Sometime just prior to spring break in March of 1981, I sat at one of the old wooden tables in Liberty Junior High in Hutchinson, Kansas. The building no longer exists, having been destroyed that same year to make way for Liberty Middle School. The old building had charm though, even in its dilapidation, while the updated one, not surprisingly, reeks of prison. What happened to those lovingly carved, tagged, and scarred tables at which I once sat, read, scrawled, and thought, I have no idea. They were either sold at auction or met the same fate as the scarily swaying staircases. In the end, the bulldozer comes for us all.
That particular March day means something quite special to me. In detention for some reason, I sat with my friends, Troy S. and Brad (yes, same first time) L. I had gone to early grade school with them at Wiley Elementary, and we’d reunited in junior high after three years apart while I attended Holy Cross Catholic for grades four through six. Since we’d last seen each other in third grade, our music tastes had changed rather considerably. I’d started pontificating about the brilliance of Genesis’s 1980 album Duke, while Troy and Brad were into harder music. They asked me if I’d ever listened to a Canadian band called Rush. I hadn’t, I admitted, intrigued. Afterwards, I rode my bike to the local record store and purchased Rush’s latest album, Moving Pictures.
To say that the album changed my life would be a trite understatement. It radically altered my understanding of the world, not only by its words but by its example. To this day, I can remember the smell of that album sleeve, glossy, thick, and oily, quite different from the cheap paper-thin sleeves prevalent among so many commercial albums. With three kinetic photos of the band members on the right side of the sleeve, white lettering giving credit on a black ground on the left side, and all of the lyrics on the alternate side, I devoured every word and image. Something profound spoke to my eager and open 13-year-old mind.
Then, of course, I put the album on the turntable. Slowly placing side one up, I used the static brush to clean the surface of any unwanted dust. Even so, the needle crackled and popped through the speakers as the radically deep and descending synthesizer of the opening notes to Tom Sawyer began, the speakers shaking with untamed bass and god-like percussives. Then I heard the bizarrely weird yet strangely attractive voice of Geddy Lee pronouncing the lyrics as though from on high: “A modern-day warrior; mean mean stride; today’s Tom Sawyer; mean, mean pride. Though his mind is not for rent, don’t put him down as arrogant. His reserve is a quiet defense, riding out the day’s events.”
Without wallowing in any self-pity, let me just state that I did not have the most idyllic childhood, at least on the domestic front. I had my books, my Batman comics, my imagination, and a few close friends. On foot and bike, I explored every nook and cranny of Hutchinson with a fervor not known since Lewis and Clark. But I despised school, and I despised the brooding anger between my mom and stepfather even more. My older brothers—much older—were out of the house permanently by the time I had entered seventh grade. I was alone when it came to dealing with my parents. Escape into the intellect and the imagination became my overriding priorities and securities. When I did have to spend time at home, I put on my headphones; read science fiction, history, and comics; and taught myself to type, hoping all the while that my stepfather wouldn’t bring the wrath of hell upon me. (My adult life, by the way, has been as blessed as my childhood was cursed. Amen.)
The intelligence and the conviction of Rush’s music spoke volumes to me. I didn’t have the confidence of a Tom Sawyer, but by God, I wanted it. The lyrics of Moving Pictures seemed to have been written just for me—a confused loner trying to make sense of the world. The songs dealt with, in order, having integrity and being oneself; escape from an oppressive government; living with excellence; seeing mystery in the variations of life; fighting conformity and oppression; and embracing the spark of imagination. What more could any serious person want from art?
The following year, 1982, Rush released Signals, an album that sounded radically different from Moving Pictures in terms of musical style, but continued the themes of integrity, morality, and individualism:
Growing up, it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass-production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone
In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
In 1984, Rush released Grace Under Pressure, once again a new direction musically but with the same themes lyrically. This album had an apocalyptic feel; it worried about everything from concentration camps to artificial intelligence to ideological conformity. “Brother, can you spare another war, another wasteland, and another lost generation?” For a sophomore year humanities seminar at the University of Notre Dame, spring 1988, I decided to test Peart’s ideas. Giving full credit to Peart himself, I wrote my semester-long paper using only the lyrics of Grace Under Pressure to analyze not only the essence of the human person but also the person’s place in the world. The paper earned an A, and I became convinced that Peart is one of the great thinkers of the modern world.
Not only did Peart’s lyrics speak directly to me, they bestowed upon me immense strength. They continue to do so to this day. While I can’t give credit to Rush alone, I can state firmly and without exaggeration that the art of Rush, Tolkien, Batman, and Bradbury kept me alive during the horrors of domestic upheaval, until at last I permanently escaped, graduating from high school in 1986.
While I cannot speak to the abuses (or not) that others have endured, I can state with certainty that Peart’s words and ideas have shaped at least two generations of young men, all of whom came of age sometime between the 1970s and the 1990s. Famed economist, cancer survivor, and all around man of letters Steve Horwitz has acknowledged that the three men of Rush have served as “constant companions” throughout his life, offering him not just friendship but “spiritual renewal and inspiration.” “Now as I face down cancer,” Horwitz said, “they are still there with me every step of the way, reminding me what it means to live a life worth living.”
Renowned classical guitarist and award-winning national poet Kevin McCormick remembered his first meaningful encounter with the Canadian trio this way:
But there, in Rush, I was moved by not only the power and complexity of the music, but by words that took music and life seriously. The vast majority of the music of the rock of late seventies was celebrating the bacchanalian excesses of the “rock star.” Here was thinking-young man’s music: “But glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity.” It wasn’t particularly poetic, but in the context of the music it was filled with meaning. Rush were a band with something interesting to say about reality. And the album it came from, Permanent Waves, was filled with other reflections on the meaning of life and freedom and love—a tonic contrast to the incessant “sex, drugs and rock n roll” drivel that saturated the airwaves.
Writer Damon Linker of The Week says: “Rush combines unparalleled excellence in musicianship with uncommonly thoughtful, highly literate lyrics. When those two qualities unites with a with a real talent for melodic songwriting, there was simply no one better in the rock pantheon.”
Ed Stenger, who runs one of the two most successful Rush sites on the web, Rush is a Band (the other being Eric Hansen’s PowerWindows), explains Rush’s success perfectly:
Rush has remained relevant over their 40-plus year career due to their consistent commitment to excellence. With each album they push the boundaries of their art, but never compromise and never repeat themselves. Their musical style and lyrical subject matter may shift and evolve from album to album, but the musicianship, integrity and attention to detail are always there. Fans can always count on Rush being the same three guys—no drama, no breakups, and no nonsense—who consistently deliver great music that stands the test of time.
Though Rush more or less retired from touring on August 1, 2015, their fanbase remains as great, as deep, and as active as ever. Guitarist Alex Lifeson continues to play guitar, drummer and lyricist Neil Peart continues to write his bestselling travel memoirs, and bassist and singer Geddy Lee is releasing his arty Big Book of Bass this month. Rush memes pop up all over social media, and speculation continues about the future of the band.
Almost 45 years after drummer Peart joined, Rush remains as inspirational today as it’s ever been. After all, this is a band that cautioned two generations:
Some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight
The essence of the meaning of all Rush lyrics: love excellence and be yourself. Strangely enough, I first learned of them while being punished for a crime I don’t even remember. It was worth it though. Those words, after all, have kept me afloat for almost four decades.
Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.