Since Neil Peart’s death, I’ve been obsessed with Rush. I’ve listened to hours of the Canadian power trio. I wasn’t a fan before but after exploring their vast, varied catalog, I’m in awe. They’re one of the tightest bands in history. In the documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage and elswheree, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Peart exude a lived-in, down-home Canadian vibe. Lifeson was even on the Trailer Park Boys. It’s hard to not be charmed, honestly.
So it’s puzzling: how could these guys be fans of Ayn Rand?
Rush made no secret of their love for the Atlas Shrugged author. They not only shouted out Rand in the liner notes of their breakthrough album 2112, they injected Rand’s themes into several songs. Normally, I don’t care about musicians’ politics. I don’t need ideological purity for a jam to be a jam. But Rand’s a bridge too far for me. Her ideas breed misanthropy. And some of Rush’s songs seem like Trojan Horses for Rand’s contempt for humanity.
Russian-born novelist Rand espoused a a Darwinian winner-take-all form of laissez-faire capitalism and hated collectivist efforts of all sorts, from Communism to New Deal social programs. In Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and her other work, Rand preached a philosophy she called objectivism that argues for radical individualism and considers selfishness as a virtue. It’s a bad idea that’s had a pernicious influence on the world, inspiring Rand acolytes like Paul Ryan, Alan Greenspan, the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer to foster extreme wealth disparity and create the under-regulated global industrial economy setting our world on fire as I type.
On Fly by Night‘s swaggering rocker “Anthem,” Geddy Lee sings “live for yourself, there’s no one else more worth living for/begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more” and “I know they’ve always told you selfishness was wrong/Yet it was for me, not you, I came to write this song. In the goofball story-song “Trees,” villainous maple trees defeat heroic oaks by forming a union and demanding equal rights. The 20-minute epic “2112” relates a dystopian science fiction story so similar to Rand’s novella Anthem Peart felt obligated to acknowledge the influence.
Peart, Rush’s chief lyricist, outgrew Rand, telling Rolling Stone in 2012 that his politics evolved into “bleeding heart libertarianism.” As I process Rush’s catalog of music in full, at once, evidence of that evolution keeps cropping up in their lyrics.
Peart’s Rand songs are either abstract or fictional, without grounding in reality. “Anthem” is a manifesto of conceptual principles. “Trees” and “2112” are fantasy and science fiction scenarios, respectively. When Peart looks at the real world, the Rand influence fades.
In the late ‘70s, Rush was inspired by new wave to explore more concise songs than the lengthy progressive rock epics they’d made their signature sound. Peart’s lyrics began shifting too. While Permanent Waves included science fiction songs like “Natural Science” and the manifesto-like statement of principles of “Freewill,” it also included the reality-based song “Spirit of The Radio,” where Peart found unexpected poetry in the simple pleasure of listening to a good radio DJ.
In “Spirit of The Radio,” Peart describes hearing a friendly voice and discovering new music as “beyond price, almost free.” He marvels that technology created a way for people to be connected in solitude. But he worries that the free market’s “glittering prizes and endless compromises” stifle artistic integrity and make the freedom of music impossible.
As much as I’d like it to be, I don’t think “Spirit of The Radio” is a deliberate indictment of capitalism. My belief is that Peart looked at our world with clear eyes and found a truth that might have bristled against his previously stated ideology and he let the truth win. Decades later, Peart would make a more overt criticism of capitalism in “Big Money,” so it seems like an idea that stuck with him.
Peart examined the alienation symptomatic to modern life in “Subdivisions.” The song’s argument, that suburbs demand punishing conformity, echoes the conflict between the doomed artistic loner and the oppressive authority of “2112.” But “Subdivisions” doesn’t have a villain or a hero. It only has real-world problems like loneliness and lack of community. Post World War II sprawling development and car culture spearheaded by real-life analogs to Rand heroes like Howard Roark and John Galt led to suburbs where where dreamers and misfits will always be alone.
Peart’s sense of empathy became even more pronounced in “Distant Early Warning,” a song about satellite technicians monitoring for wide-scale disasters. Peart wrote “The world weighs on my shoulders/But what am I to do?/You sometimes drive me crazy/but I worry about you.” The song is an expression of unqualified concern for all of humanity when every person is equally threatened by a looming disaster. It’s not cheerful but it’s solidarity.
By the ’90s, Peart’s lyrics seemed far more bleeding heart than libertarian. Take “Roll the Bones.” No, seriously. Take it. With its ill-advised attempt at a funk groove and rapping, the music is a blemish on Rush’s record. But the lyrics are telling for building an argument that luck and randomness drive the universe. Peart casts doubt on the belief that “good work is the key to good fortune,” saying that while individuals “draw our own designs” fortune, or luck, “has to make that frame” and “fate is just the weight of circumstances.”
“Working Man,” written before Peart joined the band, is like The Communist Manifesto by way of Paranoid-era Black Sabbath. Maybe after 30 years of playing its backbeat, Peart accidentally absorbed a little class consciousness.