Neil Peart, Skeptic

January 17, 2020

Last week Neil Peart, the drummer and main lyricist for the rock band Rush, died. He’d been living in California and privately battled brain cancer for several years. The Canadian trio (Alex Lifeson on guitar, Geddy Lee on vocals, bass, and keyboards, and Neil Peart on drums) announced they’d stopped touring in 2015, after 40 years.

As a Rush fan and a skeptic I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on Peart’s passing and his skepticism-infused lyrics. There are over 150 Rush songs written or co-written by Neil, and many themes can be found among them, including alienation, skepticism, libertarianism, fantasy, and humanism. The discussion here is not comprehensive; my interest here is to briefly highlight some of the more potent lyrics and songs expressing doubt, skepticism, the frailty of perception, the fallibility of knowledge, and the dangers of certainty. Peart was likely one of the most widely-read lyricists in rock and roll, on topics ranging from philosophy to humanism to science. He was, as described in The New Yorker, “wildly literate.” George Hrab is among the many skeptics who offered a memorial to Peart (as well as Geo’s initial skepticism about the news of Peart’s death, and why Peart and the band seemed relatable), on his Geologic Podcast (episode 646).

As has been written elsewhere, Rush was a polarizing band that either you “got,” or you didn’t. I’ve met people who have barely heard of them, but few who were ambivalent about them. At the risk of employing the “I liked them when they weren’t cool” trope, I’ll note that my love of the band dates back to hearing “Tom Sawyer” on the radio for the first time in 1981 and being blown away. I joined the nascent Rush Backstage Club. This was back in a day when Rush fans such as myself connected via letters; a Pen Pals section offered a dozen or so addresses for Rush fans to meet each other and share their enthusiasm, at the comfortable pace of postal delivery.

I proceeded to buy all their albums and saw them live a dozen times over the years. Most of the albums were great, a few were good, and some of the later albums (Vapor Trails, Counterparts, and Test For Echo, for example) left me a bit cold. But Rush had earned my loyalty and I’d buy anything they put out, just on principle. The most mediocre Rush song—and there are many—was usually head and shoulders above most of the other rock music I was hearing.

For much of Rush’s history Peart was the shy, retiring member. He rarely did interviews or fan meet-and-greets after concerts; that was a role that Geddy and Alex happily—or, surely, sometimes dutifully—fulfilled. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate fans or thought it was beneath him, he just didn’t enjoy it and would rather be alone, read, or plan his solo motorcycle trip to the next venue (something he often did).

But that wasn’t always the case; as a member of the Rush Backstage Club I got their newsletter in which Neil would respond to questions from fans. This was the mid-1980s, of course, long before the internet; that’s how things were done in those days. I never wrote in, partly because I didn’t know what I’d ask him if he actually responded.

The quality of the questions varied widely, ranging from the insightful to the banal. Neil typically responded in earnest, though occasionally his replies revealed a latent and understandable irritation. One got the impression that Neil didn’t suffer fools lightly, but he also recognized that Rush fans were a broad lot that included (or perhaps dominated by) nerdy, misfit teenagers and young adults, mostly male, perhaps not unlike himself as a teen in St. Catharines, Ontario. (Peart wrote about this inevitable gap between performer and audience, expert and layman, in the song Limelight.)

The three performers, lifelong friends, often made better music than bands with two or three times the number of members. Watching other, larger, bands I was often confused: What the hell are those other musicians doing? Why are there three guitarists, two keyboardists, a singer, a drummer, and some woman on a tambourine? And the backup singers? Is this a flash mob or a rock band? The answer, of course, is that none of them were Geddy, Alex, or Neil.

Peart was widely known as “The Professor” because of his intellectualism, his analytical approach to percussion, and the fact that he taught and influenced a generation of musicians. I’m not a musician, and didn’t learn drumming from him (though I did learn about some of the history and techniques from him). I’m not a lyricist and didn’t learn songwriting from him either. But we had some shared interests including the 1960s British television show The Prisoner, as evinced by some of his lyrics and his wearing of the distinctive Number Six pennyfarthing badge used in the series. The Prisoner is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and cerebral series of the 1960s—or, really, ever. Had I gotten the chance to meet him, I’d have avoided talking about drumming—or even music in general—and instead steered the conversation to shared interests such as Africa, travel, writing, belief, skepticism, and so on.

To be clear: Geddy and Alex are no slouches in the intellectual and reading departments either, the latter having been photographed reading the Christopher Hitchens classic God Is Not Great. Lee and Lifeson are enormously accomplished outside of music as well, but here I focus on Peart’s contribution as a lyricist (I hear he’s regarded as a passable drummer as well).

I’m not going to engage in extensive dives on various meanings, allegories and interpretations of the lyrics. I believe that most of the lyrics speak for themselves; one of the qualities of Peart’s writing is that it’s (usually) accessible. In a 1992 interview with Roger Catlin Peart noted that “For a lot of people, lyrics just aren’t that important. I can enjoy a band when the lyrics are shallow. But I can enjoy it more if the lyrics are good.” Here are some lyrics I find especially resonant.

Tom Sawyer / Moving Pictures (1981)

No, his mind is not for rent
To any god or government
Always hopeful, yet discontent
He knows changes aren’t permanent

But change is

Freewill / Permanent Waves (1980)

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

The “Fear” Series

Rush released four songs related to the topic of fear: Witch Hunt (Moving Pictures); The Enemy Within (Grace Under Pressure); The Weapon (Signals), and, much later, Freeze (Vapor Trails). I want to focus on Peart’s plea for reason and rationality in Witch Hunt:

Witch Hunt / Moving Pictures (1981)

The night is black
Without a moon
The air is thick and still

The vigilantes gather on
The lonely torchlit hill

Features distorted in the flickering light
The faces are twisted and grotesque
Silent and stern in the sweltering night
The mob moves like demons possessed
Quiet in conscience, calm in their right
Confident their ways are best

The righteous rise
With burning eyes
Of hatred and ill-will

Madmen fed on fear and lies
To beat, and burn, and kill

The lyrics reference xenophobia, moral guardians, moral panics, and censorship in the second half of the song:

They say there are strangers, who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness, too dangerous
In our theatres and bookstore shelves
That those who know what’s best for us –
Must rise and save us from ourselves

Quick to judge,
Quick to anger
Slow to understand

Ignorance and prejudice
And fear

Walk hand in hand

Totem / Test for Echo (1996)

I believe in what I see
I believe in what I hear
I believe that what I’m feeling
Changes how the world appears

In his book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, Peart wrote, “At the time of writing those lines [before the death of his daughter Selena], I had in mind the contradiction between a skeptic’s dismissal of anything not tangible (true agnosticism) and the entirely subjective way many people tend to view and judge the world, through the filters of ever-changing emotions and moods” (p. 79).

Angels and demons dancing in my head
Lunatics and monsters underneath my bed
Media messiahs preying on my fears
Pop culture prophets playing in my ears

Roll the Bones / Roll the Bones (1991)

Faith is cold as ice
Why are little ones born only to suffer
For the want of immunity
Or a bowl of rice?
Well, who would hold a price
On the heads of the innocent children
If there’s some immortal power
To control the dice?

We come into the world and take our chances
Fate is just the weight of circumstances

That’s the way that lady luck dances
Roll the bones

Jack, relax
Get busy with the facts
No zodiacs or almanacs
No maniacs in polyester slacks
Just the facts

Brought Up To Believe (BU2B) / Clockwork Angels (2010)

I was brought up to believe
The universe has a plan
We are only human
It’s not ours to understand

The universe has a plan
All is for the best
Some will be rewarded
And the devil take the rest

All is for the best


Believe in what we’re told
Blind men in the market
Buying what we’re sold
Believe in what we’re told
Until our final breath
While our loving Watchmaker
Loves us all to death

In a world of cut and thrust
I was always taught to trust
In a world where all must fail
Heaven’s justice will prevail

There’s one final song I’d like to mention because it captures the mission of an inquisitive, Enlightenment-fueled mind:

Available Light / Presto (1989)

All four winds together
Can’t bring the world to me
Shadows hide the play of light
So much I want to see
Chase the light around the world
I want to look at life—In the available light

The “light” Peart is talking about is the same light of reason that Carl Sagan mentioned in his (borrowed) aphorism, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Peart was open about his agnosticism (some would consider it atheism) and wrote eloquently about the dangers of religion.

As an avid Rush fan I collected several tourbooks and one thing that stood out to me was how often Peart was photographed reading books. He could have been photographed drinking and partying, living the rock star life (see the accompanying artwork for pretty much any Guns N Roses album, for example*). Peart was thoughtful and literate. In one album photo he poses with Aristotle’s classic Poetics, and it’s clear that it’s not done ironically. Peart didn’t grab a book to read when photographers were around; he just didn’t bother to put it down when they were. He was who he was, and he didn’t care whether he looked the part of a rock star. The band seemed down to earth, taking their music—but not themselves—too seriously (see their speech at Rush’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 for example).

Neil Peart isn’t resting in peace or anywhere else; he’s gone but remains with us. As he said during the Hall of Fame induction, quoting Bob Dylan: “The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?” He and his band have inspired tens of millions of people in ways large and small. As Neil wrote, “A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission.”

* Before any GnR fans complain, I’m a fan of them as well, but we both know that a conversation between Neil Peart and Axl Rose would be painful for all involved.