Live On Paper!

The Steve Streeter And Neil Peart Interview

By Steve Streeter, A Show Of Fans #17, Summer 1997, transcribed by pwrwindows

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First off, I think Test For Echo is yet another masterwork from you guys. Did you get the inspiration for the inukshuk from your trip to see the "midnight sun" as you described in Cycle Canada magazine?

I know that an inukshuk is on a Canadian coin as well. The parallel to the satellite dish is fascinating. What brought you to that connection? (pun intended.)

Hugh Syme did a knockout job once again on the artwork. I understand you work closely with Hugh on the conceptualization. How does that process work, specifically with T4E? Do you do "thumbnails?"

For a start, thank you for your opening shot of appreciation - it's always nice to know when someone likes the work. (If they don't, however, I don't care to know about it!)
A friend of mine has a small inukshuk in his house, and he told me of his experiences hiking on Baffin Island, seeing nothing but rocks and lichen and sky for days on end, and finally encountering a stone figure, inukshuk, "likeness of a man," and how good it felt to see this affirmation of other humans. "Echo."
My own travels in the Northwest Territories didn't reach nearly so far north, but I was impressed by an inukshuk overlooking the city of Yellowknife, and it evoked another a "echo," that of the watchful idol. Or a deity that people might pray to, in hopes of an "echo" in return. I bought a postcard of an inukshuk in Yellowknife and that postcard became the "starting point" for the cover art.
Perhaps you are aware that we had also intended to use the inukshuk in the still photo from 2001, to replace the monolith, but Mr. Turner's big ol' company wouldn't let us. Too bad - it would have been another cool take on that "presence."
With the satellite dishes, I was thinking particularly of the SETI people (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), who are signaling, watching, and listening, and again, they're simply hoping for an "echo." Then there are the secondary metaphors of that image, like satellite TV, modems, live camera uplinks, and even "spy satellites." (Not to mention my personal favorites, the weather satellites.)
Starting from those images, Hugh and I began trading ideas. After twenty years of working together on this particular aspect of Rush's presentation, we have developed a strong level of communication and understanding - much as Geddy and Alex and I have - and even if Hugh and I are thousands of miles apart, we can discuss something clearly enough that I'll know how it's going to look before I see it. It takes a few thousand words, perhaps, but thus we make the pictures.
With Test For Echo in particular, when I discussed these basic ideas with Geddy and Alex, Geddy suggested that he'd like to make the front cover more surreal somehow, and it was Alex who suggested the element to do that - tiny people. The twilight version on the cover of the tour book is actually the alternate shot for the CD cover, for we had made it with two different "moods," to give us a choice.
Hugh and I together worked out the images to accompany each song, and since most of them are capable of carrying more than one little metaphor, or shade of meaning, I hate to limit them by outright definition. For example, in the illustration for "Resist," I had wanted something which said "no surrender," and thought of the "No U-Turn" sign as a suitably oblique take on that. The "climbers," of course, provide another metaphor for personal progress, or in this case learning, yet even that is given an ironic twist in the song. For example, what else would you be expected to compromise except your own desires? Another sub-text in the song is about learning to accept your true limitations, but not the tiniest bit less.

I noticed during the live performance of "Test For Echo," O.J. Simpson flashed on the projection screen during the verse "don't do the crime." What is your take on that whole debacle?

The unstated comment in the song "Test For Echo" is "Does anybody else think this is weird?" That's pretty much how I felt about the world's fascination with O.J. Simpson's alleged homicides. "The showcase trial on TV" And that's only part of all that's weird about the things people choose for their entertainment.
Unless we want to pretend they're forced to watch all those top-rated TV shows, the daytime and the night-time time-wasters? Still, the song is not meant to be snobbish about TV by any means, for there's certainly some good stuff on the box (just as there is on the NetWeb), but has anybody else noticed that the good stuff doesn't tend to be all that popular? Does anybody else think this is weird?
"The only sin," said Oscar Wilde, "is stupidity." It's hard not to agree, but what's to be done? Nothing, really, but though I usually consider myself to be an optimist about human nature, sometimes when I watch the way people behave, especially toward each other, I feel more like Miranda's line in The Tempest, with a twist from the old Strawbs album: "O grave new world / That has such people in't."
Continuing in the vein of literary quotations, just today I received by mail-order a witty little book called The Devil's Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce. It is a collection of wry definitions, and this is how he defines the real enemies of goodness:
Idiot, n. A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling. The Idiot's activity is not confined to any special field of thought or action, but "pervades and regulates the whole." He has the last word in everything; his decision is unappealable. He sets the fashions of opinions and taste, dictates the limitations of speech and circumscribes conduct with a dead-line.

What prompted the vintage refrigerator to be added to the stage set?

The museum-quality refrigerator and appliances on stage left are just a light-hearted response to Alex filling up stage right with giant amps and every electronic effect known to megalomaniacal guitar players.

Another interesting addition to the T4E packaging is the snapshots of the three of you as youngsters. Also the footage in A Work In Progress with J.R. Flood - both portray a reminiscence that seems to go against the stance you have taken in the past. What prompted this? It's a priceless thing that you have chosen to share with us. The fans love it! Now the re-masters are coming up in a month. The past obviously has its place. Do you have a renewed vision of it?

The past definitely has its place: behind me! But seriously, the only "stance" I have ever taken against the past is to say that now is better than then, and just as I dislike all delusions, I dislike nostalgia, which is just dressing up the past in sentimentality. (A quality, as Paul Theroux pointed out in The Happy Isles of Oceania, which is too often displayed by bullies and boors.) Anybody whose life actually used to be good and now is bad, and they only expect it to get worse, well, they have my sympathy, for there's obviously something seriously wrong.
But just because I think the present is best (carpe diem and that) and I hope the future will be even better, that doesn't mean that the past isn't good. In our case, we have certainly never turned away from playing our old songs in concert, for example, and while I would gladly erase some of our past works from the Great Blackboard of Time if it were possible (no, I won't tell which), there are others which I still think are pretty darn good.
I'm not like Henry Ford ("History is bunk"), but I do believe that the past should be looked at with the clearest eye possible. Like the autobiography of Mel Torme (the "Velvet Fog"), It Wasn't All Velvet.
The teenage pictures in the T4E package are another kind of "echo," and of course they have the more important attributes of being funny and...kind of cute. That's true of the old shots of me which are shown in A Work In Progress; they are historical and hysterical, and represent a part of the whole "progress."
The remasters and reissues don't really have much to do with us, frankly. Phonogram owns all the old stuff, and they have the right to do that kind of thing. We can only try to make sure that it's done well.
For example, the forthcoming Retrospective collections were going to be "forthcoming" anyway, whatever we said or did, so I decided to spend a bit of time making them a little better than past efforts of that kind, in terms of material and presentation.
Regarding the remasters in particular, if those pieces of work are going to be available anyway, and Phonogram wants to make them better by remastering them, then there's certainly nothing wrong with that.
So it's not that I have a "renewed vision" of the past, it's just a consequence of the passing years. These days we have so much past to deal with!

I have to ask one question about "Virtuality." While the song's lyrics are not a negative take on the Internet, they do echo a bleak existence for the "net boy" or "net girl" who relies on the Net for "virtually" everything. Is this "thing" out of control? Where do you see the Internet going in the next few years? Even after your letter in Modern Drummer explaining the problems you have had with the Net, so-called Rush fans continue to blast you for your decision. I frankly don't understand their motives.

Me too neither. However, like religion, it seems to be a subject which does not permit any infidels, and especially laughing infidels. (See The Name Of The Rose.)
"Virtuality" has to be understood as satire (a species almost as endangered as irony in these times), and thus I have used a certain amount of exaggeration to try to puncture the exaggerations of those who have made a new religion out of this thing. Like "Test For Echo," this song has an unspoken commentary on its subject, and a generous whack of irony lurking behind all the miracles it describes. In answer to the narrator's claims in "Virtuality," that tacit comment is: "No you can't."
As far as anybody having a "bleak existence," well, I kind of think they'd be having one anyway, whether they squandered their time on mindless TV, video games, tossing cards against a wall, or burning churches. Such wastrels have probably been around since mankind first earned the luxury of having time to waste. As soon as we had a spare minute from gathering food and hiding from saber-tooth tigers, some of us were painting on cave walls, and some of us were firing sling shots at pterodactyls.
Regarding my "excoriation" in the pages of Modern Drummer, I can only say that I was genuinely shocked to be so vilified over an apology. And equally surprised and disappointed that an offhand, facetious "heresy" was considered to be more important than, say, that for twenty years I answered all that mail for no other reason than to be nice.
Of course there's no one to blame but the changing times, but all the same people shouldn't be blind to the consequences which change always entails. I can't think of anything that's all good or all bad, and it seems to me that only fanatics would believe it so. (And put a Salman-Rushdie-style fatwa on anyone who dared to disagree.) "O grave new world / That has such people in't."
A simple look at my drumkit would show that I'm hardly antitechnology, and I'm obviously staring at a computer screen now, as I type these replies. I see by the printer test sheet that over 10,000 pieces of paper have come out of my computer in the past eight or nine years, and all of those 10,000 pages were written for the purpose of communicating with other people, on one level or another. It's unfortunate that so many trees had to die for my sins, but on the other hand they were menial pulpwood like poplars, not majestic redwoods and rain forest hardwoods. And I do love the power of words on paper. With all of the technological marvels in today's world, we have not yet been able to synthesize wood (thinking of drums and drumsticks), and the same is true of paper.
As far as the future is concerned, I wouldn't dare to predict it. The greatest changes in modern times would never have been foreseen twenty years ago, by anyone - the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of the minivan, and certainly the spread of this particular "bone of contention," the Internet.
On that medium in particular, perhaps it will follow the trajectory of satellite TV (and North America) in gradually being changed from an unfenced wilderness into a safely packaged suburb by a host of profit-driven "service providers."

You are now an "Officer," along with your many other distinguishable qualities. Was it exciting to receive the Order Of Canada? What does it mean to you?

Receiving the Order of Canada was a very nice thing, a true honor, and I perceive it as an award for "good citizenship." Fair enough, for I think we have been good citizens. (We still live here, for one thing, which is rare enough among successful Canadians.) The ceremony itself was an unusual and interesting experience, and after all, it made our mothers proud. That can never be bad.

In "Half The World" you present a bittersweet view of life (the "haves" & the "have nots") that really hits the gong of reality smack in the face. Having been in Rush and succeeding "your way," how do you feel about the other half? Rush has been stellar in its donations to charity. It seems like you're always "giving back." What was the inspiration for "half the world." Any particular event? Also, the video is outstanding. It looks like you guys had a blast. Do you enjoy doing videos?

Years ago I picked up the line "half the world hates what the other half is doing" (don't remember where), and it hung around in my notebook until it found a "home." There are lots of "other halves," of course - racial, economic, political, sexual, religious, intellectual, linguistic, cultural - and it is so often a weakness of our (all too) human nature to celebrate our differences as a reflection of our spurious "group identity." At best I think that's bogus, and at worst, it's murderous.
I have often spoken-or written-against such shallow and divisive distinctions, as in "Territories" and "Alien Shore" and I probably will again, because they bother me. (The usual reason for things getting written about: they thrill me, or they bother me.)
On the subject of charities in general, I believe in voluntary help rather than the forcible kind, and try to live by that belief. Apart from what we do as a band, privately I support about a hundred separate NGOs (non-governmental organizations) which do the kind of helping, teaching, and conserving which seem good to me.
Regarding the "Half The World" video, that was a freezing, blustery day on the shore of Lake Ontario, so it wasn't exactly a picnic, but we've been doing these things for a long time, and certainly know how to make the best of it! As a general thing, given my above-described interest in words-on-paper (and "works on paper" like our covers and tour books), I am not nearly so interested in the "moving image."
Geddy, on the other hand, has always had a love for that field, and consequently he gets more involved in the video-making process. Lately he has worked closely with Dale Heslip in the same way that I do with Hugh Syme. In both circumstances, Alex is responsible for making all the jokes, to keep us from getting too serious, or too frustrated.
Shooting a video is not a performance as such, which makes it a little weird, but I have learned to approach as if it were real, and just to play the song as I would onstage. I tell the directors, "I'll play my drums; you take a picture of it!"
It's simpler that way. No "acting."

"Totem" is one of my favorite cuts on T4E. Both musically and lyrically it glows! It seems to me that you are once again expressing a facet of what "Freewill" suggested - freedom of choice. That means choosing either good or evil. In "Totem," you cover a handful of philosophies, and wind up with the rational, reality-based "I believe in what I see" & "I believe in what I hear" (sensism). But it is as if you are pointing the finger of caution toward many philosophies. "Totem" to me is an analogy for an integration of philosophies and religions. Am I correct in my interpretation? Have you reached a point of integration? It's obvious that to say you are a dyed-in-the-wool "Randian" would be a false statement. Yet the fact is, that core philosophy is IMPORTANT as a building block. Yes?

Yes. Again though, "Totem" has an impish, nose-tweaking urge, like "Virtuality," as I "borrow" some of the nice things about different belief-systems and get them all dancing together. But beware the irony - that which is not what it seems. The lines about "I believe in what I see" etc. are directly contradicted by the following lines: "I believe that what I'm feeling changes how the world appears." In other words, what I see and hear might change according to my mood or circumstances. (Or at least, I've noticed that it does with a lot of people.)

When performing live do you prefer indoor or outdoor venues? Does it make a difference to you?

Not really. I love the smell of the night air, but other than that there's really not too much difference. The matter of size is relevant, however, in both cases, and that's why we're comfortable in amphitheatres but not in stadiums or open fields (alter a few experimental, and ultimately unsatisfying, experiences).

Going back a bit to Roll The Bones, what's with the elephant butt?

Apart from the Deep Religious Significance (not really), the elephant butt represents the very largest bones rolling along-and, of course, the source for ivory, of which our main image, dice, used to be made.

It has been revealed that you found a copy of Anthem in the tube while in England before you joined Rush, yes? Tell me, is this true? Did you actually read it on the train? And what was your first reaction to it? I read Atlas Shrugged for the first time on a train from Houston to Chicago and there could not have been a better setting!

Here's a fine example of how stories get twisted, a little at a time, like that childhood game of "pass the story." let's catch this one early, before it "mutates" too far! I In fact, I bought a copy of The Fountainhead from a newsstand beside the tube station and read it while commuting to work on Carnaby Street every day.
For me that book at that point in my life was exactly the kind of affirmation that I've talked about with Test For Echo. "Somebody else out there feels the way I do about these things." Of any of the "labels" people try to stick on me, the only one I might accept would be "individualist" as opposed to "collectivist" (an innocent enough preference, I would think). To the individualist, nothing is a bible, and nobody's dogma is going to be accepted wholeheartedly. As Mendelson Joe might say, "not in my dogma-pound."
So much modern entertainment, from sitcoms to hit movies, rests on a simplistic moral formula: "Dumb and poor is good. Rich and smart is bad." This might be a self-ennobling reflection of those lines from Ambrose Bierce quoted above, but for myself, I used to get beaten up by poor, dumb kids, and I've known plenty of fine people who also happened to be smart and well off. And of course, I know lots of poor smart people, and all too many rich dumb ones. C'est la vie!
As one of those halfwit champions of showbiz morality famously said, "life is like a box of chocolates," but a more thoughtful individual might have figured out that sometimes you do know what you're going to get. You read the descriptions beside the little pictures, and then pick out the ones you like! Philosophy is just another box of chocolates.

Many Rush albums are brought to us by the letter (insert letter here). Just like on "Sesame Street." Will you share what these letters mean?

I'm happy to report that they don't mean anything, except perhaps in Power Windows, and then only because we noticed that we had a lot of songs starting with the letter "M." Otherwise, it's just another silly little joke to amuse our silly little minds (and perhaps others' too).

I was both inspired and surprised by your comment in an interview that your skills and performance level as a drummer are more the result of hard work and disciplined practice rather than pure talent. This is a really inspiring concept for any aspiration one might have. Could you elaborate on this philosophy, and comment on how to break through the perceived pain of practice, practice, practice...?

Simple answer: desire, desire, desire.

What is the role of risk in your writing and performance? How do you balance this with your highly-evolved discipline?

One of my formulas for life in general is : "Danger + Survival = Fun."
Obviously, everyone's got to work out that equation for themselves, especially in deciding how much risk is appropriate, needful, or, indeed-fun. "How much of a risk can I take and still survive, with the expectation that the experience will be worthwhile?"
This formula applies equally well to writing, performing, and traipsing around in the African Sahel. It's a "Roll The Bones" kind of theme.

During the intermission break on the T4E tour there is a "biker-babe B-movie" that runs. What is that film, and who chose it?

I believe it's actually a collection of trailers for bikermovies, which Geddy thought would be funny for the intermission.

Who is your favorite comic-book hero?

Alex Lifeson