Album: Moving Pictures
. . .
It’s funny: Rush are known for getting a big sound out of just three guys — though Geddy Lee is three guys just himself, I guess — but they never met a musical space they couldn’t fill to the brim. I mean, that’s their thing, right? And so it’s ironic that their most feted song has plenty of space in it. And that space is created almost immediately: “Tom Sawyer” opens with an instantly iconic drum beat / synth wash which immediately got your attention seconds before Geddy starts singing.
A modern day warrior
Mean, mean stride
Today’s Tom Sawyer
Mean, mean pride
I mean, yeah, Neal Peart can spin drum rolls around his kit for days, do fancy fills where you don’t expect, but his “Tom Sawyer” opening beat just might be his greatest achievement, an absolute masterpiece of funky restraint that’s been sampled nearly two dozen times.
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
I know that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered Mark Twain’s finest achievement, but The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the one I read over and over and over and over was a kid, and while it’s been some time since I’ve read it, I learned a lot of lessons from that book, and not just from when Tom gets his friends to pain this fence for him, but also in terms of how to write: when he writes “let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene” after Tom says that the first two disciples were “David & Goliath” it’s perfect because he’s giving people the opportunity to have their own interpretations of what happened next.
And 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 lyrics of “Tom Sawyer” are based upon a poem called “Louis The Lawyer” by Pye Dubois, singer of another Canadian band, Max Webster, but Peart changed them to what we all know today; not as direct as some of his songs, giving people the opportunity to have their own interpretations of what “today’s Tom Sawyer” is.
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
After this bridge or verse or chorus or whatever it is, they switch up to 7/8 as Geddy Lee plays a swirling synth riff that is as simple as it is arresting, and eventually Alex Lifeson doubles it on the guitar before taking off on a guitar solo while Geddy plays the riff on his bass. Lifeson’s solo is discordant, jazzy, noisy, and adds an element of chaos to what has been otherwise an incredibly controlled song, and both Lee and Peart feed on that chaos, as the back half of “Tom Sawyer” is fuller and crazier than the front half.
After staying in the groove for most of the song, Peart lets loose after the solo, doing a series of fills that set the final verse, his drums now everywhere.
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
I always loved that line, too: “changes aren’t permanent, but change is,” as well as Peart’s fierce drum rolls, punctuating each and every word, though after another chorus, where we’re asked to “catch the spirit,” cool! and “catch the spit,” ugh, there’s an outro verse, Peart reining himself back in one last time.
Exit the warrior
Today’s Tom Sawyer
He gets high on you
And the energy you trade
He gets right on to
The friction of the day
And as they slip back into 7/8, Lee tosses out yet another iconic synth riff — basically half of what he’d done in the leadup to the solo — while Peart and Lifeson crash around him until the fadeout.
“Tom Sawyer” wasn’t a big hit single — it topped out at #44 on the Billboard charts — but it was an instant standard on AOR radio stations and as “classic rock” began to include the 1980s, “Tom Sawyer” became a staple there, as well. Now, forty years later, it’s unquestionably their most popular song: not only has the video had over 51 million plays on YouTube since it debuted there 8 years ago, it has over 180,000,000 plays on Spotify; more than twice as many as any of their other songs.
“Tom Sawyer” live in 1981
“Tom Sawyer” live in Birmingham, 1988
“Tom Sawyer” live in Rotterdam, 2007
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