In 1979, the number four song, according to Billboard, was Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.” As an example of the then-trend of rockers turning in a disco number, it was better than most (the entire Hot Streets album by Chicago…shudder), but the message of the song was this: “let’s have sex.” Also in the Top 10 that year: Hot Stuff by Donna Summer (“I’m looking for some sex”), Le Freak by Chic (“I would like to have some freak-nasty sex.), Bad Girls by Donna Summer (“There might be a potential downside to all of that sex, but beep-beep, uh uh, let’s have sex”) and of course, YMCA by The Village People (“You can get a hot meal, but it’s also a great place to have sex.”)
I’m not sure 1979 was the greatest year for music, but I remember a song I heard that year that has stuck with me for 40 years: The Trees, by Rush. I wasn’t even in high school yet, but I was starting to figure out who I was. Introverted (but not necessarily shy), brainy, but I could get you to laugh once you got to know me. Not a “bad boy” or a jock, and not precisely a misfit, either. In short, I wasn’t yet clear where I belonged, or with whom, but it wasn’t with the crowd.
The Trees was written by Neil Peart when he was 27. Peart wrote pretty much all of the lyrics for Rush, and over the years, he’s taken his share of slings and arrows for lyrics that ranged from juvenile to overly flowery to pure hokum. And, yeah — he wrote some clunkers, especially in his youth. We can’t all be John Keats and write Endymion and Hyperion before expiring of tuberculosis at age 25. And I am the biggest Yes fan in the world, but Roundabout, their biggest hit, has a chorus that basically just says, “Mountains come out of the sky, and they stand there!” Any band can be judged at their worst.
I choose to judge Rush, and Peart, at their best. Peart’s passing this week hit me very hard, not simply because I think he’s the greatest drummer of all time (I do,) but because of his songwriting — and the message that he transmitted to me during my formative years: it was possible to consciously not fit in without being a rebel. The Trees began to touch on those themes. Peart himself didn’t ascribe much meaning to the song, but that doesn’t really matter here. I did. It was a simple song with a simple message — we are all equal — but it was one tuned exquisitely to my ears and the ears of millions more:
There is unrest in the forest
There is trouble with the trees
For the maples want more sunlight
And the oaks ignore their pleas
I’m no great critic of rock, and Peart ended up writing better — so stipulated. But the message of this song was not “Let’s have sex.” It was this: there are oaks that grab most of the light, and there are maples that exist in their shade. The oaks weren’t evil or greedy — they just naturally got more sun and didn’t see the problem. Still, I sympathized with the maples. But regardless of where your tree sympathies lie, they are both equally subject to the law of hatchet, ax, and saw. You could flourish as an oak, and you could thrive as a maple.
Neil Peart was a maple, no doubt. He never sought the sun. He famously would leave the stadium right after a Rush show, eschewing backstage meet-and-greets and the other trappings of rock-star life. He took frequent, long motorcycle vacations either by himself or with another person. Numerous stories have been written about his youth, which can safely be described as “nonconformist.” His obituary in Rolling Stone shared this telling anecdote:
At one point, he got in trouble for pounding out beats on his desk during class. His teacher’s idea of punishment was to insist that he bang on his desk nonstop for an hour’s worth of detention, time he happily spent re-creating Keith Moon’s parts from Tommy.
I like to imagine this as a deleted scene from The Breakfast Club. All of the detainees in that movie were misfits of one kind or another. Freaks, Geeks, or Rebels. Introverts and extroverts. Rock music has appealed to the misfits for decades, but never in the same way twice. Punk rock was the ultimate non-conformist format. But Joy Division and The Smiths sang from the same hymnal, though the lexicon was different. I love all of those bands (especially The Smiths), but I never felt geeky for also enjoying Rush, even though “the cool kids” thought Rush was for dorks. Rush, through Peart’s lyrics, reassured me that as a nonconformist, I didn’t need to fight the system (Punk) or become a nihilist (Goth) or just flat out hate everyone (Morrissey — c’mon, you know it’s true.) Peart’s version of nonconformity was nonviolent, peaceful, and benevolent — but at its core, uncompromising. It acknowledged that “not every stranger is a long-awaited friend.” You’ll be ok being yourself, even by yourself.
A thousand books have been written in the last couple of decades about how we maples — life’s introverts — can grab more sun, forever toiling in the shadows of life’s scintillating extroverts. I don’t care for those books. I know they sell a ton, and I have introvert friends who have been helped by them, so clearly, they have a need to exist. But I’ll tell you what there aren’t thousands of — books speaking to the opposite problem: helping poor extroverts cope with an introverted world. I mean, why would you need such a thing, right? Ridiculous. I’m being somewhat facetious, but ultimately the truth of Peart’s lyrics was that you didn’t need strategies to cope with or steal some sun from the oaks. Just be an awesome maple.
Neil Peart was a rebel, but not in the extrovert sense. He didn’t fight the system. His marvelous lyrics to one of their greatest hits, “Subdivisions,” plainly describe society as a place to “conform or be cast out…be cool or be cast out.” But Peart’s trick was that he did neither. He uncompromisingly refused to conform to it, in his own personal way — he just got quietly better, every day of his life, at whatever he put his hand to. He wasn’t just the greatest drummer.
He was an introvert superhero.