'The Professor' Of Rock

Rush's Neil Peart Is As Much A Wiz On World Affairs As Drums

By Darrell Shoults, St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 28, 1986

Whenever the Canadian rock trio Rush performs in concert, you'll see banners praising "The Professor." The banners are in honor of drummer Neil Peart; the nickname refers to his excellence on the drums.

But if the sign-makers had a chance to sit and talk to Peart, they might call him "The Professor" for another reason: Peart is as articulate a rock star as you're likely to find, given to lengthy explanations for his actions and feelings, alwasy ready to discuss everything from the failings of the nuclear protest movement to the problems of corporate sponsorship of rock tours to resisting the temptations inherent with a life in rock 'n' roll.

And as lyricist for the group that will perform at the Arena Monday, Peart often puts his thoughts on vinyl. In years gone by, those thoughts were often disguised in the symbolism of science fiction or sword and sorcery, in songs like "2112," "Hemispheres," and "Cygnus X-1." But now, Peart says, he prefers the straight approach.

"I was never really that enamoured of science-fiction writing," Peart said during a telephone interview, "but at the time, it was a convenient vehicle. And using the mythology and symbolism was a phase that I had to grow out of. And I have; now I can't stand symbolism, either to read it or write it. I want to deal in issues involving idealism and romanticism, which I still care about, but I want them to apply to the real world and what's going on. If you don't move into the real world, you wind up sitting in a room with no windows, dreaming about a world you weren't born into.

"It takes a log of maturity to be able to write about the real world," Peart added. "I hope I've reached that level of maturity."

On the latest Rush album, "Power Windows," Peart writes about the challenges of improving your lot in life ("Middletown Dreams"), the similarities between life and a long-distance race ("Marathon"), the pitfalls and power of being rich ("Big Money"), and even the start of the Atomic Age ("Manhattan Project").

"Manhattan Project" is a straight historical retelling of the creation and use of the first atomic bomb. According to Peart, it was at the same time simple and difficult to write.

"'Manhattan Project' is almost a documentary and easy enough to research and write about, but to write about it in short little lines that rhyme can be difficult. The material has to be accurate, and yet the lyrics have to be written in such a way that Geddy (Lee, Rush's bassist and vocalist) can feel comfortable delivering them. They can't be simply narration.

"There's a judgement there against extremism on both ends, but there's no blanket anti-nuclear statement. For instance, in the lines that say 'the fools try to wish it away,' there's a statement against the extremism of the people who would wish for unilateral disarmament, saying: 'This is causing us a bit of trouble; let's throw it out.'"

Warming to his topic, Peart added: "As a concerned environmentalist, I object to the knee-jerk reactions of some of the anti-nuclear protestors. If they saw the forests of North Carolina and Virginia or the Black Forests of Germany and witnessed how they're being defoliated by the creation of coal power, by the sulfur being thrown in the air, perhaps they wouldn't be so quick to spout out the kind of knee-jerk liberalism that prefers 19th-century solutions like coal power."

It's that kind of thinking that goes into Peart's lyrics, which are fitted to the music of Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson. Peart has been with the band since 1974, and he's seen the group become one of the most popular acts in rock 'n' roll. And in those 12 years, Peart has developed some strong opinions about what's right - and what's wrong - with his business.

For example, Peart takes a dim view of corporate sponsorship of rock tours. "We've always refused to be involved in such things," he said. "It compromises you, and unless you resist it at the outset, before long, rock music will be like auto racing - where everything is tied to the sponsor -and as soon as you get out of your race car, you have to put on a hat with the sponsor's name on it. It's hopelessly demeaning and completely lacking in dignity.

"What's worse is that we could be approaching a time - and it may indeed be upon us - that groups in a situation like we were 12 years ago, trying to get their careers started, won't be able to get a tour unless they can find some big corporation to sponsor them. That's a terrifying situation.

Learning to say no has enabled the members of Rush to keep their sanity - and their health - despite more than a decade of touring and recording.

"When you look at the cost in human lives among musicians, when you look at the drug and alcohol problems in this business, it's terrifying. And you can't just say it's because they were weak individuals; there are certainly special pressures and demands that cause people to turn into alcoholics and drug abusers, or to develop tremendous psychological problems. I've seen the pressures people put on you, the pressures inherent in trying to live the artificial life of a 'star.' You can't do what everybody wants you to do; the cost of such role-playing is the loss of yourself."

So Rush takes things in moderation, Peart says. They limit the length of time they'll be on the road and the number of days in a row they'll do concerts. And they develop interests outside music; in Peart's case, those interests include reading everything he gets his hands on and participating in endurance sports. He'll happily tell you about taking 100-mile bicycle rides, for example.

And that's pretty smart. But what would you expect from The Professor?