IN HIGH SCHOOL I GOT IN TROUBLE for writing Rush lyrics on my desk. I had assumed that anybody who read those scribbled words, including the teacher, would be impressed by the profound ideas and literary allusions they expressed: “All the world’s indeed a stage / We are merely players, performers and portrayers / Each another’s audience, outside the gilded cage.”
From the 1981 Rush song “Limelight,” the lines reference a passage from the William Shakespeare play As You Like It, and are just one example of drummer and lyricist Neil Peart’s thoughtful, literary writing. An insatiable reader, he infused his song lyrics with literary themes, images and references. Ayn Rand, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and David Foster Wallace are among the other authors whose work Peart referenced in Rush songs. Peart died of brain cancer on Jan. 7, 2020, at the age of 67. He was widely considered the greatest drummer in rock history.
On Fly by Night (1975), the second Rush album and Peart’s first with the band, he named a song after Rand’s 1937 novella Anthem. The track expressed what would become a recurring theme for Rush: the band’s work ethic and belief in personal responsibility. “Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more,” Rush vocalist and bass player Geddy Lee sang, introducing a conservative political attitude that seemed at odds with the band’s long hair and heavy rock sound. Such values in the lyrics likely escaped some of Rush’s young male fans who just wanted to rock out. But in general Rush fans have always paid attention to the words, which helps explain their devotion to the band. Conservative themes in Rush’s music would alienate rock-music critics for decades to come.
In 1976, Rush garnered new fans but fell further from critical favor with its fourth album, 2112. One side of the record was a concept piece about a nightmarish, totalitarian future in which high priests have taken over the galaxy and banished guitars, meritocracy, individualism and free thought. In writing 2112 Peart was influenced by the novella Anthem, about a dystopian society in which the concept of individuality has been eliminated. Peart dedicated the album “to the genius of Ayn Rand.” The record’s stance against socialism was obvious: “We’ve taken care of everything, the words you read, the songs you sing,” the priests of the Temples of Syrinx proclaimed. “We’ve made equality our stock in trade.”
With some of the heaviest rock yet recorded, Peart, Lee and Lifeson denounced a system in which hardworking people are punished and lazy people are rewarded. The theme of personal responsibility and working for our rewards continued on side B of 2112, as Lee sang: “You don’t get something for nothing” on the track “Something For Nothing.”
From its beginnings in the 1950s, rock ’n’ roll was supposed to rebel against traditional values, not embrace them. But the guys in Rush came from working class families, from parents—Lee’s were Holocaust survivors, Lifeson’s were Yugoslavian immigrants, Peart’s father ran a farm-equipment dealership—who had taught them the value of hard work and the differentiating effects of merit. Even as they played loud, fast music that their parents didn’t understand, Lee, Lifeson and Peart embodied the idea that we have to earn what we want in this world—and to never expect handouts. They also stood for freedom of expression.
Rush drummer Neil Peart, widely considered the best in rock history, also wrote the band's literary song lyrics.
Rush’s literary allusions were not limited to libertarian ideals, though. They also created fantasy realms and evoked cinematic images. For the song “Xanadu” on the band’s next album, A Farewell to Kings (1977), Peart borrowed from the 1816 Coleridge poem “Kubla Khan” to tell the story of a man who seeks and finds a mythical valley where he can live forever in immortality—only to become a prisoner there: “Nevermore shall I return, escape these caves of ice / For I have dined on honeydew, and drunk the milk of paradise.”
On the sixth Rush album, Hemispheres (1978), Peart would mock the idea of enforced equality as a government remedy for inequalities in nature. In the parable “The Trees,” the taller oaks “oppress” the shorter maples, who are “quite convinced they’re right.” In the end, “a noble law” decrees that the oaks will be chopped down to size by “hatchet, axe and saw.” Fifteen-year-old boys who cranked the song in ’78 might have been amused by the lyrics without realizing their deeper implications. We were mostly interested in the power and musical virtuosity of Lee, Lifeson and Peart as they rocked hard and created visual soundscapes on bass, keyboards, guitar, drums and percussion.
By the next Rush album, Permanent Waves (1980), the band had set aside its longer, more grandiose concept pieces in favor of shorter, more radio-friendly hits such as “The Spirit of Radio” and “Freewill.” But the literary and cultural allusions continued. On “The Spirit of Radio,” Lee sang “For the words of the profits were written on the studio wall,” a reference to the Simon & Garfunkel song “The Sound of Silence,” with its line “And the words of the prophets were written on the subway wall.” On “Freewill,” Peart again evinced libertarian ideals while referencing the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the question of whether we can determine our own destinies.
With some of the heaviest rock yet recorded,
Rush denounced a system in which hardworking people are punished and lazy people are rewarded.
My personal favorite Rush song—and one of my favorite songs of all time—appeared on the next Rush album, Moving Pictures, in 1981. “Red Barchetta” is a visually evocative tale of a future in which cars have been banned. The song’s hero is a young rebel who ventures to his uncle’s remote farm, where a red sports car—“from a better, vanished time”—has been secretly preserved in the barn. Defying the rules, the hero drives the car onto a country road and races through the winding turns, the wind in his hair, his adrenaline surging as a government “gleaming alloy air-car, two lanes wide” appears ahead of him and gives chase, soon joined by another. At a one-lane bridge he strands the totalitarians at the river, before returning to dream with his uncle by the fireside.
For “Red Barchetta,” Peart was inspired by Richard S. Foster’s short story “A Nice Morning Drive,” which had appeared in Road & Track magazine. It seemed like science fiction at the time, but the song has proved prescient, as the loudest voices on the American political Left now announce their intention to ban automobiles. Like the high priests of 2112, they seek to control every aspect of our lives—what we’re allowed to read and watch, the ideas we’re allowed to hear, the words we’re permitted to speak, the thoughts and beliefs we can hold in our hearts and minds, what we can eat, and even how we may move from place to place.
Moving Pictures sets its rebellious tone with the opening track “Tom Sawyer,” a literary homage to Mark Twain. Proclaiming his independence and individuality, the song’s young hero is “a modern day warrior,” whose “mind is not for rent to any god or government.”
Also on Moving Pictures, the song “Witch Hunt” presents a chilling tableau of “the righteous rise” of moralists, “confident their ways are best,” who seek to censor our books and arts. When the song was released in the early 1980s it could have described moral scolds on the religious Right or anti-rock crusaders such as Tipper Gore on the Left. Today, it still applies to the Left, which has appointed itself the nation’s moral arbiter and which must, in the song’s words, “rise and save us from ourselves.” At the same time, “Witch Hunt” also indicts today’s Right, which warns of immigrants and strangeness.
Lifeson and Lee break out the double-necks for "Xanadu."
On Rush’s next studio album, Signals (1982), Peart referenced Hemingway on “Losing It,” a song about an artist’s waning talent. The line “the bell tolls for thee” alluded to Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. On 1984’s Grace Under Pressure, Peart nodded to a Faulkner novel on the first song “Distant Early Warning,” with the line “Absalom, Absalom!” In the song “Between the Wheels,” the powerful closing track for Grace Under Pressure, he referenced the T.S. Eliot poem “The Waste Land” and Gertrude Stein’s “Lost Generation” epigraph at the beginning of Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises. The album title Grace Under Pressure referred to Hemingway’s definition of guts, or courage.
After Signals, Rush parted ways its longtime producer Terry Brown. The band would enter a protracted phase of stylistically aimless records that stretched through the late 1980s, the 1990s and into the new millennium. But there were always a few good songs on every Rush album. Even on Hold Your Fire (1987), arguably Rush’s worst album—a tinny sounding record dominated by keyboards and electronic drums, on which Lifeson’s powerhouse guitar was relegated to the background and many of the songs sounded like adult-contemporary, soft rock—“The Mission” was a thrill: Peart revisited the theme of an artist’s diminishing powers as Lee sang: “Hold your fire / Keep it burning bright.”
For the last song on Rush’s final studio album, “The Garden,” from 2012’s Clockwork Angels, Peart included one more literary reference. The Rush drummer and lyricist had endured unimaginable tragedy in 1997, when his 19-year-old daughter Selena, his only child, was killed in a car crash. Ten months later, Peart’s wife Jackie died of cancer.
Wondering whether life is “all for the best, or some bizarre test,” the song “The Garden” quotes author David Foster Wallace and his best-known novel with the line, “Time is still the infinite jest.” In their final musical statement before retiring, Rush left us with the idea that our lives are measured by love and respect, and that “hope is what remains to be seen.” And then the band rocked out.
Based on the love and respect that Neil Peart engendered throughout his career, his life was a fertile and well-tended garden, indeed. We will miss him.
Greg Beaubien’s first novel is the critically acclaimed psychological thriller Shadows the Sizes of Cities.