Music

Neil Peart, Champion of Individualism

The late drummer left behind a legacy of unparalleled musicianship and freedom-celebrating lyrics.

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Neil Peart, the longtime drummer for the Canadian band Rush, died last week of brain cancer, leaving behind a legacy as one of rock's most technically accomplished percussionists and perhaps its most articulate libertarian lyricist. The 67-year-old songwriter regularly championed individualism, choice, and freedom over soul-crushing conformity.

Early Rush songs are saturated with such messages. The song "Freewill," released on 1980's Permanent Waves album, puts self-determination at the root of the human experience: "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

In "The Trees," released two years earlier, Peart tells a fable about a forest where the maple trees demand to be made equal with the taller oaks. It doesn't go well:

So the maples formed a union
and demanded equal rights.
"The oaks are just too greedy.
We will make them give us light."
Now there's no more oak oppression
for they passed a noble law.
And the trees are all kept equal
by hatchet, axe, and saw.

Sometimes Peart's individualism could be compressed into a single line, as in Rush's 1981 hit "Tom Sawyer": "No, his mind is not for rent/to any god or government."

Rush's 1976 album 2112, which Peart dedicated to the "genius of Ayn Rand," tells the story of a futuristic theocracy that outlaws individualism and creativity, including the electric guitar. Rand's novel The Fountainhead had a particularly heavy influence on Peart, who described the affinity he felt for the book's protagonist in a 1997 interview with Scott Bullock for Liberty magazine:

Howard Roark stood as a role model for me—as exactly the way I already was living. Even at that tender age [18] I already felt that. And it was intuitive or instinctive or inbred stubbornness or whatever; but I had already made those choices and suffered for them.

As Bullock notes, the driving force here wasn't Rand's full-throated endorsement of commerce; it was her defense of individual will and artistic integrity against corrupting conformity, whether the pressure to conform comes from the government or from soulless corporate executives.

As time went on, Peart distanced himself from Rand and some of her more radical policy notions. The Liberty profile mentions that Peart supports a government safety net. By 2015, he was telling Rolling Stone: "For a person of my sensibility, you're only left with the Democratic Party….The whole health-care thing—denying mercy to suffering people? What? This is Christian?" Rush even sent libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) a cease-and-desist letter in 2010 to get the then-candidate to stop using its songs at rallies and in videos, although the band's lawyers insisted that this was a solely a copyright issue.

So went Peart's ideological journey. Meanwhile, the music he made will continue to have a life of its own, inspiring people with its defense of individual freedom for decades to come.

Bonus link: Matt Kibbe on Peart and Rand.

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