Neil Peart: An Appreciation

“Against the run of the mill / Swimming against the stream.”

“We break the surface tension with our wild kinetic dreams…”

“So much style without substance / So much stuff without style…”

“It’s hard to recognize the real thing / It comes along once in a while.”

-from “Grand Designs” by Rush (1985)

We all fantasize about meeting our heroes some day, no matter what cautions conventional wisdom might offer to the contrary. For but one example, I used to have literal recurring dreams about meeting Neil Peart, renowned drummer and lyricist for the band Rush, though with his shocking death last week from brain cancer at the age of 67, those long-standing desires have now sadly crossed over into the realm of permanent fantasy. Neil didn’t do meet and greet sessions, either before or after shows. He tried for a little while at the beginning, but found it simply wasn’t his thing. When Rush’s breathtaking run ended on their own terms in 2015, the band was as or more popular than they’d been in decades, and forty years of continuity is a heck of a long time to deny your fans the access they crave. But Neil and his admiration society had an understanding. Despite acclimation far and wide as one of a handful of the best drummers in the history of rock and roll – for, at the end of the day, he was surely the most influential – Neil was a humble, mild-mannered, and famously private person. Adulation on any level made him uncomfortable, and adoring throngs arguably don’t come any more vocal or vociferous than Rush fans. So fan ambassadors Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson would gather to hobnob with the fortunate few after every concert while Neil sprinted through the backstage area to a loading dock out back where his faithful motorcycle was parked. While the process of shuffling out of the arena and reclaiming our cars took us thirty minutes to an hour or more, Neil would fire up his bike and immediately hit the road, on to the next stop on the tour, the next town, the next adventure. Neil Peart was ahead of the curve.

His was a restless spirit in symbiotic entanglement with a lively intellect. After spending most of the first twenty years of his incomparable career cooped up in rickety vans and tour buses, Neil made a lifestyle decision soon after returning to the band from hiatus that became about something closer to survival. While Geddy and Alex rode the bus along the endless road to Rush’s next concert, Neil began traveling from city to city via touring motorcycle, purposely venturing off the beaten path, following the dotted lines on maps instead of the prominent bold ones, his only companions a personal assistant, the weather, the scenery, and his thoughts. He became a professional explorer of the backroads and drew untold energy and inspiration from his various excursions – which he happily admitted extended his shelf life as a touring drummer during a period where accumulated wear and tear was beginning to take a disproportionate toll otherwise – writing a total of seven non-fiction books that ranged in topic/venue from West Africa to every corner of the combined Americas. The fact that this rigorous travel schedule added untold perhaps debilitating mileage to his body’s personal odometer at a time when 99.99% of touring musicians, including his bandmates, instinctively opted for luxurious or at least far less complicated modes of transport was utterly immaterial. “What is the most excellent thing I can do today?” was Neil’s motivating mantra, the “high concept” watchword by which he lived his life, and never, ever a rhetorical question. I noted, with some surprise and not a little satisfaction given his status as perhaps the world’s greatest living drummer, that a random web search conducted in a daze this past weekend returned his name in a list of options bearing the amusing additional descriptor, “Canadian Author”. 

…“Greatest living drummer,” he let slip without thinking, and then read back with a sigh. I’m writing this appreciation as much to process my personal grief as to pay tribute, but I already know I’ll never get used to losing that word…

You couldn’t pin Neil Peart down. He actively resisted or at least instinctively bristled at any attempts by outside forces to foist a definitive identity upon him, and yet, on this point alone, no one would listen. Instead, the accolades piled to the sky: Twenty-four gold and fourteen platinum records (three multi-platinum) from the RIAA; induction into the Canadian Songwriting and, after years of infuriating if futile resistance to the will of the people, Rock and Roll Halls of Fame; Rush’s late career pop culture near-ubiquity, spanning almost every platform imaginable; distinction as an Officer of the Order of Canada, for crying out loud. The widely respected professional publication Modern Drummer alone bestowed upon Neil fourteen awards for “Best Recorded Performance”, stretching across four decades, plus nine for “Best Drummer”, including an “Honor Roll” designation in 1986 that should have theoretically precluded him from further victories and, to its credit, did just that until he nevertheless somehow won his first of a final two in 2006. He was like that once-a-century athletic talent – Wayne Gretzky, say, to namedrop a fellow Canadian monolith – who skips the waiting period and proceeds directly from retirement to the Hall of Fame, except Neil sometimes seemed to transcend the concept itself, as if no such hall could capably house him.* The infusion of Peart’s intricate yet powerful drumming and unabashedly literate lyrics turned Rush overnight from a talented but middling hard rock outfit into a thrilling and evolving progressive rock powerhouse from whom almost any sound was possible and no path was predictable. For forty years, he, and they, followed their own compasses without exception, using popular music as an occasional sounding board for experimentation but never an end state or discernable goal, while an incalculable number of friends, fans, family, and future instrumentalist disciples danced along to the beat of his singular drum. 

*According to Wikipedia, Neil was inducted into the “Modern Drummer” Hall of Fame in 1983, which, assuming my math abilities are up to par, is not only thirty-two years prior to his retirement but also a mere three years after the magazine named him “Most Promising New Drummer” in 1980. The mind reels – while the heart and the ears nod. On second thought, this is well beyond Gretzky territory.  

Not everyone was enthralled, of course – rock critics from the mid-1970s into the early 1990s were famously dismissive and even derisive in their precious conclusions, blasting Rush’s proto-prog-metal attack alternately as self-indulgent, soulless, empty, robotic, and, especially, pretentious, and Peart’s crisp, carefully considered, if every so often barn-door broad, lyrics as so much “pseudo-profundity”, a description I once heard Roger Ebert use in a different context and, delighted, was only too happy to co-opt from time to time once I got into the review game. Funny thing about all of that, though. The enduring curse of the practicing critic – vague intuition of which was among the chief reasons that, with DAE, I chose to review, recount, and reassess works I already knew, expected, or at least hoped, to enjoy – lies in how few people particularly care what you have to say, no matter how eloquently you might chirp along with the chorus or run something through the figurative shredder. Rush fans had long since made their minds up, and I was one of those fans first. My allegiance was never in question. The amazement came with seeing so many of those fellow fans grow up, like myself, to become musicians themselves – successful or otherwise, they were all serious – or, failing that, as the old axiom warned they would, critics. By the late-nineties, and especially into the new millennium, as the most harrowing and personally painful period of Neil Peart’s life led Rush first to an extended hiatus cloaked in sorrow and doubt, followed by one of the most remarkable and triumphant extended reclamations in rock history, all the world was suddenly a critic, as dutifully deputized by the internet. This ascendant generation of fans as critics had missed Rush and, more importantly, having grown up with the band, valued them.  

Rush was already a modest success before Neil Peart joined its ranks, though, as mentioned earlier, a drastically different band, a talented but unremarkable few-frills power trio from the Toronto suburbs hanging onto the bottom rungs of the burgeoning “Arena Rock” movement that, piggybacking off of Led Zeppelin and The Who, would eventually introduce Kiss, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Boston, and Journey, among so many other future radio staples, before the tide of disco rolled inexorably in at decade’s end. Peart’s arrival as de facto lyricist, creative engine, and ticking bomb timekeeper provided a quantum leap of improvement for the band in all respects, and his debut album, their second, 1975’s Fly By Night, announced Rush as an exciting and vibrant new voice in what was already becoming a complacent, sometimes predictable field of endeavor. The old rules were summarily tossed as Peart the singularly explosive drummer also explored his lyrical muse, melding sci-fi and fantasy concepts with a pay-as-you-go exploration of his newfound Libertarian ideals, freeing up Lee and Lifeson to compose without confinement or compromise on their way to a steady procession of heady new songwriting heights. The radio-honed four-minute slabs of primordial meat became something far more musically flexible and filling, dextrous and thrilling, a weird hybrid of Zeppelin and Yes with some undefinable extra. By their fourth album, the spectacularly self-assured dystopia of 2112, the band had truly arrived. The turn of the decade would see them on the cusp of genuine super-stardom, and, later, that pitfall deftly dodged, cementing their permanent and much more appropriate status as the “biggest cult band on Earth”.    

Through it all, new fans continually flocked to Rush in dribs, drabs, and droves, attracted to their muscular musical dexterity, their sense of grandeur and zest for adventure, their intellect, impact, and integrity, and categorical refusal to compromise, apologize, or pander. And Neil Peart himself was a beacon, a lighthouse beckoning music nerds everywhere to their own little plot on the welcoming shore. From the beginning, it was clear Peart was more than just a unique and intriguing talent. He was an artisan with a relentless personal desire to continually expand his scope and refine his craft, and we fans had the privilege of watching him grow as an artist, from prodigy to breakthrough success to teacher to grand master, and then further, into the realm of legends and immortals. Talk to drummers about Neil Peart and watch faces light up in preamble to some pseudo-religious testimonial, or brows furrow like a freshman wrestling with advanced calculus, often accompanied by chuckling and a slow shake of the head. Any reaction comes with respect chiseled in granite, whether or not Rush was their particular cup of tea (though, as mentioned, they are one of the most successful bands to ever occupy the fine print margins of rock and roll). Almost to a person, those fans remained by Rush’s side, in the rafters and the front row, in the bedrooms and garages, at conventions and on message boards – and, yes, in the high school halls and shopping malls – through high times/tides and low, right up until the heartbreaking end of Neil Peart’s amazing life, and, now, beyond. We’re all in mourning. 

I was twelve the year my journey into Rush began, with an unassuming, practically accidental listen to the album Moving Pictures that would transform into an over-thirty-year deep dive still in progress. Rush’s commercial breakthrough was and remains a sumptuous aural feast on which I gorged myself, early, often, relentlessly. Not quite my introduction to the band thanks to the unrelated (but still awesome) then-current MTV single, “Distant Early Warning”, I had the good fortune to listen to Moving Pictures for the first time with few expectations and almost no advance knowledge. Imagine a world where “classic rock” was only loosely defined, and an album that would one day become one of its linchpins was still too young to qualify. At the time, I knew only the band’s name, its vague reputation for weirdness, and that, as that rare authentic gold nugget plucked from the $3.99 (?!) cassette cut-out bin, Moving Pictures was one of the few albums that both fit my agenda and price range. I recall that initial listen precisely, sitting in my mother’s car as it idled on an early-summer day in a strip mall parking lot, AC blasting, plastic wrap crumpled on the seat, volume turned to eleven (or the mid-1980s Honda equivalent). One beat into mystic opener “Tom Sawyer” I was gobstruck, and by the time, mere seconds later, that its swirling vortices of Moog synthesizer gave way to Lifeson’s thunderous guitar punctuation, I was already hooked, intrigued beyond retrieval or repair. The band’s fierce yet playful musicality thoroughly scrambled my circuits, and Neil Peart’s majestic, climactic waterfall drum solo was joy made manifest, though I hadn’t yet attached a name to my eventual hero. Never before had I quite understood that music so forceful could also be aesthetically beautiful.** 

**Decades later, “Tom Sawyer”, then a fantastical journey of discovery, is yet another overplayed chestnut, great but far from my favorite Rush song. To a latchkey loner in 1987, however, it was a revelation. Its next-door neighbor, the by turns delicate and exhilarating “Red Barchetta”, would organically assume that mantle as I absorbed side A – “Tom Sawyer”, “Red Barchetta”, the funky instrumental workout “YYZ” with its Geddy Lee bass flourishes interspersed with a procession of head-turning, switch-flipping drum fills, the thoughtful pugilism of “Limelight” – literally hundreds of times on manufactured repeat. I simply reached the end, rewound the cassette (yep), and started again, convinced side B couldn’t possibly contain its equal. Side B. *sigh* Though technically true, eventually giving side B its own serious turn caused me to discover “Moving Pictures” all over again – hello, “The Camera Eye”! – years later, and finally experiencing the whole album as an uninterrupted CD in high school was the sort of unexpected treat I’d put on par with seeing “Star Wars” or “Halloween” for the first time in widescreen. I remember those moments dearly, too.  

Neil Peart didn’t make me first want to become a drummer. Frank Beard did that, and then Alex Van Halen, and, finally, Nicko McBrain. It was Neil Peart who made me want to be a good drummer. Not an insignificant distinction. His example impressed the idea upon me that it might be worth it to try – that, while nuts, it wasn’t entirely beyond the realm of possibility –  and so I basically taught myself to play over a period of fun but arduous years. Those efforts are still ongoing. Once by some measure I had reached or at least glimpsed the subjective plateau of good on my own, Neil Peart invariably made me want to be a better drummer, both in a given moment and for the rest of my life. Always some higher summit; always some tantalizing fork leading to a road less traveled. And so it went. And so it has gone. Deconstructing his drum parts as they danced and exploded from my headphones into the oversaturated brain they cradled was serious business indeed, the closest I would ever come to wartime code breaking or gaining fluency in a second language. Over the course of our thirty-year relationship as long distance mentor and faithful sponge, Neil Peart inspired me in just about every direction possible – through his applied intelligence; his curiosity and deep empathy; his humility and grace; time and again, as he solved the riddle of creation, whether written or recorded, and, especially, though his intense joy of performance.*** I knew I couldn’t be or possibly best him, and I shuddered at the thought – trying would have been an act just short of heresy. All I wanted was to sit at his figurative feet, or in an audience of fellow travelers, and listen and learn. 

***If Neil didn’t often look particularly joyous while playing, it’s in part because he was a perfectionist immersed in the mechanics of the moment, and also because those songs – “La Villa Strangiato”? “Anthem”? “The Big Money”? “Time Stand Still”? The mutating, multi-stage, showcase drum solo that was a highlight of every Rush concert since 1975? – are just inherently tricky whether you’re making your initial approach or your 2000th. Neil Peart wasn’t interested in playing music that didn’t challenge him, and often intentionally wrote drum parts that were over his head, only to master them anyway through sheer effort. You can imagine the strain this invariably put on dutiful acolytes like me, trying to learn his latest epics at home.

As of this writing, I haven’t had a steady drumming gig for approaching two full decades, and yet I still want greedily to see, and to hear, and to learn. Neil Peart instilled that desire in me, unfulfilled yet unquenchable, because the example he set was that of the consummate craftsman, a steward of his own boundless potential innately unsatisfied with stasis in his status quo. So I practiced songs like “Subdivisions”, “Tom Sawyer”, and “The Spirit of Radio” incessantly, on drums when they were handy, on pillows when they were not, into thin air when I had nothing, and nothing better to do with my hands. As I inched closer to my own semi-credible approximations, I made the life-changing discovery that there was, in fact, nothing better to do with my hands. I wanted to be a touring professional drummer for so long, to great personal toil but little to no avail, that I wouldn’t allow myself to let go of the dream, even after life had ruled otherwise and delivered its definitive word. I still devour(ed) Rush live videos, in pieces on Youtube and in full on DVD, I read whatever interviews I could find, finding Peart, whose lyrics I’d always internalized and deeply admired, a genial, profound, and unfailingly eloquent thinker away from the practice room as well as in it. His band became my unquestioned favorite at a precarious point where it seemed that both metal and grunge had abandoned me. Rush never let me down. The sense of belonging engendered by that proud trio of misfits to its own discerning misfit audience is elusive, unquantifiable, and ingrained in us all. I’ve felt it intrinsically for over thirty years, and so, when the unfathomable news of Peart’s passing confronted me via the rude conveyance of smartphone pop-up alert a week ago Friday, it hit me like a westbound train, and I cried like a baby. 

We hadn’t even known he was sick, let alone facing down brain cancer. How very like him.

I moved from my childhood cocoon of East Tennessee to the largest city in Ohio some twenty years ago for a great many reasons, but if I had to boil that list down to its essence, I would say opportunity. By the time I arrived in Columbus, Rush had already been officially inactive for the better part of three years, as Neil mourned the tragic deaths of his wife and daughter in 1997 and slowly pieced his life back together in their wake, touring the country alone on his motorcycle and sending his bandmates occasional postcards from the road. I certainly had no reason to believe the out-of-body evening I experienced at the end of a giddy, three-hour drive to Charlotte, North Carolina in late February during 1994’s Counterparts tour would ever be succeeded, let alone duplicated. I was already so grateful for what the band, and my idol behind the kit, had provided me that I was pretty well resigned to life without them, knowing that their music would live with and within me forever. But then a magical thing happened. Rush returned, arguably better than ever, in 2002, and I and all those fans who’d refused to  move on to bigger and shinier things were blessed with an additional thirteen years of wonderful new music – Vapor Trails (2002), Snakes + Arrows (2007), and Clockwork Angels (2012) more than withstand scrutiny as a robust, thoughtful, and passionate triumvirate whose inclusion enriches the band’s greater catalogue – and exceptional live performances. We got to see Neil inch further out of his protective shell personally while his professional output remained staggering in craft and quality. Living in Columbus afforded me the opportunity to see Rush an additional six times (plus another concert for which I returned to Tennessee) over those thirteen years, and if that was the only worthwhile result of my time here, which is certainly far from the case, I’d still owe the city a profound debt of gratitude. 

Thank you Geddy Lee, for fronting the show, and for consistently dazzling us as one half of the greatest rhythm section I ever saw with my own two eyes. Thank you Alex Lifeson, for ceding the spotlight with grace and good humor while deviously providing near-constant reminders of your own understated brilliance. I hope to see you both again some time soon. My heart swells in boundless admiration for your talent and work, and aches for your loss, which it shares and shoulders, in some small respect at least, with fans of Rush, and music, everywhere.

Today, I reserve my greatest thanks for the man himself, and all that he has been and meant to my life. Neil Peart has ardent fans in every corner of the globe, of course, from kids drumming on paint cans on street corners to some of the most accomplished and successful musicians in history, and all points in between. He also has unofficial students numbering in the tens of thousands – the number of semi-pro air-drummers alone is unquantifiable – a few of whom are subjectively even more talented than he – as a metal fan almost my whole life, I am consistently dumbstruck by the percussive talent available at the genre’s baseline, let alone its stratosphere – many more, like me, who never wanted to be but appreciated the lessons they absorbed and never stopped striving, wherever their individual journeys took them. I don’t know their stories any more than they know mine…but I’ll bet they have a lot in common. What Neil Peart doesn’t have are peers. Rush was infamous for years as the band you respected greatly even if you didn’t like their music. The driving force behind that level of near-universal respect, whether left unspoken or shouted from the proverbial rooftops, was Neil Peart, a famously studious and occasionally obtuse man with a deceptive sense of humor and heart as big as all outdoors, this man nicknamed “Professor” who applied his exacting personal standards to a style of music hardly famous for amenability to academic rigor and, in so doing, expanded the parameters and altered the trajectory of rock drumming for all time. 

How I loved watching him play. I loved repeating his lyrics, hearing anything he had to say, regardless of the method of conveyance. I loved mimicking his style and substance, whether the drumsticks I held were real or imagined, whether I was alone in my bedroom or in blissful asynchrony with a crowd of similarly devoted thousands. I loved pulling little details out of his drumwork on album and obsessing over them. I loved those fleeting moments when I seemed to break through to a greater understanding. I loved that man, as a mentor and a friend, and so I cried at the shocking news of his passing…and then somehow composed myself…then cried again, near uncontrollably. I cried like someone close to me had died. Then, a time later, I pulled myself together, forced myself to throw on a coat, and trudged out to the car to meet some friends at a local bar. Life went on, as it must. Rush was its soundtrack, though my singing voice was thin and understandably shaky: “Available Light”, followed by “Xanadu”, followed by “Grand Designs”. Same as it ever was.

In my recurring daydream reverie, I inevitably find myself sitting in a diner along some single-digit highway in South Dakota, mid-morning light streaming through the slats in the window blinds. You can see dust particles floating in the air, brilliant in the haze. Not that I have some intense desire to visit South Dakota any time soon, though I am somewhat afflicted by the fabled “travel bug” lately. This just seems like a place where one might innocently, serendipitously bump into Neil Peart, and so my imagination sets the required scene. The scrambled eggs here are neither runny nor dried out, which is a welcome rarity, and I stir them absently with my fork before prepping another bite. A languid song I can’t quite identify is playing on the busted neon cafe jukebox over in the back corner by the bathrooms. I look up at the room’s single stereo speaker, bolted into place in the upper corner nearest me, then return to the clock that hangs over the well-used and expansive grill that dominates the kitchen area. 9:12 AM. My peripheral vision picks out a shape sitting one stool down from me, reading a book. I turn slightly to regard him. The man, mid-sixties, has close-cropped brown-black hair beneath a battered ballcap and a longish face, weathered but kind, with a slightly stubby nose. He is wearing an aviator jacket. He lays the book down momentarily and picks up his cup of coffee for a sip. I steel my courage and decide to speak. “You have the look of a traveler,” I say. “Where are you in from this morning?” He turns, smiles, and says, “Black Hills area. Beautiful country. You?”

I hadn’t expected any response and am therefore nonplussed. “I’m local,” I finally lie.

“That must be something,” he says, his smile settling in. “Waking up to this every day.”

“Some days are better than others,” I reply, and we both nod in agreement.

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