On July 24, 2008, Rush finished its “Snakes and Arrows” tour with a concert in Indianapolis. I was researching that day at Notre Dame, and I could easily have made the 1.5-hour trip south to see them. For lots of reason (none of which I remember very well now), I decided not to go. With the announcement that same year that Rush might not be touring anytime soon, I feared I might have made a serious mistake. “I think we’re gonna stay quiet for awhile and then start writing—when we’re going to start writing I can’t say just yet,” Geddy Lee said. “It may be in the fall, maybe the spring, maybe the following spring. But eventually we’ll start writing some songs and recording them, and hopefully that will be followed up by another tour down the road a couple years from now” [Dutch Progressive Rock Page, The Headlines of Week 48 – 2008].
As it turned out, Rush did get back together and fairly quickly. My anxiety was for naught!
Not only did they release two singles (a rarity for the band), but they went on a massive tour called “Time Machine,” complete with hilarious videos, movies, and the full performance of their best known album, 1981’s “Moving Pictures.” In almost every way—playing, singing, performing, and acting (these guys are simply hilarious)—the three members of Rush are at the height of their playing and ability. The new material from “Snakes and Arrows” (2007) as well as from “Vapor Trails” (2002) is simply fabulous. Indeed, these last two cds are the best things Rush has produced—lyrically and musically—since “Grace Under Pressure” (1984). To my thinking, there’s not a bad song on either cd.
The current makeup of the band—Geddy Lee on vocals, bass guitar, and keyboards; Alex Lifeson on guitars; and Neil Peart on drums and lyrics—has existed since 1974, and each of the members approaches the age of sixty. Today, Rush’s twentieth studio album, “Clockwork Angels,” is being released. More on this in a bit.Though most regard 1981’s “Moving Pictures” as Rush’s masterpiece, I’ve always been most taken with “Grace Under Pressure.” I even had the gall in a liberal-arts core course my sophomore year of college (spring of 1988) to write a major paper on the lyrics of the album, trying to piece together a coherent philosophy. I’m sure to many The Imaginative Conservative readers, this just sounds nothing short of bizarre. But, “Grace Under Pressure” deals with concentration camps, ideologies, artificial intelligence, fear, death, and almost every complication imaginable in human life. From the opening note to the last, every part of the music and the lyrics radiate intensity. For a high-school student first encountering this in 1984, this was truly heady stuff. A title from Hemingway, a song based on a Ray Bradbury story, and references to T.S. Eliot’s poetry? It didn’t get much better for me. And, frankly, even at the age of 44, I’m still very moved by this album.
Peart’s words and ideas remain thought provoking. Of course, when have his lyrics or ideas not been thought-provoking? If you’ve ever heard any of his lyrics, you know exactly what I mean. Peart has been intriguing me since I first encountered Rush’s music, sitting with two friends in the Liberty Junior High library, in detention, in the spring of 1981.
Again, for a teenager growing up in small-town Kansas, the music of Rush meant everything to me. Being the youngest of three brothers, I had been introduced to what is now generally referred to as “progressive rock” since around 1971, when I was turning four. Though we had lots of classical and jazz in the house, we also, as far back as I can remember, had Yes, Genesis, Moody Blues, and Kansas albums. For whatever reason, though, my brothers had not gotten into early Rush. So, my first encounter came from my two friends in seventh grade—Brad Libby and Troy Schwartz. These were great guys, and though I’ve not stayed in touch with either, I still have fond memories of these guys. As we sat in the library (we were supposed to be silent), we talked, mostly about music. Troy and Brad were far more mature, frankly, than I was, and I’m sure they’d been exposed to much more worldly things than I had. “Brad, you’ve got to hear ‘Tom Sawyer’! It’s incredible.”
So, with money I had saved from mowing lawns, I purchased “Moving Pictures,” and I would be lying if I said this didn’t change my entire world. For a very, very lost and lonely young teenager, I can state with complete honesty (but, understandably, no details) that I would probably not be alive today had I not had the encounter with this band and especially with Peart’s lyrics that I had. Indeed, I think I can state this with a significant amount of certainty.
Frankly, I’d never encountered a mind like Peart’s. In my world, only Tolkien and Bradbury rivaled Peart’s intelligence and intellect. He had seemingly read everything (and, I still don’t doubt this), and his music touched upon all the major themes that meant something deep and profound for me. He knew mythology, he knew fantasy (Tolkien, Bradbury, and others) and dystopian literature, and he knew the great authors of the past several centuries. The world of his characters always seemed very real to me. And, perhaps, most importantly at the time—especially given severe family dysfunction and social pressures—Peart taught me, almost single-handedly, that living with integrity and individual personality has only this as its opposite: not living at all, spending life as a Hollow Man, or a Company Man, but certainly not as a man. I realize it’s nearly impossible for a person to know his path with any certainty, but as I look back at my teenage years, Tolkien taught me ethics and morality, Bradbury taught me community and unlimited possibilities of imagination, but Peart taught me individual self-worth and dignity.
A sample of his lyrics that gave me hope and strength:
Growing up it all seems so one-sided / Opinions all provided / The future pre-decided / Detached and subdivided / In the mass production zone / Nowhere is the dreamer / Or the misfit so alone —from Signals, 1982
He’s not afraid of your judgment / He knows of horrors worse than your Hell / He’s a little bit afraid of dying / But he’s a lot more afraid of your lying —from Signals 1982
Ragged lines of ragged grey Skeletons, they shuffle away / Shouting guards and smoking guns / Will cut down the unlucky ones / I clutch the wire fence / Until my fingers bleed / A wound that will not heal / A heart that cannot feel / Hoping that the horror will recede / Hoping that tomorrow / We’ll all be freed–from Grace Under Pressure 1984
I also know I’m not alone. The number of men (and some women) my age, or within a decade on either side, influenced by Rush is too numerous to count, frankly. It would be no exaggeration to claim that Neil Peart influenced, inspired, and shaped an entire generation of conservatives and libertarians. For what it’s worth, it’s only fair to note that Peart tends to identify conservatism with control and hypocrisy, and he would probably be far more comfortable with those who found some form of libertarianism, broadly understood, from his lyrics than with some form of conservatism. My friend, economist and social critic Steve Horwitz has argued quite convincingly that while Peart’s lyrics lend themselves toward libertarianism, they most readily identify with a form of individualism [see Horwitz’s excellent chapter in Rush and Philosophy (2011)]. I would take this only one step farther and claim that Peart’s individualism is the individualism of the Stoics of the pre-Christian world. He seems to present a nearly perfect form of classical Stoicism in the 1979 epic, “Natural Science.” Regardless of what cultural, economic, or political persuasion we many “Rushians” (I’m making this term up) might individually embrace, many in my generation are, in some very important sense, Peart’s younger brothers.
Not surprisingly, Peart is also a well-published author, and I have had the opportunity to read three of Peart’s five books—Ghost Rider, Traveling Music, and Roadshow. In each, Peart proved himself not only an excellent writer (imagine Willa Cather and Jack Kerouac as one person; a bizarre combination, I know, but accurate, I think), but he has also established himself as a serious and stoic social and cultural critic. Here are two sample passages from Ghost Rider, a travelogue of Peart riding around North America on his motorcycle, coming to terms with the untimely deaths of his daughter and wife:
The first day in Mexico was Selena’s birthday, and I had made careful plans on how to ‘memorialize’ that day. Early in the morning, I walked to the big cathedral in the Zocalo, went inside and bought two princess-sized votive candles (the biggest they had, of course) and lit them in front of the chapel for ‘Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe’ . . . . I sat there awhile, and cried some (well, a lot), amid the pious old ladies, tourists, and construction workers. [Peart, Ghost Rider, 310]
I once defined the basic nature of art as ‘the telling of stories,’ and never had I felt that to be more true. I played the anger, the frustration, the sorrow, and even the travelling parts of my story, the rhythms of the highway, the majesty of the scenery, the dynamic rising and falling of my moods, and the narrative suite that emerged was as cleansing and energizing as the sweat and exertion of telling it [Peart, Ghost Rider, pg. 355]
As someone who has lost a child, I can sympathize with almost every word of Peart’s thoughts on his journey. In fact, his journey dramatically shaped my own after the loss of our Cecilia Rose. I even sent Peart a letter and a book explaining all of this to him, and he kindly replied with a brief thank you. It’s a “thank you” I have framed and will always cherish. Thank YOU, Mr. Peart.
The Last Decade
Complex and dark, the music and lyrics of the last two Rush CDs readily capture the imagination. The instrumental on “Snakes and Arrows,” “The Main Monkey Business,” is probably the best instrumental Rush has recorded, and the music, as progressive as anything since “Permanent Waves” (1979) and “Moving Pictures” (1981), has varied time signatures and intricate instrumentation. Even my kids love Rush (not that they have much choice, given the prevalence of Rush cds and dvds playing in the house; and they can name the members of Rush, the CDs, the concerts), and they especially love “The Main Monkey Business,” which they often hum and talk about, even when the music isn’t playing.
But, overall, songs such as “Peaceable Kingdom,” “Earthshine,” “Freeze,” “Spindrift,” “The Way the Wind Blows,” and “Good News First” stand up as some of the best songs Rush has written in their nearly 35-year career. The three members of Rush are so professional, it’s simply a joy to watch them work on the live DVDs. The concert videos and dvd shorts in “Snakes and Arrows Live” and in “Time Machine” are hilarious as well, as Geddy (the bass player and singer) and Alex (the guitarist) have more than a little Monty Python in them. Absolute professionals, they know when to laugh at themselves—a sign of humility and intelligence, to be sure. Rush is, from what I can tell, exactly what they present themselves to be. There is no “show,” no deceptive presentation. “Perhaps the key to any great performance is just that quality: sincerity,” Peart wrote in Traveling Music.
Of course, many singers become phenomenally successful without that magic ingredient. A golden voice and good looks will often appeal, even when it’s obvious to a caring listener that when that singer delivers that song, he or she (read ‘diva’) doesn’t mean a word of it. You’d think that difference would be apparent to the listener, but I guess that is the clearest difference between art and entertainment. If people only want to be diverted and distracted, rather than moved or inspired, then fakery will do just as well as the real thing. To the indiscriminate, or uncaring, listener, it just doesn’t matter. Sometimes I have to face the reality that music can be part of people’s lives, like wallpaper, without being the white-hot center of their lives, as it always seemed to be for me. [Peart, Traveling Music, 26-27].
Today is an incredibly exciting day for Rush fanatics. As mentioned above, the band releases its twentieth studio album, “Clockwork Angels.” As fortune (and a bit of enthusiasm, luck, and pluck) would have it, I received my copy on Saturday as a part of a “fan pack” put together in England. I’ve been immersing myself in the “Steampunk” world of “Clockwork Angels” for the past 55 hours or so. In every way, I love it. The typical Rush/Neil Peart themes are all here: free will and predestination; the individual against society; the quest for excellence; the journey and its destination; the encounter with the odd and the normal. This time out, a bit atypically, there are a number of studio effects, walls of sound, and Middle-eastern and Russian sounding instruments. The always interesting time signature changes, astounding proficiency with rock instruments (guitar, bass, and drums), etc., every Rush fan expects is here as well.
Most interesting is the confidence this band has—in itself, in its three members, and in its presentation—on this twentieth studio album. This is not an old band simply trying to rake in the cash from its loyal followers and put out “yet another album.” This is something quite different, and, yet, it remains true to the very meaning of excellence that Rush has always proclaimed and always lived. It is a rock band progressing to their absolute best. Though Rush has often embraced huge themes and stories, sometimes over several albums, this is the first time the band has attempted a full concept. The story, nearly sixty-seven minutes long, follows the journey of a young man finding his own voice in a society ruled by indeterminate god-like fates (the Watchmaker and the Clockwork Angels), a rule-based conformity but peopled by a number of eccentric persons and subcultures.
Peart set the concept (and, do not be fooled by the innumerable reviewers claiming the “concept is only incidental”; it’s absolutely essential to the music; central to the very album’s existence) in a world that developed rather differently than ours. In the so-called “Steam punk” world of “Clockwork Angels,” a very Calvinistic set of gods attempt to control all through mechanized precision, while alchemy, rather than science, has progressed. The album is divided into twelve songs, each represented by an alchemic symbol positioned at each hour of a twelve-hour clock.
What is especially fascinating is that Rush—in music and lyrics—has with “Clockwork Angels” created an all-embracing mythos, referencing their own works and music going back to the band’s very first album. There are hints, some overt and some not, from albums across the past four decades, and the protagonist must—as with Aeneas and a number of other classical heroes—experience, survive, and outwit the gods. In “Clockwork Angels,” though, the hero realizes one very vital thing: the divine will always control time. The gods might not control our individual fates—despite what the priests and politician tells us—but, in the end, Chronos devours all. But, within that given time in the world, man can do many things, and he can even dream and pursue the highest of all things. Peart ends the album with a very republican sentiment. Though men may wrangle about philosophy, the hero realizes “we must tend our own garden.”
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 . . . . The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect The way you live, the gifts you give.
[N.B. While The Imaginative Conservative doesn’t normally review rock albums, The Imaginative Conservative isn’t quite normal. I’ve been a lover of progressive rock for as long as I can remember. I was born in 1967, and I first encountered progressive rock in 1971 or 1972—much played in my house. Winston, who is not a progressive rock fan outside of the folk prog of Al Stewart, has graciously allowed me to write on the subject here at The Imaginative Conservative. For introductions to progressive rock, if you’re interested in the genre but unfamiliar with it, I’ve tried my best to explain its significance to a Catholic audience at Ignatius Insight and to a conservative/libertarian/non-political and non-ideological audience at NRO.—Brad]
Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.