Farewell to Kings (and Faith): Neil Peart, 1977

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the release of A FAREWELL TO KINGS.

rush farewell
40th Anniversary Edition

What followed, 1977’s A Farewell to Kings, though, had far more in common with 1976’s 2112 than it would with 1980’s Permanent Waves.  Not appearing on the market until September 1, 1977, A Farewell to Kings ended the new album every six months schedule Rush has followed thus far.  A brilliant album in and of itself, A Farewell to Kings still belongs to Rush 2.1 as I have defined it.  So does the follow-up album, Hemispheres.  Certainly, Rush tried many new things—in terms of album structure, lyrical depth and story telling, and musical complexity—than it had on the first several albums.  “We had written material that was a little beyond us, considering our level of musicianship at the time,” Lee later admitted.[i]  But the progress is in continuity, a major reform rather than a revolution.  “Our progress has always been sincere—not in an arrogant way, but for our own pleasure,” Peart stated in 1982.  “We’ve always incorporated music from people we liked, so it has made us stylistically schizoid.”[ii]

While there are no side length tracks on A Farewell to Kings, the album revolves around its two major songs, “Xanadu” at 11 minutes in length and “Cygnus X-1” at almost ten and 1/2 minutes.  Thematically, Peart continues to embrace both the fantastic—“Xanadu” based on the iconic romantic English poem, “Kubla Kahn,” by Samuel Coleridge—and science-fiction, “Cygnus X-1.”  At the time, Peart lauded fantasy writing in lyrics.  “It’s a way to put a message across without being oppressive.”[iii]

It would be impossible to describe how much of an influence the moody, mysterious “Xanadu” had on the rock world.  Its ability to combine high, poetic art with rock influenced many rockers and listeners alike.  One of the greatest living American guitarists, John Wesley, who had released a number of solo albums as well as having worked with prominent bands such as Porcupine Tree, admitted that after hearing A Farewell to Kings for the first time, he was “blown away,” but “the track that captured me was ‘Xanadu.’  It was the first Rush track I tried to learn from beginning to end.”  Though he struggled for years to get the piece right, in hindsight, he notes that the song proved a “turning point for me as a player.”[iv]  One can also hear the album’s immense influence on the more progressive tracks written by the prog metal band, Dream Theater.

The opening track, “A Farewell to Kings,” harkens back to “Bastille Day” as well as 2112 in its challenge to authority.  Here, though, authority has lost.  The king, a jester at best and a puppet at worst, sits on his throne, dangling limp as the world around him has been destroyed.  He governs nothing but Eliot’s “Waste Land.”  In the vision of Peart and album designer Hugh Syme, free men and women have simply said enough, thus anticipating the Velvet Revolution of 1989.  Another ballad, “Closer to the Heart,” offers an idyllic view of the world, embracing the gentle classical liberalism of a Thomas Jefferson.

Based on the Frank Capra movie of the same name, “Cinderella Man” asks why the best cannot be considered charitable rather than manipulative or crazy.  Ironically, though many critics have labeled Rush Objectivist because of Peart’s interest in Rand, placing Capra’s film as heroic and noble goes against the very heart of Rand’s philosophy.  In the song, Lee (who wrote the lyrics) still embraces individualism, but he does so in a way that would not be recognized as a good in Galt’s Gulch, the individualist utopian Rocky Mountain hideout in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  The lyricist-bassist (very rare for Rush) sounds much more a Catholic social activist and social justice warrior Dorothy Day than the Nietzschean heroine of Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart.  Continuing in the medieval and bardic vein of the opening song, “Madrigal” has a Yes-like quality in its ethereality.

1978’s Hemispheres is a sequel to and completion of A Farewell to Kings from the previous year.  Rush produces yet again a side-long epic, thus completing the story begun at the very end of Farewell, the story of “Cygnus X-1.”   Taken all together, the story of Cygnus X-1 takes nearly 29 minutes to tell, making it the longest story Rush had yet told or would tell until 2012’s Clockwork Angels.  The one competitor, at least in terms of time needed to tell the tale, would be the Fear cycle told over four songs.  Still, each of the four Fear songs deals with a different state of mind and does not construct a coherent story in the way that the stories of Cygnus X-1 or Clockwork Angels’ Owen Hardy have.  Just as 2112 blatantly revealed Peart’s anti-authoritarian side, “Cygnus X-1” and Clockwork Angels equally reveal his love of the journey and the necessity of forging one’s own path in life.  Of course, the anti-authoritarian side and the free will side are two sides of the same coin.  One rages, while the other considers.

All of these strands of Peart’s thought come together whenever he enters upon the subject of God, Christianity, and religion.

To put it mildly, Peart has had a difficult time with religion and religious matters—especially formalized religion—ever since a child.  Indeed, he never had any faith in a higher power, even as a little boy.[v]  While he jokes about the subject and his obsession with it frequently, his disgust with religion comes through his lyrics and, especially, his books.  Here’s as typical example, this taken from his book, Far and Away:

Fun Fact: The theological default called Pascal’s Wager is a pusillanimous theorem stating that it’s “safer” to believe in God than not, because you have nothing to lose if you’re right, and everything to lose if you’re wrong. All I can say to that is “Man up, Pascal!”[vi]

Not surprisingly, Nietzsche had written something quite similar about Pascal, calling him the most representative “worm” of Christianity, the worst of Catholicism in Beyond Good and Evil.  Pascal possessed, the German philosopher decried, a wounded and monstrous “intellectual consciousness.”[vii]  As will be seen later in this work, Nietzsche exerts a serious influence on Peart.  As a child, Peart even spray-painted “God is Dead” on his bedroom wall.[viii]

In Far and Near, Peart asks if he’s a “faith-basher?,” somewhat appalled at the notion that he might be.[ix]  Certainly, though, Peart sees a significant difference between his toleration of religion and his (dis)respect for those same religions (and their deluded followers):

Those who attribute spiritual power to geological formations, a humorless deity, or articles of clothing (think Catholic, Hasidic, Mormon, or Buddhist) are difficult to respect—not so much for their “magic,” but for their vanity.  As for tolerance and respect, we agree that tolerance is necessary—people can believe the crazy fecal matter of their choice—but we’re not sure about respect.   Fundamentalists of every stripe, and likewise conspiracy theorists, are pretty much impossible to respect, especially if they preach violence—pain to others, the real first deadly sin.  In terms of my simple moral compass . . . if the greatest evils to an individual are pain, fear, and worry, then it stands to reason that the worst things you can inflict on another human being are pain, fear, and worry.[x]

In his 2014 book, Far and Near, he counts and details how many religious billboards, bumper stickers, and signs he has encountered in the United States, clearly amused by the notion, even if repulsed by many of the ideas presented.  He certainly mocks the idea of “putting your hand in the hand of the Judeo-Christian skygod,” placing the Holy Trinity on the level of Apollo and Zeus, simply nice superstitions of an immature race.[xi]

Here is Peart at length on Paganism and Christianity and faith bashing, again from 2014:

It is ironic that a religion that has historically co-opted prehistoric festivals for their own purposes would insist that pagans are unable to celebrate Christmas. Of course, it was ours first. The idea of grafting Christian festivals onto existing celebrations dates back at least to the eighth century, when Charlemagne massacred thousands of pagan Saxons for resisting his … “missionary zeal.”  It is also arrogant to suggest that without religion we have no reason to feel “goodwill toward men.” It isn’t fear of godly punishment or promise of heavenly reward that makes generosity feel good—it’s simple humanity. Any undamaged individual knows how good it can feel to help others.  I would love to avoid the taint of “faith-basher,” as I have been called, but a further irony is that the most fanatical “Christians” today are the most vocal against the biblical example of, say, being good Samaritans. They would proudly (and loudly) deny even mercy to the less fortunate.[xii]

Peart Cultural RepercussionsHowever much one agrees or disagrees with Peart’s specific take on the relationship of paganism to Christianity, two things must be noted.  First, Peart identifies here not as an atheist, but rather as a pagan.  Second, factually and historically, he is correct.  Since St. Paul first journeyed to Athens, the Catholic Church has attempted to coopt and baptize the pagan rather than destroy it.  Peart views this historical move of the Catholic Church as regressive rather than progressive, though, an act of dishonesty, manipulation, and theft.  Indeed, religion as a whole, Peart believes, stands against and retards real progress toward liberalism, properly understood, and toward human freedom.  For some, though, faith has been a good, he reluctantly admits.  For many, “it’s definitely a positive sort of reinforcement or a kind of solace and those are all good things.”[xiii]

***

All of the above taken from Bradley J. Birzer’s 2015 book, Neil Peart: Cultural (RE)Percussions (Wordfire Press).  Available here.

 

 

 

Notes

[i] Geddy Lee quoted in Beyond the Lighted Stage.

[ii] Steve Morse, “Sending New Signals, Rush on the Defense,” Boston Globe (December 6, 1982).

[iii] Graham Hicks, “Hemispheres: Shattered by Latest Rush Opus,” Music Express (December 1978).

[iv] John Wesley, quoted in Malcom Dome, “Rush: R40,” Prog 52 (January 2015): 42.

[v] Interview with Neil Peart, Jim Ladd, Deep Tracks (February 3, 2015).

[vi] Peart, Far and Away, 72.

[vii] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (New York: Vintage, 1989), 59.

[viii] Interview with Neil Peart, Jim Ladd, Deep Tracks (February 3, 2015).  Peart explains the story in great detail, including the reactions of his mother and father, in travelogue of West Africa: The Masked Rider (1996; Toronto, ONT: ECW Press, 2004), 102.

[ix] Peart, Far and Near, 18-19.

[x] Peart, Far and Away, 282.

[xi] Peart, Far and Near, 77.  It should be noted that scholar Camille Paglia has described the Christian God in exactly the same manner.

[xii] Peart, Far and Near, 80.

[xiii] “The Big Fresh,” Edmonton Journal (December 3, 2006), B3.

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