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Remembering Rush’s Neil Peart, The Relentless Idealist

on January 12, 2020, 1:14pm

The first thing to say about Neil Peart is that he always meant it. The drummer and lyricist of Rush, who died this week, spent his life battling to keep hold of a certain earnestness, in spite of the world.

This is never an easy task, but the obstacles were especially significant in Peart’s case. His band got famous. He read widely. His life was marked by tragedy — in the space of a single year in the late ’90s, his daughter died in a car crash, his wife of cancer.

(Read: 10 Moments That Captured Neil Peart’s Awesomeness)

Any of these things are liable to strip away romantic inclinations. Getting famous almost inevitably entails some amount of compromise and some unpleasant discoveries about other people, or about yourself. When Rush opened for bands like Aerosmith in the ’70s, the sound crews would sabotage their sound checks, jealous and not wanting to have them outshine the main act.

Equally, with culture often comes a tendency to analyze, to doubt. Tragedy, when it befalls especially idealistic people, tends either to make them cynical or break them completely. So it’s impressive how slow Peart always was to turn towards cynicism, and how even when he was disillusioned, he managed to be disillusioned in an idealistic way.

In one of his last interviews, Peart spoke of his “moral attitude to music,” something that wasn’t dislodged by a trip to London as a young man, where he tried and failed to make it as a drummer. “I was kind of stunned by the cynicism and the factory-like atmosphere of the music world over there,” Peart said. “And it shook me. I’m thinking, ‘Am I wrong? Am I stupid and naïve?’”

Typical for Peart was to decide that, no, he wasn’t. Or if he was, he preferred to keep being that way. This personal decision, when the choice presented itself, against cynicism and in favor of a higher naivete was one Peart was to repeat many times over the course of his life. It was also a fundamentally American gesture — American, that is, in the larger, continental sense, Peart being Canadian (though he gained American citizenship in his last years). Leave ennui to the Old World. North Americans aren’t supposed to stop believing in things.

This wasn’t something that changed much through the decades. Rush’s production during the ’80s marked a turn, away from sci-fi prog epics and towards shorter, synthesizer-driven songs with — it’s often said — more personal lyrics. On “Subdivisions”, Peart laments the isolation of his youth in suburban Ontario.

But Peart’s lyrics had been about himself the whole time. In the title track on 2112, composed during the height of Rush’s ’70s prog baroque, the protagonist lives in a society where all entertainment is prescribed by the ruling “priests of Syrinx.” Discovering a guitar by chance, he anticipates how the priests will “praise my name on this night.”

Of course, the priests don’t praise his name. “It’s nothing new,” they tell him. He can’t believe it: won’t they think of the joy his instrument will bring the people? No, they say, there’s no need to introduce novelties that might threaten social stability. Crushed, furious, he plots against the regime, but only in his daydreams.

Unlike Orwell’s 1984, on which the album is based, 2112’s protagonist wants to believe in the regime, wants even to help the rulers achieve the ideal of the perfect society. It’s only when they reject his offer that he becomes disillusioned. Cynicism does not come easy, and when it comes, it takes the form of idealistic fantasy.

The shadow of a young Peart is not hard to discern here. It’s the shadow of the eccentric and fanciful child, who grew up in the post-war tameness of a Canadian suburb and speaks in his own voice on “Subdivisions”. The science-fiction totalitarianism of the priests of Syrinx is hardly more repressive than suburban monotony, the social tyranny of high school. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

“Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone,” Peart writes on “Subdivisions”. But dreamers and mystics are supposed to be alone. They don’t become dreamers and mystics if they’re popular, well-adjusted members of the community. The suburban society from which Peart felt so disconnected was also the one that created him.

One question that often plagues people who choose not to let go of their dreams is, what to do when you come to suspect there are problems with what you believe in? A constant point of interest regarding Peart’s lyrics is their libertarian inclinations, detectable especially in the ’70s. As a young man, Peart was a devotee of Ayn Rand, a fact attested by songs like “Anthem” (named after the Rand book), “2112”, and “The Trees”.

This last song adds a sinister racial dimension to the common libertarian opposition to restrictions on individual excellence. In the parable, one species of trees is always growing taller than another species. When the shorter trees form a “union” to demand “equal rights,” the taller trees insist their pre-eminence is not oppression; why can’t the shorter trees just enjoy the shade? But the trees can’t reach an agreement, so they’re all chopped down.

By his final years, Peart repudiated the politicians who purported to advocate libertarian principles — Rand Paul et al. — and answered in the negative when asked if he still considered himself a Randian. Still, it was obvious his dream was still alive, only accommodated to long experience. He called himself a “bleeding-heart libertarian,” meaning he still believed, in an abstract way, in the vision of a world of unrestricted individual greatness, but he recognized that politics on earth required communal generosity — to think otherwise would be inhumane. “That’ll do,” he said.

This is a somewhat Christian idea for a non-Christian to hold. Peart was not a religious man. On “Freewill”, he offers a defense of the courage he saw was necessary to choose not to believe. Not even tragedy caused his atheism to waver. But he took the idea of belief seriously enough to demand the religious act in a manner consonant with their beliefs.

In truth, Peart’s atheism and his early libertarianism are not connected to a straightforward rejection of utopian state planning or of religion, like such beliefs are for many people, but rather to a kind of earlier and deeper, if less specific, faith in what utopia and religion suggest. Like his character in 2112, Peart rejected attempts to create an ideal society and to catechize him not because he thought they were inherently doomed to fail but because they didn’t live up to the ideas of beauty and truth he held in his own mind.

There’s an obvious indicator in Peart’s own life that he wasn’t allergic to order, discipline, and enforced routine. He had been heralded as one of the greatest rock drummers, recognized especially for his mathematical precision and complete control behind the kit. A recent tribute noted that while on Hemispheres he contrasts the Dionysian (instinctive) and Apollonian (reasoning) aspects of human nature — a borrowing from Nietzsche — behind the kit he was an utter perfectionist, one hundred percent Apollonian. He was never tempted to engage in fits of passion like Keith Moon.

In a way, that simply seems to be another indicator of Peart’s idealism. He was so dedicated to the idea of a perfect drum performance that he refused to leave it up to chance, insisted on refining it to a science. But it also points to how he balanced fantasy with mettle, idle dreams with sweat, focus, and even monotony. None of that destroyed the dream if the dream was the right one.

The ideal society, true religion, beauty, truth — all these were possibilities for Peart. It was just that they began not in what he saw around him, in newspapers, in history books, but rather in his dreams of forbidden joyrides in his uncle’s red Barchetta. Naïve, maybe, but he knew what he was saying, and he meant it.

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