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Subject: 08/09/91 - The National Midnight Star #312  ** Special Edition **

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          The National Midnight Star, Number 312

                  Friday, 9 August 1991
Today's Topics:
          The Songwriting Interview: Neil Peart         
----------------------------------------------------------

From: jaeger@buphy.bu.edu (Gregg Jaeger)
Subject: The Songwriting Interview: Neil Peart

Hi Everyone,

There's lots of good stuff about lyrics and literature and a nice 
bit about ``Vital Signs''

-----------------------------------
Gregg Jaeger    (jaeger@buphy.bu.edu)  ``Truth is after all a moving target'' 
Dept(s). of Physics (and Philosophy)                     
Boston University, Boston MA 02215       In Rush I trust.	
------------------------------------------------------------------------------

>From _Guitar_, October,1986.

The Songwriting Interview: Neil Peart              By Bruce Pollock


Downstairs, in the labyrinthine chambers of the Meadowlands, at two
minutes to midnight, is neither the place nor the time one would be
expecting to discuss the course of American Literature. ``When you 
look at Herman Melville and Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne -- the
turn of the century American school of writers -- and how writing
developed through Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser and then up to
Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, there was a tremendous
progression, but at the same time an elimination. That progression
of writing was a process of stripping things away and eliminating 
the inessential, making, in effect, the right word do the job of
five approximations.''

And neither would you expect the drummer of a world-renowned arena-
resounding rock band to be conversant with the subtleties of black
humor. ``I love writers like Thomas Pynchon and John Barth and Tom
Robbins. To me Robbins is the quintessential modern writer because
he's funny, he's profound, he's sexy, he's irreverant, he's dirty,
he's hip. He's everything I would like modern writing to be.''

If you're talking rock lyrics, you'd have to consider Neil Peart,
Rush's resident drummer/lyricist, as today's quintessential songwriter.
Unashamedly intellectual in a world of lip-readers, Peart is the
thinking man's wordslinger equivalent of Yngwie Malmsteen. What
the flashy Swede does with notes, sheer manual dexterity, the loping
Canadian accomplishes with words, a verbal drumbeat that is as much
part of Rush's sound as Alex Lifeson's guitar or Geddy Lee's bass.
Speaking, in fact, in the same shifting time-signatures that
characterize Rush's music, Peart is in total command of his mental
resources, analyzing, conceptualizing, pontificating about the
lyrics that are near and dear to his heart, an [sic] near and
dear to the hearts of Rush fans the world over.

``I can take someone like T.S. Eliot, who has influenced me greatly
over the last few years, and realize that what he was doing was
just throwing so many images at you all the time that you were
left dizzy. But at the same time you were left with something.
You were stepping into another dimension. So I use that idea.
On a song like _Red Lenses_ from the _Grace Under Pressure_
album, I tried to construct a series of ongoing images that just
came at you. The color red was theme of it, but I twisted it
in so many ways. It was the hardest thing I ever wrote, because
I was trying not to say anything, and each line was saying
something but at the same time it [sic] was trying to be so 
obscure and so oblique about the way I went around saying it 
-- on purpose. It seems confounding, but in the end you're left 
with something. T.S. Eliot's poetry is the same way to me. At 
the end of it I don't really know what I've read, but it comes 
back to me. When I think of _The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock_ 
or _The Wasteland_ I can't quote lines from them, and I can't say 
I understand everything that was said, but they move me.''

With a catalogue of standards that includes _Big Money_, _Tom
Sawyer_, _Closer to the Heart_, _Vital Signs_, _Distant Early
Warning_ and _Limelight_, you'd think Neil Peart would be
content to relax atop the shelf of lyrics he's given his many
fans to ponder. But, like the relentless perfectionist he is,
Peart is driven to grander vistas of achievement. ``For me,
prose is where it's at,'' he says, a rare lapse into 
the vernacular. ``I'd love to throw away the limitations of
verse and be to express myself in a much broader medium. To
be able to write in sentences and paragraphs and whole chapters
and sub-chapters appeals to me greatly. Someday I would love
to turn out just one good short story.''

So, while we've got him on our turf, working in the medium of
the song lyric, we sat Neil down and grilled him extensively
about his approach to his craft.


-- Were you a student of songs before you started writing them?

``No, but I was a student of words and a student of rhythm. I
think as a listener of music, lyrics were strictly tertiary for
me. First there was the song and then there was the musicianship,
and then, after I already liked the song, there were the lyrics.
There's no way I'll ever like the lyrics to a song that I don't
like. It's an essential relationship. So I never really paid a
lot of attention to lyrics until after I started writing them,
and then it became a craft, like drumming. If I weren't a drummer
I don't think I'd spend a lot of time thinking about drumming or
drummers. It's something I became aware of as my involvement with
words became more and more active and intense. At that point I
started to become more aware of the techniques. I learned about
rhymes and learned what's a real [sic] good rhyme and what's a
false rhyme, what's a rhyme for the sake of convenience and what's
a carefully constructed one. I have a very rigid set of values in
those terms. I'll never rhyme just for the sake of it. I hate
semi-rhymes.''

-- With some of the words you use in your songs, it seems the lyrics
must have been written before the music.

``It essentially goes both ways, but I think being a drummer has
been very helpful to me. I have a good sense of the music of words
and the poetry of words and what makes a nice-sounding and even
a nice-looking word. For instance, Territories as a title appeals
to me as much to look at as it does to listen to. I find that the
more layers a word or series of words offers to me, the more 
satisfied I am. So if I can get a series of words that are 
rhymically interesting and maybe have some kind of internal rhyming 
and rhythmic relationship, plus at least two ideas in there too, 
the more pleased I am. I love to sneak little bits of alliteration 
in -- even if it would never be recognized. It _is_ recognized. 
It's like, the more you put in it's always there and even sometimes
the more you take out, it's still in. I do like to get away with
unusual words, but there are limits. There are some words that
are not good to sing. They can sound and look good and feel right
in the context of a piece of verse, but when I go over them with
Geddy, he'll complain that either I've gone overboard with the 
alliteration or there are certain vowel-consonant combinations
that, from a singer's point of view, are very difficult to
deliver because you have to think so much about the elocution
of those syllables that you can't possibly deliver them with
the necessary emotions. There are things that Geddy suggests to
me from a singer's point of view that help me alot.

-- Are you thinking with the drum track in mind when you write lyrics?

Oh definitely. Being a drummer helps me a lot, because words are
a subdivision of time. Sometimes I give my verse to Geddy and he's
perplexed by how he's supposed to deliver it and I have to express
it with my toneless delivery. Things have to be phrased in less
obvious ways sometimes, across a bar line, with one syllable 
stretched and another compacted. In a song like _The Manhattan
Project_, where it is essentially a documentary, I wanted the
delivery to be like punctuation, and the chorus had to be more
passionate and more rhythmically active. It was hard to express
exactly how I wanted it. The first time we worked on the music,
they had phrased the lyrics in a very slow manner and I had to
protest. The phrasing of the line [sic] was two short lines and then
a long line and two short lines and then a long line. There were 
internal rhymes and internal relationships among the words and 
within the delivery that had to remain intact for it to make 
sense at all. It was so carefully crafted that it couldn't be 
delivered any old way.''

-- When you come up with lyrics do you have your own melody?

``Yes, but it's purely arbitrary. Sometimes it can be the most
childish melody or the most unrealistic one, or sometimes the
melody to another song entirely. But it's just a framework; it's
a written structure in my mind that allows me to go forward and
to have something on which to hang all the rhythms, and it allows
me to be adventurous and not be satisfied with the rhythmic
basics. Being fairly adventurous rhythmically as a drummer, I'm
driven that way lyrically. I like to stretch lines and play with
phrasing. The more I became appreciative of singers I understood
what phrasing could do for lyrics, how it can make them come alive.
The first time I hear words sung is really when they come alive
for me. When they're written on a piece of paper, it can be
satisfying technically, but whether they work or not really
happens when I hear Geddy sing them for the first time.''

-- You obviously don't turn these songs out in one sitting.

``Definitely not. Sometimes the gist will come at one sitting, but
the process of refinement will be very laborious. A lot of times
I'll have a basic idea and a layout; usually I like to have a
verse/chorus organization before I go to the other guys with it.
Geddy, being the singer, has the greatest amount of input lyrically
and he might suggest some little key twists that will help.''

-- Do you have certain parts of the year when you do your writing?

``Yes, but the important thing is to keep those divisions external.
They're limitations as opposed to compromises. What I find important
are two other things -- inspiration and craftsmanship. Those are
things you cannot compromise. When an inspiration comes to you, it
doesn't matter how inconvenient it is, you must take advantage of
it at the time. So I keep a notebook all the time and always force
myself to write down any cogent thought, however sketchy it might
seem, whether it's a title I like or a phrase I like or even just
an image that I would like to develop or a theme I would someday
want to address. So by the time we reach the writing period, I'm 
prepared. That's the ironic part of it -- you set aside a month
or two months and say, ok we're going to write songs now. But 
creativity doesn't work that way. But if you already have that 
part done, if you've already yielded to the spontaneity and the
inspiration at the proper time, then you can literally sit down
at a writing desk on the first Monday morning of the writing 
period and start sifting through pages and pages.

I keep things forever, and then, as I use them, I cross them
out. As a page gets too full of things crossed out, I re-copy
the things that haven't been used yet. Some things sit in my
notebook for ages and ages, and then sometimes a catalytic
idea comes, because it's never just one idea. For me no song
is ever written on just one idea. It takes probably four or
five things and then I have to find the common parallel that
will either unite all of those things, or at least give them
some kind of linear flow. I think in anyone's experience, your
thoughts will tend to follow a pattern and evolve around a
nucleus of things that you're sensitive to at a particular
time. All those things will collect together automatically.
If you write a short story you have the luxury of developing
all those things in a very relaxed form. Lyrics are a 
tremendously demanding form discipline; it requires precision.''

-- Do you have a special room where you work?

``Yes, but it's been a different one every album. Basically I
just need a table and a chair and my rhyming dictionary. On the
last four or five albums we've worked each time in a different
place, but in each there's been a room where I can go to have
quiet and to be able to think. You need solitude for the amount
of concentration that it takes. I try to get to writing as early
as possible, before anything else becomes distracting. So I'll
generally spend the whole day writing. Geddy and Alex work on
the music during the daytime while I work on the lyrics, and
we'll all get together after dinner to work on arranging and
rehearsing the songs. So, in essence, days are devoted to
individual work and the evenings are devoted to collective 
work.''

-- Did you all ever work together in a kind of spontaneous atmosphere?

``Not very comfortably, because for me the craftsmanship is
important. I'm not happy with spontaneity musically either. I think
you take such a chance. It's the same with those ideas you wake
up with in the middle of the night. Sometimes you write them
down and you wake up in the morning and go, `What?' And you rip
it up and throw it away. Other times you save it. We do, musically
speaking, have improvisational periods during out sound check or
just when we're playing together, and we record them and look
for anything that happened that was magic. And there are ideas that
we can mine out of there, taking advantage of the spontaneity of
one day's mood. But to go onstage and expect people to indulge you;
that doesn't work. I prefer organization. I don't like lyrics that
are just thrown together, that were obviously written as you went
along, or the song was already written and the guy made up the
lyrics in five minutes. I can tell -- craftsmanship speaks. It's
the same with reading books. I admire writers who have obviously
worked and worked over what they've done, to make sure it's clearly
presented and as beautifully presented as it can be. And there's
nothing like time and careful work to make that happen.''

-- Have you adjusted to your own rhythms of writing?

``For me, the important thing is to do the inspirational part of
it when it happens, so I never have to go there with an empty
book. At worst, if I'm stumped I can just put the work in progress
aside and I have pages and pages of other things to look at. I'll
just sit there and leaf through those and hope something will 
connect, and generally it will. But the important thing is to be
enough ahead that it's not scary, because if you get frightened,
that's when writer's block will occur. I never want to be in that
position. There have been things that I've tried to write that
haven't worked out, but I've been able to find out early. You
don't have to write 200 pages and then discover you're working
at nothing. By the time you've gone through a verse and a chorus
and you've shown it to the other guys, you can see if it's working.
It might be a satisfying technical exercise. I can be satisfied
that I achieved what I set out to achieve even if the song wasn't
used.''

-- So basically you do a verse and a chorus and show it to the others?

``More often than not it's complete. I'll have a series of themes
or a series of verses. Sometimes they become reversed. I'm very
much in love with the middle eights. It's something I really love
as a musical and lyrical departure. So a lot of times I'll have
a song that'll have a verse, chorus, verse, middle eight -- the
classic thing. But when the other guys get ahold of it, it'll be
turned around and the middle eight will become the chorus or the
verse will become the chorus.''

-- Someone will come back and say, we need four more lines?

``Or the opposite, where there'll be two lines too many. Or a song
just wants to be structured a different way musically. Those things
are never negative. They're always a challenge. Sometimes it can't
be done, and if you have truly done a good job and distilled the
lyrics down to their most essential form, there's not much you
can do with it. But if the music's demands are stronger, and if
the lyrics can be messed around with, that's very exciting to do.''

-- Do you ever work to a finished melody?

``Very often the guys will have worked on something musically and
made a tape of it for which they have nothing particular in mind.
_Grand Designs_, on the last album, was done that way. They just
had the musical ideas laid out and just made a little tape for me
with guitar, keyboards and drum machine, and I had that. So, again,
if I'm stumped on something that I've been working on, I pull out
that tape and try to close my mind off for a minute and listen to
the tape. _Chemistry_ was a true collaboration between the three
of us. The other guys had a couple of key phrases they wanted to
express, so they gave me the music. That was easy because all the
groundwork was done. Playing with words comes so much easier than
having to dream up the whole thing.''

-- Does the concept of each album start with you?

``Usually there isn't a concept. This album was the first time
that I decided from the beginning that I wanted to address as
many vignettes of power as I could. In the past there have been
themes in each of the albums, but they have been more after the
fact. For instance, on _Grace Under Pressure_, the them of that
title seems very obvious in each of the songs, but in fact it came
after, and the songs were each being written about different
reactions. The theme of that album, to me, is pathos, and it came
through sometimes third-hand experiences, but most often second
hand, observing my friends. That was a period of time when a lot
of people were out of work and having difficulties in terms of
self-esteem. They had reaced a point in their lives where they
felt they should be established and they weren't. People were
having life crises not only in employment, but also in terms of
their romances. All of those things came to a head in my perception
and I was writing with a great deal of empathy. It wasn't always
understood by either listeners of critics, but that was the stem
of it all. So, after the fact I realized that the theme of the album 
illustrated the `Grace under pressure' concept. That album was
made under a great deal of difficult circumstances for us personally,
too.''

-- Doesn't it seem to you that sometimes a group is categorized for
its music, but its message isn't considered as important as that of
an individual singer/songwriter?

``That's ok; as a member of the audience it was that way to me, too.
If people don't take all the trouble interpreting lyrics that I took
in creating them, that doesn't bother me, because I'm a musician first
and not just a lyricist. I only spend two months out of every two
years doing that and the rest of the time I'm a drummer.''

-- Do you feel that Rush is the best vehicle for you self-expression--
or do you have a goal to express yourself elsewhere too?

``That's complicated, because being a drummer first, the kind of 
liberality I have in Rush is important to me. Stylistically I never
feel limited as a drummer and that will carry over lyrically, too.
There's no way I'll ever write anything good that won't be suitable
for Rush. On the other hand, I have written things with which I was
happy but which didn't find into the scheme of things at a given time.
But I have no trouble putting those away. Those things always lead me
on to something else. We have musical ideas all the time that never
get fully developed, but at the same time they lead us to another
area. Or even things that do get developed and recorded, from an
artistic point of view, a lot of times we're not satisfied. At
this point we've gone through several periods of different stylistic
approaches, different areas of influence and at this moment they
might seem indulgent to us or naive, but without that experimentation
we couldn't have arrived now at the ability to write a five or six
minute song and put everything into it that we do. We can write a 
song that will have complicated time signatures but it won't be
five minutes of that. It'll be two minutes of that. But the point
is that we can change types of signatures three or four times
in a song very comfortably.

I went through periods the same way lyrically of being over-ornamental
and spending alot of time developing an atmosphere lyrically. I don't
do that anymore. I want five words to do what I used to use five 
lines to do. I'm fairly satisfied with my body of lyric writing 
over the last four or five years, but prior to that it was strictly 
kindergarten, strictly groundwork and experimentation. Musically too, 
I don't have much use for our stuff prior to 1980. That's not negative. 
That's the way it should be, because we were honestly experimental. 
We pushed ourselves over our heads lots of times and we were grappling
for some kind of grip on the technique that we were aiming for.''

-- Do you feel you have to distill your material to get it played
on commercial radio?

``No, I don't. The hardest thing is to have something that's both
personal and universal. To me, that's the aim. I try to find 
something that moves me -- a lot of times it's anger, but sometimes
it can be pathos or it can be joy. I can be thrilled by the world
at large or by nature or some small experience. Adolescence is a
common theme for me. The cross-over between innocence and 
disillusionment is something I have addressed a lot, because it's
something I can personally relate to and illustrate but at the same
time it's universal. I don't want to just be confessional, like a
Joni Mitchell. That's an area I've tried to avoid; at the same time,
that's what gives you personal involvement, and without impetus
sometimes it's hard to get going.

Fortunately, I'm very prone to anger, very prone to outrage in the 
way people act and the way they treat each others [sic] and the
world we live in. So all these things act as an impetus to me,
but I couldn't write only about my own areas of outrage. I like
to find those and translate them into something that is universal.''


-- Do you feel that your best lyrics have become your best songs?

``No, not always. It's weird how it goes. There's so much chemistry
involved and there's so many intangible things that happen. There
are ones where the music has been better than the lyrics or the
lyrics better than the music. _Middletown Dreams_ is a good 
marriage of lyrics and music. _Mystic Rhythms_ is another one.''

-- You said there's a magic moment when you hear a song for the first
time. Is there another magic moment when you conceive of a song for
the first time -- or finish it for the first time?

``That's a good point. I think the joy of creation is very overrated.
The irony if it is that the moment goes by so fast. When I'm working
on a piece of lyrics and I ahve the theme of it going and I'm working
away, there is that moment when I realize, yes, this is going to work.
But then I'm gone. I'm gone into making it work. And then the knots in
the braini start to become untied. I'm figuring out, ok, this line
goes to that line, this verse to that verse. You can't sit back and
go, oh, I'm great. The moment is great, but you can't just sit back
and fell fulfilled by it. To me the most satisfying time of making an
album is the writing period. We listen to a demo, and yes, this is
exciting, and it's what we wanted it to be and it gets you off. That 
is the ultimate return that you will get from the song. And then 
you'll spend another six months recording the basic tracks, doing
the overdubs, doing the vocals, doing the mixing. At the end of it
all there's no joy of creation; there's no sitting back and going,
`This is finished and wow, I'm so happy,'' because you're so tired
and drained from all of the mental demands. You don't have anything
left to throw a party. In the demo period the rewards are 
instantaneous.''

-- Is there another level where you see a song you've worked on
and believed in going over with the audience?

``You picked out a very important thing, because at the end of an
album it's impossible for us to judge which songs will truly be
popular and which won't. We're inevitably surprised. And then there
are songs like _Vital Signs_, from our _Moving Pictures_ album. At
the time it was mixed it was a very transitional song. Everybody
had mixed feelings about it, but at the same time it expressed
something essential that I wanted to say. That's a song that has
a marriage of vocals and lyrics that I'm very happy with. But
it took our audience a long time to get it, because it was 
rhythmically very different for us and it demanded the audience
to respond in a different rhythmic way. There was no heavy
downbeat; it was all counterpoint between upbeat and downbeat,
and there was some reflection of reggae influence and a reflection
of the more refined areas of new wave music that we had sort
of taken under our umbrella and made happen. That song took about
three tours to catch on. It was kind of a baby for us. We
kept playing it and wouldn't give up. We put it in our encore
last tour -- putting it in the most exciting part of the set
possible -- and jsut demanded that people accept it because
we believed in it. I still think that song represents a culmination
-- the best combination of music, lyrics, rhythm. It opens up
so many musical approaches, from being very simplistic and minimal
to becoming very overplayed. Everything we wanted in the song
is there. So that song was very special to us. But we had to
wait. We had to be patient and wait for the audience to understand
us.

----------------------------------------------------------

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Copyright The Rush Fans Mailing List, 1991.

Editor, The National Midnight Star
(Rush Fans Mailing List)

********************************************
End of The National Midnight Star Number 312
********************************************



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