“I can’t pretend a stranger is a long awaited friend”. This statement comes from Neil Peart in his lyrics to Limelight off of the Rush album Moving Pictures. I recently watched the a documentary, Beyond the Lighted Stage a biopic about Rush and their rise to stardom. Lead singer and bassist Geddy Lee was talking about drummer Neil Peart. He explained that this lyric was indicative of Neil as a person. Apparently many see Peart as reclusive and stand offish and perhaps Limelight was his way of detailing his feelings about fame, to a fandom that did not quite understand his way of thinking. Then again, most Rush fans know that we get Neil and his views on life through his lyrical prowess.
It is a small group of Rush’s lyrics that has caught me this week. In my role as a therapist, I have to at least pretend that a stranger is indeed a long awaited friend. I do not really have the luxury of seeing others through a negative lens, instead I have to seek and accentuate the positive, even when the positive is very far from reality. Actually this maxim is written into the dynamics of functional family therapy (my most recent direction in therapeutic interventions). In a recent training the trainer suggested that she would like to take days off just to hate because it had become so difficult to see a problem without seeing that it was a solution in process. But it is not so much this single area of my life that I wish to highlight. I want to talk about lyrics and at the same time I want to talk about the way that Rush’s song lyrics have impact.
From the time I was a teen, first discovering the magical and mystical world of rock and roll, I have held that a kinship to music is a strong support for the adventures and events of our lifetimes. Whether I was in my room listening to Marillion’s Fugazi while pouring over the lyrics, or feeling isolated from what seemed like an uncaring world and feeling it through the music of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” or “Comfortably Numb”, I always felt that the way music reflected my personal struggles was important and it could indeed be the listening friend I needed when it seemed all else had failed in my world. Music provided a consistent and supportive presence, a reflection of understanding, and a medium through which finding myself became more likely. This side of music was so powerful to me, that as I matured and began thinking about the ways in which music had served me, I conjectured that the music itself must in some way be therapeutic, particularly in its ability to reflect my mood and state of mind in song lyrics. The same is still true today.
At one point in time I thought that I would catalog the lyrical content of contemporary rock music, identifying the moods and feeling templates provided. Thus at some point in my life I believed I would be able to in some sense, prescribe music to those whom I wanted to have a particular experience. Some of this manifested early on in the form of mix tapes. Yes Mixtapes, that time honored tradition of the 80’s and 90’s for delivering others into your personal soundsphere. This blossomed further into radio shows at West Georgia College and finally into the stalwart prog rock vehicle we call Soundscape. To be fair, this original impulse to prescribe has often been superseded by a wish to cull themes and present the new to those who would miss it otherwise. In total now, I seem to try more for delivering an experience of the music rather than speaking to a main emotional theme. Despite this, the philosophy of music as a healing and experiential tool has remained with me to this day and this is where the last week and the works of Rush has started my play with this idea yet again.
One of the lyrics of The Grateful Dead from Cassidy is appropriate here. “Let the words be yours I am done with mine”. Similarly in the past Jerry and other members of the band have spoken about the malleability of a song to the mood and moment. Thus Grateful Dead songs were developed with a necessary ambiguity in order to appeal and reflect to the greatest majority of people. If this is true, if a song were able to perfectly reflect all states of mind, and only the listener determined the meaning, we might have one hell of a song- hell it may even rival The Beatles. Nevertheless this sentiment is often missed by many songwriters. While “Baby your a firework” may appeal to a majority of people, it rarely hits with the emotional potential of something more directive. So in the end, perhaps music should be subdivided into pertinent life themes, existential expressions, and emotional rorschachs intended to provide the prescription to a set of life themes and archetypes. This is what Rush has done through the lyrical prowess of Neil Peart.
It would be impossible to pick through the vast catalog of Rush and deliver each and every theme present. Maybe this is even a worthwhile destination for future articles but for now, perhaps as an attempt to stir your imagination, I want to point out some of the ways that Neil’s lyrics have influenced me.
Let’s begin with “Subdivisions”. The song speaks to suburban pressures and marginalization in high school youth. The lyrics were instrumental in voicing the concerns of less than popular high school kids all over North America. We all knew very well the dominating truth in the lines “conform or be cast out”. We saw the video which depicted the average geek left out of the grand scale life his peers were supposedly living. Unfortunately, I think the music made very little impact on the people it could have benefited the most. Instead it stood as an anthem to the disempowered casting a light on a social theme of bullying- which unfortunately still continues to this day.
This week I decided, having viewed the Rush video, to listen to most of the Rush catalog. I was also trying to identify with one of my clients fathers who is feeling run ragged and unable to cope with the situations he is dealing with in his family. From my point of view, he is experiencing a great deal of challenges himself and probably needs his own individual treatment and this has separated him from his family in ways that are very difficult to articulate. Enter an unlikely source of inspiration, “Distant Early Warning” from the Grace Under Pressure album. I recognized in some of the lyrics the exact understanding I needed for this family and this father, “The world weighs on my shoulders but what am I to do. You sometimes drive me crazy, but I worry about you. I know it makes no difference to what you’re going through, but I see the tip of the iceberg and I worry about you”. There, in that lyric, I found my client, I found his teenage son, and I found the feeling I needed to better understand the whole family state of mind. I began to wish that I could prescribe Rush songs to every client. How ideal was this vision of desperation and yet acceptance. If only this father could say this to his son without blowing up, without pushing blame, with total confidence, what a difference would it all make.
The greatest prowess a piece of art can show is to connect with a variety of situations and reflect the vagaries of everyday challenges. How many times has Rush provided a bridge in relationships? On Permanent Waves in the lyrics of “Free Will” many of us can see the battle that is oft played out in the mind as we imagine the role of Gods and luck in our own lives; “You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice, if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice, you can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill, I will choose a path that’s clear, I will choose free will”. Or what about the way that “Entre Nous” so helps us reflect a sense of loneliness yet reaching out, “We are secrets to each other, each one’s life a novel no one else has read, even joined in bonds of love, we’re linked to one another by such slender threads”. I can recall a conversation with a friend some time ago in which he said “we are all alone, but we are together in our aloneness”. Whether we trust such an idea or not, I think it is definitely an emotional state we enter on a regular basis. Entre Nous, seems to reflect that sentiment.
As I stated, it would be impossible for me to go through every song by Rush. What I wanted to do instead was hopefully peek your curiosity. Sure I want you to listen to Rush, but that is not the point, I want you to examine how your chosen music plays a role in your daily life whether you are a “Blue Collar Man” or someone who has found a wall blocking your path; “It rises now before me, a dark and silent barrier between all I am and all that I am ever meant to be”. Soundscape used to have a feature called lyrical spelunking. The idea was to take a single song and plumb its depths, find the hidden meanings, look for the ways that the song references culture, or depicts a daily struggle for us fumbling humans. That idea did not work so well in the context of Soundscape but perhaps we could do some justice here on the blog. Music itself can be a product of the conspiracy of light, weaving themes through our soundscape and forcing song memes and worms into our growing awareness. As such I invite you all to develop this awareness and do your own lyrical spelunking. Now go listen to Rush!
Yes its a cheesy video!