Jan 15, 2020
Everybody Got to Elevate from the Norm: The Enduring Appeal of Neil Peart and Rush
Remembering an “extraordinarily earnest” musician who believed in striving for excellence.
There is a paradox at the heart of Rush, the Canadian band whose all-world drummer and lyricist, and self-described “bleeding heart libertarian,” Neil Peart died of brain cancer on January 7th: for a band that wrote so many songs with themes of individualism and whose members are among the most talented individuals on their instruments in the history of rock, it’s nearly impossible to separate one member from the other in order to talk about any one of them as a distinct contributor. But death has a funny way of forcing separations upon us.
As a long-time, very serious fan, I’ve found it difficult to express what his shocking death means to me and to the music world. It’s even weirder because Neil wasn’t even my favorite band member, at least in the sense of the one I’d like to hang out with. A few hours with Neil would have been amazing sure, and a few hours with guitarist Alex Lifeson would be hilarious, but what I really want is a long lunch at Caplansky’s Deli with bassist-singer Geddy Lee. The reasons why aren’t important, other than to say I think we’d have more to talk about and more interests we share than I would with either of the other two. That said, Neil was always a giant figure in my life and his death has indeed hit me hard. I want to share some thoughts here that cover what I think was really important about Rush as a band and a cultural force, and why, for so many of us, they have been so central to who we were and who we are. And I hope I can do this by way of emphasizing Neil’s role in all of that in a way that shines a light on why his death has affected so many so hard.
Part of that devastating effect is that almost no one knew he was sick. Neil was incredibly private and often embarrassed by the way others treated his fame. He could not, as he wrote, “pretend a stranger was a long-awaited friend.” For him to have revealed his struggle of over three years, would have called attention to himself in ways that he would have found incredibly uncomfortable. I’m sure that if he were to read the various tributes and eulogies since the announcement, including this one, he’d be mortified. But if there was one thing that was true of Neil Peart and his fellow bandmates, they were going to do it their way. So here we are, in shock at the very unexpected death of a musical and lyrical giant.
I want to say a few things about Rush’s appeal and Neil’s legacy in particular, then talk about how their music influenced and changed lives. I think the key to understanding Rush’s legacy is that they were middle-brow, middle-class suburban rock. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, most rock fell into one of two categories. On one side was the high-brow, often ironic, artsier rock of people like David Bowie or Bob Dylan. On the other side was the lower-brow, working class, bluesier music of people like the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and AC/DC, among others. The high-brow stuff was more associated with the urban elite, and certainly the rock press, while the lower-brow stuff was clearly working class, though often beloved in a somewhat condescending way by the rock press, usually for its “authenticity.” Where did Rush, or progressive rock more generally, fit in this world?
The ethos of Rush was clearly middle-class suburbia, as was its fan base. Neil and his bandmates were extraordinarily earnest. There was never a touch of irony or a wink at the fans in their over 40 years together. And although they aspired to create art, it was never about pushing boundaries or shocking fans, but being, as they have said, the best version of Rush they could be. Neil was rarely completely satisfied with a live performance, and the band as a whole was constantly restless in its desire to be better than they were “last time,” whether live or in the studio. They genuinely believed that being very, very good at what you do would bring success, both artistic and material. They were neither hip nor ironic enough to sneer at that view of the world as naïve, nor did they believe that success and happiness were impossible, which might thereby justify the nihilism and destructive hedonism that beset so many of their peers. They were just three guys from the Toronto suburbs who wanted to make the best music they knew how. And they meant everything they said and did.
Rush’s middle-class, middle-brow rock unsurprisingly appealed to the very same kinds of people they were. When I look around at many of my fellow fans who I know well, one of the things we tend to share is a similar suburban upbringing in the 70s and 80s. This, I think, also explains why their fan base remains overwhelmingly white (well-known rap stars and the members of Living Colour duly noted as exceptions). What remains more of a puzzle is the relative lack of female fans. The puzzle here is that Neil’s lyrics are notable for the complete absence of the misogyny that affects so much rock and other popular music. If women are put off by the typical male rock star take on sex, love, and cars, they should have seen Rush as an escape from that. There are a few songs about sex, but even those are cerebral not genital. Neil wrote some “love songs” but rather than the usual pablum, they were rationalist love songs about how we fall in love and stay in love (“Ghost of a Chance” being the exemplar here.) Even their car song (“Red Barchetta”) isn’t really about a car, but about the car as a metaphor for freedom and individuality. Presumably, the aggressiveness of the music was not what many young women wanted to listen to. Although in the last decade of their careers, the number of women at live shows began to grow substantially, and not just Rush widows rolling their eyes after being dragged there by well-meaning but completely wacky husbands and boyfriends. (The famous scene in “I Love You, Man” captures this perfectly.)
All of that said, Neil and Rush took both their music and their lyrics seriously, and even if their earnestness sometimes spilled over into pretension, it was only because they were trying so hard to create something they cared about, and that they hoped their fans would care about. That earnestness was a real reflection of the middle class belief in upward mobility and the idea that hard work and excellence was the path to success. And that serious things mattered. It was okay to talk about philosophy and art and politics and history because they mattered. If nothing else, early Rush drove this teenager to the dictionary to learn a few new words (maelstrom?). It was a message, both in Neil’s lyrics and their music, that their fan base was primed to hear and to adopt as their own. For those of us who became fans at a young age, this message was central to so much of what we did and how we lived in the years that followed.
Rush believed in the possibility of human excellence. Each of them, especially Neil, is widely recognized as among the best on their instruments in the history of rock. So many of Neil’s lyrics are about regular people, both individuals and groups, who did extraordinary things, whether the simple acts depicted in “Nobody’s Hero,” or their tribute to the space shuttle (“Countdown”) or Neil’s direct depiction of genius in “Mission.” The message to listeners was clear: you too are capable of excellence and heroism. For suburbanites who were, in Neil’s words, “detached and subdivided in the mass production zone,” being told that you were capable of rising above the crowd was a much needed breath of fresh air.
Neil’s incredible drive to be the best at what he did was similarly inspirational. Early in his career, just watching him play with the energy of a Keith Moon, but with a level of control that reflected the thoughtfulness and complexity of his drum parts, was a thing to behold. As his sonic palette expanded through the 70s with the addition of a variety of percussion instruments, his ability to move among them and integrate them into both Rush’s music and his steadily lengthening solos became his signature. And as his power, speed, and control grew, his solos became feats of human excellence that would make me cackle with glee, thinking “how can a human being do that?” I’ve compared Neil’s drumming to great athletes like Barry Sanders in football or Pavel Datsyuk in hockey (pardon my Detroit bias), or to more everyday feats of excellence, like the work of a highly-skilled flat-top breakfast cook at my favorite diner. They all prompt that reaction of glee at humans pushing the boundaries of excellence. The most important part about this with respect to Neil is that it was never about competition with other drummers in a direct way. It wasn’t that he had to show the world he was better than Moon or Bonham or Copeland, or whomever. It was that he had to be the best Neil Peart he could be. He would accept no less of himself than that very exacting standard. And he was unafraid of feeling proud when he reached that standard, as he said often after playing “Tom Sawyer” live.
This point, for me, gets at the crux of what I think Neil and Rush has meant for so many of us who have been long-time fans. He, and they, have been role models for what it means to live a life of excellence, integrity, and seriousness of purpose, and they have demonstrated that doing so can bring one enormous success. You do not have to “sell your dreams for small desires” and being sucked in by “glittering prizes and endless compromises” will “shatter the illusion of integrity.” From as far back as the “2112” album in 1976 that put them on the map, they have never sold out their vision of making the music they wanted to make. In the face of record company pressure to be more “commercial” and deliver some singles, they made “2112” with its 20 minute suite based on Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem. I have elsewhere described that as the biggest “fuck you” in the history of rock, and when it turned out to be an unexpected huge success, Neil noted that record label executives never again tried to tell them what to do. At the pinnacle of their success in the early 80s, they could have continued to make the same music that sold millions, but that’s not who they were. Their restlessness, their interest in new music, and their desire to be the best Rush they could be, pushed them to move to a more keyboard-oriented sound through the 80s, costing them fans who were clearly just there for the band-du-jour. This was truly “progressive” rock. They found their way back to a harder sound in the 90s, and their final CD from 2012 (“Clockwork Angels”) is among their hardest rocking work ever (and among their best). They were fortunate to have a core fan base who was willing to take this ride with them and who seemed to be motivated by a deep curiosity about what they would do next. Speaking for myself, that describes me perfectly. Not every step was a good one (the “Roll the Bones” CD, for example), but we were there for the journey not the individual destinations.
Their unflinching integrity and commitment to excellence and progress as lyricists, songwriters, and musicians were, and still are, a role model for me personally. Alex once said that while they were never part of the “mainstream,” they were always there, walking along the shoreline. That metaphor seems just right, and has been one that probably applies to my own career as an Austrian school economist. One does not have to be part of the mainstream to have a successful career, and if one’s work is truly outside of that mainstream, little is to be gained by pretending to be something you’re not. It really is “just a question of your honesty.” Those very bourgeois values of honesty, integrity, and excellence are what matter for a career that will not only be successful, but that will allow you to look at yourself in the mirror and come to understand that, in the words of John Mellencamp: “an honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind.”
For young people trying to figure out how to walk their way through life, this is a message that will, I believe, always resonate with a substantial number of them. For all of the other reasons that Rush’s appeal has become multi-generational, as parents introduced their kids to the music that mattered to them, I think this one is central. Young people look around and see too many people who they perceive to have “sold out” or compromised their visions or just lived lives that they are unhappy with and wonder why adults would do that. Neil’s lyrics and Rush’s music offers them an alternative vision of what it means to have a life well-lived. You can achieve excellence. You can do it your way and succeed. You can be you, be successful, and be happy. Neil wrote about it in song after song, and Rush lived it despite the challenges they faced. That message is one that has perpetual appeal to youth and probably assures that Rush’s music will always have an audience.
I think this point also explains the much-discussed connection between Neil and Ayn Rand. For all of the ink spilled about this, it’s all more simple than many think. The real Rand influence on Neil was The Fountainhead and not Atlas Shrugged. In fact, all three members read and liked The Fountainhead. That book’s emphasis on artistic excellence and integrity and the values one brings to a career and to a life, and its ultimate vindication of those who pursue those values, explains much more about Neil’s lyrics, his excellence at his craft, and the band’s career path than anything else Rand ever wrote. Generation after generation keeps rediscovering Rand, and The Fountainhead is still taught in some high school American Literature courses (it’s where I read it first). The reasons for that parallel the reasons why Rush’s music will live on, similarly walking the shore of the mainstream: those are timeless, universal human values and ones that particularly appeal to youths who are trying to figure it all out. Very little of Rand’s influence on Neil was explicitly political. That influence shows up in the themes of excellence, integrity, and honesty, and the drive to be the best you that you can be.
In the end, I don’t think Neil was really much of a libertarian, nor are the bulk of his lyrics accurately described that way. The term that best describes them, as I have argued elsewhere, is “individualist.” That term encompasses the values discussed above and the broad political themes that do appear from time to time in his lyrics. One need not be a libertarian to appreciate Neil’s lyrics, as evidenced by my numerous leftist friends who are fans. But one does need, at some level I think, to believe that those values matter. Their music would be a hard listen otherwise.
I want to finish this on a more personal note. One vastly underappreciated aspect of Neil’s and Rush’s career is the way their music created intense meaning and incredible friendships for fans. Neil has said that his favorite compliment from fans was “thank you for the soundtrack to my life.” It’s the first thing I would have said to him. For almost 40 years now, their music has been there for me in the good times and the bad times. And for 35 of those years, their live shows were a place of escape, of transcendence, of deep friendships, and the sense that nothing could go wrong in the universe if this combination of musical transcendence and human friendship were possible. No matter what was happening in my life, the anticipation of another Rush show just made all of the bad stuff seem small and irrelevant. And for three hours, they just took me to another place in ways few things do. When they ended touring in 2015, it wasn’t a surprise, but the thought of life without those experiences was a hard pill to swallow. That Neil’s death has made that a certainty is part of why it’s hit so many of us so hard.
In addition to the live shows, Rush has given me a group of (mostly male) friends who, via the internet, have kept up our friendships for, in some cases, more than 20 years. We’ve been through all of the life stuff together, from marriages and divorces, to deaths of parents, to kids, to kids going off to college, and now, in our deep middle age, various health issues. At least four of us are dealing with cancer, and others have different serious medical issues. Rush brought us together, but the underlying shared values and experiences that attracted us to Rush have kept us together for two decades. It’s a unique male space that is a combination of incredible support and the humor of our 15 year old selves. That group has been the safest of safe spaces for its members for a very long time and I don’t know exactly what I would have done without them through a divorce and a cancer diagnosis. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that men can’t care for and support each other in our own unique and bizarre ways. As I recently said on Facebook, there’s a great Gender Studies thesis/dissertation to be written about Rush and masculinity. Among the very many gifts that Neil and Rush have given me, this one is up there on the list.
The loss of Neil Peart is more than the loss of a supremely talented musician and lyricist. Many of us have lost a mapmaker of adulthood without whom we wouldn’t be who we are today. It’s also the end of one of the most special stories in the history of rock. It’s the last chapter of the story of the uncool kids who triumphed over the cool ones on their own terms and, finally, became accepted as part of rock royalty with their 2013 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And while no one will ever again get to see in person the genius that was Neil Peart, or the musical spectacle that was all three of them playing together live, we have dozens of CDs of music, all kinds of official videos of their live performances, and several documentaries that will live on. The values and commitment to excellence that drove their careers have an appeal that will always find an audience among the young yearning for a guide to navigate the failings of their elders. It was true in 1976. It’s true in 2020. And it will be true in 2112 and beyond.
Rest in peace, Neil. And thanks for the soundtrack to my life.