A Farewell to the King: Neil Peart

Like, I know, many (many, many) others, it’ll be impossible to succinctly or adequately convey my admiration for Neil Peart. (Full and semi-embarrassing disclosure: I wrote my graduate school thesis on the Utopian Impulse in Prog Rock–featuring guess who. Eternal props to Dr. Tom Moylan for reassuring me one could, should write with serious intent about this kind of stuff, which on one hand was very Cultural Studies circa 1992, but also a discernible milestone on my eventual road to published music criticism.)

When I was navigating that teenage wasteland between puberty and owning a driver’s license, I understood a few things as sacrosanct facts: Jim Morrison was rock’s pre-eminent poet, John Bonham was rock’s best drummer, and Cream was the best rock trio. The eventual discovery of one man set me straight on all points, showing me how little I knew: Neil Peart. It was Neil Peart, in fact, who was rock’s best lyricist, best drummer, and his band, Rush, the best trio.

I changed a lot in the ensuing decades. So too, did Peart. That, above all, is what made him relatable and meaningful, and it’s why his work will endure as long as people are still paying attention to rock music.

From the mid-‘70s until the early ’90s there was one thing fans could count on: each year there’d be a new Rush album, and — for the most part and with few exceptions — it would not sound much like the one that preceded it. In an industry where imitation (particularly after success) is aspiration as much as default setting, this itself was remarkable. Rush took risks, and appropriate for baseball fanatic Geddy Lee, were never afraid to strike out. Rush rewarded their fans in direct proportion to how willing they were to resist complacency and invest in the adventure.

Very much like Pink Floyd, hindsight reveals that each album leading up to the big breakthrough (The Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures, respectively) was a stepping stone of sorts, edging closer to a definitive statement and fully realized combination of sound and vision. If Floyd spent some time in space, Rush did the Dungeons and Dragons routine (with a large if largely unappetizing side smattering of Ayn Rand), but both bands figured out how to retain the passion and pyrotechnics in the service of shorter songs, lighter on the pretension and focused: “Time” or “The Spirit of Radio,” however revelatory, did not appear like magic; rather, they are the unfettered realization of a gradual but inevitable apogee.

Like the best artists, Peart’s work was necessarily, inevitably autobiographical: we can peruse several decades worth of material to craft together an accurate portrayal of the man, and the way he viewed himself and the world.

Peart was assailed, sometimes understandably, for a decade of lyrics that relied a tad too heavily on themes liberally borrowed from Sci-Fi, Classical Literature and the high priestess of Objectivism, the insufferable Ayn Rand. For the Libertarian circuit, this was biblical scripture; for older or less…imaginative fans the lyrics are occasionally embarrassing and have not exactly aged like a single malt scotch. However, the intelligence and unquenchable curiosity always existed, and Peart increasingly harnessed his considerable prowess with the pencil.

As important as 2112 was, as an artistic and personal statement (one of defiance, one of freedom), Peart quickly put away childish things and relegated Ayn Rand where she belonged: in the past. Beginning with A Farewell to Kings, Peart the precocious nerd began to become The Professor. And if “Closer to the Heart” signals a new direction, side one of Hemispheres illustrates the struggle for internal balance between heart and mind that Peart perfected –never becoming cynical or sentimental– in all his subsequent writing.

We can walk our road together
If our goals are all the same.
We can run alone and free
If we pursue a different aim.
Let the truth of love be lighted,
Let the love of truth shine clear.
Sensibility, armed with sense and liberty,
With the Heart and Mind united in a single perfect Sphere.

Starting with Permanent Waves he turned his attention (as most adults invariably do) to the world we live in and the ways it shapes us and vice versa. In hindsight, it’s more than a little remarkable that the same person who penned the lyrics to “Natural Science” and “Freewill” also contributed “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and “The Necromancer” (which are both excellent songs in their way, but about 99% of their redeeming value is musical). His lyrics for the rest of the ’80s are on par with the work Roger Waters did during the ’70s: pound for pound, nobody not named Ian Anderson was coming close to being this consistently engaging and erudite.

In terms of his most celebrated and scrutinized lyrics, aside from the trifecta of “Free Will,” “The Spirit of Radio,” and “Limelight” (as well as, of course, “Tom Sawyer”), “Subdivisions” is a remarkable achievement that warrants further scrutiny — and celebration. Fans focus, understandably, on the way Peart masterfully nails the strict social codes that separate the winners and losers of high schools — and the sad truth that follows them into adulthood: conform or be cast out. What receives less attention — and where Peart can be celebrated for outdoing even himself — is the way he expands the scope, punning on the “subdivisions” of schools and the subdivisions of…the suburbs. More, and with delicious and subtle irony, he captures the fact that these identical neighborhoods are meant to invoke some bucolic and better past, where, after years of futilely resisting (or succumbing to) conformity, we are inevitably drawn back to how we were conditioned, and start to dream of somewhere to relax their restless flight/somewhere out of a memory of lighted streets on quiet nights. In less than five minutes (and with maximum economy) Peart delivers a mini-treatise on manufactured nostalgia and how our hyper-modern sensibilities render us at once ambitious and resigned.

If any genius can call his entire career a highlight reel, it’s Peart.

His finest moment? For me, it’s Permanent Waves centerpiece “Natural Science”: it does not grab you by the ear the way 2112 does and it does not have the immediate, irresistible appeal of “Limelight”, but it’s, quite possibly, the band’s most perfect achievement. Peart’s lyrics, which tackle ecology, commercialism and artistic integrity (without being pretentious or self-righteous) are, in hindsight, not merely an end-of-decade statement of purpose but a presciently fin-de-siècle assessment that still, amazingly, functions as both indictment and appeal. “Natural Science” endures as the last document before Moving Pictures triangulated math rock, prog rock and the fertile new soil of synth-based popular music and did the inconceivable, making Rush a household name.

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.

Before I was a grad student writing thesis papers, I was a high school student, looking for solace and inspiration (and, not least, joy) wherever I might find it. I have published several feature articles about Rush, and throughout all these decades I’ve remained a fan.

(For a lot more on what they did first, check this out.

For a lot more on what they did next, check this out.

For a lot more on their masterpiece, check this out.

For a lot more about why the band was rightly inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, check THIS out.)

In the final analysis and without question the music and example of Rush have helped make me a (much) better person: deeper, more curious, and unable to tolerate conformity or easy solutions. Neil Peart was larger than life, and he’ll forever be bigger than death.

Executive Director, 1455, @1455LitArts. Avoiding quiet desperation by any means necessary http://seanmurphy.net

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