Through his archive of interviews with songwriting legends, renowned music journalist Bruce Pollock tells their stories in their own words. This is taken from his 1986 interview with Neil Peart.
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 irreverent, 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, and 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 the 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 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 able 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."
[Ten years later, in 1996, Peart turned out his first non-fiction travel book. In the next ten years, he published six more.]
While we had 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.
Bruce Pollock (Songfacts): Were you a student of songs before you started writing them?
Neil Peart: 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 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.
Songfacts: With some of the words you use in your songs, it seems the lyrics must have been written before the music.
Peart: 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. If I can get a series of words that are rhythmically 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. 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 a lot.
Songfacts: Are you thinking with the drum track in mind when you write lyrics?
Peart: 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 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.
Songfacts:When you come up with lyrics do you have your own melody?
Peart: 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.
Songfacts: You obviously don't turn these songs out in one sitting.
Peart: 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. 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.
Songfacts: Do you have certain parts of the year when you do your writing?
Peart: 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. 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.
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.
Part 2 of this interview
Rush Songfacts entries
October 29, 2019
More Songwriting Legends In Their Own Words