Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

Neil Peart

Neil Peart

Rush is the kind of band an unhappy boy who refuses to conform to the world around him needs to discover. So the universe arranged itself to bring them to my ears. I was fifteen, maybe sixteen at the time. Just moved away from my friends, nervous in a new town, mostly alone (which I learned to enjoy). I made a couple of friends, and they introduced me to their friend, Bob. Bob and I are now the best of buds, our strange minds vibrating at the same frequency. But back then, when we first met at the house of mutual acquaintances, we didn't know what to say to each other, and I spoke very little to begin with.

So Bob said, "What kind of music do you like?" At the time I really didn't know. I didn't listen to much music, preferring the silence of books, but I had recently found Living Colour on the radio, and they were my favorite band. But what kind of music was that? What made them my favorite? I said to Bob, "I like music with good lyrics."

"Then I have just the band for you." He gave me Rush. I immediately made them my own.

While other bands at the time wrote teenage anthems, they were about fighting, getting laid, driving cars or motorcycles, maybe sneaking a drag off a cigarette in the boys room or a swig from a bottle of Jack. But to a Romantic like myself, and I deliberately thought of myself as a Romantic with a capital R, these things were really anesthetics for the soul. I wanted to change the world. And Rush, or specifically Neil Peart, told me I could.

In a song appropriately titled "Anthem," Neil says, "Live for yourself. There's no one else more worth living for." A simple phrase, yes, but exactly what I was hungry to hear. But the song goes deeper with the very next line: "Clapping hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more." Neil knows the secret of youth. We want others to praise us for living as if we don't need their approval. This idea of self-negating actions continue throughout Neil's lyrics. In "Subdivisions," we have a celebration of the "dreamer... the misfit so alone." He stands against the mass produced, preplanned world of suburbia. But he's friendless, cast out. And those that draw together in fear of loneliness, dream of a solitude where they can relax their endless attempts to attract popularity. The very next song on the album, "The Analog Kid," depicts a boy drawn equally to the busy streets of the city and to the autumn woods of the countryside. "When I leave I don't know/What I'm hoping to find/And when I leave I don't know/What I'm leaving behind..." I painted those words on the wall of my room one time. Then I was forced to move.

One of the finest compliments you can pay a writer is to say his work makes you want to write, too. Neil made me want to write songs. As I began to collect Rush albums, and there were plenty even then, I wrote responses to nearly every one. Listening constantly to 2112, I tried to write a song cycle about the future. Hemispheres had me writing about a boy who slowly awakens to the fact that he's a god. When Neil wrote about kings and warfare, I wrote about kings and warfare. And I raged against conformity, just as he did.

Not that Neil ever really raged. He's always been a cerebral writer rather than an emotional one. 2112 was a calculated attempt to portray an abstract Everyman against a socialist mentality. His later songs aren't quite so symbolistic, but they do deal with racism, equality between the sexes, unity of religions. He often scavenges other works of art such as Walt Whitman or T.S. Elliot poems, images from myths like Sisyphus, or the Jungian idea of the anima. You do this sort of thing to make a point, not to express emotion. One of the main reasons I've written so few love songs is that I spent a good portion of my youth training under Neil Peart's tutelage. His assignments rarely called for the display of so simple a thing as love. Even when he did write about love, he equated it with chemistry, electricity, or the overly idealized music of the spheres.

His tendency for abstraction is often his undoing. Bob and I both agree that Snakes and Arrows is a lyrically mediocre album. But when he deals in tangibles, he's one of the best song writers around. "Red Barchetta" from Moving Pictures is about a future in which cars are illegal. Again with the high concept, but the narrator's unlawful drive in the car his uncle has secretly preserved is full of concrete images: the scent of leather seats and country air, wind through the driver's hair, the sound of his laughter as the authorities give chase. The appearance of the pursuing vehicle is one of my favorite lyrics: "Suddenly, ahead of me, across the mountainside/a gleaming alloy air car shoots towards me two lanes wide." The alliteration, the way the way the sounds glide into each other and suggest the easy speed of the car strike a chord in me more than any elevated idea about bucking the system ever could.

I recently listened to every Rush studio album in chronological order. When Neil joined the group on their second album, the intelligence of the lyrics rose immediately. He infused philosophy and literature into their songs, whereas before they were mostly about sex and road life. Going through each album, I saw a writer experiment with fantasy, allegory, science fiction. Then he dropped those conceits completely. He wrote several songs that were the length of one entire album side. Then he stopped to concentrate on shorter songs. He wrote around themes--fear, randomness, counterparts--to challenge himself. I heard a writer constantly pushing himself to try new approaches to his art. Sometimes he failed. Other times he topped himself and every other song writer in his field. A boy still not happy with the world he's in couldn't ask for a better teacher.

Neil Peart Official Website
Rush Official Website

I Wish I Had That Drive


foolscap Home       Podcast       Essays       Poems       Songs       Videos       Stories       Images foolscap

Vestigial
now available for purchase or download
.
Vestigial by Michael Channing