Washington Versus Jefferson

My first hero in life was George Washington. In third grade I wrote a book report about him and focused on his astounding leadership-by-example skills, which inspire me to this day. I was also uplifted by his unshakeable moral character, his physical prowess, and his business acumen.

Images of him crossing the Delaware, withstanding the winter at Valley Forge, shocking the world at Yorktown, being sworn in as America’s first president at Federal Hall in my very own New York City, and giving his famous Farewell speech—all caused me to gaze in reverence whenever I saw a bridge, park, neighborhood, statue, or painting that bore his name.

GWdelaware

In modern business terms Washington was the CEO of two startups: the Continental Army and the American government. For these reasons he is the greatest leader in world history. He was and always will be the father of our country.

About a decade after discovering Washington, Thomas Jefferson leapfrogged to the top of my list of founding heroes. From his writings about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to his admonition that we “fix reason firmly in her seat,” his flowing prose went straight to my soul.

But some things never sat right with me about Jefferson. How could he write so profoundly about liberty with one hand and whip his slaves with the other? (I didn’t like that Washington had slaves either, but at least his will provided for freeing his own slaves.) Why did Jefferson hold so much disdain for my beloved New York City? Why did he oppose a standing army? Though I had no answers, my admiration was only slightly diminished, since he wrote soaring words about pledging his life, fortune, and sacred honor for America.

During my intense studies of the American Revolution over the past decade, Jefferson’s stock has plummeted. Many of the reasons are covered in Thomas Fleming’s book, The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson That Defined a Nation.

GreatDivide

Here is a relevant quotation from the inner sleeve:

In the months after her husband’s death, Martha Washington told several friends that the two worst days of her life were the day George died—and the day Thomas Jefferson came to Mount Vernon to offer his condolences.

What could elicit such a strong reaction from the nation’s original first lady? Though history tends to cast the early years of America in a glow of camaraderie, there were, in fact, many conflicts among the Founding Fathers—none more important than the one between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The chief disagreement between these former friends centered on the highest, most original public office created by the Constitutional Convention—the presidency. They also argued violently about the nation’s foreign policy, the role of merchants and farmers in a republic, and the durability of the union itself. At the root of all these disagreements were two sharply different visions for the nation’s future.

Many people are unaware that Washington refused to speak to Jefferson for the last five years of his life. Some of the reasons are that Jefferson often engaged in personal attacks on Washington, referring to him as “senile” and a “simpleton” because the commander-in-chief did not have academic standing or the passion for book learning held by the brilliant erudite from Monticello. He also called him a monarch (though Washington had ample opportunities to become a tyrant and never used them) and monocrat. These attacks were sometimes done directly, but often done indirectly via proxies such as scandalmongers James Callender and the Gazette‘s Philip Freneau.

Martha Washington’s strong reaction came from the fact that the insincere and opportunistic Jefferson visited her in order to get her (and by implication George’s) endorsement for the upcoming election of 1800.

One reason Jefferson is so complex is because he wrote prolifically, but often while advocating two sides of the same issue at the same time. He condemned slavery in some writings, but his Notes on the State of Virginia is obviously racist, as he likens blacks to orangutans. He also believed that if blacks were ever set free they should be shipped away to live in their own separate territory, because of their inferiority and inability to live with whites on an equal footing. Therefore, the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was little more than a floating abstraction to Jefferson.

We are certainly grateful that there is egoism and only a muted Deism in the Declaration of Independence. However, Jefferson’s Bible—written by him later in life—merely removes Christianity’s supernatural miracles, but never questions self-sacrifice. He calls Christ’s teachings “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

One area where Jefferson was crystal clear was his lifelong support of the mob rule and bloodstained velvet of the French Revolution, about which he said he would rather have seen the entire world desolated than to see that revolution fail. His involvement in the Citizen Genet Affair enraged Washington. .

Although Jefferson tepidly came on board with the U.S. Constitution after its ratification, having been in Europe during the Constitutional Convention, as an anti-Federalist, he initially preferred thirteen “free and independent states.” Indeed, throughout his long life he always stated, “Virginia is my country.” His advocacy of populism and democracy was played out when he founded the Democratic-Republican Party. This was followed up a generation later by Andrew Jackson, who formed the Democratic Party. Jefferson-Jackson Day is now held as a Democratic Party fundraiser.

Though often portrayed as a champion of laissez-faire capitalism, Jefferson’s vision of America was an agrarian, slave-based society, where cities, industry, banks, and stock markets were despised. His Notes on the State of Virginia confirms, “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God,” and we must “never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff.” He wanted manufacturing kept in Europe. In a letter to James Madison he effectively stated that any Virginian bank functionary who cooperated with the National bank should be tried for treason and executed.

The outcome of Jefferson’s economic theory in practice was his Embargo Act of 1807, which ground international trade to a halt and was the precursor to America’s involvement in the War of 1812.

His University of Virginia became a model of public education. As early as 1778, Jefferson advocated a three-tier system of state-supported education, from grade school through the university level. Then, in 1825, he wrote, “In most public seminaries textbooks are prescribed to each of the several schools…and this is generally done by authority of the trustees. I should not propose this generally in our University…but there is one branch in which we are the best judges, in which heresies may be taught of so interesting a character to our own State and to the United States, as to make it a duty in us to lay down the principles which are to be taught. It is that of government… one of that school of quondam federalism, now consolidation. It is our duty to guard against such principles being disseminated among our youth and the diffusion of that poison, by a previous prescription of the texts to be followed in their discourses.”

These last few sentences demonstrated that government involvement in education will eventually dictate content, such as not teaching federalism. This came more than two decades after its primary voice of federalism was dead. Jefferson was so proud of his  education public policy that one of the three things that he insisted be inscribed on his gravestone was: “Father of the University of Virginia.”

TJheadstone

It is no stretch to say that Jefferson would have taken the Confederacy side in the U.S. Civil War. That is yet another reason why I think the deification of Jefferson, by too many people who I admire, needs to be rethought.

Under George Washington’s leadership and administration America first defeated Britain, and then set up a system to unite the states of America. His pro-business domestic policy paid off its war debt by upholding a financial system that promoted markets in sectors such as manufacturing, industry, and sound banking–all based on meritocracy–which allowed the entrepreneurial spirit to flourish. His 1793 Proclamation of Neutrality was a foreign policy based on American self-interest that kept them out of costly entanglements. For these reasons I place Washington far ahead of Jefferson in the pantheon of Founding Fathers.

GWstatue

A Greek Triumph and Tragedy

AndyGeorge

Andy George was one of the most creative people I ever met. From musician to electronics technician to product craftsman, he liked to put things together. I only knew him the last several years of his life, and frankly, there is a lot that I did not know about him. But I liked him a lot and really miss him. Of course now I wish we’d spent more time together.

A few years ago I led a monthly reading discussion group of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. The book has thirty chapters and we analyzed one chapter per month. This gave attendees enough time to read the material, digest it, and come prepared with questions.

Andy was always the first one to arrive for each session. Wearing all black with his signature yellow tie, he clearly enjoyed the sessions. He would talk, interrupt, go off topic, get engaged, and we all put up with it because he was so excited. My job as the leader would be to give him just enough rope, then step in and say, “Andy, you’ve exceeded your word quota for the session.” He would smile sheepishly.

AndyAtlasgroup2

He often brought books to the sessions, but when I asked where his Atlas Shrugged copy was he said it was too tattered to bring and read from. The next month I gave him one of my many copies, which he brought henceforth.

Even though I sensed a bit of darkness about Andy, I thoroughly enjoyed his company. We attended many films, plays, and lectures together, and we’d always go out to eat (often at a Greek restaurant) and discuss afterwards.

One special bond we shared was a love of rock music. He was a drummer who worshipped my top two heroes: John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and Neil Peart of Rush. I tried to bring him to one of the several Rush performances I saw over the years, but to no avail. However, I did get him to join me in viewing a movie theater version of one of the concerts from their Clockwork Angels tour. He walked out of the theater quite impressed.

After a period of dissatisfaction with his job at Honeybee Robotics, they laid him off. Sadly, he seemed to become more withdrawn and less social. Then, shortly after that, he walked away from his monthly gig in which he ran the sound system for the NYC Junto group meetings.

AndyAtlasgroup3

Because I saw less of him and sensed that he wasn’t doing well, I called and asked if he was up for a musical boost. The newest DVD I bought was Led Zeppelin’s Celebration Day concert, with the late John Bonham’s son Jason playing drums. He said yes and I went to his tiny, Lower East Side apartment, which was filled with design objects ranging from studded jackets to glittering trinkets to stacks of record albums.

As we watched the video he was beaming, throwing in a technical comment here and there. It was nice to see him fully engaged and enjoying himself.

I felt bittersweet about him leaving the NYC Junto because the financier Victor Niederhoffer graciously invited me to speak about New York heroes, last June, and I really wanted Andy to attend. I told him he could wear a hat, slanted over his face, and skip upstairs incognito. He didn’t say yes or no.

We discussed how the evening would play out. Andy did say he knew I’d do a good job but the moderator would try to throw me off, show no respect, and try to make the event about himself. I told him I’d keep my cool and promised to hit a home run. This is precisely what happened.

Before I gave the presentation we arranged a trip to Astoria, Queens. He knew I loved the Greeks for their role in the birth of civilization and we often ate in Greek restaurants, so here was a chance to spend a day in their neighborhood. The primary purpose was to visit Athens Square Park to see the bust of our favorite Greek hero, Aristotle.

Since we were in the vicinity of “the master of those who know,” I was reminded of the philosopher’s idea that “a friend is another self.” Unfortunately, the park was closed for renovation and the sculptures were covered temporarily. We promised to return when it was completed, but sadly that did not happen.

One nice element of our drive to Astoria was that we listened to the CD he recorded a few years earlier, called Intense Molecular Activity. His percussion work was astonishing, and I let him know it. We discussed each track as it played.

Remembering back to November, 2013, as we were winding down our Atlas Shrugged seminar sessions, shortly before the final session I received a package from Amazon. I opened it up and underneath the exquisite wrapping paper was a model car from the Batman Begins movie. Included was a note from Andy, showing his appreciation for the time and effort I put into running the Atlas Shrugged sessions. I smiled because it was something I would never get for myself, but he liked it so much, he decided to share it with me.

batman

Here was a craftsman offering a value in exchange for a value received. I was really touched, and told him.

The last time I saw him, in January 2015, was at City University of New York, for Yaron Brook’s talk on Free Speech. We went to our usual diner afterwards. He ordered a Greek yogurt and, for the first time in my life, I ordered the same.

There is a tragedy in having someone you care about have his life cut short. However, despite not being materially successful, Andy did not compromise his principles. He maintained his integrity, and therefore I consider him triumphant in life.

Since we never did get to revisit Athens Square Park together, I vowed to organize a celebration of his life in that park–which will happen on June 28.  Something tells me he would not mind being so close to Aristotle.

AristotleAthens

NYC Celebration of Ayn Rand’s Birthday–Sunday February 1, noon-3pm

In honor of Ayn Rand’s birthday (February 2, 1905) we will gather in midtown Manhattan. The program will include members describing Rand’s influence in their lives and Robert Begley will lead a discussion of nearby references in her work.

We will continue with brunch near Grand Central Terminal, at the Pershing Square Cafe. http://www.pershingsquare.com/

We will conclude with a walking tour of several of the locations discussed. More details on the NY Objectivist Meetup website. http://www.meetup.com/nyheroes/events/219788901

/AynRandStamp

Man On Wire

This film documents the six year plan and illegal performance of the 45 minute high wire walk across the yet-unfinished World Trade Center, by Philippe Petit in August 1974. It is based on Petit’s excellent book, To Reach the Clouds, published in 2002.

As a youngster, I vividly remember watching footage of that event on TV, and it had a profound impact on me, since it showed an individual man confidently standing on top of the greatest city in the world. The next morning, it took me an extra 30 minutes to deliver papers on my route, as I read the headline over and over again, before dropping off each paper.

If I were to give the film a subtitle, it would be Man at His Best.

Although Petit is flamboyant and constantly refers to artistic passion, don’t mistake this for non-thinking. The movie glorifies mind/body integration, as he places particular emphasis on the mental aspects, such as focus (look at his face when preparing for a high wire walk). Plus, there are dozens of drawings, models and designs which he and his team create and/or review during the planning of the project. All of this is done with the knowledge that he was breaking several laws and he would be arrested afterwards. (One could sometimes question Petit’s methods of getting around the law, but I believe that is a different matter.)

There is humor, drama and complementary music throughout the film, climaxing with the actual walk between the Towers.

In preparation for his New York event, Petit first chose to walk between the towers at the apex of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. One of the most symbolic scenes in Man On Wire highlights a focused and confident Petit walking gracefully in the sky above the cathedral while the clergymen inside lie face down on the floor, in submission, during the church service.

If ever there was a documentary that portrays the single tracked devotion to a concrete goal, this is it. I would go far enough to say that in August 1974 there were only a handful of people who knew or loved the World Trade Center as much as Petit.

There is one element in the book which is left out of the movie: Petit’s appeal to New York to rebuild the Twin Towers—taller and stronger, to once again tickle the clouds—and his promise to walk across them again. Unfortunately it looks like that battle is lost. The film has no reference to the Towers being destroyed. Instead, the emphasis is on its creation and magnificence.

I walked out of the theater not feeling the ground beneath me, because Petit ends the film on such an inspiring note. He states that life should be lived on the edge, with every single day as an exercise in independent thinking and action (he calls it rebellion), seeking beauty and happiness in the constant pursuit to reach for the best within us.

Robert Begley
January, 2009

The Heroic City: New York as a Microcosm of America

Robert Begley’s speech, The Heroic City (formerly entitled Man the Hero), has been delivered to audience acclaim in New York City, as well as metropolitan Detroit, Boston, and Washington, D.C. This talk covers a history of the heroes who made America the greatest country–and New York the greatest city–in the world. Robert examines 30 heroes, ranging from the popular and/or controversial (such as Hudson, Washington, Astor, and Vanderbilt) to those lesser known (Adriaen van der Donck). Did you know that these heroes have monuments where one can visit to pay homage? You will find out where they are.
What are heroes and why do we need them? What are different kinds of heroes? Why are attacks on heroism so prevalent today? What are the consequences? Is sacrifice compatible with heroism? What are the historic roots of America in general and New York in particular–and why have we strayed from those ideas? Who is the most important hero in New York history?  Robert will discuss and answer these, and other questions, The Heroic City.
Robert Begley is a dynamic speaker with more than 20 years experience in Toastmasters International. His speeches combine humor, passion, motivation, storytelling, and a profound understanding of the subject matter. He has written for The Objective Standard. He is also the Founder and President of the NY Heroes Society. Robert was host and producer of  the Manhattan  cable  television program, The Voice of Reason. Robert is currently writing a book about the history of American heroes. If you are interested in  having him speak in your area, please write to Robert@Begley.com.RobertMC

Meeting Jimmy Page

Wednesday, November 5, 2014,  was one of those days I have dreamed about ever since I was 14 years old, when Led Zeppelin became my favorite band: meeting Jimmy Page.

Page1

When Page’s 500 page photographic autobiography book came out on October 14, I went to the Barnes & Noble Union Square location to purchase it, knowing that Page would be there for a book signing in a few weeks. The man behind the Information counter told me the book had not arrived yet, but that they were expecting 1,000 people for the signing, so the shipment might be delayed for that reason. So I just ordered it on Amazon. When the book arrived two days later I sat down and poured over it, finishing the entire book in three hours. Incredible photos, most of which I’d never seen before, underscored by sparse, pinpoint word descriptions. Two favorites are Page with Brian Jones, in 1966, and Page, in British recording studio, playing the violin bow on his guitar, with a huge picture of Duke Ellington on my wall. My father’s biggest hero and mine, in the same photo. Page2

Still thinking there would be 1,000 people at the event, I left home around 7am, to get on line for the wrist band, which would be handed out at 10am, when the store opened. The were giving wrist bands only if you purchased a book ($52 at B&N, while $37 at Amazon). No problem. When I heard he’d be signing up to two books, but you could only purchase one at the store, I figured I’d go home and get the second one. However, we were told Page would only be handling 250 people. Fortunately, I was number 170 on the line, so I was locked in. Heart beat surged.

My brother Damian planned to spend some time with me, taking photos, when the event began at 7pm, so we arranged to meet beforehand. However, they didn’t let him upstairs, as the forth floor was closed off for the event, so he spent time reading books in B&N. Not a bad way to pass the time.

As I sat in the room, I got nervous. What will I say, what will I do, how will I deal with my favorite living hero? The line was going at a snail’s pace, as I chatted with those close to me, the same people I’d spent 3.5 hours waiting on line earlier that day. (To pass the time, I graded more than 25 Atlas Shrugged essays for this year’s contest.) When that was done I started socializing. Everyone was nice.

PageAtlas

We sat around 15 rows from the stage area. When Page came in applause greeted him. He said a few words, and then they proceeded with the book signing. An hour later, still sitting, but with heart increasing its pace, there were three more rows of people in front of us, waiting for signatures. Then we were told that he’d only sign one book, instead of two. Bummer. That meant I’d have only half the time I anticipated. Better get right to the point and not waste any time. There were so many other restrictions that it almost took the joy out of the event. Not quite.

Then came our row. There were parents and a teenage son together, in front of me, and I asked the boy to take some photos, as the best angle for photos took place after coming came off the stage area.

Finally, it was my turn. There were around seven or eight people on stage with Page, but he was the only one sitting. Not actually signing, but stamping his famous ZOSO symbol into each book. That was fine as far as I was concerned. I just want to shake his hand. They took my book as I walked up. Page and I shook hands, smiling at each other.

Page6

I showed him my Led Zeppelin 1977 tour t-shirt and said I had attended four of those shows at Madison Square Garden. He smiled in return and said, “You’re one of the lucky ones.” I replied “absolutely!”

Page5

Then, as he stamped the book, I merely said “Thank you for all the great music through the years.” He looked up at me and stuck his hand out again, for me to shake it.

Page4Page3

Over and out. The guys standing to his right handed me my book. Best 30 second encounter of my life.

The boy who took the photos got some decent ones, and some bad ones. (I promised to hold his heavy blue bag in exchange for him taking photos.) The best ones are included.

PageDone

Next, I went down to see Damian, we had some tea together, and I lost my voice explaining what I’d just experienced. Damian took some more photos of me in the store—the same store I’d been to so many times, and often bringing out-of-towners—and didn’t want to leave. Thanks Dame!

Next was the tough part, as I described all the other things I wanted to say, including my Rockline call in, where I got to ask him and Robert Plant about my favorite Zeppelin song, In My Time of Dying. Too little, too late.

While waiting on line some people discussed the Page interview at the 92nd St. Y from a few nights earlier. I didn’t want to splurge for the $150 cost, but found the link to the excellent interview afterwards.

Before we left the store I felt in my jacket pocket and pulled out the baseball card of me, which I had signed for Page. (I figured if I couldn’t get his autograph, at least I’d give him mine. Plus, the back of the card mentions how much I enjoy listening to the music of Led Zeppelin.) However, the bodyguards at the table would likely have tossed me from the line if I tried to give him something.

I could give the proverbial, “Now I can die” expression, but tomorrow I’ll be at a filmed interview with Geddy Lee of Rush, with only 50 audience members. This will be another thrill. What a week! Now, if I could only meet Neil Peart…

Whole Lotta Love,
Robert

Tom Seaver: A Perfect Inspiration

Tom Seaver after winning another game.
Tom Seaver after winning another game.

The intensely focused stare, the perfect pitching mechanics, the muscular legs, the overpowering delivery, the blistering fastball…The Franchise.

The 1969 New York Mets overcame 100-1 pre-season odds to win the World Series. The leader and most productive member of that team was Tom Seaver. His 27 wins earned him the Cy Young Award for best pitcher in the league–as well as Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. But equal to his productiveness was his professionalism and winning attitude. When he came to the Mets a few years earlier they were lovable losers who never finished higher than ninth place in the standings. Seaver refused to accept the status quo. He took winning seriously and proved it over an extended period of time by winning more than 300 games in his 20 year career. “There are only two places in the league,” he said, “first place and no place.” In fact, Seaver was so confident in his ability that when he signed with the Mets in 1966 he told his father, “In five years, I’m going to pitch in the World Series.” He accomplished that goal two years ahead of schedule.

Seaver, also known as “Tom Terrific” and “The Franchise,” was my first living hero. He showed this 7 year old Bronx kid that character and professionalism don’t come automatically. Rather, these virtues are a result of intense effort. As Seaver put it, “The concentration and dedication–the intangibles are the deciding factors between who won and who lost.” This appealed to me because I knew that mere physical talent was not enough in my own life, and I wanted to be a winner.

Observing Seaver at work was truly a thing of beauty. Artist LeRoy Neiman likened Seaver’s performance to that of an artist, with the pitching mound as the easel. Famous slugger Reggie Jackson once stated, “Blind people come to the park just to listen to him pitch.”

When my mother told me that the Amazin’ Mets were heavy underdogs for the 1969 World Series, I got excited because I thought she meant they would be on my favorite cartoon program, Underdog. Shortly thereafter, I watched Tom Terrific and his team drive through the Canyon of Heroes in downtown Manhattan, where only a few months earlier Neil Armstrong and his team had triumphantly paraded.

In one of his many co-authored books, The Perfect Game, Seaver provides excellent insight into the character of a champion. The book gives an amazingly detailed analysis of the most dramatic game of the World Series, game four, which he won 2-1. We also learn about Seaver’s strong family bonds, his plan to become a dentist, his off-season studies at USC and his brief stint in the Marines, where he grew in height and weight. However, the essential virtue that stands out in the book is honesty. Seaver constantly talks of the importance of being honest, whether it is telling his pitching coach when he is tired and should be taken out of the game, or telling his catcher how to better handle the staff, or correcting the media about making excuses for his rare poor performances, or even telling his wife about a harmless weekend date with another woman very early in their relationship.

Another facet I always admired about Tom Seaver was how he soaked up the greatness of New York’s culture. Whether it was attending art exhibits or concert halls, he enjoyed the richness of the city–outside the sheltered sports world that most athletes never venture beyond. He also put his virtues to work in the business world as a spokesman for several corporations including Chemical Bank and American Express.

One of my life’s highlights was going to Cooperstown, New York in 1992 to see him inducted (with the highest percentage first ballot entry) into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I witnessed a man who spoke proudly of his many accomplishments and who was grateful about sharing such a special place with so many legends. In that moment, I knew that my decades of hero worship were justified. He was one of the select heroes who had inspired me and helped to shape my character.

These days, Tom Terrific demonstrates his honesty and professionalism as a Mets announcer. His perceptive insights avoid hoopla and focus on the facts, with unwavering respect for the glorious history of America’s great pastime. Seaver’s confidence in his stature comes from a resolve to pursue and achieve his goals, whatever the opposition. He has maintained his integrity and pitched a perfect game in the most important game of all: life.

Rush: Reason in Rock

In the annals of rock history, no band has championed reason and heroism in words and action with as much consistency and longevity as the Canadian power trio, Rush.

Superior ability is a key quality of heroism. Exemplifying this as musicians’ musicians, bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and percussionist Neil Peart all fit the bill. Widely recognized as leaders of their craft, they are regularly featured in musical publications. Add to this the prolific lyric writing of Neil Peart and you have a tightly knit unit of virtuosos.

Great moral stature is another vital aspect of heroism, and they stand atop that spectrum. In a profession where drugs, groupies, trashed hotel rooms, superficial poseurs and compromisers are rampant, these gentlemen read books, study French and play classical guitar before going on stage. They are rational, productive, responsible family men who guard their privacy. In 1997 they became officers of the Order of Canada, which was created to recognize significant achievement in the important fields of human endeavor.

Pursuing one’s values in the face of great opposition is another essential feature of heroism. These Great White Northerners have done this steadily since the mid-’70s, when the commercial failure of their third album, Caress of Steel, caused their record company to almost abandon them. They fired back with the futuristic epic 2112, which gave them a life extension and which to this day, 28 years later, still brings down the house when they perform it. The liner notes of the album credits “acknowledgement to the genius of Ayn Rand” and inspired me to read her works some 26 years ago. (The song’s theme of man against the state is similar to that of Rand’s Anthem, and is perfectly symbolized by the famous logo of the man facing the star.)

Triumph (particularly in spirit) is the fourth ingredient of heroism. The fact that Rush has sold over 35 million records and steadily sells out concert performances, in the absence of mainstream support, makes them qualify. The musical press has largely shunned them, which is why they will probably never go into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (The two main reasons are distaste for Lee’s vocals and Peart’s concept oriented lyrics.) Don’t look for them to be featured on Saturday Night Live, VH-1’s Behind the Music, or on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Perhaps it is because Peart says, “they are not cool enough for us.” Fortunately they have been recognized in their homeland of Canada as they’ve won numerous prestigious awards. Equally important as their commercial success is the fact that they maintain their integrity—musically and personally.

The group has certainly had its share of tragedy. Geddy Lee’s parents are Holocaust survivors, and not long ago Neil Peart lost both his only child and his wife in successive years. (Peart wrote a book entitled Ghost Rider, which describes his recovery.) Nevertheless, the band’s positive sense of life permeates their records, concerts and interviews.

Musically, their instrumental pieces are exercises in virtuosity—particularly La Villa Strangiato (which could also be named “Concerto for Guitar”) and YYZ. However, their songs are celebrations of greatness. Whether the subject is man’s mind “I see the works of gifted hands—Grace this strange and wondrous land—I see the hands of man arise—With hungry mind and open eyes” (Oracle: The Dream). Or if it is technology (they were invited to witness NASA’s Columbia space shuttle takeoff in 1981) as described in the song Countdown. Or even the skyline of New York, “The buildings are lost in their limitless rise—My feet catch the pulse and the purposeful stride” (The Camera Eye). Demonstrating integration between thought and action, these individuals are also pro-technology in their lives. Lifeson is a licensed pilot, Peart an avid motorcyclist and Lee composes on the latest computerized equipment. All their instruments have state of the art electronics utilized for maximum efficiency. (I could never understand how rock bands would denounce technology in their songs and interviews, but use microphones, amplifiers, CDs, television and radio in order to be heard in the first place.)

Only at a Rush concert would one find fifteen thousand fans singing about honesty and integrity (The Spirit of Radio) or pride and independence “No, his mind is not for rent—To any god or government” (Tom Sawyer) or choosing a path that’s clear (Free Will).

A Rush concert is a visual treat as much as an aural one. The high quality video graphics screen displays humorous images (The Three Stooges footage often introduces the band onto the stage) as well as serious ones, which are reflected in the words and music. They also incorporate lasers and pyrotechnics for added effect. A few years ago, while they performed The Big Money, which shows images of U.S. currency, I remember seeing Benjamin Franklin on the screen, then (from Camden, NJ) I gazed to my left and smiled with a note of pride as I saw the skyline of Franklin’s beloved city, Philadelphia. The first time I saw them in concert, back in 1979, there was an image of the right and left brain merging in perfect synchronicity as they ended the 18-minute epic Hemispheres, which supports heart and mind integration. (The lyrics portray Apollo and Dionysus as representatives of each aspect.)

If one were to analyze the group in terms of the classic Greek trinity, one would call Geddy Lee the soul, as he is usually the spokesman for interviews and addresses the audience, plays numerous instruments and sings the songs. He is truly a jack-of-all-trades. Alex Lifeson represents the body, as he blends physical comedy of guitar playing with witty humor and is often lovingly referred to as the band’s party animal. Neil Peart is clearly classified as the mind, as it is his words that are a large draw for the fans. Even his drum style has a jazz oriented cerebral part about it. Lee calls him a normal guy with a really big brain. Aptly put. All in all, there is a superb division of labor among the three.

In my favorite verse about heroes, “The voice of reason against the howling mob—The pride of purpose in the unrewarding job” (Nobody’s Hero), we see the tie between reason and heroism that is virtually absent in our culture. Personally, this is the sense of life that has gripped me for over two decades and has been the soundtrack of my life, drawing me like a magnet to see them about 50 times in concert, including perhaps their greatest performance (available on DVD) Rush in Rio. They have helped to transform me from a teenager with mixed premises into a confident man of reason. I am eternally grateful for this.

Lee, Lifeson and Peart are truly somebody’s hero.

© 2004 Robert Begley

How I Found Out About Ayn Rand

RB Plant

(Me at age 17)

Live for yourself, there’s no one else more worth living for.
Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more.
Anthem
by Rush

At sixteen, these words were my heartbeat and lifeblood. I didn’t understand why. I felt I didn’t have to, it was self-evident. It didn’t take long to realize that not everyone else felt the same way.

At that time I was a longhaired, anti-hippie, rock and roll singer with mixed premises attending high school in New York City. The Canadian band Rush was among my favorites. Their music was (and still is) complex, energetic, conceptual, inspirational and loud. I particularly admired their lyrics, which focused on individualism, self-reliance and happiness on earth. The latest recording I bought, 2112, had a reference to “the genius of Ayn Rand.” Since I’d never heard that name before, I went to the library to find out who he was. The only book on the shelf was Anthem. My eyebrows rose as I looked at the same title as my favorite song. I felt a prelude to something spectacular. I read the book and was fascinated with it. (In fact, the lyrics to 2112 have the same basic plot.)

Now it was time to find out if anyone else had heard of my newly discovered author. I asked my mother. She replied, “Oh that’s Ann Rand, I have one of her books.” Now I knew that Ayn Rand was a woman.

The Fountainhead was a complete break with the reality of the past. Vague concepts such as integrity, morality and egoism became luminously clear through the character of Howard Roark. Most important to me were the virtue of productiveness and the practicality of living life long range. I felt as though an explosion of repressed energy had been released from within me.

Next came Atlas Shrugged—same cause, same effect—and then the rest of her works. Within months I left home to support myself through college. My degree of productivity since then has taken quantum leaps forward, with no sign of letting up.

The impact Ayn Rand has had on me is beyond measure. But it is not the impact of a religious figure, a movie or pop star, a political spokesman or an athletic hero—these usually imply that the object of worship is greater than oneself. Ayn Rand glorified the individual. “Every man is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.”

I found out about Ayn Rand through my intense desire for knowledge. One of the applications of that desire has been rock and roll music. As Rush has proved, there is more to it than drugs, groupies and endless variations on the theme of mysticism and self-sacrifice.

Maybe it is possible to combine reason and rational selfishness with rock and roll. I’ll let you know if I succeed.