So, I used to love this band. I discovered them just before I entered high school, and near their commercial peak. They were Canadian, and I’d already started to love all things Great White North, though they were possibly my first “favorite” one of those. I was in band from 4th grade—Grade Four, for you Canucks—and I noticed they were a musician’s band, an entity prized by insiders and often dismissed by the general public. I’ll stop hinting and say now that Rush, the band in question, became my top musical thing almost instantly, and remained so until the mid-90s.
The lyrics were almost all written by drummer Neil Peart—take out the “P” and the “t” and you know how to pronounce his whole name properly when you put them back again—and although sometimes pretentious and sometimes less than wholly elegant, I loved them and they inspired and guided me. Neil was like a teacher out of school, someone who cared increasingly about writing about human things. He wrote about individualism, about forging an artistic path in the face of opposing forces, about working hard and staying true to one’s dreams. Then he started to write about more personal and everyday experience. He wrote about fear, about dreams, about inspiration. He wrote about relationships, about loss, about the little things that make life richer. This was the period I felt most connected, when I thought, “yes! This deep connection is what’s important.”
Then something changed. For a time, the lyrics he wrote seemed to me to have a sardonic tone. I found an attitude in them I wasn’t sure I liked. It wasn’t quite contempt, but they didn’t have the same love of humanity I’d noticed and identified with before. I’m not sure what happened, but I’ve seen something like it in artists who achieve a high level of material success. Perhaps it’s the isolation of fame. It might be simple weariness after years of exhaustive effort trying to maintain their success. Whatever the reason, I think it’s instructive.
We have a duty as artists to tell the truth, as we see it. But contempt is not an attractive quality. I’d say that humility, rather, is something to be cultivated and kept in mind while working on anything we make. Nobody does this work alone, we all need help, at times. What makes art universal is its basic humanity, the connection to common experience: our emotions, our fears, our triumphs. We should strive to respect and understand those traits, rather than downplay them.
I don’t believe in much. But as often as it can seem like the world is full of selfish assholes, I believe most of us want the best for others, most are willing to help, most have the capacity to love and to give. Those are things to celebrate and encourage, and they’re compelling and engaging. I refuse to believe everything is shit just because life is hard and sometimes we’re horrible to each other. We can be so brave and charitable, too.
There’s a coda: Peart changed again over time, and a new maturity—post terrible tragedy and grief—crept back into his work, culminating in some really tender and heartfelt songs, encouraging and affecting stuff I was and still am proud to enjoy. I can’t deny it—even if I have new favorite musicians, I do still love that band.