Happy Birthday to the legendary drummer, lyricist and author, Neil Peart. I wrote an extensive tribute to Neil this time last year in a post featuring ‘YYZ’. Today’s post will be much more brief, but hopefully you will “catch the drift” of the important role Neil Peart and Rush have played in my musical journey.
As people we are; or should be in a constant state of change. To quote an inspirational video type statement this is essential for us if we are truly “living our best life”. None of us are the same today as we were when we were 14. We evolve through the decades depending on our life circumstances and ideally, through all of these stages we become better people through our experience, and hopefully wisdom. Each stage is defined by key moments and important people. These rites of passage; I like to call them ‘Life Tile Moments’ in reference to the old Milton Bradley ‘Game of Life’, all play a role in defining who we become. Some of the people we share these moments with are by our side for the entire journey, and others play integral roles for specific chapters and then they move on. When one looks back, they are often able to identify moments of transition that helped one get to the place in life that they currently occupy. All of this is a roundabout way of stating that ‘Tom Sawyer’ by Rush was a pivotal moment for the band who were in the midst of a transition; much like people when they come to crossroads at various times over the course of their life.
‘Tom Sawyer’ was written by Neil Peart in collaboration with another great lyricist; Pye Dubois. Dubois is a poet/lyricist who had established a strong reputation in the industry through his work with Max Webster. The friendship between Max Webster and Rush was well known. The song originated as a Dubois poem called “Louis the Lawyer”. Dubois liked the poem and discussed it with Kim Mitchell. The two agreed that it was an intriguing bit of writing, but it didn’t really suit Max Webster’s style. Initially, Pye Dubios was reluctant to share the piece with a rival band, but at Mitchell’s urging he did take it to the iconic power trio. The timing was perfect.
In the summer of 1980, Rush were in the early stages of working out material for their upcoming album, Moving Pictures. The band was on a rehearsal vacation on Ronnie Hawkins farm near Peterborough. When Pye Dubois brought the lyrics to Neil Peart’s attention, the Rush lyricist was intrigued by the idea from a few different perspectives. The structure of the poem was unusual, but that type of challenge was right up Rush’s alley. The lyrics themselves presented the story of what Neil Peart referred to as a “modern day rebel”. This too speaks to a common theme in Neil’s writing. The match was perfect from a lyrical perspective and the pair got to work trading lines in order to modify the presentation. Here is Peart’s account of the artistic blend:
Tom Sawyer was a collaboration between myself and Pye Dubois, an excellent lyricist who wrote the lyrics for Max Webster. His original lyrics were kind of a portrait of a modern day rebel, a free-spirited individualist striding through the world wide-eyed and purposeful. I added the themes of reconciling the boy and man in myself, and the difference between what people are and what others perceive them to be—namely me, I guess.Neil Peart
While this was going on, the band was rehearsing and working on their ever-evolving sound. The lyrical collaboration coincided with a new period where Rush was aiming to write shorter, hard hitting songs as opposed to some of their earlier full album side conceptual pieces or ten minute plus sci fi influenced prog rock classics (‘2112’ or see ‘Xanadu’). This writing style began on their Permanent Waves album, and Moving Pictures was intended to continue that evolution. It was a period of experimentation for the band and they were working on some new sounds in the studio. This experimentation is most evident in the appearance of the prominent synthesizer known as the Oberheim OB-X. The synthesizer creates the foundation to the song and from there Rush layers their mindboggling individual abilities over top.
“The music for Tom Sawyer was also a departure for Rush. Structurally, the way the song develops is very interesting, going from that first verse into a bridge into a chorus and into the solo and then repeating. It wasn’t a typical kind of structure for us at the time. Likewise, the music was written in an unorthodox fashion – for Rush, at least.”Alex Lifeson
The combination of sounds is extraordinary. Add the lyrics that are full of sociological significance and you get an instant classic. Getting back to my introductory paragraph. It speaks to a band evolving. ‘Tom Sawyer’ and the album Moving Pictures took the band to a different stratosphere in terms of popularity. They had a very devoted audience built up from the early ‘70s, but as Neil Peart has noted, Moving Pictures took them from the band that their immediate core of fans had to see on every tour, to the band that every music fan “must see”. After Moving Pictures, Rush went from filling music halls to filling arenas, worldwide.
In 1981, I was the Rush fan who sat and listened to Q107 and the Six O’clock Rock Report, hanging on every item of news from the music world. For me this was the source of all information regarding album releases. When this Toronto radio station dropped the needle on ‘Tom Sawyer’ one late winter evening I was riveted. I had never heard anything like it. The synthesizer sound was outer worldly, Geddy Lee’s bass line, Neil’s drumming and Alex Lifeson’s guitar solo which he describes with such a Canadian humility;
“I winged it. Honest! I came in, did five takes, then went off and had a cigarette. I’m at my best for the first two takes; after that, I overthink everything and I lose the spark. Actually, the solo you hear is composed together from various takes.”Alex Lifeson
But, having said all that, it was about the lyrics for me. A fourteen year old grade nine student who was lacking in self confidence. I went out and bought the album as soon as I could get to the nearest record store. I shared it with every friend who was willing to listen (not a guarantee). I remember feeling it was like Neil Peart was speaking to me. I could do anything if I believed in myself. It is part of that evolution as a person.
A modern-day warrior
Mean, mean stride
Today’s Tom Sawyer
Mean, mean pride
Though his mind is not for rent
Don’t put him down as arrogant
His reserve a quiet defense
Riding out the day’s events
What you say about his company
Is what you say about society
Catch the mist
Catch the myth
Catch the mystery
Catch the drift
The world is, the world is
Love and life are deep
Maybe as his skies are wide
Today’s Tom Sawyer, he gets high on you
And the space he invades, he gets by on you
No, his mind is not for rent
To any god or government
Always hopeful, yet discontent
He knows changes aren’t permanent
But change is
And what you say about his company
Is what you say about society
Catch the witness
Catch the wit
Catch the spirit
Catch the spit
The world is, the world is
Love and life are deep
Maybe as his eyes are wide
Exit the warriorNeil Peart and Pye Dubois
Today’s Tom Sawyer
He gets high on you
And the energy you trade
He gets right on to
The friction of the day
I know I am not the only one who felt this way. I also know that it’s not like I went on to greatness or anything. It just helped me put things in perspective. Gradually, if I stayed the course things would come together, if I believed in myself. Neil Peart’s lyrics have always done that for me. Along life’s journey this could also be considered a constant presence. Again…I know I am not the only one who feels this way.
There is no doubt that Rush has had a huge impact on countless bands through the decades. Much like they were influenced by Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and other late ‘60s and early ‘70s acts, they too paved the way through their sound and vision. Here are a couple of intriguing cover versions of Tom Sawyer.
Check out AlexisonFire covering ‘Tom Sawyer’. This is important because they are from St. Catharines, Ontario which is the hometown of Neil Peart. Unfortunately, this is not as good as it could have been. One half of the band’s vocal pairing; George Pettit, was unable to get to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame tribute show due to Toronto traffic. This left Dallas Green to do both the harmony part and the shouter part. This is not Green’s forte. You can still sense the band’s reverence for the original.
This is a ton of fun. Here is Tenacious D along with String Cheese Incident and special guest Jack Black on vocals. Jack Black is a huge Rush fan. Remember School of Rock?
Finally, here is Imagine Dragons. What I love is how they take time to thank their fathers for exposing them to the music of Rush. Then they say if you like it, go home and download it. Too funny.
This is a far cry from 1981 when I had to wait for a ride to Guelph in order to buy the album on vinyl. My Dad went grocery shopping and I went to Music World. Man! I couldn’t wait to get home and listen to the whole album. The anticipation…Compare that to the things we take for granted today with digital files of every song available through a simple download or file share. Maybe this is part of the reason the songs from this time period just seem so much better. Every music memory comes with a positive association.
“…For the spirit ever lingers.Neil Peart – Spirit of Radio
In your happy solitude”
6 thoughts on “Tom Sawyer – A monumental track from Moving Pictures by Rush and a few personal reflections. #MusicisLife #TedTocksCovers #Rush #NeilPeart #PyeDubois #Alex Lifeson #GeddyLee #AlexisonFire #TenaciousD #StringCheeseIncident #JackBlack #ImagineDragons”
Great post Ted. Couldn’t agree more about heading to the record store for the latest album. And I had totally forgot about the Six o’clock Rock Report.
However, the covers are ok but some songs should be left alone. Just my opinion.