From Syrinx to Rio, A Writer Remembered
(Graphic: Brian Covert / Photos: MusicJournal.com, DrumLessons.com)
The first time I heard Rush on the radio was the very moment when I began to take notice of rock musician Neil Peart as a writer in his own right. I even remember when and where it all started: It was sometime in early 1980; I had just turned 21. On a warm afternoon, in my car with the windows rolled down and the radio blasting, I was on my way to the beach and stopped at a traffic light at a major intersection in town when the “The Spirit of Radio” from the new Rush album Permanent Waves came over the airwaves of a local FM rock radio station. Peart’s drumming especially knocked me out, and I soon got the LP record and found an even greater musical feast to be had: the song lyrics that Peart wrote for almost the whole album.
As an aspiring but totally unaccomplished writer myself at that point, I was impressed even then by the high quality of Peart’s lyrical wordplay, and how his drumming and the words to his songs seemed to fit together like a hand in glove. There was poetry in his drumming and a rhythm to the words, a near-perfect marriage of the physical and the cerebral. And songs with words like “honesty” and “integrity” in them? What the heck was this? It was unlike anything else I had heard up to that point in my narrow worldview of popular music, that’s what it was. In retrospect, I see that as the moment I jumped on the Rush bandwagon generally and became a fan of Peart as a writer in particular.
Peart’s words to the song “Freewill” from that same album, in particular, have stayed with me all these years as being quite possibly some of the best ever written in that genre of music:
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 freewill
The same went for other songs on the album, like “Jacob’s Ladder” and especially the closing number on the album, “Natural Science” — an aural and lyrical masterpiece that basically tells the story of the evolution of humankind in just over nine minutes! Here was an evolving writer, Neil Peart, to keep an eye on.
And now that writer has died at age 67 from brain cancer, as Peart’s passing has been reported in the news media worldwide. Despite the fact Peart had announced his retirement from playing music a few short years ago, the news of his passing came as a shock. And judging from the outpouring of grief and tributes to Peart and Rush from musicians and fans alike around the globe, I know I’m not the only one who is affected this way.
For my most recent birthday just last week, I had asked for one simple gift: the Japanese DVD edition of Rush in Rio, featuring the band on tour in Brazil in 2002. It still stands out to me as the best live rock concert recording ever done — as much for the band’s greatness on stage as for the greatness of the 40,000 Brazilian Rush fans who filled the soccer stadium in Rio de Janeiro that night. No other rock concert video has ever topped this, in my book. And just two days after my birthday, on 7 January, Peart passed away. I was still in the midst of rewatching this video when I got news of Peart’s demise in the United States.
A Wordsmith Supreme
While most people are rightfully heaping praise on Peart the rock drummer after his passing, they are clearly overlooking his talent as a wordsmith of the highest order — a poet and craftsman of the written word as much as of his drumming power. And so, it seems perfectly fitting and natural, all these decades later, as one who was inspired early on, for me to fill in that gap and pay tribute to the most unlikely source of my earliest inspirations as a writer: the drummer and lyricist of a hard-rock band.
I found in Peart’s lyrics some of the best writing by anyone in popular music, certainly in the so-called rock/pop genre of music. And Peart being a voracious book reader and lover of literature himself, his style of songwriting interweaved so naturally with his drumming techniques. That’s what made Rush unique, and most people still overlook that aspect of the band today.
Just about any album in the Rush catalog is filled with solid lyric-writing by Peart, aside from his bad-ass drumming. Take your pick: Peart’s lyrics were strong from the get-go in 1975, when he joined Rush on the band’s second album Fly By Night, regaling listeners with a duel battle of good-versus-evil (guitar versus bass) on “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”. Or take the 11-minute-long tour de force, “Xanadu,” from the album A Farewell to Kings (1977), which Peart basically lifted from a classic poem by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge titled Kubla Khan, which was originally published way back in 1816. (“Xanadu” was recorded in a single take, by the way.)
Or take the story of “Hemispheres” from the album of the same name, where Peart frames the battle of right-brain versus left-brain in the context of Greek mythology. Then there’s the rapid-fire mini-novel “The Camera Eye” from the LP Moving Pictures (1981), another 11-minute-long piece that Peart wrote based on the trilogy U.S.A., published by American writer John Dos Passos back in the 1930s. On Signals (1982), Peart came up with what I consider to be one of his finest set of lyrics in the song “Losing It,” which talks about possessing an artistic gift and then losing that gift later in your life, à la Ernest Hemingway: “For you, the blind who once could see / The bell tolls for thee.”
I could go on and on. Every Rush record was like that, with Peart’s dual lyrical and drumming skills serving as a one-two-punch that seemed to knock out any other competition in the rock field. Other bands did try; few succeeded at it in the way Rush did. But then again, only Rush had the best writer and drummer in the rock music world.
Speaking of which, I have a theory about all this: that it was actually Peart’s strong lyric-writing skills that gave the biggest boost to the band from the moment Peart joined it, and that to keep up with his strong writing skills, the other two musicians of Rush, bassist/vocalist/keyboardist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, had to elevate their musical chops to another level, which they did. This, in turn, led Neil Peart to elevate his own drumming, and a cohesive, unifying power for the band as a whole was thus forged. In other words, more than anything else, it was all about the skills of Peart as a writer that formed the foundation of Rush as a rock band and distinguished them from everybody else out there in the field of music.
That was certainly true of Rush’s 1977 semi-concept album, 2112, a futuristic tale of Big Brother and the killing of creativity. The libretto of the story, found in the album’s liner notes, reveal what a master storyteller Peart was at the time. From the opening of “The Temples of Syrinx” to the final cacophonic, guitar-drenched refrains in Peart’s own voice — “Attention all planets of the Solar Federation: We have assumed control” — Rush, with 2112, had made their musical declaration of independence from the modern-day corporate powers-that-be and recruited a new wave of young minds in the process. And again, it all came down to Peart’s lyrics as laying the groundwork for the album.
Looking back on it all now, a clear thread is visible through most of Peart’s songwriting, and that thread is the element of time. Rush’s songs are replete with references to time in some sense or another. The band’s final studio masterpiece album, Clockwork Angels from 2012, in fact, is a whole fictional story centered around time itself. It’s almost as if Peart, in writing about time again and again, consciously or unconsciously, and living several lifetimes within one, was facing his own immortality. His own time was eventually up in this life at age 67 — not a young age, but not that old either. As both a writer and as the designated time-keeper of the band, Peart always seemed to have an innate feel and respect for time, and the limitations of time as well.
As evidence of how influential Peart was to me early on as a fellow wordsmith: I rarely used song lyrics from songwriters in any of my newspaper stories over the years; I just thought it would be too amateurish to be quoting song lyrics in your own news-related articles. But in one case, I gladly made an exception. This was in an opinion column I wrote back in 1986 as editor-in-chief of a weekly newspaper, following the tragic space shuttle Challenger accident. Peart’s lyrics to the Rush song “Countdown” fit exactly what I wanted to say in my article, so I quoted his lyrics to that song in my column. That’s the only time I have ever quoted song lyrics at such length in one of my newspaper stories. His lyrics were that good.
Rush fans will have their own favorite period of the band’s development from the mid-1970s up until Rush’s final tour in 2015. For some fans, it will be Rush’s guitar-crunching years of the 1970s they most love, for other perhaps the more keyboard-influenced, progressive rock video years of the 1980s. For me personally, it was the late 1980s/early 1990s period of Rush that I always look back on most fondly. This was when Peart, especially, was inspired by the rhythms of Africa and other places that he encountered in his worldly travels. Take, for instance, Rush’s Power Windows album (1986) or Presto (1989) or Roll the Bones (1991) — the latter being released around the time of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s “Planet Drum” musical endeavors. The growing influence of so-called world music is evident during this period in Peart’s lyrics and drumming and in Rush’s overall groove and musicianship. Those were clearly inspiring times for the band, and it rubbed off on many of us too.
Peart always considered himself a drummer first and a lyricist second, but each side of his craft as a musician undoubtedly informed the other. Peart often noted that he had the advantage, as a lyric writer, of knowing how to shape and color the drumming around the words. Peart was a true poet-percussionist wielding a pair of drumsticks.
Rush fanatics — “Rushians,” as they’re unofficially known — over the years have elevated Peart’s status as a musician to the celestial status of “Best Drummer on the Planet,” “Most Awesome Drummer in History” and the like. That never fails to get my blood boiling: Oh, and other master drummer/percussionists like Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Billy Cobham, Tony Williams, Mongo Santamaría and Tito Puente don’t count? Peart may have been the greatest drummer in the pop-rock genre, but there were certainly more technically proficient drummers and percussionists in other areas of music, such as jazz and so-called world music. And I say that with the utmost respect as a fan of Peart’s work. But the truth is the truth, and we as music followers need to be careful about using superlatives like “The Best,” “The Greatest,” “The Hugest” and so on when talking about our musical heroes.
One thing that has probably united many followers of the cult of Rush — if “cult” is the right word — is that in the age of excess, the three members of the band never fell for the trappings of superstardom and resisted compromising their work. Drummer Peart, especially, was very wary of being treated as some sort of celebrity on a pedestal and insisted on his privacy. He gave interviews sparingly, and usually only to trade magazines that were geared to professional musicians. When asked in an interview with Modern Drummer magazine back in 1984, for example, what he thought his purpose in life was, he had this to say:
“You can ask those questions, but what’s the point? The point is I’m here and making the best use of it. Why am I spending my life in this particular manner? Most times that tends to be a combination of circumstances and drive. The fact that I wanted to be a successful drummer was by no means a guarantee that I was going to be. But circumstances happened to rule that I turned out to be one.”
Check out this excellent interview with Peart in 1986, focusing on the writing side of his work rather than on the drumming side of it. And to see just what a mastery Peart had with the written word, check out this autobiographical sketch he wrote up back in the 1994 for his hometown newspaper in Canada, which include these memorable lines on role models in our lives:
“[M]aybe the role models that we really need are to be found all around us, right in our own neighborhoods. Not some remote model of perfection which exists only as a fantasy, but everyday people who actually show us, by example, a way to behave that we can see is good, and sometimes even people who can show us what it is to be excellent.”
What it is to be excellent. That is exactly what I have always gotten as a writer from Rush generally, and from Neil Peart individually as the blazing literary fire that had maintained Rush’s longevity in a notoriously fickle music business. And that is what I still get as a writer these many years later.
This month, January 2020, marks exactly 40 years since that time I really heard Rush for the first time on the radio, sharing the on-air sentiments of the DJ, the late Bob Coburn, then of rock radio station KMET-FM 94.7, of Peart’s incredible, “lightning-fast” drumming on the newest Rush album at the time, Permanent Waves. And I am amazed at how time has flown since then.
It’s only fitting, then, that I end at the same place where I started a long time ago: posting the lyrics to a superbly crafted Peart composition, “Circumstances”, from the classic Hemispheres album by Rush. I remember way back in the day, before I went out into the world on my own, scribbling these lyrics on a sheet of notebook paper and taping it to a place on my bedroom wall, just above my stereo, where I could always read them and be constantly reminded of what brilliant writing looked like. Today, nearly four decades later, I share those same lyrics with you here on this high-tech thing called my “blogsite,” just as they appeared on the original Hemispheres album. The more things change, indeed….
A boy alone, so far from home
Endless rooftops from my window
I felt the gloom of empty rooms
On rainy afternoons
Sometimes in confusion
I felt so lost and disillusioned
Innocence gave me confidence
To go up against reality
All the same
We take our chances
Laughed at by Time
Tricked by circumstances
Plus ça change
Plus c’est la même chose
The more that things change
The more they stay the same
Now I’ve gained some understanding
Of the only world that we see
Things that I once dreamed of
Have become reality
These walls that still surround me
Still contain the same old me
Just one more who’s searching for
The world that ought to be...