Everyday Person: Neil Peart and His Work

The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect

So hard to earn, so easily burned

In the fullness of time

A garden to nurture and protect

Rush, “The Garden” (Clockwork Angels, 2012)

This past week, Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for the band Rush passed away. Though I might not listen to them in the same way or as often as I did when I was fourteen, Rush will probably always have “favorite band” status for me. There are lots of reasons that Rush quickly achieved this status in my adolescent life, but I think their staying power in my life is largely due to Neil and his poetic fire at the core of the group’s ethos.

Mostly, I want to indulge myself by sharing Rush lyrics and reminiscing on their impact on my life.

Don’t know anything about Rush or Neil? In short, Rush are a progressive rock power-trio, formed the late ’60s in Toronto. They’ve consistently been on the edge of popular appeal, but have maintained a large, rabid, cult-like fan base since the ’70s. Rush performed their final tour “R40” in 2014. Neil joined the nascent, Zeppelin-influenced rock group in ’74, after the release of their debut self-titled album. And in following albums, Rush leaned more into the progressive rock incluences of Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, fueled by the virtuosic drumming and science-fiction and philosophy inspired lyrics of Peart. For the full story, I highly recommend the documentary “Rush: Beyond the Lighted State” on Netflix.

The Universal Individualist, the Introvert, and the Romantic

One of my favorite things about Rush, and Neil in particular, is their ability and perhaps even need to grow and change throughout the years while remaining true to themselves. One of the biggest shifts for Neil as a writer was moving away from the fiercely individualist influence of Ayn Rand. Here’s a lyric from the heavy opener on Rush’s 1975 Fly by Night, “Anthem,” drawn from the Rand novel of the same name.

Live for yourself

There’s no one else worth living for

Begging hands and bleeding hearts

Will only cry out for more

Rush, “Anthem” (Fly by Night, 1975)

I don’t think Rush would have had the role in my life that they did if they never moved away from Randian libertarianism. While Neil always remained somewhat of an individualist, his songs began to look at the ways in which the individual and the universal reflect one another. As Neil writes in “The Garden” referenced above, “the measure of a life is a measure of love and respect.”

I think much of the individualism in Peart’s lyrics at times say more about his own introversion than his philosophy. For the introverted Peart, struggling with the pressures of public life, listen to the 1981 hit “Limelight,” from Rush’s sublime Moving Pictures album. “One must put up barriers to keep oneself intact.”

The emotional distance between people as two distinct, autonomous beings, whether it be friends, lovers, or society in general, eventually formed into a dominant theme in his work. Note these selections from the 1980 album Permanent Waves:

We are secrets to each other

Each one’s life a novel

No one else has read…

Each of us a world apart

Alone and yet together

Like two passing ships

“Entre Nous” (Permanent Waves, 1980)

All there really is

The two of us

And we both know why we’ve come along…

Different eyes see different things

Different hearts beat on different strings

“Different Strings” (Permanent Waves, 1980)

On their 1993 album Counterparts (perhaps their best post-1980s output). The joys of romantic love are celebrated, but its frustrations are also more acute:

Love is born with lightning bolts

Electro-magnetic force

Burning skin and fireworks

A storm on a raging course…

At the speed of love

Nothing changes faster

At the speed of love

My heart goes out to you

“Speed of Love” (Counterparts, 1993)

Peart did not focus on the individual to the exclusion of the communal or the global, however. On Rush’s 1985 song, “Territories,” Neil critiques the nationalistic tendency to look “through the eyeglass in reverse” as the West tends to do in its approach toward other peoples and cultures.

The Optimistic Skeptic

Peart held to a hopeful atheism that, while not waiting on the benevolent hand of the divine, looks for the best in humanity. Peart, through Geddy Lee’s voice, proclaims peak humanity found in overcoming the struggles of day-to-day life on the final track of Counterparts:

Everyday people

Everyday shame

Everyday promise

Shot down in flames

Everyday sunrise

Another everyday story

Rise from the ashes

A blaze of everyday glory

“Everyday Glory” (Counterparts, 1993)

While Peart’s apparent optimism about the potentials of the human spirit only increased, so did his confidence in rejecting an overarching religions or divine framework for life. “I don’t have faith in faith; I don’t believe in belief,” Peart write on the 2007 album Snakes and Arrows. Though Peart seemed at times open to the benefits of stories of faith and what they present, he ultimately trusted in his own experiences and understanding to guide him. In the 1996 song Totem, though embracing various aspects of many different traditions, Peart says that “I believe that what I’m feeling changes how the world appears.” When it comes down to it, religion for Peart just does not comport with the importance of individual conviction and truth, especially as in his view, religion can so easily be an absolutizing force that does not allow for difference or integrity.

I was brought up to believe

The universe has a plan

We are only human

It’s not ours to understand

“BU2B” (Clockwork Angels, 2012)

The Daydreamer

As a teenager discovering Rush, there was definitely an initial phase in which I was there for the heaviness and progressiveness of the music, and the science fiction. I think the young Neil Peart who found escape in Tolkien, mythology, and speculative fiction, began to address head-on the desire to pass beyond one’s borders. In the 80s, Peart often considers the need to outgrow the definitions that life has imposed upon the individual. And it was meditating on this theme in his work that kept me coming back to Rush and their ’80s output again and again. 1981-87 Rush became the sound track of my adolescence, and therefore forever imprinted upon the wiring of my brain, with all of its reforming and whatnot as a teenager.

In “Subdivisions” in 1982, Peart writes that the suburbs, like the one in which he grew up, “have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth.” The next track on the Signals album, “The Analog Kid” also looks at youth and the need to grow, change, and move, even though the future may be uncertain.

When I leave

I don’t know what I’m hoping to find

And if I leave

I don’t know what I’m leaving behind

Signals (1982)

The need to escape the suburbs merges with the need for the new and unexplored in general–a new scene, a new inspiration. “Middletown Dreams” from Power Windows (1985), depicts the desperate longing for more while still exalting in the ability people have to create, build, dream, and do:

Dreams flow across the heartland

Feeding on the fires

Dreams transport desires

Drive you when you’re down

Dreams transport the ones

Who need to get out of town

“Middletown Dreams” (Power Windows, 1985)

It’s hard to summarize someone’s life, let alone their work. As I’ve considered Peart’s work and what I know about his own life, though, if forced to characterize his artistic output with one word, I would say: hope.

It’s important to note that hope does not always look like contentment or even optimism. Hope is something deeper. Hope is that deeply human drive that keeps one moving forward. The mid-’90s looked like the end of Rush, on hiatus, after Peart lost his wife and daughter in separate, tragic circumstances. Somehow, on a lonely road yet supported by friends, Neil emerged in his own triumph of everyday glory. This is what his life and work have meant to me and so many others.

Pack up all those phantoms

Shoulder that invisible load…

Shadows on the road behind

Shadows on the road ahead

Nothing can stop you now

“Ghost Rider” (Vapor Trails, 2002)

One reply on “Everyday Person: Neil Peart and His Work”

I appreciate learning what Neil Peart meant to you. Dave and I have listened to some songs, trying to see what you see. Although we haven’t developed an appreciation for the music, yet, to quote Neil Peart, my heart goes out to you. ❤️ I do appreciate his poetic lyrics, like “Different eyes see different things… Different hearts beat on different strings” That’s true. Thanks for sharing your heart with us.


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