In 1974, Rush replaced departing drummer John Rutsey with Neil Peart in its first — and, most likely, final — personnel change. Peart brought a new sophistication to the Canadian trio, which had released one album of fairly typical 70s power riffs and songs about trying to get laid. Peart was a whirlwind drummer and well-read lyricist who would help guide the band into intellectual territory.
Within two years, Rush had released three more albums — the promising Fly By Night, the experimental stoner-rock set Caress of Steel, and the breakthrough 2112. On the latter, Rush doubled down on being unconventional, releasing a side-long epic about a young man in a dystopian future finding a guitar, excitedly presenting it to the powers that be, dying shortly after the uncool boss men shoved him aside, and missing out on … well, it depends on which side you think has “assumed control” at the end.
On the liner notes were a few words that would come back to haunt the band many times over: “With acknowledgment to the genius of Ayn Rand.”
Yes, that Ayn Rand. The writer who set the template for dystopian literature in which the smart people (like herself, of course) get to take control over the idiots who have always held them down. The philosopher sometimes appropriated by the right wing but more commonly associated, rightly or wrongly, with libertarianism. Ask a libertarian how he (or, waaaaay less likely, she) feels about Rand, and be prepared to be hit with an avalanche of tedious bullshit either hailing Rand as a patron saint or insisting that Rand was never really “libertarian.”
(Is anyone really libertarian besides college sophomores looking for rationalizations of being selfish punks? We just had an election featuring the two least popular major-party candidates in recent memory, and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson drove off a cliff. Over at libertarian banner-carrying mag Reason, the writers and commenters are smugly dining on “liberal tears,” somehow failing to notice that libertarian ideals were utterly kicked to the curb in favor of Sanders’ socialism and Trump’s populism. The occasional “Hey, you know, maybe a guy who wants to slam the door on immigration and trade isn’t the best guy for libertarians” piece gets smacked down by harrumphing commenters who clearly partake of a “libertarian” site just so they can pretend to be more sophisticated than people who read National Review.)
So Rush — which, in fairness, had earlier recorded a tune called Anthem that was actually a more pugnacious distillation of Rand’s “live for yourself” beliefs — has spent the last 40 years trying to explain that they really are polite, charitable Canadians, not obnoxious political pedants. Peart has taken pains to say he is nobody’s acolyte, he was not pleased with Rand Paul using Rush music as a campaign prop, and he habitually hands money to the “begging hands and bleeding hearts” derided on Anthem. (All detailed in Rolling Stone‘s lengthy cover story on the band, which seemed as if the magazine was trying to apologize for decades of contempt.)
No, Peart doesn’t dream of a Randian utopia in which the computer geeks are kings and capital gains aren’t taxed. Rush went through a Rand phase because they believed — and still believe — in the power of the individual. They are anti-authoritarians. The new prez is actually pictured on the Genius annotation of our song of this post (hey, I’m getting to it), and it’s not flattering.
The power of the individual against the powers that be is on full display throughout Rush’s masterpiece, Moving Pictures. The enigmatic Tom Sawyer, Rush’s best-known song, hails a young man whose “mind is not for rent to any god or government.” Red Barchetta is a tale of driving as rebellion against some sort of government that banned driving. Even YYZ, the instrumental, is full of individual showcases — probably not intended to extend the “yes, we are all individuals” theme but a perfect fit.
Then there’s the hidden gem, overshadowed by the rest of a landmark album: Witch Hunt.
Vocalist Geddy Lee told The Plain Dealer in a 2011 interview the song’s message is even more relevant today than when it was first recorded: “It’s one of those songs that means as much today, if not more, considering what’s gone on in the world with racial profiling and all these different issues. The sentiment of that song is as appropriate as ever.”
That was six years ago. Today? Consider these lines:
They say there are strangers who threaten us
Our immigrants and infidels
You don’t say?
The rest of the second verse (the first is a scene-setter) warns of Big Brother (not literally mentioned, but the concept is there) fretting over “our theatres and bookstore shelves” and rising to “save us from ourselves.” Geddy Lee’s sinister, cynical delivery is perfect.
The last words are so simple and yet so eloquent:
Quick to judge, quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand
From my teen years to my 40s, I’ve probably heard these lines 100 times. In the last two years, they’ve moved to the forefront of my brain. Peart certainly had ample historical precedent from which to draw, but to me, these lines are far more resonant now in Fake News Nation.
Our politicians conjure up demons and try to silence those who question their existence. They prey upon fears — terrorism, job loss — and ignorance of the complexities that drive them.
And while some may certainly try to use Rush’s older songs as justification for all manner of self-interested politics, 2112 and Witch Hunt are absolutely compatible. The individual in 2112 has the capacity to reason and care. The mob in Witch Hunt does not. That’s the distinction.
It’s easy to look upon 2017 with worrying eyes. The mob has spoken and continues to speak. And Rush hasn’t officially called it quits but will certainly not embark on another tour.
I prefer to look at it this way: Rush has been more popular and accepted in the 2010s than it was through most of its career, which is a nice reminder that people occasionally get what they deserve. And even if Neil Peart isn’t setting the beat, there will always be individuals capable of living their own lives and resisting the mob. Maybe even telling the truth.