A Blue Collar Shakespeare: Philosophy in the Lyrics of Rush

Photo Credit: Redferns

I’ve been a Rush fan since I was about 15 years old when my friend introduced me to “The Spirit of Radio” and then “La Villa Strangiato”. The combination of sheer musical technicality, thoughtful lyrics and free-thinking nerdiness spoke to me as a lonely and introverted teenager living in a foreign country (our family had moved from Belfast to Chicago). “Subdivisions” was particularly close to my heart with its message of non-conformity (“be cool or be cast out”) playing out in the halls of my formidable high school.

With the lockdown, and with the recent death of Rush’s drummer and lyricist, the late and great Neil Peart, I’ve set about re-listening to the Rush catalogue and thinking about the philosophy (or philosophies) behind their songs.

The early lyrics of Rush, penned by Peart, are known for their thought-provoking references to literature, science-fiction and philosophy. Peart had a great way of speaking to rather than down to the common man (or we might say, “the working man” since the fanbase of Rush is predominantly, though not exclusively, made up of blue collar men). As Billy Corgan, lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins, explains in the fascinating documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage,

The thing I loved about Neil is that he took very complex metaphysical themes and was able to put them in a way that everybody could understand; whether he was ripping off Shakespeare or quoting his own heart, he was able to do it in a way that never felt snobby. It always felt like he was in the room talking to you.

Peart was a Canadian Shakespeare for the common person. Of course, he would have resisted such a grand title. He was simply Neil Peart.

In Peart’s own words,

we’ve always had the impression that people are just as smart as we are, so if we can figure this stuff out, they can too, that we’re not being (that terrible, damnable word) pretentious because we’re not pretending anything, this is really what turned us on this year. Lyrically, it’s always been a reflection of my times and the times I observed. But everyone is a reflection of me.

As any critic will tell you, the early lyrics of Rush are shot through with Libertarianism. While the prominence of the individual and individual freedom remained an important constellation in Peart’s lyrical galaxy, he moved beyond the Libertarian credo in interesting and insightful ways (though interestingly Peart, while critical of his earlier phase, maintained in his later years that he remained “a bleeding heart libertarian”).

Readers of this blog will know my own thoughts on libertarianism (suffice to say, I’m fairly dubious about the whole thing). I enjoy the fact that Rush’s lyrics reflect the importance of personal freedom (especially from totalitarian regimes) while also exploring the limits of that freedom. You only need listen to “Distant Early Warning” to see Peart’s ability to transcend categories, as he derides the “Red Book” while also recognising that “we need someone to talk to” before reprising with the chorus “I worry about you”. This is one of those places where Peart allowed a communitarian side to show in his lyrics. “Entre Nous” is another: while “we are secrets to each other”, nevertheless we are “joined in bonds of love / we’re linked to one another by such slender threads”. The words “alone and yet together” could perhaps sum up the mature Peart’s reflections on human social interactions.

It’s also important to note that where Peart’s libertarianism is overt, it was more of the social than the economic stripe. Hence songs like “Big Money” or “The Spirit of Radio” positively speak against absolute economic freedom and free-market fundamentalism.

My favourite three Rush songs also happen to speak of some of my own important ideals: conservatism, by which I mean the preservation and passing on of a common heritage (Red Barchetta), social activism and the pursuit of the common good (Closer to the Heart) and pessimism (or is it realism?) towards the notion that we will achieve infinite progress and immortal bliss through our own efforts (Xanadu, a heart-wrenching and tragic re-telling of Coleridge’s dreamy “Kubla Khan”). Of course, on the most important (and what I take to be the most true) philosophy of all, Christianity, Peart and I are worlds apart.

There are plenty of other songs that I enjoy and which are extremely meaningful but don’t reflect any deep philosophy as such (songs like “Marathon“, for instance which is simply an 80s banger about perseverance). The list isn’t exhaustive—I could have included “Time Stand Still“, for instance, which movingly weaves together reflections on being attentive to the present moment with references to William Blake on innocence and experience. Hopefully I’ll add to the list over time, particularly from some of Rush’s more recent albums as my knowledge of these is patchy.

Without further ado, the list:

1. Working Man (1974, Rush)- Pelagianism

“I have no time for living yeah / I’m working all the time”. 

2. Bastille Day (1975, Caress of Steel)- anti-totalitarianism

“la guillotine will claim her bloody prize”.  

3. Fly By Night (1975, Fly by Night) – neoliberalism

“leaving my homeland / fleeing a nomad / my life begins today”. 

4. *Closer to the Heart (1977, A Farewell to Kings)- social activism

“to mould a new reality / closer to heart”.

5. *Xanadu (1977, A Farewell to Kings) – pessimism

“Held within the pleasure dome / Decreed by Kubla Khan / To taste my bitter triumph / As a man, immortal man”.

6. A Farewell to Kings (A Farewell to Kings, 1977) – paternalism

“can’t we find the minds that made us strong?

7. The Trees – anti-socialism

“so the maples formed a union and demanded equal rights…and they passed a noble law / now the trees are all kept equal, through hatchet / axe and saw”.

8. Spirit of the Radio (1980, Permanent Waves) – anti-capitalism

“for the words of the profits were written on the studio walls, concert halls / and echo with the sound of salesmen“.

9. Freewill (1980, Permanent Waves)- atheism

“A planet of playthings / We dance on the strings / Of powers we cannot perceive”.

10. *Red Barchetta (1981, Moving Pictures)- conservatism

“down in his farm / my uncle preserves for me a new machine / for 50 odd years / to keep it as new has been his dearest dream / I strip away the old debris / that hides a shining car / a brilliant Red Barchetta from a better, vanished time”.

11. Limelight (1981, Moving Pictures)- isolationism

One must put up barriers / to keep one self intact”

12. Tom Sawyer (1981, Moving Pictures) – libertarianism

“No his mind is not for rent / to any god or government”.

13. Subdivisions (1982, Signals) – (suburban) nonconformism

“Conform or be cast out”.

14. New World Men (1982, Signals) – neoconservatism

“Learning to match the beat of the old-world man / Learning to catch the heat of the third-world man”.

15. The Body Electric (Grace Under Pressure, 1984)– transhumanism

“It replays each of the days / a hundred years of routine / Bows its head and prays / To the mother of all machines”. 

16. Distant Early Warning (Grace Under Pressure, 1984) – communitarianism

We need someone to talk to / And someone to sweep the floors” 

17. Mystic Rhythms (1985, Power Windows) – transcendentalism

“Nature seems to spin / a supernatural way”

18. The Big Money (1985, Power Windows) – post-liberalism

“Big Money, got no soul”.

CovidDiary Day 19 (Weds 8th April 2020)

What if this quarantine is just saving middle-class lives? That’s the question raised in this New York Times piece. The article runs with the headline: “white-collar quarantine”.

Sweden’s approach to the virus would appear to agree with this assessment. The Scandinavian country has famously taken a very different approach to the pandemic, with mitigation being preferred to a full-scale lockdown. One of the very interesting justifications given for this approach is equality—how could the government expect blue collar workers to “work from home” when their jobs required them to be out of their houses. Sweden’s chief epedemiologist, Anders Tegnell, put it this way:

Some people can work from home, but not everybody. How to maintain an equal society in that way? How can we maintain equality so that everybody has the same chance of staying well.”

Whatever we think of Sweden’s approach—and I happen to think it is certainly risky from a health stand-point—it at least acknowledges that economically vulnerable people are bound to be hit badly by a lockdown. Not everyone has the luxury of an office-based job that can be done remotely.

We are caught in a choice between saving lives now from the pandemic but storing up a range of economic and emotional problems in the future or losing a good number of lives now to help to balance this economic and emotional deficit. Sweden’s choice reminds us that difficult decisions have to be made. Some lose out, whichever decision is taken.

In light of such a bleak scenario, all this talk of “a year of jubilee” can stick in the throat.

I wrote about billionaires and footballers in my post from a few days ago. But what of me? I have a home office to work from, a job to go to, and a job that protects me from the elements and from interaction.

Of course, it isn’t quite true that this is a white-collar quarantine. Or at least, it isn’t true that those with means are left unaffected by the pandemic. We are all affected by the situation in different ways, some more hidden than others. Even the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has the virus and has recently been admitted to intensive care. As Theresa May tweeted a few nights ago, in many ways when it comes to health, this “horrific virus does not discriminate“.

Yet it’s certainly true that some are bearing the brunt more than others. I’m not a big fan of sociological theories that divide society up into various categories of difference. I often find them facile. But what I do believe to be incontrovertible is that some bear the marks of privilege—a steady home background, socio-economic security, health. All of these bring access to opportunities and, in a very real sense, open doors that for others are closed.

I enjoy these privileges.

What to do, then? I am not sure that responses of hand-wringing, or renunciation and guilt are appropriate, unless the privileges we possess are actually used for ill.

More profitable, I think, is to ask: what am I doing with these privileges? This question immediately turns us away from focussing on ourselves and has us centre our attention on others.

There are two proper attitudes to cultivate here, which are appropriate for Holy Week, that week where Christians remember Christ’s journey to Golgotha. These attitudes, or practices even, are generosity and lament.

  1. Generosity: we can keep others safe by avoiding physical contact. It is is strange how physical and spatial distancing have become forms of neighbour-love, but such are the times we are living in. But even as we are apart, we can support those worst hit by this virus and ensure that care is available for the most vulnerable. Organisations like Partners in Health are doing great work that is worthy of our support. The YourNeighbour initiative is linking local churches to the relief effort, mobilising volunteers to offer phone calls and deliver much needed shopping and medical items.
  2. Lament: we lament the tragedy of death and disease, declaring emphatically that this is not how things should be while hoping, waiting, praying and working for things to be different. We lament the hardship that many have fallen into, or now face even more starkly, as a result of being out of work. As Good Friday approaches, Christians remember how God in Christ went to the deepest and darkest place both in our place and also for us. God is therefore not aloof from our misery, suffering and hardship. Scripture is filled with examples of saints appealing to God to remember the suffering of his people. As Christians today lament, we too appeal to God for his mercy for all, on the basis of his character and covenant.

CovidDiary Day 12 (Weds 1st April 2020)

A purse inscribed with the words, “Remember the Poore” (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: Feast and Fast Exhibition; Photo: Simeon Burke)

Reading the news about football clubs who are placing non-playing staff on furlough, I can’t help but reflect on the moral state of our contemporary economy. I am left feeling pretty depressed.

I’m depressed at the absolute prioritisation of profit over people. As Julian Knight (MP) has put it, “This exposes the crazy economics in English football and the moral vacuum at its centre…It sticks in the throat”.

We have made the acquisition of capital itself a virtue. At the same time, we appear to have abandoned those true virtues of philanthropy, generosity and helping one’s fellow man.

But I’m also saddened that it took a crisis such as the current one to reveal this order of things to me. I confess to an uncaring apathy. I don’t think it’s self-flagellatory to say that I am partly implicated in this mess as I have enjoyed and followed these clubs for many years.

I want to be clear that I am not against the acquisition of wealth per se. I also think that any salary that is offered to non-playing staff should be done so voluntarily. I could partly sympathise with Corbyn’s harsh words towards the billionaires in election season last year. While I am slightly wary of actions taken by the state on this front, I do wonder if our taxation system is working as it should, particularly as many avoid taxes through off-shore accounts and the like.

Nor am I, at this point, willing to say we should scrap capitalism altogether. It’s the best system that we have, which is not to say it is a perfect one. As one commentator humorously relayed today, “Coronavirustide is ‘capitalism’s Lent'”. Indeed, capitalism needs serious re-thinking and serious chastening through virtues like generosity and philanthropy.

Tom Holland discusses Basil the Great and his brother Gregory of Nyssa in his chapter on Charity (Image Credit: The Times).

The history of Christianity has much to teach us here. I am reminded of Tom Holland’s wonderful chapter on Charity in his book Dominion. Holland argues that with Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, we find examples of individuals who embodied charity. As Holland explains, the virtue of generosity they took up was established on a realistic anthropology:

Do not despise these people in their abjection; do not think they merit no respect…Reflect on who they are, and you will understand their dignity; they have taken upon them the person of the Saviour. For he, the compassionate, has given them his own person.

Gregory, On the Love of the Poor 1

God’s love for the poor and outcast, created just as much in his image as you or I, demands a similar ethic of love and generosity. For Gregory and Basil, this worked itself out, as Holland demonstrates, in opposition to the slavetrade. For Martin of Tours, it led to a life of poverty and associating with the lepers and lowly. For other Christians, it involved rescuing the most defenceless of all—unwanted children (often girls) exposed to the elements and left to die.

There are countless chapters of Christian philanthropy throughout the centuries (one of my favourites is the Earl of Shaftesbury). Uniting most, or all of these chapters, though, is the conviction of the inherent dignity of every human person, whether wealthy football player or casual catering staff. As the words emblazoned on the 17th century purse in the photo above remind us (echoing Paul’s own to the Galatians), “remember the poore”.

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Returning to the subject at hand, I understand that billionaires often make their billions through a bright and novel idea that changes society. At the same time, there is nothing “bright” about doing so when one’s workers are on zero-hour contracts.

Thankfully, there are some very generous billionaires out there. I think of Bill Gates who, with other billionaires, plans to give all of his wealth away. In the context of sport, I am also gladdened when I hear that Juventus’s team and manager have chosen to freeze their wages for four months and Barcelona players have taken a 70% pay cut so that staff receive pay.

Amidst the greed of the “normal” status quo, then, are these some of the shoots emerging in this strange Spring of Change?