“I had heard the whispered tales of immortality, the deepest mystery. From an ancient book I took a clue. I scaled the frozen mountaintops of eastern lands unknown, time and man alone, searching for the lost Xanadu.”
When you think of rock music, a few key themes are bound to come to mind: girls, drugs, cars, and everything in between. What may not necessarily come to mind are the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, dystopian science fiction, the novels of Ayn Rand, or lyrics like “to break my fast on honeydew and drink the milk of paradise”. The lines above may sound like something out of a fantasy novel, but they’re actually lyrics from Xanadu, track 2 off Farewell To Kings, the fifth studio album by the Canadian rock band, Rush. And as with many of their songs, Rush proves here that music can not only tell a story, but an epic story.
The lyrics of Xanadu, written by drummer Neil Peart, contain references to Kubla Khan, an 1816 Romantic poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge about the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. The title “Xanadu” refers to the ancient Chinese city, also known as Shangdu, that was Kublai Khan’s summer throne.
Musically, Xanadu is a progressive rock tour de force. The vocals come in only after a solid five minutes of technical and somewhat mind-boggling instrumentals, featuring a glockenspiel and tubular bells from Neil Peart, synth pedals played by Geddy Lee’s feet while he plays a double-neck bass/12-string guitar, and the clear, driving chords and riffs of Alex Lifeson’s 6-string/12-string double-neck Gibson.
The instrumentals set the tone for the lyrics: the tale of an adventurer who searches for a lost, mystical city, where it is said that one can attain immortality. There, he longs to “to stand within the Pleasure Dome, decreed by Kubla Khan, to taste anew the fruits of life,” and to “dine on honeydew and drink the milk of paradise”.
The narrator obtains his desires but, with the passage of eons, comes to regret his choice. “A thousand years have come and gone, but time has passed me by. Stars stopped in the sky, frozen in an everlasting view. Waiting for the world to end, weary of the night, praying for the light, prison of the lost Xanadu.”
Ages go by, and Geddy’s soaring tenor reveals the narrator’s ultimate sorrow. “Held within the Pleasure Dome, decreed by Kubla Khan. To taste my bitter triumph as a mad immortal man. Nevermore shall I return, escape these caves of ice. For I have dined on honeydew and drunk the milk of paradise!” Alex’s final, scorching guitar solo is a wailing lamentation of our hero’s eternal fate.
The tragic, epic fantasy of the immortal man’s destiny in Xanadu is one of many stories to come out of Rush and the progressive rock/metal genre.
Image credits: www.cygnus-x1.net (visit for more great Rush images and info on the band)
P.S. I saw Rush in Pittsburgh during the Snakes & Arrows Tour, and they were awesome.