Whenever I’m walking in Midtown Manhattan, there are moments when a lyric written about 40 years ago runs through my mind.
The buildings are lost / In their limitless rise / My feet catch the pulse / And the purposeful stride.
The words are from the song “The Camera Eye,” written by Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist of the Canadian progressive-rock trio Rush. It’s an 11-minute, B-side track from the band’s best-known album, “Moving Pictures.” Along with other Rush classics like “2112” and “Permanent Waves,” I must have played it about 10,000 times or so in high school.
Not that this is the sort of thing that, until news of Peart’s death of a brain tumor broke last week, I would have easily admitted to anyone. LA Weekly once called Rush “the anchovies of rock music”— loved by a select few, hated by many. Growing up, my friends listened to Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, the Steve Miller Band, Pink Floyd. To be a Rush fan in the 1980s had about as much social cachet as being treasurer of the math club.
Yet that was also what made the music so irresistible to me. Rush was rock for nerds, by nerds (and sometimes about nerds). You didn’t dance to Rush. It wasn’t heavy enough to bang your head to it or simple enough to tap your feet. You would never play it at a party, or for a love interest, unless your goal was to break up. The music didn’t set a mood, like Tears for Fears, or put you in the mood, like Roxy Music.
What Rush’s music did was compel attention. Songs unfurled in intricate, unexpected, subtle but cohesive patterns that always seemed to involve more instruments than the band had hands, fingers and feet to play. Every member of Rush was a virtuoso, and sometimes the joy of the music came in trying to focus on just one player: Geddy Lee’s bass in the instrumental piece “YYZ,” or Alex Lifeson’s guitar in “La Villa Strangiato,” or Peart’s thunderous drumming in the middle section of “Tom Sawyer.” That’s the section where, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, my arms start air-drumming all by themselves.
And then there were Rush’s lyrics. Most pop songs are about love. Most heavy metal songs are about sex. Most country music seems to be about hard knocks and heartbreak.
Peart’s songs, by contrast, were about — anything else. He wrote about suburban alienation (“Subdivisions”), the cosmological significance of tidal pools (“Natural Science”), metaphorical struggles for equality between oaks and maples (“The Trees”) and a futuristic dystopia in which fast cars are banned by something called “the motor law” (“Red Barchetta”). The themes were political, scientific, interpersonal, futuristic, philosophical. My all-time favorite Rush lyric, “I can’t pretend a stranger / Is a long-awaited friend,” is from the song “Limelight,” a meditation on the decidedly mixed blessings of fame. I think of it every time I’m asked to schmooze before a speech.
No other band did this. None that I know of even came close. To listen to Rush was to march to the beat — the complex beat — and the even more complex thoughts of a different kind of drummer.
Pretentious? It could be, sometimes. But that did little to alter the experience of encountering the music as a teenager and feeling not just transfixed, but also understood by it. At 46, I generally listen to music as a way of relaxing into my work. At 16, I was trying to figure out who I was. Though Peart’s themes and inspirations ranged widely, the through-line for most of his songs was the struggle of becoming, and the anxiety and marvel of being.
Too many hands on my time / Too many feelings, / Too many things on my mind. / When I leave I don’t know what I’m hoping to find. / And when I leave I don’t know what I’m leaving behind.
That’s from the song “The Analog Kid.” As a teenager going to a school 3,000 miles from home, I felt as if it had been specifically written for me. It must have seemed the same way for thousands of other kids my age, just trying to work out our place in the world. Implicit in the lyrics was the reassurance that the songwriter had been there before us, equally befuddled and afraid.
And that it would be O.K.
Over years of going to Rush concerts, I always came away awed not just by the quality of the musicianship but also by the length of the shows: The band never seemed to want to give audiences anything but its full measure of appreciation. And while I was never any sort of groupie, I also watched more than a few interviews with the band on the internet. The impression was always the same: Here were three guys who had remained grounded, grateful, humble and sane.
Another Rush discovery: Not every star has to be an awful person to be a great artist.
For his 2013 induction speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Peart quoted a line he attributed to Bob Dylan: “The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?”
The inspiration continues. Thanks to Neil Peart for helping so many of us find it.