In memory of Rush’s Neil Peart: A man whose lyrics stood loud for freedom, liberty and the individual while he sat behind his drums

How would you politically categorize a lyricist for a rock band who had:

  • Ayn Rand as an influence.
  • U.S. Senator Rand Paul as a fan.
  • Two songs in National Review’s top 50 Conservative Rock Songs.
  • A conservative writer call him “one of the great thinkers of the modern world.”

A conservative?

Not exactly.

That’s what I liked so much about Neil Peart, the fascinating drummer and lyricist of the Canadian rock band Rush, who died Jan. 7 from brain cancer.

It’s hard to categorize him and I’ll willing to put down serious money he got a kick out of people who tried.

But if I was going to try, I’d say Neil Peart simply believed in freedom of the individual … vs. government, politics, group think, religion and, especially, the music business.

He referred to himself as a “bleeding-heart libertarian.”

When I found out he’d died, I cried.

I admired his writing and  how he lived his life … surviving intense personal tragedy along the way.

And then there’s this … in some surveys he’s ranked the greatest rock drummer of all time, ahead of John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and Keith Moon of The Who.

But let’s get back to the writing.

In the song “Tom Sawyer”:
“No, his mind is not for rent
To any god or government.”

In “Free Will”:
“You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear; I will choose free will.”

Peart grew up going to Sunday school but did not end up believing in God. He told an interviewer:
“A  lot of mysticism, whether it’s astrology or religion … have you believe that men are evil and must be controlled. And that’s the whole premise behind those things that there’s something better than man, because man isn’t so good and those things have to look after us because we can’t look after ourselves. And I believe that might be a nice delusion to hide behind, but when it comes down to it, you make the choices — even if you avoid making the choices by choosing one of these screens to hide behind, you have still made a choice that affects the outcome of your life.”

Now I don’t agree with Peart about God. There is something better than man and that is my Lord and Savior. But that was a choice of my free will. And I’m very thankful I have that freedom.

I also respect your freedom of speech, thought, opinion.

Running newspaper newsrooms for 33 years impressed on me it was more important for people to be able to share their opinion than their opinion had to agree with mine.

Freedom trumps you having to agree with me.

But I was curious how Peart … and Rush … kinda picked up this conservative reputation.

Exhibit A:

When the conservative National Review listed its top 50 Conservative Rock Songs 14 years ago … there were two by the Beatles (No. 2 “Taxman” and No. 7 “Revolution”), two by the Rolling Stones (No. 3 “Sympathy for the Devil” and No. 33 “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”), two by the Kinks (No. 10 “20th Century Man” and No. 44 “Two Sisters”) … and two from Rush.

The author wrote:
“Some rock songs really are conservative — and there are more of them than you might think.  …
“What makes a great conservative rock song? The lyrics must convey a conservative idea or sentiment, such as skepticism of government or support for traditional values. And, to be sure, it must be a great rock song. We’re biased in favor of songs that are already popular, but have tossed in a few little-known gems. In several cases, the musicians are outspoken liberals. Others are notorious libertines. For the purposes of this list, however, we don’t hold any of this against them. Finally, it would have been easy to include half a dozen songs by both the Kinks and Rush, but we’ve made an effort to cast a wide net. Who ever said diversity isn’t a conservative principle?”

Half a dozen songs from Rush? Interesting.

The two that ended up on the list were:

11. “The Trees,” by Rush.
Before there was Rush Limbaugh, there was Rush, a Canadian band whose lyrics are often libertarian. What happens in a forest when equal rights become equal outcomes? “The trees are all kept equal / By hatchet, axe, and saw.”
22. “Red Barchetta,” by Rush.

In a time of “the Motor Law,” presumably legislated by green extremists, the singer describes family reunion and the thrill of driving a fast car … an act that is his “weekly crime.”

Two FYIs:

  • Rand Paul liked quoting from “The Trees” but Rush sent him a cease-and-desist letter about that.
  • And guess which band’s song was No. 15? The Crickets “I Fought The Law,” written by Sonny Curtis the year after Buddy Holly died. The song has since been recorded by many others.

Exhibit B:

Some of this flows decades ago from liner notes on the Rush album “2112” … “With acknowledgement to the genius of Ayn Rand.”

“2112” was a progressive rock concept album … and not progressive in the political sense. Remember when some rock moved from single songs to epics … The Who’s “Tommy,” for example, a rock “opera.”

“2112” was also a gamble for Rush, who gave it to a record label that  wasn’t fond of it and ready to let the band go. But it became a hit and bought Rush artistic freedom for the rest of the band’s life.

Matt Kibbe on wrote:
(“2112″) … tells the story of a futuristic and tyrannical society where individual choice and initiative have been replaced by the top-down control of an autocratic regime. The theme was not unlike the state of the music industry at the time, a predetermined Top 40 collection of one-size-fits-all pop.”

Peart, in an interview well after “2112” was recorded said:
“For me, it was an affirmation that it’s right to totally believe in something and live for it and not compromise. It was as simple as that … Libertarianism as I understood it was very good and pure and we’re all going to be successful and generous to the less fortunate and it was, to me, not dark or cynical. But then I soon saw, of course, the way that it gets twisted by the flaws of humanity. And that’s when I evolve now into … a bleeding heart Libertarian. That’ll do.”

Exhibit C:

Bradley Birzer in The American Conservative wrote:
“The songs dealt with, in order, having integrity and being oneself; escape from an oppressive government; living with excellence; seeing mystery in the variations of life; fighting conformity and oppression; and embracing the spark of imagination. What more could any serious person want from art?
“Giving full credit to Peart himself, I wrote (a) semester-long paper using only the lyrics of “Grace Under Pressure” to analyze not only the essence of the human person but also the person’s place in the world. The paper earned an A, and I became convinced that Peart is one of the great thinkers of the modern world.”

Classical guitarist and composer Kevin McCormick said:
“But there, in Rush, I was moved by not only the power and complexity of the music, but by words that took music and life seriously. The vast majority of the music of the rock of late seventies was celebrating the bacchanalian excesses of the ‘rock star.’ Here was thinking-young man’s music: ‘But glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity.’ It wasn’t particularly poetic, but in the context of the music it was filled with meaning. Rush were a band with something interesting to say about reality. And the album it came from, ‘Permanent Waves,’ was filled with other reflections on the meaning of life and freedom and love — a tonic contrast to the incessant ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ drivel that saturated the airwaves.”

I became a fan of the band and Peart way late after seeing the 2010 documentary “Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.”

Peart’s bandmates … Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson … met as schoolmates in Toronto. Peart joined later in 1974.

They come across as nice guys who got along … compared to many other bands broken up by egos, alcohol and drugs.

Gene Simmons of KISS toured with Rush years ago and talked in the documentary about how most nights the members of Rush were in their hotel rooms reading or calling family back home while KISS was partying.

Then the documentary comes to the part where Peart lost his daughter in a car accident and his wife to cancer in less than a year in the late 1990s.

Peart told his bandmates he needed to go  and wasn’t sure when or even if he’d return. Peart rode his motorcycle all over North and Central America while healing … but eventually came back to the band.

Not everything on the far right is right and not everything on the far left is right. There are endless people in this country who cannot be put into either of those silos.

But in news media and social media, it seems like we either have to be all the way to the right or left.

I look at friends on Facebook who are assured President Trump should be impeached because he’s broken every law they can think of and a few yet to be written. Then there are friends on Facebook who are assured President Trump is getting railroaded by people who cannot accept he won the 2016 election and they’re covering up for the Clintons and Bidens.

Somewhere in between is the truth.

Somewhere in between is where most Americans live. As do I, even though I definitely lean right of center.

We practice freedom of thought and our minds are not always available for rent.

And Neil Peart could be our patron saint.

To read a piece Bradley Birzer wrote the day he heard Peart died, click here.

Some of the material for this column was taken from Rush’s ‘Permanent Waves’: The Story Behind Every Song |