Shteamer analyzing Peart’s unusual focus on variations in drumming timed to different lyrics and choruses.

As a bonus, the tribute, titled “How Neil Peart’s Perfectionism Set Him Free,” links to a video of Rush performing their Ayn-Rand-inspired “Anthem.”

“Subdivisions,” one of Rush’s most beloved songs, is also one of their simplest. Geddy Lee’s insistent synth riff gives the track — a fan favorite from 1982’s Signals — a muted, almost drone-y quality. So you might hear it 100 times before you realize what’s going on just underneath the surface: That Neil Peart, the band’s brilliantly obsessive supergenius of a drummer, has gone to the trouble of crafting a different drum part for every single verse…

Realizing what’s going on, you might wonder, is he simply showing off? Tossing out rhythmic Easter eggs for the drum-geek faithful?

But consider the song’s lyrics — written, like those of nearly every Rush song from 1975 on, by Peart himself. “Subdivisions” is an achingly poignant chronicle of the suburban teenager navigating cruel social hierarchies on one side (“In the high school halls / In the shopping malls / Conform or be cast out”) and soul-crushing sameness on the other (“Growing up, it all seems so one-sided / Opinions all provided / The future pre-decided / Detached and subdivided / In the mass production zone”). “Nowhere is the dreamer / Or the misfit so alone,” Lee sings, and Peart’s ever-morphing beats — set against the song’s cyclical, almost lulling form — are that misfit dreamer, railing against conformity, struggling to find a voice in a dreary and oppressive world. Like the Neil Peart aesthetic as a whole, the song’s drumming is at once profoundly nerdy and totally exhilarating.

Meanwhile, Will Collier writes in NR online a more extensive tribute to Peart. Here’s an excerpt:
“A youthful interest in Ayn Rand’s fiction led to the lyrics for “Anthem,” the lead track on Rush’s second album and Peart’s first collaboration with his new band mates. The young man who’d been picked on in high school for being a cape-wearing oddball — his own parents admitted in the wonderful 2010 documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage, “We thought he was weird” — called out to others finding their own individualism:

Know your place in life is where you want to be
Don’t let them tell you that you owe it all to me
Keep on looking forward, no use in looking ’round
Hold your head above the crowd and they won’t bring you down

While Peart always denied being a full-fledged Randian — “I am no one’s disciple,” he said in later years — Rand’s work would directly influence Rush’s breakthrough album 2112: The first side consists of a seven-part rock epic derived in part from Rand’s novella “Anthem,” replacing the light bulb discovered by Rand’s nameless, oppressed hero with a long-forgotten electric guitar.

2112 was, to the surprise of almost everyone involved, a huge success. The science-fiction showcase of the title suite married to Rush’s kinetic and complex hard rock won the band the first of its ten platinum albums and vaulted them from opening act to headliner status for the remainder of their long career.”

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Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

 

 

Published by

Mike Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been a writer, arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Most recently, Michael won the 2019 Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio (for theater reviews) and Best Arts Reporting (which he’s won seven times). He's written for Reason and Libertarian Review magazines, was a regional columnist for years for Backstage weekly, helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword/essay for the first paperback edition of J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among the books he recommends to inform a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

One thought on “Rush songwriter-drummer Neil Peart widely remembered for his libertarian idealism, individualism”

  1. I think my favorite Rush song has to be the not quite political, but metaphysical “Free Will.” I find the chorus lines “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice” a reminder of something vital.

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