A Farewell to a King
I have known Neil Peart for over forty years. At least the work and words of this man. He was not a friend. I did not know him. He was simply a man, a musician, who performed on some of the most listened-to albums in my music collection. And somehow, through those albums, that music, he had more of an influence on me than most others who were far closer to me.
He was an amazing drummer. No disputing that. You can hear it. You can see it. For me good drummers are almost more a pleasure to watch. Good singers pull you into the song. Live, a singer’s presence, their gaze, their place on the stage – all effect the song you are listening to them perform. The song, the voice and the singer must be one for a song to work. Drummers though? No. It is different. I can just be mesmerized by what a drummer does. Forget the song, I can just watch them go behind their kit, ignoring all else beyond their drum kit.
Neal Peart had that. In the end though, this essay has nothing to do with that.
No, what got me was his lyrics. He opened up the world of ideas to me. Rush when I first heard them continued what I had started with Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy, and so forth. With Rush, however, there was these lyrics, these words and ideas.
When it came to my music, it was all about the guitar, the amazing loud guitar, guitars, and tones. Often distorted. Amplified. And sometimes quiet picking. I liked the contrasts. Still do. And all of it over a beat that just drove and propelled. Amidst this were vocals that challenged, Whether it be Steven Tyler, Philip Lynott, or Geddy Lee. they provoked. Some with such a range, some with just a certain voice. Sometimes howled or whispered, sometimes screamed. There was no crooning here. That was rock music for in 1978 and largely still is.
And Rush was very much part of that scene, but their lyrics were different. I was a sophomore in a high school English class realizing that their song “Xanadu” was a nod to Samuel Coleridge and his poem “Kubla Khan”. Likewise, I discovered that 2112 was a recreation of Ayn Rand’s book “Anthem”.
As much as I loved Zeppelin, I never did track down Tolkien’s Hobbit and all. That is despite not only Zeppelin, but one of the hottest local cover-acts, which I was a fan of, Gandalf. Rand’s “Anthem”, however, I did track down. I was always reading something, but before this, it was involving World War II and the mafia. I loved books about Patton, Rommel, and Lucky Luciano. I kid you not. Rush and Anthem changed all of that.
And from there I became obsessed with Ayn Rand. I read much of her work. Bought it hook line and sinker for a period.
And who is Ayn Rand? She is a novelist. She is known for Anthem, a short futuristic novelette. She is known also for the Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged. Both larger, more developed works, proper novels. Each of these involving this same theme of the individual in the process of building, creating, living their life, and challenging the culture and societies there were part of.
In each of her stories, the central protagonists, in the pursuit of his vision, whether it be in architecture, Journalism, or in the physical sciences, struggled against the systems, the collective, the society they were part of. Societies that did not recognize neither them nor their actions as valuable as meaningful. Her protagonist were often seen by these collectives, these societies, as threatening, or even dangerous. In short, her pieces explored individuals as creators, makers of value, who in these pursuits were unappreciated and seen as almost criminal.
She went on to build or create a philosophy centered upon this struggle. Her later writing was focused upon the development of this philosophy. It is largely based upon the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. She challenged modern philosophy, claiming that it had lost its way and that ultimately it was due to this, philosophy’s failure, that we had had arrived at where we were – the struggles she depicted in her literary work.
I ultimately abandoned her ideas, but regardless, it was her writing that inspired me to go and pursue and complete a degree, a BA in philosophy. I regret not pursuing philosophy further, but such is life. If I had not listened to and embraced the music, the lyrics, of Rush and Neil Peart, I would have known none of this. I have no idea where I would be today. None.
So there is a debt there. Something is owed to Neil Peart. To leave it there, however, would not be a full accounting. His lyrics are simply more than just references to an interesting and controversial author. It was not, however, till late 2019 that I fully realized this. I somehow arrived back at Rush. I did now and again listen to their stuff, but musically, I had moved on. They like all bands evolved, and likewise my musical taste changed. At some point I just no longer related as much to their sound.
Yet, I did return to them and realized that Peart was really doing something quite interesting, almost intellectual history. I somehow, while on my train into Grand Central, listening perhaps to Hemispheres arrived at this. The various Rush songs that had inspired me to do philosophy 40 years ago, were not outliers or one-offs. Neal Peart had, through his lyrics been exploring some of the same woods and forests, same briar patches, as myself and many others.
I can see it now, the fever of Rand gone, and likewise catching up to Peart regarding others he read and his thoughts on them. The Farewell to Kings alludes to the enlightenment era. It is the abandonment of faith, the divine. Not just the elimination of kings, but the embrace of reason. Historically, you can see it in the American and French Revolutions – two literal farewells to kings or queens.
On that same album we have Xanadu, a homage to Coleridge, a romantic poet who wrote and published the poem Kubla Khan in the early nineteenth century. Peart has transitioned from the Enlightenment to Romanticism – from reason to wisdom or better yet mysticism. Through an ancient text, he finds his way to this mystical place and acquires immortality – wisdom.
Go back to 2112, the album preceding Rush’s Farewell To Kings, Peart’s narrator talks of his discovery of a guitar that is then demolished by the elders of his community. It is very much like Rand’s protagonist in Anthem. In the song Xanadu, however, we have one who searches out the mystical and becomes immortal. Both songs involve lone individuals. Both involve discovery or to more specific, recovery, or re-discovery. In both, they discover what had been. A theme explored by many and starting with Plato?
Rush leave us on the Farewell to Kings album with Cygnus X-1 Book 1, bit of science fiction, which was another of Peart’s fascinations. That tale is picked up again in their next album, Hemispheres. It is side one on the album. Somehow, the dash of science fiction introduced in Farewell to Kings, however, now becomes an exploration of the Nietzschean theme of Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo, the son of Zeus in Greek mythology; the god of the sun, and of reason. And Dionysus – the god of wine, chaos, of emotions and instincts.
For me, the best view of the tension between Apollo and Dionysus is the year 1969, a decade before this album was released. Regardless that year, 1969, sums it up nicely. It was the year of the Apollo moon landing and Woodstock.
Peart through his lyrics and science fiction, like Nietzsche, and Rand too, explores the tension between these themes. For Peart, and Nietzsche, both gods are needed. Rand? She sees no value in Dionysus. For Peart, however, his story is again of recovery, it is again rediscovery, going back to Cygnus X-1 and reclaiming what or who was lost – balance between reason and emotion.
Perhaps, I go to far, but this is what I see, what I find in Peart’s lyrics. Themes found in Greek tragedy, and likewise pondered by nineteenth and twentieth century romantic thinkers.
Jump ahead to Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures, and Subdivisions – the next three Rush albums after Hemispheres. It is again similar themes, similar tensions. The title song on Permanent Waves explores the relation between art and commerce on the airwaves followed by a song titled Free Will. The song Subdivisions for me is an exploration of the struggle for self-knowledge in our schools and all they entail, amidst the sprawl of suburbia. In Subdivisions hePeart embraces a real-estate term. I, however, always took it also to be about the cliques and sub-cultures found in those high school hallways, and the alienation that results. It is the title of the album.
So again, Peart and Rush start with the Enlightenment in Farewell To Kings. They find their way to Romanticism in Hemispheres, and ultimately arrive at the late 20th century. Lyrics and songs exploring the self in relation to other, in relation to capitalism, in relation to schools and suburbia. Throughout, Peart is pondering how one makes art, how one expresses one’s self. Whether it be Nietzsche, or an exploration of art for markets, or the embrace of poets and authors, or even the embrace of Mark Twain’s favorite; they all explore the challenge of self-expression in a shared world.
I stop. It is late on the second night of exploring these themes, and it is a school night. This started as things I pondered while listening again to Rush’s music in recent months – my hour long train rides in and out of the city. And then there was last week. I do point to something here. However you catalogue Neil Peart’s lyrics; they did and do provoke.
So I still have his music, his lyrics, but the world will not be the same without this individual. He will be missed.