In Memory of Neil Peart (1952-2020)

Unlike so many writing about him in the wake of his passing, Neil Peart didn’t change my life.  By the time I first seriously listened to Rush in college, when I reviewed Permanent Waves for the student newspaper, my tastes were pretty set, and they didn’t lean toward heavy rock.  (Truth to tell, I looked down on “that stuff” back then.)  So while Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Exit Stage Left got me into a band my best buddies from high school still raved about — they were using keyboards now! — I basically thought, “hmm … noted and logged.  Buy their stuff from now on”, and kept moving.

So I bought and enjoyed Rush’s albums through A Show of Hands; picked them up again with Roll the Bones (probably my favorite, which I know makes me a schismatic or a heretic); lost track again following Peart’s family tragedies, retirement and comeback.  All the while I dug deeper and wider musically — into classical, jazz, country, folk — and finally embraced the heavy stuff.  (This happens when your stepson digs Led Zeppelin.)

But for me and Rush, 2007’s Snakes and Arrows finally sealed the deal.  An album this good after this many years of active service didn’t just catch my ears; it commanded my respect.  I knew I had to see them live, and my high school buddy Keith obliged with tickets to their 2008 Joe Louis Arena show.  And I saw something like this:

And I was gone.  And I saw Rush four more times before they retired from live performance (usually with those high school buddies); bought Clockwork Angels, all the concert videos and everything else Rush-related I could get my hands on; exulted at their elevation to the heights of Noughties celebrity by the movers and shakers of geek culture; cheered when they made the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (and took over the induction ceremony), then finally made the cover of Rolling Stone; even grew to appreciate the over-the-top virtues of “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” 2112 and A Farewell to Kings.

So yes, Neil Peart’s loss moves me.  But what ultimately drew me to him as a musician, a man, an artist, an exemplar?  Some attempts to unpack the mystery follow.

Peart the Drummer.  For a start, no one before or after him ever played drums like Neil Peart.  He took the anarchic energy of Keith Moon and Ginger Baker, stirred in John Bonham’s beefy thump and Carl Palmer’s military precision, and complemented Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee’s quirky writing with his own special percussive blend.  Peart’s drum parts were never static; every groove, every fill built on and extended what had come before, driving every song to a one-of-a-kind climax.  His work, never slapdash, was composed and orchestrated at the highest level possible — and when producer Nick Raskulinecz convinced Peart to record Snakes and Arrows and Clockwork Angels in a more improvisatory fashion, it got even better.

All the while Peart added more arrows to his quiver: the reggae skank of The Police’s Stewart Copeland; the electronic colors and polyrhythms of Bill Bruford in 1980s King Crimson; the big band swing of Buddy Rich, honed and refined by study with jazz legends Freddie Gruber and Peter Erskine.  Until he put down his sticks, he never stopped learning, growing, adapting — and it was all at the service of his band, his pals, and the music they made together.  Which leads to …

Peart the Bandmate.  One reason fans loved Rush so much?  They embodied, for many of us, the ideal form of a band.  Not a supergroup of mercenaries, not a convenient alliance of talents that came and went, but three lifelong friends who brought out the best in each other musically and personally. 

How tight was their bond?  Think of Alex Lifeson taking a sonic backseat to Geddy Lee’s keyboards and Peart’s monster kit during the 1980s — and bearing with it, constantly finding new sounds and textures until loud guitars came around again.  Think of the three of them polishing their writing craft with producer Rupert Hine on Presto and Roll the Bones — rebooting after nearly 20 years together.  Think of the fact that when Peart needed to call time on Rush, Lifeson and Lee agreed without hesitation — not once, but twice.  And finally, watch this sweet, utterly hilarious excerpt from the documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage, and tell me these guys didn’t truly love each other:

Peart the Man of Letters.  Yeah, it’s a somewhat pretentious phrase, but it wraps up Neil Peart’s unique x-factor in a nifty package.  His reading helped make him an outside-the-box lyricist; his lyrics’ endless curiosity about life and its meaning revealed his ambitious thirst for other means of expression; and in the wake of tragedy, his questing spirit led to a late-blooming second career as a consummate author of non-fiction.

It was easy to sneer at multi-part metal epics with section titles like “The Tobes of Hades” or “Armageddon (The Battle of Heart and Mind)” and lyrics to match, so a lot of people did, selling short Rush — and Neil Peart — as they mistook the day’s fashion for enduring substance.  Peart, like so many bright kids in a conformist culture, cultivated his loner status as a strength, read widely and voraciously —  and when he connected with Lee and Lifeson, could step into a role drummers rarely play.  His early focus on fantasy/science fiction themes, along with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, gave Rush another unique hold on fans’ hearts and minds, even as it called down Olympian fire from rock critics.

But as with his drumming, Peart’s lyrical approach never stagnated.  Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures signaled a new maturity, an evolving shift from third-person omniscience to first-person observation, from didactic answers to questioning reflection, as in one of my personal favorites, “Second Nature” from Hold Your Fire:

It ought to be second nature
At least, that’s what I feel
Now I lay me down in Dreamland
I know perfect’s not for real
I thought we might get closer
But I’m ready to make a deal

This ever-growing curiosity and empathy mattered most when it had to — when Peart’s charmed life was shattered by the sudden, inexplicable deaths of his daughter and wife.  Reeling from the unexpected blows, he took to the road by himself to grieve, and he couldn’t help writing about what he felt and saw.  The memoir Ghost Rider was the searing result; reading it, regardless of your views on life and death, your heart breaks with Peart’s.  What’s even more astonishing: as his heart heals, yours does too.

From then on, the reunited Rush’s music had another source of strength and depth, as Peart chronicled his travels with and without the band (famously traveling from concert to concert by motorcycle while on tour).  His final series of books, Far and Away, Far and Near, and Far and Wide are deeply pleasurable, the work of an intensely private man who still wanted to share what he experienced with the world — but only on his own, uncompromising terms.  For every speed bump a reader might encounter (for me, Peart’s lifelong antipathy to religion, based on his teenage encounter with Nietzsche and Hugh Schoenfield’s loopy conspiracy theory book The Passover Plot — what if he’d encountered some solid, deep theology instead?), there are points well worth chewing on (Peart’s evolution from Randian anarchism to what he called “bleeding heart libertarianism”), and observations that open unexamined vistas and cast the overly familiar in a fresh light.  My wife and I have started traveling to the USA’s national parks on vacation; her inspiration is the Ken Burns documentary, while mine is Peart’s eloquent testimony to the beauty of the Great Wide Open.

Peart the Man.  As other, more philosophically oriented writers have noted, Peart embodied a modern take on Stoicism in postmodern times, “a man in full.”  Because of his position in pop culture, what he did and who he was touched and inspired millions, from the air drummers in the front rows of every Rush concert, to the musicians he inspired to pick up instruments themselves, to the avid readers who dug into his “Bubba’s Book Club” recommendations.  But — in my eyes — more important than that, he lived his life in the company of people who loved him, and contributed to the sum of human happiness with his art for more than 40 years.  And in this life, I believe he had his reward.  He himself put it this way, in memory of a friend, in Grace Under Pressure’s “Afterimage”:

Suddenly, you were gone
From all the lives you left your mark upon
I remember …

I hear the echoes
I learned your love for life
I feel the way that you would
I feel your presence
I remember …

Through the echoes we hear, may the memory of Neil Peart be evergreen.

— Rick Krueger

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