SEPTEMBER 12, 1952-JANUARY 7, 2020
Exit the warrior...
It was on the evening of Friday, January 10, 2020 when I saw the news, immediately after returning home from some lengthy duties in preparation for the forecasted "snowpacalypse" that ultimately (and yes, thankfully) turned out to be nothing but. The news arrived through two private Facebook messages from friends, one of whom a new friend residing in England, the other, a life long friend flowing as far back as our teen years. Both messages contained the same and extremely painful news...Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for Rush, had passed away from brain cancer after a three and a half year battle in private.
He was only 67 years old.
Yes, I know. I am only getting older, which of course means that the people who influenced me, especially those within the arts, are all growing older themselves, all of us with less time in front of us compared to the lengthier spaces behind us. And still, it remains a shock and filled with such powerful and sometimes debilitating sadness. I felt it with David Bowie four years ago and seismically with Prince, who passed away in the same year and then all over again with Tom Petty one year after them. Neil Peart is yet another figure, who to me, was superhuman due to his unquestionable and unparalleled gifts, skills and talents and once again, it was proven to me, just as it has been proven to all of us, that he was mere mortal...just like me and you.
And still, even now...as I listen and re-listen and hear him play, I am unable to relinquish my belief that Neil Peart was one of the very best musicians upon the planet Earth and contrary to the truth of the matter, it remains difficult for me to really think of an Earth without him in it. I guess it is as if the sun and sky vanished. But he is indeed gone, at least physically. As of now, I am compelled to share my feeling and offer my own tribute to a figure who forever altered my consciousness for precisely 40 years and will continue to do so forever more. To paraphrase the title of one of his albums with Rush, it is time to sadly and graciously bid farewell to a King.
(Geddy Lee, Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson)
My introduction to the music of Rush, and therefore Neil Peart, arrived at an extremely pivotal point in my upbringing. It was 1980, I was 11 years old, I was a few years into taking drum lessons and by the age of 13, I would be the drummer in a school rock band named Ground Zero. It was also the year during which I discovered and graduated to Chicago FM radio with its (then) plethora of album oriented rock stations. And my memory informs me strongly that the very first song I ever heard upon the FM dial was Rush's swirling, mesmerizing, captivating, awe inspiring "The Spirit Of Radio."
Never could I have ever wished for a better introduction into a wider musical universe than Rush's song. It was a piece of music that was completely foreign and yet spoke so directly to my soul that I loved it upon first listen and even after all of these years later, and countless re-listenings to that song, I still feel goose pimples upon my skin and the those glorious chills running through my body. It was searing, shocking white lightning put to music and performed by the only three people on the planet who could harness it. With endless gratitude delivered towards the now defunct Chicago radio stations WLUP (forever known as "The Loop"), WMET, WLS-FM and WCKG plus the still on-going WXRT, I received a peerless musical education of which Rush became a steady and life altering influence.
While listening, it always felt to be so impossible. The sheer agility on display conceptually and musically, so much so it always felt as if the band was shifting the fabric of time at will with their seemingly impossible performances within those kaleidoscopic time signatures. And of course, there were the lyrics which were never innocuous, never focused upon teenage romance but dove head first into exceedingly broader territories and deftly crossed the barriers from science fiction suites to more Earthly pursuits, concerns, musings and tribulations from historical periods to the here and now, miraculously exploring the philosophical and existential arguments about the nature of life itself.
Yet, it was also completely accessible, warmly inviting and all so embracing. It felt to be a wonderment as well as a wonderland and remember, this was during the days before MTV. Aside from the photos inside of the albums, there was very little visual footage to be seen of the band at that time. Yet, when I did see the band in action, as in the video footage for the track "Vital Signs," I was just stunned that this sound (just as with my other rock trio obsessions at the time with Genesis and The Police), this voluminous sound, was being created and performed by a mere three people!!
And there, behind this astonishing drum set, and adorned with a baseball cap, sat Neil Peart, a study of intense concentration and precision, playing the drums in a way I had not yet experienced them.
I find it impossible to find enough words to fully express how Neil Peart arrived at the absolutely perfect time for me. For it was the exact period during which I was learning the drums, learning about the wider arena of rock music, and therefore music itself, and realizing that a personal, identifying signature could be placed upon inanimate objects so you forever knew, just by sound, precisely WHO was playing.
Again like his contemporaries with Genesis' Phil Collins and The Police's Stewart Copeland or his inspirations like The Who's Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin's John Bonham, when Neil Peart played, you ALWAYS knew it was his hands holding the sticks. With no disrespect whatsoever to the aforementioned players as heroes they all are to me, there was just something extra to Neil Peart that excelled beyond anyone else.
Neil Peart was the drummer's drummer, the one known as "The Professor," the one who inspired other world class drummers as well as the novices within us all, exquisitely composing and playing these mystic rhythms that spoke to the soul and the body unlike any other. His drum fills were pop hooks unto themselves. In fact, I woud argue that if you were to isolate his drum tracks, they would ALL sound like full, complete songs unto themselves as well.
I was truly blessed to have witnessed saw Rush in concert only once in my life. It was the 1987 "Hold Your Fire" tourstop in Milwaukee, WI. What an experience that show was!!! And honestly, what a sight is was to witness a sea of people in the auditorium playing "air drums" in unison to Neil Peart's now iconic drum fills in "Tom Sawyer." That was a sight the likes of which I have never seen before or since, which perfectly signifies the inexplicable connection Peart had with generations of listeners that was so singular, complicated, intricate, primal and so much in a universe of its own making.
Slightly before this time, I remember my parents actually waking me up so that I could regard Buddy Rich's jaw dropping drum solos on "The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson." Yes, I watched in awe (how could I not for he was astonishing) but Buddy Rich was not quite for me, as he represented previous generations. But Neil Peart, he was for me, he was my discovery, he was of my time and I embraced him tremendously.
To believe that I could learn just as he had learned. To believe that I could reach further just as he was reaching. To believe that I could try harder just as he was trying harder. And through the effort, the discipline and the love of the instrument, I could find personal success. That I, mere teenaged mortal, could maybe, possibly be...A DRUMMER...just like Neil Peart. Or perhaps, if I couldn't be Neil Peart, then what if I could be the "Neil Peart" of my school?
For someone like myself, who always questioned himself, doubted himself, and never felt terribly highly of himself, Neil Peart was a figure who began to instill in me a sense of courage...the courage to believe that I could actually be good at something, like playing the drums. The more I listened, the more I learned and the more I grew in awe of what I was hearing, for Neil Peart's sense of invention and imagination were, and remain forever, wholly inspiring.
For me, "Permanent Waves," "Moving Pictures" and "Signals" comprised a musical trilogy, my rock and roll Lord Of The Rings. From that point, every prior album was a source of discovery and every new album release a full event--as always evidenced by the chatter in the high school hallways whenever a new song premiered on Chicago rock radio stations or when gobsmacked whispers of "Have you heard 'YYZ'?????" echoed from one person to another.
Through those years, as I played my drums to the best of my abilities in Ground Zero and other opportunities, I walked the school hallways with my drum sticks in my pocket and tried to cultivate a reputation because I loved playing so much. I loved having that focus and drive to play. I wanted to impress people as well as myself. I wanted to prove to myself that I could really do something. And there was Neil Peart, like a Jedi Master, at the forefront in my mind as I tried, tried and tried to reach for the bar that he was setting over and again.
I know that for some, it may have felt as if Neil Peart was soloing over every song, grossly over-compensating through his monolithic drum set. But for me, he was always like my #1 favorite drummer Ringo Starr in the sense that Peart was a brilliant listener, delivering, with surgical precision, exactly what every Rush song needed, no more or less.
Neil Peart's tracks were fully orchestrated pieces--drum kits augmented with glorious percussion miraculously performed as if he possessed eight arms!! We heard rock in his playing certainly but we also heard jazz, we heard symphonic, we heard Latin, we unquestionably heard African and it was all magic in sound and motion every single time. It was a blissful amalgamation of force and fluidity, strength and dexterity, diligence and determination, and at all times, with grace and tastefulness.
Most importantly of all, Neil Peart never presented himself as a musical artist who knew all that he ever needed to know, which was a crucial aspect to his artistry. In the terrific documentary "Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage (2010) from Directors Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn, I was deeply enlightened and humbled by a section in the film entitled "The Yoda Of Drums," during which Peart, feeling that his own playing was static from years of working with sequencers and developing his sense of precision, worked with jazz drummer Freddie Gruber to deconstruct his own playing and to re-build it with a newfound sense of purpose and fluidity.
For Neil Peart, practice, reflection and self-discovery were the only means to improvement. There was always something to learn, a quality that ex tended far beyond his prowess as a drummer but marked Peart's entire life as a human being. That lesson has been invaluable, especially now as I reflect upon him and what he has meant to me.
While it was not unimaginable for a drummer to write a song, Neil Peart, existing as the conceptual mouthpiece for Rush, to provide every single written word that Geddy Lee sang within the 40+ year tenure of this particular triumvirate, I just could not believe it. It was the thing that drummers simply didn't do and frankly, were not supposed to do. By contrast to the norm, Neil Peart forged ahead, song after song, album after album with a lyrical verve and skill that was literary, so literary that I would often, as a teenager, just read the lyrics without even playing the records (no disrespect whatsoever to his bandmates).
Neil Peart's lyrics ranged from expansive science fiction concepts and later voyaged into works that were philosophical, psychological, ethereal, intellectual, evocative, sensational in their creativity, profundity, and poignancy which overflowed with empathy and universality. Despite his status as an atheist, his lyrics were deeply spiritual and soulful and he always championed individualism and integrity in a world that never seems to hold those qualities as the highest in currency.
This specific quality only grew in its scope and depth after Peart's well documented personal tragedy when he lost his first daughter due to a car accident and his first wife due to cancer within the span of less than one year between 1997-1998, which then led to a five year sabbatical from the band. During that period as he mourned, healed and traveled in solitude on his motorcycle, Peart continued to emerge as an author, chronicling his journeys within seven books, including the widely celebrated Ghost Rider: Travels On The Healing Road (published 2002), which details his grief and recovery process after the deaths of his first wife and daughter.
Yet, becoming the lyricist for Rush, at least the way the story is told by his bandmates, makes the entire journey of Neil Pearts' writing seem arbitrary. Geddy Lee has dryly stated that after Peart joined the band in 1974, replacing Rush's original drummer John Rutsey, he and Alex Lifeson, taking notice of Peart's consistent reading, wondered if he would write the band's lyrics. To think, Neil Peart became a writer and developed as a writer by being a reader!!
Neil Peart's love of literature, and ultimately language itself, was superbly evident within his lyrics, from the phrasings to his vast usages of metaphors to even his vocabulary, compelling me to educate myself and expand my own language when writing and speaking. Like his contemporaries with Roger Waters and Sting, Peart never dumbed down his language, concepts or storytelling, which ranged from full narratives, character studies to even more esoteric works that explored aspects of the human experience.
One day, while sitting in class, all three songs swirled around my head, richly forming connective tissue between themselves and Golding's novel until they became somewhat inseparable or at least, it felt obvious to see how they could each play off of each other. I returned home, opened my typewriter and typed up the lyrics while also making a cassette tape of the three songs, and the next day, I brought them all to school to show to my teacher.
For whatever reason, my teacher took my excitement seriously enough to read all of the lyrics in class and then play "The Enemy Within." Of course, I wished for all of my classmates to see the same connections that I saw and felt. And of course, I was subtly ridiculed by a classmate immediately afterwards ("I didn't think we were here to listen to songs."). But what was important to me was that I felt that I was doing what was really being asked of me--to take thematic content presented in literature and discover connections, comparisons and contrasts with other art forms, not solely literature.
Neil Peart's writing inspired me in ways that so many pieces of the required high school English class canon simply did not and I am forever grateful. What's more is the over-arching messages of his writings that I feel have informed my life profoundly. To have and hold fiercely onto one's integrity and individualism was a constant theme and one that spoke directly to me in my formative years and holds even greater meaning as I age.
I was stunned when Rush returned from their self-imposed hiatus five years after the familial tragedies in Neil Peart's live with a vengeance that I had not quite experienced from them. "Vapor Trails" (released May 14, 2002), "Snakes And Arrows" (released May 1, 2007) and the band's final album "Clockwork Angels" (released June 12, 2012), were all especially titanic and even combative works, with music and subject matter that challenged even greater than before with often wrenching material that addressed aging, mortality, and raging vitality even when fighting the reality and inevitability of time itself.
By the time the band completed its 40th anniversary tour in 2015, primarily due to Peart's increasing tendinitis and arthritis, I honestly felt a sense of peace and not sadness at the finality of this band for they gave every piece of themselves and they owed us nothing. They truly had earned whatever sense of retirement they wished to have for themselves, especially Neil Peart, who had already lost so very much despite everything he had gained from his rock star status over four decades.
Exit the warrior...it all felt to be so fitting...until right now.
Certainly game recognizes game but even so, I was amazed to see the outpouring of words and messages from musicians that stretched far beyond the realm of their contemporaries. To see messages from the rock musicians they clearly inspired (including Dave Grohl and definitely, The Smashing Pumpkins' Jimmy Chamberlin, obviously the greatest drummer of his generation) to funk and hip-hop musicians as well (imagining Public Enemy's Chuck D. and Neil Peart sharing a moment together after their respective inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame is something I would've loved to have seen) beautifully illustrated the wide variety of their influence and reach.
If the three members of Rush never knew or felt the magnitude of what they had achieved as they were in the middle of the cyclone of their creation, I sincerely hope and wish they had the time and opportunity to take stock once they concluded...especially for Peart during what would be his final years on Earth.
The irony of Neil Peart dying from brain cancer is deeply palpable as the music he created with Rush was indeed music that made you think as well as feel. There was so much to digest musically and lyrically as Peart's love of literature and just the act of reading was evident and paramount to the overall artistic vision that was created over his entire tenure with the band.
The other irony about the life and artistic legacy of Neil Peart is precisely how unknowable he was when in fact, he was revealing his life to all of us for the entirety of his career. Peart famously eschewed the...ahem...limelight. He was an notoriously private figure who enjoyed his solitude, shied away from fan worship, rarely gave interviews and definitely in his later years preferred to travel alone by motorcycle while the band toured, meeting everyone else at stops along the way.
And yet, within the documentary films made about the band and interviews in which I have seen him, Neil Peart presented himself as being quite the loquacious storyteller and conversationalist, fully opening up heartedly. In the tributes that I have read from his friends, this also seemed to be true to him in the real world. He possessed a difficult barrier to puncture but once accomplished, a kind and gracious man was revealed.
And still, for us, he was quite a mystery and yet was he? For what do we have but a lifetime's worth of lyrics as well as his books where he lays his life, mind, heart and spirit bare to speak directly to us about the ideas he held for himself as a young man and how they all evolved and changed throughout his life as he aged, especially when facing personal tragedies that could have upended any one of us-including himself. Yet, Neil Peart soldiered onwards, placing one foot in front of the other, embracing the wonders and terrors of the human experience and sharing how absolutely all of it continued to inform, and therefore, shape his existential relationship with the world.
Now, as I and all of us mourn him, let us remember that all of his words remain directly alongside his musical gifts for us to re-discover for the remainder of our days.
I realize that I will be writing more of these tributes these days as the musicians I have revered are all aging and will ultimately meet the inevitable. As I think of him there are two sets of lyrics that immediately come to mind. The first arrives in "Time Stand Still," a truly timeless song that has the ability to mean different things to people at different stages of life.
"Freeze this moment
A little bit longer
Make each sensation
A little bit stronger..."
The second arrives from "Headlong Flight" from "Clockwork Angels," a song, despite its science fiction themed album concept, felt like Peart eulogizing himself, also despite the fact that his diagnosis was yet to happen in real life.
"All the journeys of this great adventure
It didn't always feel that way
I wouldn't trade them because I made them
The best I could, and that's enough to say
Some days were dark
I wish I could live it all again
Some nights were bright
I wish that I could live it all again..."
To Neil Peart, thank you for the life you did live, the commitment to your art and your life, providing lessons from which I can pull from every time I hear or read your words. My life would never have been the same without your massive influence and I an grateful, even though we never met, to have had you right alongside me all of the way.
REST IN POWER