14 Sep Neil Peart: Enlightenment in Verse and Romanticism in Rock by Jeffrey Falk | Capitalism Magazine
Neil Peart was a polymath: a rock drummer, jazz drummer, lyricist, co-novelist, and nonfiction author, among other things. Ultimately, he was an artist and writer who expressed and personified Enlightenment ideas. At a time when those ideas were out of vogue, he kept them alive and communicated them to millions. In an age of unreason and skepticism, he wrote: “Show Don’t Tell”. In an age of determinism, he wrote “Free Will.” In an age of collectivism, he wrote “2112” and “The Trees”. And in a bleak culture of cynicism and misanthropy, he wrote: “Natural Science,” “The Analog Kid,” “Marathon,” “Middletown Dreams,” and “Mission,” among many others.
Peart was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, on September 12, 1952 (coincidentally, the birthday of HL Mencken, another writer who championed Enlightenment ideas during the counter-Enlightenment). Raised in Port Dalhousie, Ontario, he was a quiet introvert who was described as “weird” by his parents. (In later decades, he would dramatize the struggles of similar introverts in some of his most emotionally intense songs, e.g., “Subdivisions” and “The Pass”.) Inspired by The Who’s Keith Moon and other drummers, including those of the nascent art rock scene, he cultivated an interest in drums as a teenager. He played in several rock bands, eventually seeking fortune in London. After a year and a half of session and live work without much success, he returned home to Canada, working in his father’s farm equipment store.
In 1974, the Ontario trio Rush had just signed a contract with Mercury Records. Rush was bass guitarist and vocalist Geddy Lee; guitarist Alex Lifeson; and drummer John Rutsey. Shortly, Rutsey left due to artistic differences and personal health problems. Peart successfully auditioned for the band on July 21, Lee’s twenty-first birthday, and the new version of Rush, which would incalculably impact the culture musically and beyond, began a grueling, years-long touring and recording regimen. During the many idle hours of the band’s first tour, Peart found lots of time to fill. Since he had always liked words, had a little lyric-writing experience with a former band, and his new bandmates didn’t particularly like writing lyrics, Peart took it upon himself to devote more and more time to writing words for the band. He went to work. He was soon dubbed “The Professor,” reflecting his erudition and his precision as a drummer.
Rush, all three members of which were musicians of exemplary skill, arrived as major label recording artists and international touring artists during a transitional period in rock history. Influenced by blues-based hard rock groups like Cream and Led Zeppelin and artier, classically-influenced, “progressive” rock bands like Yes and King Crimson, the Canadian trio fused both sounds, with diverse tinctures of others, into their galvanizing, exuberant, and energetic musical partnership. Before long, converging cultural trends would affect a decline in instrumental skill, melody, and scope and an increase in a flurry of less focused, less musical, less skillful acts. Concomitantly, noisier punk and atonal rap thrived in the void left by the absence of music of broader scope, melody, and instrumental skillfulness. And while hard rock would have something of a second renaissance in the 1980s, progressive rock continued to decline in popularity, kept alive by cult artists with significantly less commercial success. In fact, after some promising early success, Rush soon sunk into the slough of a commercial slump, close to being doomed to a lifetime of obscurity themselves. With sales returns of their third album beyond disappointing and concert attendances dwindling, the band considered giving up. Peart considered returning to his family’s farm equipment store. With the integrity for which they’d become known—and more than a little help from Ayn Rand—they boldly decided to try one more time.
In early 1976, Lee, Lifeson, and Peart entered Toronto Sound Studios to record their fourth album. Their label, Mercury Records, pressured them to deliver a more commercial album after their intransigent, progressive, and commercially lackluster third album, the previous year’s Caress of Steel, didn’t sell. The band members decided that they would be unhappy following others’ ideas of how they should write, play, and sound. They would stand or fall following their aesthetic vision. And that vision was being influenced by another artist known for her intransigence and artistic integrity.
Since his sojourn in London years earlier, Peart had avidly read Ayn Rand’s fiction, including The Fountainhead. In fact, the band had named one of their songs after her novella Anthem, incorporating its egoistic themes, and they even named their record label after it. Anthem’s influence on Rush was about to exponentially increase, as Peart came up with an idea for, not a song, but a piece filling an entire album side. While their “Anthem” was an abstract paean to individualism and egoism inspired by Rand’s book, Peart now wrote a series of movements with a story and characters inspired directly by the storyline of Anthem. Also set in the future, his version features a hero who discovers an electric guitar in a similar futuristic dystopia that is Luddite, collectivist, and oppressive. In Anthem, Equality 7-2521 discovers an electric lightbulb. Both heroes are enamored and in awe of their discoveries, and both are shunned and derogated by the collectivist authorities of their respective settings. There are important differences between “2112”, the title track to Rush’s fourth album, and Anthem, but if the similarities were not obvious enough, the band acknowledged “the genius of Ayn Rand” in the album’s liner notes. After the problems with its predecessor, Mercury was not entirely pleased with the even more complex and ostensibly less commercial 2112. However, they decided to grant the band their artistic freedom and take a chance with the album. That chance paid off immeasurably for all concerned.
2112 sold one hundred thousand copies within five days of release in March 1976. It became Rush’s first album certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. It would eventually sell over three million copies in the United States alone. The band’s fan base ballooned, and attendance at their concerts steadily rose. It laid the foundation for Rush’s enormous, enthralled, loyal fanbase to this day. And it is frequently cited by future rock musicians as a seminal influence.
But Rush and Neil Peart were just getting started.
Rush would go on to release fifteen more studio albums, never wavering from their high standards or integrity, and tour through 2015. (I was privileged to attend their final concert, on August 1, 2015, at The Forum in Inglewood, California.) Peart was their primary lyricist, writing most of the lyrics himself. Unfortunately, Rush’s career was sidelined for years after the untimely deaths of Peart’s daughter, Selena, and first wife, Jackie. (He spent a few years of mourning riding all over North America on a motorcycle. His memoir of this period, Ghost Rider, is one of the most rousing and moving books ever written on the subject of resilience.) Eventually, he returned to Rush and also continued to write books.
After they had attained an age when most rock bands had long since peaked or at least were mired in nostalgia or puerility, Rush matured and improved, especially in concert. Though he was already considered by many to be the best drummer on Earth, Peart pushed himself to learn more and improve. He took lessons from jazz drummers Freddie Gruber and Peter Erskine. In the twenty-first century, critics who previously dismissed them changed their minds, and the band became more of a part of popular culture than ever (ironically, as the rest of the culture became more antipodal to the skills, values, and standards featured in their work and lifestyles).
Like all rock bands, Rush was not perfect. For instance, their concerts were too similar to each other, even after they became somewhat more improvisational and varied in their final thirteen years of touring. They tended to avoid and turn down risk-taking artistic diversions like MTV Unplugged (which the show was for a while). Geddy Lee’s voice, while strong and impressive, is not for all tastes. Their lyrical themes were not always consistent. They questionably downplayed Ayn Rand’s early influence, going beyond disagreeing with her. However, they continued to excel. Their final album, Clockwork Angels (Roadrunner Records, 2012), was their best in decades. A concept album with a storyline, the band, performed almost all of it in concert, at a time when many of their peers would perform a few new songs if any. Peart co-authored a novel inspired by the album with science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson. Then, Rush quietly retired after R40 Live, a fortieth-anniversary tour, eschewing the “farewell tour” modus operandi of more conventional groups.
Always a private, unconventional “celebrity,” Peart kept his diagnosis of glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer, private. He died on January 7, and his publicist announced his illness and death three days later. Millions of shocked fans mourned his death and celebrated his life; peers, mentors, and epigones issued stirring encomiums; and writers grappled with his massive, multifaceted influence and legacy. Few, however, mentioned what was perhaps his most significant, and certainly most sui generis, achievement.
Philosopher Leonard Peikoff has summarized the epistemological and emotional essences of Aristotle’s philosophy as “joyful realism on Earth”. Contrasting Aristotle’s method of thought with the “misintegration” of his mentor Plato (invalid reasoning) and the “disintegration” (anti-reason) of Immanuel Kant, the other two broad archetypes of Western thought, Peikoff identifies Aristotle as the champion of integration, the valid method of thought, and his writings as the archetype of integration for Western civilization. Elsewhere, Peikoff encapsulates the Enlightenment Aristotle inspired as “secularism without skepticism”.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“[T]he Enlightenment is conceived broadly. D’Alembert, a leading figure of the French Enlightenment, characterizes his eighteenth century, in the midst of it, as “the century of philosophy par excellence”, because of the tremendous intellectual and scientific progress of the age, but also because of the expectation of the age that philosophy (in the broad sense of the time, which includes the natural and social sciences) would dramatically improve human life. Guided by D’Alembert’s characterization of his century, the Enlightenment is conceived here as having its primary origin in the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. The rise of the new science progressively undermines not only the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos, but also the set of presuppositions that had served to constrain and guide philosophical inquiry in the earlier times. The dramatic success of the new science in explaining the natural world promotes philosophy from a handmaiden of theology, constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles.”
Elsewhere, the author of the encyclopedia entry notes, “The defense of common sense, and the related idea that the results of philosophy ought to be of use to common people, are characteristic ideas of the Enlightenment.” Intellectual historian Frederick Copleston highlights several prominent Enlightenment thinkers, including the well-known (John Locke, Denis Diderot, Baron de Montesquieu) and lesser-known (e.g., Pierre Bayle and the French laissez-faire economists Turgot and Quesnay). Copleston, referring to this era and its spirit, noted,
“There existed in fact a kind of international and cosmopolitan-minded set of thinkers and writers who were united at any rate in their hostility, which showed itself in varying degrees according to circumstances, to ecclesiastic and political authoritarianism and to what they regarded as obscurantism and tyranny. And they looked on philosophy as an instrument of liberation, enlightenment, and social and political progress.”
This is in marked, obvious contrast to today’s culture.
Many obituaries and tributes focused on Peart’s superlative drumming. Some failed to mention that he was a lyricist; others mentioned it almost as an afterthought. While superlative drumming is rarer now, especially among the most successful popular musical entertainers, there were and are other virtuosi. In a culture primarily reflecting Kant’s nihilistic, counter-Enlightenment philosophy, few, if anyone, so consistently personified Aristotelianism and the Enlightenment in verse as Neil Peart. (In two different sections of The DIM Hypothesis, Peikoff notes that Aristotle’s ideas had been absent from the culture for over a century. That is mostly true, but there was one pertinent exception.) He brought integration in his own words, and Rush brought the integration of words and music. (While the songs of many others are rushed and haphazard, Rush’s songs are crafted in a way that it is difficult to imagine their respective lyrics and music not linked in any other way as if they had always been together, linked through a kind of natural magnetism.) They brought Aristotelian and Enlightenment ideas to a disgraceful, often disgusting popular culture that often reflected antipodal ideas. (Peart explicitly acknowledged Aristotle’s influence in his books and in a photograph depicting him holding a copy of Aristotle’s Poetics.) In a culture in which art is often overlooked in favor of mindless, artless entertainment, Peart brought pro-reason and pro-human art, a human need as much as the technology he also championed, to millions. There were and are other cultural values, for sure, but (particularly after the early 1990s), they tend to be obscure or lyrically vapid or inconsistent.
Rush’s songs cover a fascinating panorama of concrete details and abstract themes, not always entirely consistent. But overarching themes loom large in their work: reason; individualism; the importance of drive and purpose; human efficacy and nobility; and wonder at nature and technology. While they sometimes looked into some of the darkest corners of the world and of humans, they maintained a benevolent sense of life’s possibilities and basic human decency and greatness to the end. Many of their songs are odes to eudaimonia, the ancient Greek ideal of human flourishing and happiness. And they did so while using the method of integration, lyrically, musically, and in the relation of music and lyrics to each other. While fundamentally serious, they leavened many tunes with the perfect amount of humor. They did all of the above in countless tracks, from their most identifiable to their most obscure. They approached each song as its own entity with its own form, function, and needs, never using a formula or template. Additionally, the songs are integrated into theme-driven albums, often with titles that almost speak for themselves: Power Windows, Roll the Bones, Counterparts, Test for Echo, etc. Peart’s lyrical influences include an exhaustive list of artists and intellectuals: Aristotle, Ayn Rand, Charles Dickens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Oscar Wilde, Carl Jung, Ernest Hemingway, JRR Tolkien, William Faulkner, and many others. (Necessarily, I must quote lyrical excerpts below. However, for the full effect of their integration, the entire songs must not only be read but heard.)
In the context of their own culture, Rush songs are, to quote from one of them,
“Like a righteous inspiration/Overlooked in haste/Like a teardrop in the ocean/A diamond in the waste”
In perhaps the best-known Rush song, “Tom Sawyer,” the individualism and secularism are unmistakable:
“No, his mind is not for rent/To any god or government.”
“Tom Sawyer” is one of several lyrics Peart co-wrote with Pye Dubois. But the defiant individualism of “2112” is also unmistakable, and lyrically, like most Rush songs, it’s all Peart.
Peart also seared explicit egoism into the band’s catalog on the first track of his first album with the band [Fly by Night (Mercury, 1975)]—the aforementioned “Anthem”:
“Live for yourself/There’s no one else more worth living for/Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more.”
Four years later, he wrote “Freewill,” released early in 1980 on Permanent Waves (Mercury). The lyrics speak for themselves:
“You can choose a ready guide/In some celestial voice/If you choose not to decide/You still have made a choice/You can choose from phantom fears/And kindness that can kill/I will choose a path that’s clear/I will choose free will.”
Peart’s more freedom-oriented lyrics include 1978’s “The Trees,” on Hemispheres (Mercury, 1978), an allegory on socialism and egalitarianism where “the trees are all kept equal by hatchet, axe, and saw;” “Red Barchetta,” a prescient futuristic dystopia in which cars are outlawed; and “Red Sector A,” from Grace Under Pressure (Mercury, 1984), a harrowing tale of a concentration camp. (The latter was inspired by the experiences of Lee’s parents, who met in a concentration camp and survived the Holocaust. Unfortunately, his father died young due to its lingering effects.)
Long after “Anthem,” on 1989’s Presto (Atlantic), this set of lyrics from “Show Don’t Tell” could almost be the introduction to an organon on objective metaphysics and rational epistemology:
“You can twist perceptions/Reality won’t budge/You can raise objections/I will be the judge/And the jury/I’ll give it due reflection/Watching from the fence/Give the jury direction/Based on the evidence.”
In the twenty-first century, Peart composed a set of secularist lyrics after motorcycling through the United States on tour and being alarmed by the frequency and content of evangelical-themed church signs. The most obvious is “Faithless” from 2007’s Snakes and Arrows (Atlantic), which, knowingly or not, captures a viewpoint similar to the aforementioned Bayle: that religion is not necessary for morality. “BU2B”, released as part of a single in 2010 and on Clockwork Angels two years later, is another. The title is wry “text-speak” for “brought up to believe,” and it uses an ironic punchline for effect:
“Believe in what we’re told/Until our final breath/While our loving Watchmaker/Loves us all to death.”
On the topic of drive and purpose, there are countless examples of Peart’s lyrical prowess. One is 1987’s “Mission”. “Mission” is an integration of many of Peart’s favorite themes, including purpose, grandeur, and benevolence, with an explicit nod to the virtue of pride:
“I watch their images flicker/Bringing life to a lifeless screen/I walk through their beautiful buildings/And I wish I had their dreams/But dreams don’t need to have motion/To keep their spark alive/Obsession has to have action/Pride turns on the drive.”
While religions consider pride to be a sin, Aristotle and Rand considered it a virtue. Aristotle called it a “crown of the virtues.”
While Rand’s direct, conscious influence on Peart declined throughout the 1980s and beyond, the influence of Aristotle on his work grew. Hold Your Fire (Mercury), the album that includes “Mission,” also includes the song “Prime Mover,” an idea (also known as the “Immovable Mover”) prominent in Aristotle’s thought that has no analog or counterpart in Rand’s. Peart would occasionally disagree with both Aristotle and Rand. For example, Hold Your Fire’s “Lock and Key” rejects Aristotle’s idea of tabula rasa, the viewpoint that man has no innate ideas, for ruminative verses about literal instincts. However, Peart would generally continue to propagate themes consonant with the pro-reason viewpoint of Aristotelianism and Objectivism.
In 1993, for Counterparts (Atlantic/Anthem), Peart wrote “Nobody’s Hero,” contrasting examples of his idea of heroes with others that, in his view, were conventionally, and falsely, accepted as such. One of his heroes “is the voice of reason against the howling mob”.
In 1996, for Test for Echo (Atlantic), he wrote “Resist,” ironically crystallizing his views of the virtue of integrity with an allusion to Oscar Wilde: “I can learn to resist/Anything but temptation/I can learn to co-exist with anything but pain/I can learn to compromise/Anything, but my desires/I can learn to get along/With all the things I can’t explain.”
Rush was also enthusiastic about science and technology. They incorporated the latest in instrument technology into their work as it advanced throughout their career. Lifeson, a pilot, invented acoustic guitar stands to help him play multiple guitars during the same song live. And, in the middle of a busy tour, all three members witnessed the launch of the first space shuttle, Columbia, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the morning of April 12, 1981. Peart later remembered the spectacular achievement in song as
This magic day when super-science
Mingles with the bright stuff of dreams …
The air is charged—a humid, motionless mass
The crowds and the cameras
The cars full of spectators pass
Excitement so thick you could cut it with a knife
Technology high on the leading edge of life
The band dedicated the song to astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen as well as all of NASA. And, true to their indefatigable work ethic, they played a concert far away in Fort Worth, Texas, that evening.
The 1980 epic “Natural Science,” another celebration of science (and many other things), is perhaps the pinnacle of Rush’s achievements, musically and lyrically. It is also one of their most romantic works. Here is a stirring, exuberant excerpt:
Science, like nature
Must also be tamed
With a view towards its preservation
Given the same
State of integrity
It will surely serve us well
Art as expression
Not as market campaigns
Will still capture our imaginations
Given the same
State of integrity
It will surely help us along
The most endangered species
The honest man
Will still survive annihilation
Forming a world-
State of integrity
Sensitive, open and strong
These examples are just an introduction to a comprehensive body of work; it is anything but exhaustive.
In his interviews and prose writings, Peart expressed many of the same views he expressed in his lyrics. In 1987, in a fan club newsletter, he clarified how his thinking had deepened with time but had not changed significantly:
“My world-views have grown onward and outward over the years, but they haven’t changed. I still believe in the sanctity of the individual, in freedom of action without harming anyone else, in a person’s right to be charitable (or miserly) as they choose, and all that good stuff.”
Recounting a motorcycle trip in former East Germany in 2013, he reiterated his opposition to collectivism and expressed horror that there will still roads named after Karl Marx.
“Twenty years later, I still felt that sense of injustice and anger. Because these people are still paying, literally with their lives, while the villains and ideologues who laid them all low were allowed to play hero while secretly committing unspeakably horrible crimes against humanity—against so many individual humans.
“‘Everyone is equal,’ they insisted—but those few were obviously much more equal than the masses.
“Like Prohibition, the rise and fall of communism is sometimes written off as a ‘Noble Experiment,’ but any way you look at it, collectivism is precisely the opposite of noble. (Once I wondered about the fanatics behind both communism and fascism, ‘Were they evil psychopaths or misguided morons?’ I decided it was a mix of both—the deadliest combination in history.)
“Riding through so many backroads and villages in the former East Germany, and spending the night in Dresden, there is no doubt things are better now—yet they still lag behind their compatriots in the former West Germany.
“And if the former Karl-Marx-Stadt is now back to Chemnitz, I was still genuinely surprised—even appalled—to ride into the former East Berlin along Karl-Marx-Strasse. Likewise on a previous tour, when [riding partner] Brutus and I crossed out of a ride through Poland at Frankfurt (the secondary one, on the Oder), my eyes widened to see their main street still named after Karl Marx. These days you don’t see any Hitler or Stalin streets, and Leningrad is back to St. Petersburg, yet it’s a safe bet that no individual in history has been the cause of so much slaughter and suffering as Karl Marx.
“(His only comparison might be the imaginary ones, the Deities—referred to by Marx and his buddy Friedrich Engels as ‘the opiate of the masses.’ If you ask me, it’s more like the crystal meth of the masses.)”
In 2015, he reiterated his integrity to a formerly critical publication that had finally given him and Rush the attention they long ago commanded: “‘It’s about being your own hero,’ he told Rolling Stone in 2015. ‘I set out to never betray the values that 16-year-old had, to never sell out. . . . A compromise is what I can never accept.’”
If anyone so consistently, perspicaciously, and perspicuously expressed Enlightenment themes in song—or anywhere, after Ayn Rand—in the Endarkenment, I’m unaware of that. Enlightenment themes like secularism without skepticism; the basic decency, nobility, and perfectibility of man; the efficacy of reason; the power of science; and the value of philosophy for the regular educated person saturate the work of Peart and Rush.
In 1985’s “Marathon,” Peart wrote, “You can do a lot in a lifetime/If you don’t burn out too fast/You can make the most of the distance/First you need endurance/First you’ve got to last.”
In his too-short sixty-seven year lifespan, Neil Peart made the most of the distance.
Thanks to Steven Schub and Eric Hansen for his expansive website Power Windows.
- Collier, Brian. “RIP Neil Peart, 1952-2020,” National Review, January 11, 2020, https://ift.tt/2NegGmH.
- Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Volume IV: Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Leibniz. 1960. New York: Image Books, 1994.
- Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Volume VI: Modern Philosophy: From the French Enlightenment to Kant. 1960. New York: Image Books, 1994.
- Daly, Skip, and Eric Hansen. Rush: Wandering the Face of the Earth: The Official Touring History. Los Angeles: Insight Editions, 2019.
- “Enlightenment,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://ift.tt/2lD8e1u.
- “Geddy Lee Tells His Family’s Holocaust Story (Full Interview),” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPxwSF4CGyo.
- Hiatt, Brian. “Neil Peart, Rush Drummer who Set a New Standard for Rock Virtuosity, Dead at 67,” Rolling Stone, https://ift.tt/2sbWCKv.
- Peart, Neil. “Rush–Hold Your Fire,” from Rush Backstage Club Newsletter, January 1988, at https://ift.tt/33soQ2h.
—. Far and Near: On Days Like These. Toronto: ECW Press, 2014.
- Peikoff, Leonard. The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out. New York: New American Library, 2012.
—. The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America. New York: Stein & Day, 1982.
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