Ruled by Fear

Rush has a series of songs which explores the theme of fear: the idea that we are ruled by fear more than hope. This has become known as the “Fear Trilogy”, though since the band’s 2002 album it has been expanded to a quartet. The first three songs were written in reverse order — in the order they were easiest to grasp, according to Neal Peart, the songwriter — with the fourth written two decades later. Here they are:

Part I: The Enemy Within (Grace Under Pressure, ’84) — how fear works inside us
Part II: The Weapon (Signals, ’82) — how fear is used against us
Part III: Witch Hunt (Moving Pictures, ’81) — how fear feeds the mob mentality
Part IV: Freeze (Vapor Trails, ’02) — how fear is evaded and confronted

Back in 1994, Peart described the genesis of the series as follows:

“The idea for the trilogy was suggested by an older man telling that he didn’t think life was ruled by love, or reason, or money, or the pursuit of happiness — but by fear. This smart-but-cynical guy’s position was that most people’s actions are motivated by fear of being hungry, fear of being hurt, fear of being alone, fear of being robbed, etc., and that people don’t make choices based on hope that something good will happen, but in fear that something bad will happen.

“I reacted to this the way all of us tend to react to generalities: ‘Well, I’m not like that!’ But then I started thinking about it more, watching the way people around me behaved, and I soon realised that there was something to this viewpoint, So I sketched out the three theaters of fear, as I saw them: how fear works inside us (The Enemy Within), how fear is used against us (The Weapon), and how fear feeds the mob mentality (Witch Hunt).”(From The Rush Backstage Club Newsletter, January 1994)

There’s plenty of truth to this. People may talk more about hope, but they live mostly by fear. (If you have any doubts about this, start really paying attention to the behavior of your family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers.) Hope allows us to live in denial, as it were, and keep fear at bay and from suffocating us. That may be anti-religious, but it’s at least scientific.

But back to the songs. The ingenius thing about them is that while explicating the fear theme, they also tie back to the theme of their respective albums (on which see here). The Enemy Within is about internal fear as a response to external stress. The Weapon is about the way people exploit the fears of others, resulting in communication breakdown. Witch Hunt is a “story” of Salem, a portrait exemplary of mob fear. Freeze is about facing fear, and then moving on. It’s neat how all of this fell into place, and I enjoy listening to the songs sequentially in their proper order. (I burned a special CD so I can do this.) Not only are they philosophicaly stimulating, they just plain rock.

A Rush Tribute

Welcome to my Rush tribute, in celebration of the band’s new album to be released this spring. These three guys — Neal Peart, Geddy Lee, and Alex Lifeson — are just amazing, still going strong after three decades, still evolving in creative ways. Peart is sheer legend, a powerhouse drummer and brilliant lyricist; Lifeson still revered for what he can do with the guitar; and Lee’s voice, well, it’s as high and defining as ever.

They gave us four distinct eras of music — hard rock (’74-’76), progressive rock (’77-’81), synthesizer rock (’82-’87), alternative rock (’89-’96) — and are now in the middle of a fifth (’02+), defining itself as we watch it unfold. Four albums belong to each era, save the unfinished last, for a total of 18, or soon to be 19. (And that’s not including live and compilation albums.) The question of the best era — let alone the best albums from any era — is fiercely contested battleground, as you can glean from some of the bickering over at The Rush Forum. That’s a fun forum to browse if you ever liked Rush.

With the exception of one, every Rush album is dominated by a theme represented by the title, and all songs on an album point to the theme in some way — a testimony to Peart’s lyrical smarts. Here are the albums in chronological order, grouped by era, with their respective themes listed. The links point to the excellent Power Windows site, where all of the albums are displayed, with the lyrics to each song. The lyrics are worth reading for poetry alone, even if you don’t know the music.

The Hard Rock Era (’74-’76)

The fledgling years. I’m not wild about this era, though a lot of Rush geeks love it. I can tolerate the albums if I’m in a rare Zeppelinesque mood, but none have found their way into my CD collection.

Rush (’74). Theme: getting a “rush” from rock n’ roll.
Fly By Night (’75). Theme: the spirit of the moment.
Caress of Steel (’75). Theme: swords, guillotines, midway rides.
2112 (’76). Theme: freedom and independence; anti-collectivism.

The Progressive Rock Era (’77-’81)

The era for which the band is renowned, especially the tail-end. Moving Pictures remains their most popular album. Who hasn’t heard Tom Sawyer and Limelight played left and right on the radio? Other landmark songs include Closer to the Heart (Farewell to Kings), and Spirit of the Radio (Permanent Waves) — two of the most pristine hits the group ever came out with. Spirit of the Radio, moreover, is listed as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock.

A Farewell to Kings (’77). Theme: the doom of monarchies.
Hemispheres (’78). Theme: subconscious drives; the duality of the mind (reason/emotion).
Permanent Waves (’80). Theme: the relationship between nature and technology; being true, and outlasting fads and fashions.
Moving Pictures (’81). Theme: musical portraits (each song a mini-movie); the effect of the spotlight.

The Synthesizer Rock Era (’82-’87)

The era loved or despised. Most 70s bands trying to adapt in the 80s went nowhere, but Rush soared to new heights (I obviously like this era). Hard-sounding guitar gave way to tight, stylish keyboard performances and a darker tone to the music overall. Noteworthy songs include the addictively minimalist Subdivisions (Signals), the bleak Distant Early Warning (Grace Under Pressure), the hard-hitting Big Money (Power Windows), and the ethereal Time Stand Still (Hold Your Fire).

Signals (’82). Theme: new generations vs. the old; the success and failure of communication.
Grace Under Pressure (’83). Theme: surviving horrors and learning from them; the human response to external stress.
Power Windows (’85). Theme: the power of money, government, emotion, dreams, mysticism.
Hold Your Fire (’87). Theme: time and events; turning dreams and goals into reality; controlling instincts (“fire” = “instinct”; thus “hold your fire”).

The Alternative Rock Era (’89-’96)

The difficult era to define, when the band tried returning to its roots while also breaking new ground in an alternative direction. Foes of the synthesizer period rejoiced to hear more guitar and less keyboards. The era was marred by the widely hated Roll the Bones (a truly horrible album), then saved by the raging comeback, Counterparts. The emotional Pass (Presto) and sharply acoustical Nobody’s Hero (Counterparts) are examples of what makes this era almost (if not quite) as strong as the others.

Presto (’89). Theme: appearances vs. reality; illusions; the ways we pretend to be magical (problems don’t vanish with the “wave of a wand”).
Roll the Bones (’91). Theme: fate, chance, taking risks. (Ironically fitting: the album itself was a risk — there’s not a single decent song on it.)
Counterparts (’93). Theme: opposites and pairs; the “nuts and bolts” of human life; the mysteries of relationships.
Test for Echo (’96). Theme: the importance of communication and the need for feedback [thanks to the anonymous commenter].

Rush in the New Millenium (’02+)

Soon after the Test for Echo album, Neal Peart lost his daughter (and only child) in a car accident, and then his wife to cancer ten months later. That resulted in a six-year hiatus, and no surprise, the new album (Vapor Trails) centered on themes of loss and tragedy. A couple years later the band did a tribute to their favorite bands from the 60s and 70s (Feedback), with songs by artists like Eddie Cochran, The Who, and Robert Johnson. In a few months we’ll get to hear the next album, which is apparently about religious faith. Time will tell how this new era is categorized.

Vapor Trails (’02). Theme: vivid memories; loss, finality, and finding the determination to carry on in an uncaring world.
Feedback (’04). (Rush’s tribute to other rock bands.)
Snakes and Arrows (’07). Theme: the good and bad sides of religious faith.

Rush Finds Religion and Faith

I’m eagerly awaiting Rush’s new album — their 19th, no less — slated to be released this spring. The title hasn’t been announced yet, but it appears that a spiritual theme dominates the songs, exploring the good and bad sides of faith. Drummer and songwriter Neal Peart is cited as follows:

“Reflections on faith emerged as a clear theme from the very beginning. ‘I tried hard to look at it as a subject — what’s good about it — and tried to balance that against what I saw as not being a good thing,’ said Peart, noting his experience as a Canadian living in the United States for the past six years has given him a unique perspective on world events. ‘All we’re seeing, especially in the world today, is a very malevolent kind of faith, in fundamentalism of all kinds, on both sides. One of the lines I use in the new songs equates Middle East and Middle West, because this stuff is going on in both localities, although both would probably be insulted by the comparison.'” (Macleans, Oct 19 ’06)

“Peart says he was struck by the ubiquity of religious billboards that have sprung up on America’s highways, which got him thinking about some weighty topics…’I looked for the good side of faith,’ Peart says. ‘To me it ought to be your armor, something to protect you and something to console you in dark times. But it’s more often being turned into a sword, and that’s one big theme I’m messing with.’ Musically, the new album is continuing in much the same vein as 2002’s ‘Vapor Trails,’ which returned Rush to a more guitar/bass/drums-driven sound. But Peart is quick to add that the music is ‘remarkably organic in a way that I haven’t heard before. We spent a month together in May working on those songs and developing our individual instrument parts for them. It’s early to characterize it, but it’s definitely fresh and different and that’s certainly satisfying.'” (Billboard.com, Sept 11 ’06)

Rush is one of my favorite rock groups of all time, and I had fun listening to some of their CDs over the holiday. There sure aren’t many musicians like this anymore. After over thirty years and 18 albums, the band has evolved — sometimes quite dramatically — without sacrificing any intelligence or originality; and damn, do they have an ear for catchy tunes. (In my view, only Peter Gabriel tops their talent, even if he has less albums to boast.) This week I’m going to post a special Rush tribute. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do since being inspired by one of Tyler Williams’ U2 blogposts.

I figure it’s time for some fun with music. After the New Year, it’s back to biblical studies and the crusades.

Crusading Distortions (III): The Children’s Crusade

The story of the Children’s Crusade (1212) is a mixture of history and romantic myth, telling of two boys who had independent visions of marching to Palestine with “armies” of pacifist children, and shaming the Muslims into giving up the holy lands. This march of peace would supposedly succeed where warfare had failed. The boys attracted large followings in Paris and Cologne and began their respective marches to the Mediterranean coast. When the French group came to Marseille — apparently expecting God to part the seas so they could continue — local merchants offered to transport the children in seven ships; two of these ships were lost at sea, while the others went to Africa, where the duped kids were sold into slavery. The German group made it as far as Rome — many having died en route in the Alps — but dispersed when the pope refused to see them. Some persisted in trying to secure passage to the holy lands, and, like the French children, were shipped to brothels and slave markets, this time in the Mediterranean. A few did reach Jerusalem by joining groups of overland pilgrims; they naturally had no impact on arrival. No one paid any attention to children.

The Children’s Crusade may have been a pathetic tragedy, but it’s difficult to separate the fact from fiction. There may not have even been a French movement: based on the evidence it seems more likely that it was dismissed as soon as it was born in Paris (the king sent the children home). The German movement, on the other hand, did get under way, and made it through the Alps to Genoa. From there it may have been a small part of this group which went to Marseille (instead of the entire French group), though most proceeded to Rome, and dispersed from there, illusions shattered.

Perhaps the most mythological aspect involves the idea that this crusade consisted exclusively of children (pueri). That makes for stirring legend, but it was doubtfully the case. Says Christopher Tyerman:

“In fact these pueri may have been less juvenile than the name implied. To a Cologne chronicler, the pueri ‘ranged in age from six years to full maturity’. Norman and Alpine monks recorded that the marchers were adolescents and old people. Accounts indicated that participants came from outside the usual hierarchies of social power — youths, girls, the unmarried, sometimes including even widows — or economic status: shepherds, ploughmen, carters, agricultural workers and rural artisans without a settled stake in land or community, rootless and mobile.” (God’s War, p 609)

Perhaps the Children’s Crusade would be better called the Simple Folk’s Crusade. Dissatisfaction with the inability of kings and nobles to secure military victory in Palestine led to a popular crusade which insisted on a return to apostolic simplicity and leaving victory to God. Interestingly, even though this pacifist-crusade had no clerical backing, it was never officially condemned by the church.

However historical, however legendary, the simple folk’s pacifist march of 1212 stands as a testimony to the malleability of crusading as it was becoming ubiquitous under the papacy of Innocent III, influencing the laity like never before.

In the next post we’ll try defining the crusades, a task which has eluded the best of scholars.

Apocalypto

Tyler Williams has a nice review of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. He neither liked nor disliked the movie, which sums up my attitude, though I was nonplussed for different reasons.

Let’s get the supposed interfering Catholicism out of the way. I agree with Tyler that charges of apologetics are misguided. While Gibson certainly believes the Mayan civilization needed to be destroyed — and that the Spaniards who arrive at the end of the film represent something better in the long run — those beliefs do not intrude on the integrity of the story. Tyler notes:

“If anything is elevated in this film it is the notion of the noble savage: Jaguar Paw and his forest dwelling clan are presented as an ideal (this seems to me to be the meaning from the last line of the film where Jaguar Paw says to his wife that they shouldn’t go to the Spaniards, but ‘we must go to the forest. To seek a new beginning.'”

Jaguar Paw’s realistic refusal to want anything to do with the Spaniards is what keeps the film clean of apologetics. Gibson is thus able to hint at “better things to come” (in his view) while remaining true to his protagonist who wants nothing to do with whatever those things might be. This is a Catholic film in signature only, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But if Gibson is clean on the religio-political side of things, he misses the mark in artistry. I’m not complaining about the violence, which has frankly been way overblown. Spielberg got more graphic with human sacrifice in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (where you actually see the priest’s hand going into the heart, and the camera lingers on the pulsating heart much longer), and Peter Jackson showed more close-ups of decapitated heads being catapulted over the walls of Minas Tirith in Return of the King (Gibson keeps the rolling heads in distance-shots). The film left me nonplussed not on account of its violence (I was expecting more), but its pedestrian second half, which was essentially an extended chase sequence — almost an ancient version of The Fugitive — thoroughly predictable, knowing that the protagonist would rescue his wife and son at the last possible instant. But I liked the first half of the story for the glimpse we catch of the Mayan civilization.

In sum, Apolcaypto isn’t the achievement Passion of the Christ was, more like Braveheart: historically engaging in some parts, boring and predictable in others, competently enough directed, yet marred by Hollywood formula.