Tom Sawyer

Written by Christian James Hand

There are few bands in the World that will divide an audience’s opinion as quickly as Rush. I am fairly sure that this is a fact, although I may have made it up. The Canadian trio occupy a special place in my heart and are one of my favorite musical acts of all time. Their friendship, mutual admiration, respect, and love for each other is a rarity in the Music Industry and it is shocking to think that they had kept it together for 40 years, 40 CONTINUOUS YEARS, with nary a break or vacation from themselves or each other. Quite an accomplishment.

They are, of course:

Neil Peart (pronounced “Pe-yurt”) – drums/percussion/lyrics

Alex Lifeson – guitar

Geddy Lee – bass/keys/vocals

Moving Pictures was going to have to move the goal-posts for the band again. They went in with a mind to “tighten it up” even more and, hopefully, get a couple of “hits’ on the radio. It went on to become their biggest selling album to date. Moving Pictures is the first Rush album that captured me. It’s seven songs that, in my mind, are EVERYTHING Rush had done prior, and would do from that point on, in one record. It establishes their DNA and sets the scene for one of the most enviable careers in music. And it all starts with “Tom Sawyer.”

“Louie the Warrior”, often mis-titled as “Louie The Lawyer”, was a poem written by Canadian poet, and band pal, Pye Dubois. An enigmatic character, he had been friends with the trio and another Canadian band named Max Webster for years. They had all spent time in the trenches of the scene together and had become a bit of a “Mutual Appreciation Society.” Pye sent Peart his poem and between the two of them it took shape into the Mark Twin influenced anthem that went on to become one of their best known songs. It is a tale of alienation and the struggle between your perception of yourself and the way you are seen by others. A theme that Peart has returned to repeatedly in the lyrics of Rush’s music.

The winter that the band recorded in Quebec was one of the coldest that the band, and Canada, had experienced and living out in the woods, just the three of them, working in exile allowed them to focus on crafting Moving Pictures into the quintessential Rush album that it is. The Side 1 track listing of “Tom Sawyer”, “Red Barchetta”, “YYZ”, And “Limelight”, is one of the most ridiculous A-Sides in recording history. Good grief. Them 40 below days certainly paid-off in spades. Bloody freezing! If you want an idea of the conditions then watch the attached video, it was shot during the making and you can see the winter wonderland out through the studio windows.

The track starts with one of the most recognizable keyboard sounds of all time. Geddy Lee has confessed to simply pulling up a sound on his Oberheim OB-X, playing that note, and then moving on, with nary a thought to replicating it live. In fact he was never able to get EXACTLY the same sound ever again. It was also on this album that Lee abandoned his trademark Rickenbacker bass for a Fender Jazz Bass that he had purchased at a local pawn shop (a little “Bass Trivia” for you equipment dorks out there). It is  little weird that in the video you can see GL back on the ol’ Rick instead of the Fender, but, then again, what are details?! To say that Geddy is a good bass player is to say something that is a foolish simplification of the FACTS! He’s a monster. Everyone in this band is. That’s why they are RUSH! But, before the bass…

THE DRUMS! Come on now. Peart. What’s to say that can’t be just heard in this track? Neil is a quiet man who keeps to himself and has been blessed to be able to speak through Geddy. It’s a beautiful relationship, if you think about it. Between the drums and the lyrics, Neil has no need for the spotlight, and shuns it aggressively. If you want a great look into their lives, career, and story then I recommend the documentary, Time Stand Still.

It is hard to not fall in love with them after watching it. Peart’s performance on this song is everything he does perfectly in one four-and-a-half minute lesson. Some say that his playing is too “clinical”, i disagree. It is, without a doubt, mathematically pure, and the precision is difficult for some to see as “soulful”, but I think that that is what MAKES it Peart. His “motor” is a finely-tuned V-12. There are no missteps, no sputters.

This isn’t the madness of Moon, or the bludgeoning groove of Bonzo, it is, instead, the laser focus of a drummer who is tasked with holding together the spine of their complicated, fractal, Prog Rock, and share the sonic landscape with two masters of their instruments. He’s the ONLY guy that can pull this off. Listen to the way that his drum-fills “play” the other fellas parts. Each hit supports one of their choices. Each moment used to push forward the agenda of the song. Yes could never have written this thing. It flips from style to style effortlessly and that is a masterful achievement that in the hands of less gifted drummer could’ve easily fallen flat.

LISTEN TO THE FILLS!! WTF?!? What one player would have made busy Peart makes obvious and undeniable. How else could this song have been played? The verse features the syncopated hi-hats with the pushed kicks establishing the pushes that will show-up later on when the rest of the band shows up. Such a simple choice, but without it the verses pulse would be lessened significantly. There’s THINKING going on here. It’s Rush, of COURSE there is. The open/close hi-hat “shick” in the first “bridge”? The syncopation of the solo section?! What’s going on? Then it’s double-time?! Then fills that go on for days?!? And then it rocks?!? WHAT’S GOING ON?!?

I always come back to the same question: WHICH BIT CAME FIRST?!? Only the Priests Of Syrinx know for sure. In an interview that I read Neil was talking about the solo that he was playing on the tour being discussed and he mentioned that it was “Half improvisation and half autobiographical”. AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL?!? Who writes a drum solo that way?!? Neil Peart, that’s who.

Neil went on to suffer a horrible tragedy a few years back when he lost both his wife and daughter in a 6 month span. I urge you to read his book, <i “>Ghost Rider. It is the real-life story of the years long motorcycle journey that he undertook to come to terms with the loss and to try and find his way back to the World in the wake of it. An beautiful book. Worth the read.

As I have said earlier; there ain’t NOTHING needs be said about Geddy that hasn’t already been echoed through the music. This dude! Good grief. If you have never seen him play live then you missed out. Not only does he play THESE bass parts AND sing, he ALSO plays keyboards with one hand, and bass synth pedals WITH HIS FEET! This is all done often at the same time AND all in different cadences and feels. I consider him the only true “Rocktopus” that music has ever seen. It’s absurd. Of particular joy for me in “Tom Sawyer” is when the bass and guitar lock in for the establishing riff, a Panzer Division of octave power. It is impossible to point out all of the nuances of the parts Lee plays on this thing. THERE’S TOO MANY OF THEM! Just listen to the attached link. It’s all in there!

Oh, and every one of his keyboard choices is also perfect. Rich rumbles and filter sweeps help to set the tone for the sense of both past and future evoked in the song. It’s quite a parlor trick. It was also an interesting change for the band that  the keyboard provides the signature riff at first hearing. It is then picked up by the guitar and THEN the bass as Alex begins to play his first lead over the top of it. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Geddy is all over the neck on this track. Another quintessential Rush performance. “Subdivisions” is another baller bass-track if you are interested in a quick deep dive, also “Freewill”, dammit, you should just listen to as much as Rush as you can after reading this. It might just change your life.

I am often asked if i could be one musician for a show, who would it be? The answer? Either David Gilmour or Alex Lifeson. Period. The thought of standing in front of a wall of amps and playing some of the greatest riffs ever written is TOO MUCH!! How do they not just explode with the fulfillment of every teenage boys dream? The tennis racket bedroom gig is no match.

Here’s Christian’s breakdown of “Tom Sawyer”, track by track. enjoy!

Lifeson’s playing on this jam is, also, quintessential Rush. There are varying opinions amongst Rush fans as to this era of the band, and even Alex has expressed dissatisfaction with the way that the guitar began to take a back-seat to the keyboards that Geddy was introducing. But, i LOVE this era. To me this IS Rush. All of the textures are perfectly chosen. “Tom Sawyer” moves through time as Lifeson brings in the off-kilter riff that carries through the verses and supports Geddy’s lead on the second “bridge” that becomes the coda. But…Alex’s SOLO!?!

At the two minute mark he unleashes the hounds in the weird, fragmented, obtuse way that he seems to approach all of his leads. He said that he usually gets the vibe to a solo in two takes and then starts to repeat himself and lose the plot a bit. This lead was constructed out of about 5 takes that were comp’d together while he was out grabbing a smoke in the chilly air of the Canadian winter. It is a tangential and inspired 30 seconds of guitar playing. One of my favs from him. An interesting note is that he provides no support for the lead from power-chords or any other other riff. They, at this point are a trio. Bass, guitar, drums. Shredding.  He has pointed out a number of times that the arrangement of the song itself is a peculiar thing that hearkens back to the more complicated days of their recent past. It is roughly this:

Intro-Verse-Bridge-Chorus (X2) Coda/Outro

So…now…Geddy’s vocal. This is where most people abandon the Canadian trio. I will admit that it is a tough thing to get around. Similar to Jon Anderson of Yes, Geddy’s voice is in the Alto range. That is high. Really high. And the texture of Geddy’s is not as gentle as Jon’s. But it is VERY Rush. It is as recognizable as any other facet of the band. imagine, if you will, any other voice singing this song. You can’t. Try it yourself. Awful. It is, as is everything concerning this band, unique to Rush. It is an instrument in the truest sense. It is a texture that cannot be replicated or removed. It is a mandatory part of the trio’s sound. Once again…it’s Rush. Geddy also has the unfortunate moniker of “The Ugliest Woman In Rock.” People are cruel. It is an interesting thought that as a lead-singer Geddy is performing lyrics that he never writes. It is always Neil’s words sung with the voice of Lee. But, he means them. Every time.

It is no surprise that “Tom Sawyer” is the Rush song that most people associate with the band. It is a unique song, a unique arrangement, built on unique performances from unique players. There’s no other band like them, of this there is no argument. And no song that sounds like it. Good or bad, you have to admit that much.

I, along with a few hundred other Rush fans, was lucky enough to be in the room when the lads were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. It was an amazing thing to experience and Alex’s acceptance speech was one of the greatest pieces of Performance Art I’ve witnessed. I have attached that link as well. Watch it. We had all waited decades for the moment and OUR Band didn’t disappoint. We were ALL inducted that night. I’ve always said that I feel bad for people who can’t enjoy Rush’s music because they are missing out on an entire universe of sound and musicianship that is unlike any other in music. And it’s also the story of a 40+ year long friendship. Tragedy, pathos, love, laughter, magic, and the bending of the Laws Of Physics. The stuff of legend.

The relationship between Rush and their fans is a singular one. It’s a special thing. We’re like the Masons of Rock’n’Roll. We need a secret handshake. Maybe we already have one and we haven’t told anyone about it because then it wouldn’t be a secret, would it?

Check out Moving Pictures if you haven’t. It’s the gateway drug to a musical place that few bands have occupied. You may become a HUGE Rush fan, or…you might hate it. But, you’ll be missing out if you do. i feel lucky to have been allowed to enjoy the songs, to see them inducted, and to have seen their last show.

Alex, Neil, and Geddy, thanks for the music. Godspeed.

See you at the next one.

Stay golden,


The music video:

The speech (Alex is at the end):

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