Appreciating Neil Peart, Lyricist

(April Rose Schneider’s first Litkicks article was about nearly-forgotten 1960s novelist Richard Farina. Here, she analyzes the poetic sensibility of a not-forgotten but barely appreciated rock drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart of Rush. Enjoy! — Levi)

Rock and Roll lyrics are generally anything but artful. Flimsy as a piece of tissue in a tornado, the words to most pop or rock songs are best suited for head scratching. Remember “Louie, Louie”, first released in 1963?

Louie Louie
Oh no, me gotta go.
Louie Louie
Oh baby, me gotta go.

A fine little girl, she wait for me
Me catch the ship across the sea
I sailed the ship all alone,
I never think how I’ll make it home

Had the evolution of rock lyrics remained so banal and elementary we’d all be listening to the Carpenters today. “Why do birds suddenly appear / Everytime you get near?” I don’t know. Maybe your hair smells like peanut butter. Fortunately for us, time heals bad taste and turns it into pop culture. Iconic rock lyricists like Jim Morrison, Robert Hunter, David Byrne began to give this minor art form’s place in history — infused with more Americana than a tribute to Robert Frost (who couldn’t play a lick on a Strat).

Let’s talk about Neil Peart. Big-time woo-hoo rock and roll Wonder? King Bad Ass, world class percussionist? Lyricist extraordinaire? Neil Peart of Rush is all of this and much more. If you were bottle fed on the milk of progressive rock, like yours truly, you may already be among the Illuminati. On the other hand, if you:

A. Have spent your life in a small dark cave on the shores of the Mediterranean with seaweed jammed into your ears.

B. Love to listen to the sedately dulcet tones of John Tesh while your Angora snores melodically in the backround

C. Think Rush is something you feel after snorting an old quaalude you found under a couch where you remembered you stashed it twenty seven years ago.

… then you probably have NO idea what I am talking about. But that’s okay; I’m familiar with the glazed looks on some of your faces when I try to articulate an idea. I’m married. Allow me to break it all down for you.

Neil Peart, a Canadian export more valuable than Canadian bacon or TimBit’s, is by consensus a supreme progressive jazz/rock drummer. But he is also, unbeknownst to many rock and roll aficionados, one of the most successful wordsmiths in the history of the genre. Peart began writing lyrics while drumming for an Ontario band named Hush, but the others in the band were inexplicably unimpressed with his efforts. Dismayed by this lack of recognition, he passed the Rush audition for drummer in 1974, and by 1975 he had replaced singer Geddy Lee as main lyricist for the band. His first major lyrical contributions to the band’s second album Fly By Night propelled the band to instant commercial success.

The contents of Neil Peart’s subconscious — poured out in the form of rock verses that dominate numerous award winning albums over the past three and a half decades — reveal a man of great depth and creativity. The broad range of topical material employed by Peart explore a wide variety of political, social and mythological themes, many of which are evocative in their imagery. Ignoring his critics, who have accused him of being too romantic, too bombastic, too political, and often too cynical, Peart continues to paint deeply symbolic, thematic imagery with the panache of the noble bards of old.

Neil Peart’s most notable lyrical contributions to Fly by Night include a song called “Anthem”, a tribute to individualism, as well as “By-Tor and the Snowdog”:

The Tobes of Hades, lit by flickering torchlight
The netherworld is gathered in the glare
Prince By-Tor takes the cavern to the north light
The sign of Eth is rising in the air.
By-Tor, knight of darkness,
Centurion of evil, devil’s prince.

Across the River Styx, out of the lamplight
His nemesis is waiting at the gate
The Snow Dog, ermine glowing in the damp night
Coal-black eyes shimmering with hate.
By-Tor and the Snow Dog
Square for battle, let the fray begin

Success was brief. Critics panned the second album Caress of Steel as too sentimental for rock: Here is “Lakeside Park”, in which Peart describes the idyllic days of his youth:

Days of barefoot freedom
Racing with the waves
Nights of starlit secrets
Crackling driftwood flames
Drinking by the lighthouse
Smoking on the pier
Still we saw the magic
Fading every year

Everyone would gather
On the twenty fourth of May
Sitting in the sand
To watch the fireworks display
Dancing fires on the beach
Singing songs together
Though it’s just a memory
Some memories last forever

From “A Farewell to Kings:”

“To seek the sacred river Alph
To walk the caves of ice
To break my fast on honey dew
And drink the milk of Paradise…”

I had heard the whispered tales
Of immortality
The deepest mystery
From an ancient book. I took a clue
I scaled the frozen mountain tops
Of eastern lands unknown
Time and Man alone
Searching for the lost – Xanadu

And finally, from the album Hemispheres:

When our weary world was young
The struggle of the Ancients first began
The Gods of Love and Reason
Sought alone to rule the fate of Man
They battled through the ages
But still neither force would yield
The people were divided
Every soul a battlefield…

The songs worked together thematically as a post-apocalypse trilogy, and the band’s stage shows revolved around these stories. With these offerings, from a band whose discography includes more than thirty albums, we see Neil Peart’s potential gaining traction over the course of forty productive years (during which he also found the time to write a few books).

In closing, since I do believe deep in my rock and roll heart that few things in this world are funnier than misunderstood lyrics, here are a couple of my own misheard Neil Peart lyrics. First, from “Limelight”:

Living in the Fish Islands
[more accurately, “a fisheye lens”, but I like my version better]
Caught in the camera eye.
I have no heart to lie,
I can’t pretend a stranger
Is a long-awaited friend.

From “Red Barchetta” (a Barchetta is an Italian sports car):

My uncle has a country place
That no one knows about.
He says it used to be a farm,
before he mowed the lawn [actually “the Motor Law” — again, I like mine better]

Okay, so they are not gut busters. Nor are they as existentially daunting as the following uplifting lyrics, which I leave you to peruse/For some meaning you may use. From “Ceiling Unlimited”:

It’s not the heat
It’s the inhumanity
Plugged into the sweat of a summer street
Machine gun images pass
Like malice through the looking glass

The slackjaw gaze
Of true profanity
Feels more like surrender than defeat
If culture is the curse of the thinking class
If culture is the curse of the thinking class

The vacant laugh
Of true insanity
Dressed up in the mask of Tragedy
Programmed for the guts and glands
Of idle minds and idle hands

I rest my case
Or at least my vanity
Dressed up in the mask of Comedy
If laughter is a straw for a drowning man
If laughter is a straw for a drowning man

28 Responses

  1. I love the enthusiasm with
    I love the enthusiasm with which this post was written. Sincerely, I do. But it does nothing to make me reconsider my judgment of Neil Peart as one of the absolute worst lyricists in rock history. He somehow manages to be both trite and pretentious at the same time, and his lyrics are no less awkward on paper than they are when sung.

    Oh well, diff’rent strokes. Great drummer, though.

  2. Sentimental or not, I like
    Sentimental or not, I like the Lakeside Park lyrics (but I can’t remember how it sounds). I also like the words to New World Man, but I think all three members of Rush are credited with the lyrics to that one.

  3. On the day that you were born
    On the day that you were born the angels got together and decided to create a dream come true
    so they sprinkled moon dust in your hair and golden starlight in your eyes of blue


    I remember this (for the most part) since I was a little kid.

    Maybe cheesy, but classic.

  4. I’d like to add, April, that
    I’d like to add, April, that my sentiments are like Milton’s. I have no appreciation of Rush at all. Never had, but think this is a great topic.

    I’d even thought about something like this for sharing with LitKicks before — ie an appreciation of a lyricist’s lyrics. For example I’ve always liked the lyrics of a band called the Old 97’s and thought people on Lit Kicks would appreciate them too.

    So, whereas I don’t like Rush I like what you’ve done.

  5. Sorry for getting off-topic.
    Sorry for getting off-topic. It is interesting to know that Neil Peart wrote a lot the Rush’s lyrics because one might also call him a lyrical drummer, with his jazz-influenced style and all the additional perscussion instruments he uses for a more diverse sound than most rock drummers. I read that on one of Rush’s tours, Peart’s drum kit had a Steampunk-themed design, which is also kind of literary.

  6. I have about half of Rush’s
    I have about half of Rush’s recorded output; such discs bring me great pleasure. The thing that’s always baffled me about Rush is how they’re constantly being accused of being stereotypical Canadian left-wingers, yet so much of Neil Peart’s lyrics owe a debt to Ayn Rand! ‘2112’ and ‘Anthem’ immediately come to mind.

  7. I can’t help it — every time
    I can’t help it — every time I see that photo of Peart at the top of this page I think this.

  8. I’m not too crazy about Neil
    I’m not too crazy about Neil Peart’s lyrics… but I think his name is lyrical. Whatever that means!

  9. “Any escape might help to
    “Any escape might help to smooth – the unattractive truth,
    But the suburbs have no charms to soothe – the restless dreams of youth” – Subdivisions – 1982

    Now those are lyrics.

    It’s no “Ambulance Blues”, but in the world of hard-hitting power pop, Peart is pretty great w/ a verse.

  10. The entire band is truly
    The entire band is truly amazing. Neil has such a penchant for philosophy and fantasy and can balance the two elements perfectly, creating a magnificent masterpiece of music. Excellent article also.

  11. Nice article, but
    Nice article, but unfortunately not the best examples were provided.

    For those who still doubt Neils Peart’s ability to write beautiful lyrics, please listen to Losing It or Red Sector A, just to name my favorite two.

  12. They’re good examples, of
    They’re good examples, of course, But I’m with you- there are loads of others I would choose over these. Questions of style taste aside, I think Peart’s poetry was at it’s most prolific (as in, profoundly contemplative, lyrically creative, broadly and beautifully resonant) throughout the span of Signals –> Grace –> Power Windows –> Hold Your Fire. But then I’m sure there are others who would call that a box-set of existential hogwash. So yeah. To each……

  13. The dancer slows her frantic
    The dancer slows her frantic pace
    In pain and desperation
    Her aching limbs and downcast face
    Aglow with perspiration

    Stiff as wire, her lungs on fire
    With just the briefest pause
    The flooding through her memory
    The echoes of old applause

    She limps across the floor
    And closes her bedroom door…

    The writer stare with glassy eyes
    Defies the empty page
    His beard is white, his face is lined

    And streaked with tears of rage

    Thirty years ago, how the words would flow
    With passion and precision
    But now his mind is dark and dulled
    By sickness and indecision

    And he stares out the kitchen door
    Where the sun will rise no more…

    Some are born to move the world
    To live their fantasies
    But most of us just dream about
    The things we’d like to be
    Sadder still to watch it die
    Than never to have known it
    For you, the blind who once could see
    The bell tolls for thee…

  14. I remember reading a Neil
    I remember reading a Neil Peart quote where he wrote with the enthusiasm of a high school drop out- Loved that – and adds to the purity of his writing . Music lyrics and otherwise

  15. Quick to judge
    Quick to judge
    Quick to anger
    And slow to understand

    Ignorance and prejudice
    And fear walk hand in hand

  16. The measure of a life is a
    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 that you give
    In the fullness of time,
    It’s the only return that you expect  

  17. Brilliant article,I have
    Brilliant article,I have posted it to Facebook on several Rush appreciation pages.

    I’m a poet. It took me awhile to appreciate Rush and Peart’s writing style. Every fan has a favourite “period” of Rush. This particular author seems to appreciate the 70’s era. I for one navigate towards the 80’s era Rush. Though I love them all.

    Like mentioned above. His work on Moving Pictures, Signals, Grace Under Pressure, Power Windows, Hold Your Fire and Presto is exquisite. Heavy cold war theme and “Red Fear” tones begin on Grace Under Pressure. You can feel his heart on those albums. His sadness for some of the planet’s choices. The song Losing It on Signals explores what it’s like for artistically gifted people to grapple with their mortality through aging and the loss of the creative flow. Not many rock songs tackle these types of themes.

    Moving thru to the next period his writing takes a turn. It begins with Presto, even though it was released in ’89. He starts writing to or about individuals in relation to himself. Instead of writing about mythology, political beliefs, the world at large, or specific cultures or ways of thinking.

    The above mentioned period is what I call his romanticism period. Even though there were elements on previous albums. He writes about himself, and relationships. Not the normal lovers fare. Coming from a perspective of truly trying to understand himself, people, and the fairer sex. Trying to understand what it means, and breaking the stereotypes of what we’ve all been told to be. He also explores such themes as sexuality, suicide, gender relations, and mental illness. To name a few.

    The current period. Excluding Vapor Trails which was a therapeutic exercise spawned from a great loss. He made a conscious effort on Snakes and Arrows going forward not to write about himself. Or to not necessarily write about any specific situation between himself and one.

    Their latest album Clockwork Angels is a concept album that focuses on fictional characters. It’s been argued that it has gone full circle. In a way they have returned to roots. Their first few albums after Peart joined the band were done in a similar style. While using different thematic elements and a different mythology.

    It’s a brilliant piece to end on if the end is in sight. They have a brilliant legacy. I purposefully did not quote any lyrics. I figure most who read the article and the comments are already familiar. For those who are not…I hope that one of the fans here (author of article obviously included) has said enough to spark your interest. Or aids you in reconsidering your opinion of the band. The band has created a large body of work applicable and accessible to everyone. Seek and you will find….

  18. No lengthy reply here,
    No lengthy reply here.

    Just a deep breath, and a big ” thank you ” to the author of this piece.

    And of course, to Neil and crew for 40 years of prog rock greatness.

    The world is better for it.

  19. Hi. I am a Chilean writer
    Hi. I am a Chilean writer (poet and novelist). I have dedicated myself to translate the poetry (yes, we are talking about poetry) by Neil Peart in one of my YouTube channels, and in another to declaim his verses and review some of his books. It would be long to talk about the meaning and influence of Rush in my life in particular, but I just want to say that Peart’s lyric is highly worked and very literary, and its value is, from a strictly literary point of view, very high. I have presented some of his lyrics to an experienced writer friend (not a rock connoisseur), and he has been very well evaluated. In addition, he is a great prose writer, and of course his multiple readings, quotations and references, enrich his texts. There is no supposed pretension in his lyrics. That is a superficial interpretation of people who have not delved into Rush’s work. Along with other great groups like Genesis or Pink Floyd, Rush is one of the most literary bands that exist, and you can revisit again and again the great breadth of themes that Peart’s verses play. A hug from Chile!

    Pablo Octavio Rossel

  20. As an avid (read “vapid”)
    As an avid (read “vapid”) Rush and Peart fan, I understand the disgust that some people feel for Peart’s fame and honor. It’s hard to rationalize if you are not a fan, just like it’s hard to understand why fighting is a part of professional hockey if you are not a fan of professional hockey. But one thing I would offer is that, Neil writes very good lyrics, and we almost never see them. He hands them to Geddy Lee to sing them. But Geddy almost ALWAYS changes them, switches words around, to make the phrasing match the music that He and Alex Lifeson write.
    Not meant to change your mind, just to offer perspective. I know that the written word, before it is changed, is sometimes far richer then the end result on any work found on a Rush album. Someday, hopefully before Peart passes on, I would love to see a published work of his original lyrics before they were made “fashionable” for recording.

  21. People hate on, or even flat
    People hate on, or even flat-out refuse to listen to 82-89/Synth Era Rush so much but they overlook some of the Peart’s best lyrics and great instrumentation!

  22. He overcame youthful
    He overcame youthful attraction to Ayn Rand and became a far better philosopher than she ever dreamed of.

  23. I agree, David Seikel. I don
    I agree, David Seikel. I don’t think much of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of greed and eternal power struggle, and I think Neil Peart’s lyrics show that he advanced far beyond his early Rand-ism in coming to understand the value of community, trust, empathy, love.

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