Neil Peart, Rush, The Trees & Socialism
“The Trees,” from Rush’s 1978’s Hemispheres is a song about maple and oak trees. Why should a song about two species of deciduous timber be analyzed for some secret narrative?
Maybe it’s because The Trees has lyrics that read more like an allegory than a simple story. Over the years, lyricist and drummer Neil Peart has spoken about The Trees.
Back To Peart’s Own Words
Upon the album’s release Peart told British music reviewer Geoff Barton a straightforward summary. “The song’s about a forest full of maple and oak trees. The maples begin to get uptight because the oaks are growing too big and tall and are taking all the sunlight away from them. So they form a union and endeavor to get the oaks chopped down to a reasonable size.”
In 1979 John Hamblett of NME (New Music Express) asked Peart about the “definite and resolute dictum against trade unionism and organized labour,” conveyed within The Trees.
Peart responded, “Really (apparently surprised at the suggestion), I can assure you that that wasn’t the intention. Initially that song came about as a cartoon. I sat down after a gig somewhere and it came to me all of a sudden, this very vivid visual cartoon. It was the fastest song I ever wrote; I wrote it in about five minutes, actually.”
“I suppose it’s basically about the crazy way people act,” Peart explained. “This false ideal of equality they try and create. I simply believe that certain people are better at doing certain things than other people. Some people are naturally talented—they have a gift or whatever—and some people aren’t. This doesn’t mean that these people are greater human beings, by virtue of that talent, it merely means they are more talented.”
In an April/May 1980 Modern Drummer magazine article, Peart was asked point blank if the song has a deeper meaning. “No.” he said, “It was just a flash. I was working on an entirely different thing when I saw a cartoon picture of these trees carrying on like fools. I thought, ‘What if trees acted like people?’ So I saw it as a cartoon really, and wrote it that way. I think that’s the image that it conjures up to a listener or a reader. A very simple statement.”
At websites that debate the meanings of songs, The Trees draws polarizing conjectures. It’s no secret that during Rush’s formative years 1974 – 1980, many of Neil Peart’s lyrics were greatly influenced by the Objectivist writings of Ayn Rand.
The Trees certainly reads as an Ayn Rand-ian like message of the evils of collectivism / socialism. It is a metaphoric tale about how people of lesser ability and power, band together and take down those who have it.
Here is the video for The Trees with lyrics below.
Unlike hundreds of other pre-MTV band videos, Rush is actually performing this 1978 promotional video live (with no audience) – not lip synching to the record!
Music: Alex Lifeson & Geddy Lee
Lyrics: Neil Peart
There is unrest in the Forest
There is trouble with the trees
For the Maples want more sunlight
And the Oaks ignore their pleas.
The trouble with the Maples
(And they’re quite convinced they’re right)
They say the Oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light
But the Oaks can’t help their feelings
If they like the way they’re made
And they wonder why the Maples
Can’t be happy in their shade?
There is trouble in the Forest
And the creatures all have fled
As the Maples scream ‘Oppression!’
And the Oaks, just shake their heads
So the Maples formed a Union
And demanded equal rights
‘The Oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light’
Now there’s no more Oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
So is The Trees really about Socialism?
To make all things equal the maples will achieve what they want: equality, fairness, by passing a “noble” law. The sarcasm of “noble” to make everyone equal by hatchet, axe and saw is clearly apparent. In order to gain equality the maples will not / cannot raise themselves up to oaks. So they will bring the oaks down to their level through destruction.
For those who hotly contest Peart’s intent, just read what Peart and the band were saying about themselves and Ayn Rand the year The Trees was conceived.
Cutting Down Rush
This infamous March 4, 1978 article in New Musical Express (NME), described Rush in a very unfavorable light. Barry Miles concert review and profile of Rush, turned into a malicious attack. Even the headline was a dig at the band, “Is Everybody Feelin’ All RIGHT? (Geddit…?) The Gist Of This Being That Heavy Metal Tourists RUSH Are All RIGHT-Er Than Most, As MILES Discovers.
Barry Miles disdain of Ayn Rand’s form of laissez-faire capitalism led to a harsh analysis of Rush’s philosophy and music. The resulting rambling tirade made Rush out to be right wing, neo-fascists.
A highlighted quote from Peart, ‘You have no freedom. You do what you’re told to do. By the socialists.’
The article lambasted Rush in every possible way; their music, ability, performance, stage presence, appearance, and lack of interaction with the fans. The self-important Miles couldn’t get past the band’s fascination with Ayn Rand.
Regardless of what Rush now says about the song, reading the NME article, there is little doubt that Ayn Rand’s anti-socialist philosophy provided the inspiration for the allegory of The Trees.
Barry Miles article greatly affected Peart’s future relationship with the press. From that point forth Peart distanced himself from participating in most media interviews leaving bandmates Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson to deal with the mostly inane questions journalists hurled at them.
After Barry Miles hatchet job on the band, in a follow-up the next year, Peart cautiously talked with NME’s John Hamblett as we quoted above in Peart’s explanation of The Trees meaning.
This is where Peart explains his objections of his lyrics and the band being falsely categorized.
“The Extreme Left Are Just As Likely To Implement An Authoritarian Government As The Extreme Right.”
“That was a very dishonest article,” Peart said. “I was under the impression that Miles and I had gotten on very well. I even gave him my address in New York and told him to stop by any time he was in the neighborhood. All that so-called political dialogue took place after the interview had finished; we were just chatting, really amenably, I thought, and he twisted it all round. I just feel that it was basically dishonest.”
“My argument is that he misrepresented the things that were said; took it all out of context. As far as I was concerned all I was doing was taking up a contrary stance in what I considered to be an essentially philosophical argument—and he made it appear to be political dogma.
“He represented us as fascist fanatics . . . and if that were the case we would have the world’s first Jewish Nazi Bass Player (laugh). It’s ludicrous. We’re not fascists. We’re not racists. I was very upset when I read that article. In America when you call someone a fascist it’s the worst, y’know? It’s the pits. But over here, I now realize, that in certain quarters anyone who isn’t a socialist is, by definition, a fascist. (Laughs).”
Rush makes no secret of the fact that they don’t align themselves with the socialist cause; they are in fact self-confessed ‘capitalists’.
A capitalist, as far as I am aware, is not the same thing as a fascist. Fascism, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, initially was an authoritarian, and nationalistic right-wing political movement founded in 1919 in Italy by Benito Mussolini; now the concept has broadened in general usage to encompass any right wing, anti-Communist, or racialist party, or political ideology—plus schoolteachers, football supporters, the police, sub-editors, GPO, KGB, CGI, NCB, and a whole host of other individuals and public bodies depending on just who’s pointing the finger.
Rush are not racialist, they are not nationalists; and they firmly believe—rightly or wrongly—that the extreme left are just as likely to implement an authoritarian government as the extreme right.
“Basically we absolutely believe in the total freedom of the individual. Politics only constitutes the tip of the iceberg in that respect. I’m not so much concerned with politics as an end as with the role they play in a broader philosophy. To present a picture of us as a right-wing political band would be totally false; it would be a totally warped picture.
On the successive occasions Peart has been interviewed about his lyrics, his reticence to open up has been obvious, leaving interpretation up to the listener.
Neil Peart’s influence by Rand was not permanent according to a 2012 Rolling Stone Q & A, “Neil Peart on Rush’s New LP and being a ‘Bleeding Heart Libertarian.’ ”
Peart was asked, “This is somewhat random, but you were interested in the writings of Ayn Rand decades ago. Do her words still speak to you?”
“Oh, no,” Peart said. “That was 40 years ago. But it was important to me at the time in a transition of finding myself and having faith that what I believed was worthwhile.”
Whatever Peart’s feelings now are towards The Trees and Ayn Rand, the song still resonates with Libertarians and those who see America’s Maples masquerading under the name Progressives.