Happy Fortieth Anniversary, 2112!
While Caress of Steel ended on an organic, open and free-spirited note, their fourth album, 2112, began with discordant and spacey computer noises and swatches of sound. The contrast in mood and sound could not have been greater. 2112 even inverted the structure of Caress, placing the epic side-long track on side one of the album, with the shorter songs on side two.
Again, it’s worth remembering that if they were going to end, they were going to do so on their own terms. If Rush was going “down the tubes,” they were going to go down with a serious statement and a very, very loud thud. No whimper. Only a bang. “We talked about how we would rather go down fighting rather than try to make the kind of record they wanted us to make,” Lee remembers. “We made 2112 figuring everyone would hate it, but we were going to go out in a blaze of glory.”[i] Alex feels the same. “2112 is all about fighting the man,” he states. “Fortunately for us, that became a marker. That was also the first time that we really started to sound like ourselves.”[ii] It is hard to judge whether or not this anti-authoritarian streak in Rush came from the group as a whole or from each of the three individuals who made up the band. Perhaps the distinction is a false or a super-fine one.
While one might readily and honestly label Lee, Lifeson, and Peart as individualists, it is because of Peart’s words that he might also be one of the greatest living exponents—in word and deed—of individualism itself. Yet, his individualism is far from selfish, as he would like every person in the world to be such. “I call myself an individualist because no-one knows what that means either—except me. So if anyone asks me to put an ‘ism’ after my name I’ll say I’m an individualist because to me an individual life is the ultimate, supreme-value in the world.”[iii] Peart dislikes “authority of all kinds,” but especially the righteous authority wielded by governments, churches, and “moral majorities.”[iv] As a whole, Rush has remained “implicitly and explicitly rebellious,” the drummer believes. “We demand to do it our way, even if we are wrong. We resist the machine and we refuse to be mercenary.”[v] Sounding very much like fabulist J.R.R. Tolkien and a number of other humanists and artists of the twentieth century, the drummer for Rush states, with great enthusiasm and relish, that he loves the individual because “each person is a story.”[vi]
As the strange science-fiction swirls fade, the opening to 2112, an anthem begins. Not an anthem in the sense of Fly by Night’s Anthem, but an anthem of battle and victory, a struggle of the individual against the tyrant. The 2112 overture drives relentless toward victory. Harkening back to the 1812 overture, the 2112 overture would have captivated most listeners—especially considering that many Rush fans at the time were in their teens and twenties and almost always male—and they would’ve gleefully banged their heads and raised their fists. Rock music does not come more martial and victorious than this. The story of 2112, based loosely on Ayn Rand’s 1938 science fiction novella Anthem and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, presents a dystopian short story. Through a series of catastrophes and apocalypses, Earth exists no more, and humans have migrated into the universe. The protagonist of 2112 lives more or less without the ability or will to question in a totalitarian-collectivist society ruled by Philosopher-priests who proclaim their own power and control in very loud dramatic fashion. In their powers, they resemble the most stringent rulers of Plato’s Republic and, in their voices, they sound akin to the Pharisees of Jesus Christ Superstar. The protagonist discovers an “ancient miracle,” a guitar. Gifted musically, he learns to play it, discovering a way to bring real beauty into a closed society. Naively, the protagonist assumes the Philosopher-priests simply did not know about the instrument. Otherwise, in their supposed wisdom, he presumes, still naïve, they would have already adopted it and promoted it within the larger society. Seeing no utility in the guitar, the Philosopher-priests forbid its usage, presuming it a toy. Additionally, they claim, it had helped destroy the pre-interstellar migration elder race of man. Distraught, the protagonist takes the Stoic route, killing himself rather than accepting continued life in a world absent of such glories as music. “I don’t think I can carry on, carry on this cold and empty life.” 2112 ends with the suicide, a return to the overture theme, and the Philosopher-priests announcing—with loudness and confidence—that they have “resumed control.” At the time Peart, who developed the entire concept and story, viewed the ending as “a real Hitchcock killer.”[vii]
To this day, roughly four decades after the release of 2112, Neil Peart has never fully shaken the “Ayn Rand” label. For those who love Rand, Peart stands as a hero for upholding her ideals, in spirit and in word. For those who despise Rand, Peart’s reference to her remains a black mark on the history of the Canadian power trio, forever condemning Rush to the status or “right-wing rock” at best and “fascist” at worst.
Economist and man of letters Steven Horwitz has done the best job of analyzing the influence of Rand on Peart, while Rob Freedman has shown how much this led to horrendous accusations thrown at the drummer such as a supposed (frankly, an idea so ridiculous as to be completely offensive) proclivity toward fascism. Whatever Rand was, she was quite the opposite of a fascist in her ideas and ideals, though she did possess a rather strong Nietzschean streak in her writings, as does Peart. Famous mostly for her perennially best-selling novels, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, Rand also authored numerous non-fictional essays and books, including a number that upheld the idea of selfishness as a virtue. She took the right to self-ownership and personal property to the nth degree, believing that self-lessness denied nature as well as the dignity of the creative and free individual. Charity, she feared, if forced, diminished the very being of the individual. Rand even took this to the level of love and sexual relationships, seeing the two lovers as writing (for lack of a better term) a type of mutually-self-interested contract with one another. Her sex scenes, which many critics have described as barely-concealed rape, embrace a sort of domination of the superior partner over the less superior partner. Though few critics have offered even a semblance of balance when discussing Rand—either loving or hating her—her students and followers, such as Doug DenUyl, Aeon Skoble, Yaron Brook, Bradley Thompson, and David Mayer offer some of the most interesting scholarship available. They are honest, interesting, and logical to a rigorous degree.
Peart’s sin, if it can be considered as such, is that he openly thanked Rand, dedicating 2112 to her “genius.” Though Peart offered the dedication through his direct writing, he spoke for the band as a whole, as each of the three members had read and enjoyed Rand’s science fiction novella, Anthem.[viii] A year later, he admitted that his two great literary heroes were Rand’s two major protagonists: Howard Roark of The Fountainhead and John Galt of Atlas Shrugged.[ix] What is unfortunate, at least in terms of Peart’s long-term reputation, is that allies and enemies of Rush have latched onto this obvious and blatant dedication and his brief support of Rand for roughly four decades now. Not atypically, Rolling Stone latched onto Peart’s Randianism with a vengeance, using it as yet one more thing to hate about the band. In a review of Exit . . . Stage Left, Jon Pareles screeched:
Just about everything Rush do can be found, more compactly, in Yes’ “Roundabout,” with the remainder in Genesis’ “Watcher of the Skies.” Everything except the philosophy—and stage left is, of course, to the audience’s far right.[x]
Why an audience far to the left of Rush remained so loyal to the band, makes absolutely no sense, but few read the mainstream music magazine for logic. Certainly, Rand shaped the young Peart dramatically, as she has shaped so many others of the same age for well over half a century now. In 1971, while living in London, Peart found a discarded copy of Rand’s The Fountainhead in the tube station.[xi]
To a 20-year-old struggling musician, The Fountainhead was a revelation, an affirmation, an inspiration. Although I would eventually grow into and, largely, out of Ayn Rand’s orbit, her writing was still a significant stepping-stone, or way-station, for me, a black-and-white starting point along the journey to a more nuanced philosophy and politics. Most of all, it was the notion of individualism that I needed—the idea that what I felt, believed, liked, and wanted was important and valid.[xii]
Peart had said something similar to the Canadian equivalent of Time or Newsweek, MacLeans:
For me it was a confirmation of all the things I’d felt as a teen-ager. I had thought I was a socialist like everyone else seemed to—you know, why should anyone have more than anyone else?—but now I think socialism is entirely wrong by virtue of man himself. It cannot work. It is simply impossible to say all men are brothers or that all men are created equal—they are not. Your basic responsibility is to yourself.[xiii]
Of course, Peart would not be the first or last North American twenty-something to find the ideas of Ayn Rand a justification for creativity, rebellion, and individualism. That Rand’s novels have sold millions and millions, year after year and generation after generation, reveals that she has presented something for a culture that could not be found elsewhere.
[i] Geddy Lee quoted in Beyond the Lighted Stage.
[ii] Lifeson quoted in Menon, Rush: An Oral History Uncensored.
[iii] Peart in Dave Dickson, “Spirit of Peart,” Kerrang! 44 (June 17-30/July 1-13, 1983). He also rejects the notion he is an “ist” of any kind except for an individualist. See, Peart quoted in Nicholas Jennings, “Rock N Roll Royalty,” Maclean’s (September 30, 1991).
[iv] Peart quoted in “Innerview with Neil Peart,” Innerview with Jim Ladd (1984).
[v] “Interview with Neil Peart,” Toronto Star (September 9, 1993).
[vi] “Interview: Neil Peart,” Modern Drummer (April 1984).
[vii] Peart quoted in Rick Johnson, Creem (March 1976).
[viii] Nick Shofar, Northeast Ohio Scene (June 3, 1976); and Chris Welch and Brian Harrigan, “The Great Musicians: Neil Peart,” History of Rock 10 (January 1984).
[ix] Scott Cohen, “The Rush Tapes, Part 1: Neil Peart Sizes Up ‘Farewell To Kings,’ The Latest Canadian Rock Opus,” Circus, October 13, 1977).
[x] Jon Pareles, review of Exit. . . Stage Left, Rolling Stone (February 2, 1982).
[xi] Peart interview, 2112/Moving Pictures Blu Ray. First encountering the work of Samuel R. Delany in 1971, Peart found that science fiction was a genre of ideas and endless possibilities.
[xii] Peart, Traveling Music, 218.
[xiii] Peart quoted in Roy McGregor, “To Hell with Bob Dylan—Meet Rush. They’re in it for the Money,” MacLean’s (January 23, 1978).