Neil Peart: Lyricist of Democratic Greatness

Neil Peart, the late drummer for the Canadian rock band Rush, is justly hailed as one of the greatest drummers of all time. In the past forty years, no other drummer has been as influential in rock music. Peart effectively became the face of drumming in popular culture, being singled out in TV shows like Freaks and Geeks, Family Guy, Archer, and others independent of his band or other musicians.

Yet Peart was not only a world-class drummer, but also a profound and insightful writer. Nicknamed “the Professor” by his bandmates for his voracious reading habits and expansive vocabulary, Peart authored numerous books and essays while simultaneously serving as Rush’s primary lyricist. In those disparate works, Peart explored a wide variety of subjects. But one prominent theme emerges in his lyrics over the course of his four decades with Rush: the pursuit of human greatness.

That greatness was a frequent subject for Peart is no surprise given his own personal drive for excellence. In a documentary cataloging Rush’s final tour, Peart remarked that one of his central tenets in life was to ask himself daily, “What is the most excellent thing I can do today?” And he acted accordingly. Musically, he took the craft of drumming seriously, constructing percussive compositions that pushed rock drumming to new heights in the 1970s and 1980s. Not content to rest on his laurels, Peart famously reinvented his style in the mid-1990s under the tutelage of jazz legend Freddie Gruber in an effort to improve and expand his sense of time. He repeated this exercise in the late 2000s, this time with jazz great Peter Erskine, to enhance his improvisation skills and explore new rhythmic horizons.

But beyond his personal example, it is in his lyrics that we see Peart develop his views on what greatness is and the trials that often come with it. It is likely not a coincidence that Peart’s meditations on greatness were expressed parallel to the ebbs and flow of his musical career.

The Freedom to be Great

Early on, Peart was noted for being influenced by the philosopher Ayn Rand, even crediting Rand’s “genius” in the liner notes for Rush’s breakthrough album 2112 (1976). Yet his lyrics do not reflect a commitment to Rand’s Objectivism so much as a general devotion to individualism over and against collectivism. The protagonists of songs such as the epic 20-minute long “2112”—whose storyline was based on Rand’s novella Anthem—and “Red Barchetta” are driven by a desire for free expression more than anything else. It is that desire that brings the protagonists into conflict with the powers that be in their respective dystopian societies. Even the eponymous hero of Rush’s most famous song, “Tom Sawyer,” is noted primarily for his individuality, as “His mind is not for rent/By any god or government.” For Peart, the individual was paramount.

The focus on individuality and preserving the freedom for individuals to strive and reach their highest potential led Peart to address not only the oppression and horror of dystopias both real and imagined—such as in the song “Red Sector A” which drew in part on survivors’ accounts of Holocaust concentration camps—but also the stultifying conformity of everyday life and, more deeply, the tensions between liberty and equality. This deeper concern is particularly evident in the song “The Trees” which, while a colorful tale about oak and maple trees fighting over sunlight, ends with the foreboding lines that after “they passed a noble law/Now the trees are all kept equal/By hatchet, axe, and saw.”

In recognizing the potential conflict between liberty and equality, Peart reflects on the observations made by Alexis de Tocqueville on the limits democratic societies place on individuals’ capacity to achieve greatness. According to Tocqueville, in democratic societies “one encounters less brilliance” and “fewer great actions.” Tocqueville also contends that equality has the tendency to “willingly induce [the mind of each man] to give up thinking,” as individuals instead defer to widely held public opinion. Any step away from the views of the majority, even if in the pursuit of excellence, may result in ostracism and expulsion from society. The Tocquevillian fear of majority tyranny is succinctly captured by Peart in the chorus of the song “Subdivisions” which warns the listener to “conform or be cast out.”

It is in considering how one emerges out of such constraining circumstances that Peart initially turned to consider the need for greatness in his lyrics. Notably, this turn aligned with Rush’s rise to fame in the mid to late 1970s. On the title track of the album A Farewell to Kings (1977), Peart bemoans the loss of the “minds that made us strong” and the fact that “We turned our gaze/From the castles in the distance/Eyes cast down/On the path of least resistance.” In “Closer to the Heart,” Peart appeals to different elements of society to each act in their own way to “mold a new reality,” “forge their creativity,” and “sow a new mentality.” Taken together, Peart emphasizes the need to break away from modern society’s oppressive conformity. The former laments the lack of great achievements while the latter suggests that by changing how we think and act we may once again accomplish great deeds.

But as Peart became recognized as a great musician himself—even being the youngest person ever inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1983 at the age of 30—he also began to address the struggles that come from fame and greatness. While fame and greatness are often confused with one another, Peart, who was known to be shy and uncomfortable with fans, saw them as distinct. In the documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage—whose name is derived from Peart’s lyrics in the song “Limelight”—Peart explained, “I love being appreciated, being respected is awfully good, but anything beyond that just creeps me out […] any sense of adulation is just so wrong.” Notably, it was in “Limelight” that Peart most clearly articulated this discomfort, describing fame as a “gilded cage” and characterizing himself as

Cast in this unlikely role
Ill-equipped to act
With insufficient tact
One must put up barriers to keep oneself intact

Most telling, Peart goes on to admit, “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend.” Ironically, the album that “Limelight” appeared on, 1981’s Moving Pictures, launched Rush and Peart to the peak of their popularity.

It is also at this point that Peart first reflected on the difficulty of sustaining greatness. The song “Marathon” considers what is required to consistently maintain a high level of excellence, that

More than just blind ambition
More than just simple greed
More than just a finish line
Must feed this burning need

Without something deeper enabling one to endure the obstacles that inevitably present themselves on the road to greatness, glory will simply “roll on by.” Peart exhorts his listener to build endurance and discover what “fires the light/That gets in your eyes” to ensure that they do not simply become “Like a streak of lightning/That flashes and fades/In the summer sky.”

Conversely, the song “Losing It” confronts the reality that impediments to greatness are not just internal matters of will, but external and, to some degree, unavoidable. In “Losing It,” Peart presents two portraits, a dancer and a writer, who find themselves, either because of physical aging or mental deterioration, unable to meet the high standards they set for themselves in their youth. Given Peart’s own position as a writer who also plays a physically demanding instrument for a band whose music is famously complex—he once described playing a three-hour Rush show as akin to “running a marathon while solving equations”—it is easy to see these scenes as expressing Peart’s personal fears of failing to demonstrate his own excellence. Indeed, Peart suggests that such a fate, living your dream only to “watch it die” may be worse “Than never to have known it.”

Ironically for a rock star, Peart highlights that greatness need not be limited to those actions which attract fame and glory but can found in any walk of life.

Ordinary Greatness

Perhaps because of this view from the top and the stresses that come with it, Peart’s lyrics shifted to note the appeal of normalcy. This tension is particularly evident in the song “Mission” from 1987’s Hold Your Fire which begins with Peart observing the work of great artists, writers, musicians, scientists, and filmmakers and remarking that

When I feel the powerful visions
Their fire has made alive
I wish I had that instinct
I wish I had that drive

This wish, however, gives way to recognizing what such great works require, and realizing that their creators are “In the grip of/A nameless possession/A slave to the drive of obsession.” Moreover, Peart comments on the pain that comes from such a drive for excellence, and how those who do not produce great works may not understand or take comfort “To know how they struggled/How they suffered about it.” From this recognition Peart then praises normal life, acknowledging—or admitting—that

If their lives were
Exotic and strange
They would likely have
Gladly exchanged them
For something a little more plain
Maybe something a little more sane

Yet, in the end, Peart turns back to embrace greatness, concluding that

We each pay a fabulous price
For our visions of paradise
But a spirit with a vision
Is a dream with a mission

In essence, the attractions of normal life cannot overcome the ambition of those spirited individuals who pursue human excellence and who may see the sacrifices as worth it and justified by the end result. Peart even seems to suggest that these kinds of individuals could not do otherwise. “Mission,” therefore, illustrates Peart grappling with these competing impulses: the willingness to endure tremendous costs to achieve one’s full potential and demonstrate brilliance and the allure of a normal life free of the suffering that greatness requires.

This tension is present in Peart’s other lyrics as well. For example, the song “Middletown Dreams” provides vignettes of people whose “dreams flow across the heartland” and “who need to get out of town,” but admits that even while “It’s understood/By every single person/Who’d be elsewhere if they could,” that “life’s not unpleasant/In their little neighborhood.” The dreams of greatness linger, even while the appeal of regular life beckons.

As Peart moved into the middle of his career, he began to resolve these tensions lyrically by turning to consider opportunities for greatness in ordinary life. Two songs from 1993’s Counterparts reflect this change. In “Everyday Glory,” Peart’s chorus repeats the refrain that the persistence of “everyday people” demonstrates how anyone can “Rise from the ashes and blaze/Of everyday glory.” Similarly, the song “Nobody’s Hero” denigrates those who modern society holds up as models, such as “the handsome actor/Who plays a hero’s role,” “the glamour girl/Who’d love to sell her soul/If anybody’s buying,” and “the champion player/Who plays the perfect game.” Instead, Peart insists we should raise up regular people doing extraordinary things, defining heroes as those who are “the voice of reason/Against the howling mob,” or the individual who “saves a drowning child/Cures a wasting disease/Hero lands the crippled airplane/Solves great mysteries.” Peart even declares “the pride of purpose/In the unrewarding job” as a heroic act.

It is only on Rush’s last studio album, 2012’s Clockwork Angels, that Peart seems to have resolved the question for himself. As a concept album with a single story—which has since been adapted into novels and comic books—Peart traces a young man’s life and demonstrates an arc to the pursuit of greatness. The album opens with the ambitious protagonist declaring that “In a world where I feel so small/I can’t stop thinking big.” It closes, however, in a reference to Voltaire’s Candide, concluding with the protagonist in a garden reflecting that

The treasure of a life
Is a measure of love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give

In the fullness of time
Is the only return that you expect

In this, the last song to Rush’s last album, Peart attempts to reconcile the contradictions concerning greatness in democratic society not by concluding that greatness is impossible or even necessarily limited, but that it must be understood differently. For Peart, anyone can become great in their own life and in their own sphere so long as they are committed to personal excellence, and he insists that this can be readily recognized and observed by the esteem others display for the great individual. Of course, in line with Peart’s early views, there must be freedom to allow for such individuals to pursue and demonstrate their distinctive brilliance in their chosen area, but the core possibility for greatness remains.

From a purely Tocquevillian standpoint, this is certainly a democratization of greatness illustrative of the leveling tendencies of equality. Yet it also resonates with how Tocqueville concluded Democracy in America, suggesting that democracies must allow for generalized greatness. Specifically, Tocqueville remarked that

One might say that sovereigns in our time seek only to make great things with men. I should want them to think a little more of making great men; to attach less value to the work and more to the worker, and to remember that a nation cannot long remain strong when each man is individually weak, and that neither social forms nor political schemes have yet been found that can make a people energetic by composing it of pusillanimous and soft citizens.

Peart’s lyrics serve as a reminder that even in a democratic society where greatness might be rare, it is not unachievable, and that it might be more evident if we adjust what we mean by greatness to fit the conditions of a democratic society and ordinary life. Ironically for a rock star, Peart highlights that greatness need not be limited to those actions which attract fame and glory but can be found in any walk of life. Yet he also points out that regardless of where we seek greatness, the road to it is the same: the consistent and persistent pursuit of excellence.