Some songs just scream “let me reach perfection.”
Every note, every pause, every ebb, every swell, every silence, and every word just gravitates towards its right place. It’s as though the cardinal and Platonic virtue of Justice becomes manifest, real, and tangible in this world.
There probably are very few perfect tracks—tracks that never grow old and never cease to cause wonder. From the 70s and 80s the following immediately spring to mind as candidates: The Battle of Evermore, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, Close to the Edge, In Your Eyes, Thick as a Brick, Cinema Show, Take a Chance with Me, Echoes, and The Killing Moon.
Of all of these great possibilities from those two wild and wholly decades, the one song that comes closest to attaining perfection, such as perfection is understood in this rather bent world, is Natural Science, the final track on Rush’s Permanent Waves.
Well, at least in my humble opinion. Ok, not so humble of an opinion.
In a number of previous posts here at progarchy and elsewhere, I’ve talked about my love for all things Rush, perhaps even putting myself in a position in which I simply can’t be objective about them. Frankly, at age 46, I’m tired of trying to be objective about the things I love. In fact, I want to be subjective. Really, really subjective. I want to spend the rest of my life promoting things of excellence and beauty, and not wasting my time analyzing what I don’t like. I want to explore how various forms of art have shaped my own life, how they’ve guided me, how they’ve given me strength and comfort, and how best to pass on such nuggets of insight to my children and my students.
So, purely subjectively: I’ve always thought of Neil Peart as the older brother I never had—the cool kid with all the great ideas and, equally important, the guy with all of the good friends. Most importantly, however, Peart has always had the courage of his convictions. What an appealing combination of qualities. Creativity, intelligence, integrity and perserverance.
As much as any person in my life I’ve never met (from Plato to St. Augustine to Friedrich Hayek to T.S. Eliot to J.R.R. Tolkien), Peart has profoundly shaped my view of the world. I’ve known this since the spring of 1981, when, as a seventh grader, I first encountered Moving Pictures.
And, coming from a very (happily) nerdy and intellectual family which encouraged a love of music as much as it encouraged a love of reading and writing, I started writing my own first little essays on Rush while still in high school.
Perhaps my professors in college shouldn’t have allowed me to do this or encouraged me, but I did get to help lead a discussion on the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, using the song “Tom Sawyer” to explain the significance of the end of Twain’s novel. The end of that complex novel tries to examine the motivations of Huck and Tom as they decided whether or not to free Jim from his enslavement. Their humanity tells them one thing, but their cultural upbringing tells them another.
I also, as I’ve mentioned before, wrote my major paper for my sophomore liberal-arts core course examining the philosophy of Neil Peart, using nothing but the lyrics of Grace Under Pressure. Sadly, I don’t have a copy of that paper any longer, though I might attempt to reconstruct it at some point.
I can identify almost every single moment in my post-1980 life with a Rush album—noting when I first encountered that album, how it shaped my own thoughts, life, and actions, and what else was going on in my life at the same time. Certainly, Rush has served as the soundtrack of my own existence for over three decades. Strangely, the one album in Rush’s entire catalogue I can’t place perfectly—at least when I first encountered it—is Permanent Waves. I’m guessing that I first heard it shortly after Spring 1981, but I’m not positive. It just seems to have always been “there.” There, meaning my life. This is impossible, of course, as I was 11 when the album first came out, but it does seem to have an uncertain yet certain position in my memory.
I still regard the entire album as a work of artistic intensity and creative genius. There’s a confidence that exists in every note of this album that had not yet appeared in Rush’s music. Don’t get me wrong—up to Permanent Waves, Rush had always possessed audacity and integrity. But, they’d not possessed this level of confidence before. Songs such as Anthem—so openly declaring confidence—reveal youthful anxiety. But, the personal aspects of Permanent Waves, such as in “Free Will,” carry with them a rather clear maturity.
To my mind, none of the songs carry as much confidence, however, as does Natural Science. Originally, as is well known by Rush fans, Peart had hoped to write a saga, epic, or edda about the Court of King Arthur and especially about the character of Sir Gawain.
I had also been working on making a song out of a medieval epic from King Arthur’s time, called ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. It was a real story written around the 14th century, and I was trying to transform it while retaining it’s original form and style. Eventually it came to seem too awkwardly out of place with the other material we were working on, so we decided to shelve that project for the time being…with the departure of ‘Gawain’ we had left ourselves nothing with which to replace him!…something new began to take shape. It was the product of a whole host of unconnected experiences, books, images, thoughts, feelings, observations, and confirmed principles, that somehow took the form of ‘Natural Science’…forged from some bits from ‘Gawain’, some instrumental ideas that were still unused, and some parts newly-written. – Neil Peart, “Personal Waves, The Story Of An Album” [taken from: http://www.2112.net/powerwindows/main/RushInspirations.htm]
Though I don’t know this for certain, I assume that Peart was still in a bit of a myth/fantasy/Tolkien stage as he considered the lyrics for this song. Best known by the world for his fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien was in his professional life the leading scholar of the medieval literature of Beowulf, Sir Gawain, and others. In the late 1970s, Tolkien’s publisher attempted to capitalize on success of The Silmarillion by re-publishing almost everything Tolkien had ever written, including his academic work, repackaged for a popular audience.
Many of the ideas in Natural Science, at least musically, also came from a “mass of ideas called Uncle Tounouse” [Popoff, CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE, 76; http://rushvault.com/2011/02/05/natural-science/; and http://www.2112.net/powerwindows/main/PeWlyrics.htm%5D
At 9 minutes, 17 seconds, “Natural Science” consists of three parts: Tide Pools; Hyperspace; and Permanent Waves. These might have also have been titled, less poetically, Nature; Science; and Integrity.
In Part I, “Tide Pools,” Peart offers a vision of community. Each person is born into a myriad of factors. As the great Irishman, Edmund Burke, once said before Parliament: “Dark and inscrutable are the ways in which we come into the world.” Each person is born into a family, an environment, a language, a set of morality, a religious system (even if atheist), etc. Each of these factors shapes and delimits our very beings, and we must—from our earliest infancy—learn to move from one realm into another. From, for example, our family to our school. We must transition, we must bridge, we must understand, and we must integrate our experiences. Such a world of communities brings us security, but it might also allow for an insular kind of inbreeding and sloth. Looking at all of the connections and interactions, though, overwhelms us.
Wheels within wheels in a spiral array,
A pattern so grand and complex,
Time after time we lose sight of the way,
Our causes can’t see their effects.
Part II, “Hyperspace,” reveals how insane an integrated, uniform culture might before. Peart’s vision of conformity here is not of a communist or fascist variety, but instead of a capitalist, consumerist variety. It might metastasize uncontrollably.
A mechanized world out of hand.
For superior cynics
Who dance to a synthetic band.
In their own image,
Their world is fashion.
No wonder they don’t understand.
Part III, “Permanent Waves,” brings the story and listener to a stoic resignation, a realization that one must somehow and in some way recognize the limits as well as the advantages of an insular natural community and a hyper collectivist consumerism, brought together by (I presume) colossal bureaucracies of corporations, educational systems, and governments.
The true man, whatever the odds against him, will survive.
The most endangered species,
The honest man,
Will still survive annihilation.
Forming a world
State of integrity,
Sensitive, open and strong.
These are quintessentially Peartian themes, and he will return to them again and again in his lyrics. “Subdivisions,” for example, offers almost all of the same sentiments, but it does so in lyrics that are much more direct. The lyrics for Natural Science remain far more poetic than intellectual, far more artistic than philosophical. And yet, they are poetic, intellectual, artistic, and philosophical all at once.
They are. . . well, Peartian. Very Peartian.
Words of Friendship and Wisdom
In the summer of 1987, having completed my first year of college, I returned back to my hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas. It was one of the best summers of my life, as all of my high school friends were home, and I had the best job possible—I was the overnight DJ at a local radio station. In my mind, this really was the last year of my youth. I didn’t realize that at the time, but I do now. It was also, though, a summer of immense upheaval. The following school year, I wouldn’t be returning to the University of Notre Dame. Instead, I moved to Innsbruck, Austria, for a year. At home, a number of domestic crises would lead to a divorce. As much as I loved my mom, I needed to get away from the home front quickly. All of this added up to a summer of craziness, me being a little more wild than I should have been.
Trying to get me back on track, one of my two closest college friends sent me a letter toward the end of that summer. Inside, written on rice paper, neatly folded, were the lyrics to Natural Science, with a note of encouragement.
I carried that piece of folded rice paper with me—tucked in my wallet—for about two decades. It’s very hard to put into words what Peart’s thoughts in “Natural Science” did for me. “Natural Science” did for me in my 20s and 30s, what “Subdivisions” had done for me at 14. They gave me no easy answers or platitudes, but honesty and courage. They got me through many, many tough times, never failing to remind me that right has absolutely nothing to do with winning or losing. Right, instead, has to do with being right. Nothing more, nothing less. We do the right thing not for advantage, but merely and simply because it’s right. It’s not subjective. It’s either right, or it’s not. It’s not partially right or almost right. It’s either right, or it’s not.
Sometimes, we just need a big brother or a friend to remind us of these things.
Neil Peart, moral philosopher, “sensitive, open, and strong.”
For more from Progarchy on Rush
The first Rush album reviewed by Craig Breaden
A review of A Farewell to Kings by Kevin McCormick
A review of Power Windows by Brad Birzer
Kevin Williams on Clockwork Angels Tour
Brad Birzer on Clockwork Angels Tour
Erik Heter on Clockwork Angels Tour Concert in Texas
A review of Vapor Trails Remixed by Birzer
A review of Grace Under Pressure by Birzer