In Praise of The Professor

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

Neil Peart, Afterimage

A natural byproduct of having a deep and abiding passion for music is that you collect musical heroes: individuals encountered on your musical journey who leave their mark on you. These individuals stand out from the crowd, whether it be for their skill as players, their talent as creators, their personality or their life choices. You didn’t need to spend long on social media these past two days to learn that, for a great many people, Neil Peart was one such individual.

Since the news broke, I’ve spent a while trying to process my feelings, attempting to understand why this loss has affected me so much – more, even, than the loss of Chris Squire over 4 years ago. Both were taken from us far too soon, both aged only 67. But why does Neil’s loss hurt me more?

Part of it, I think, comes down to the particular musical obsessions of my teenage years during the late 70s / early 80s. I must have fallen in love with dozens of different bands and solo artists during that most formative of periods, but there were only two that I truly obsessed over back then: Genesis and Rush. I felt compelled to listen to everything they’d produced and read everything I could find that had been written about them. And in the case of Rush, it wasn’t enough to have home-taped versions of their albums: no, I had to scrimp and save and own it all on vinyl. An obsession indeed.

What was it about them that was so compelling? They were, of course, the ultimate power trio, in which drums, bass and guitar were all lead instruments. That alone made them stand out as especially exciting and dynamic. But alloyed to that powerful, melodic and satisfyingly complex sound were words just as powerful, just as deep, just as satisfying. In the early 80s, when I crossed days off the calendar until the release of the next Rush album, I anticipated pouring over the lyrics on the album sleeve almost as much as I anticipated immersing myself in the music.

Our loss is so keenly felt because Neil was far more than one of finest drummers ever to have graced a drum stool. He was intelligent, erudite, thoughtful, with the soul of a poet. He was relentlessly observant, and he had a gift for crystallizing those observations into a few well-chosen lines.

They shoot without shame
In the name of a piece of dirt
For a change of accent
Or the color of your shirt
Better the pride that resides
In a citizen of the world
Than the pride that divides
When a colorful rag is unfurled

Neil Peart, Territories

It’s difficult to think about the later period of the band’s career without being reminded of the twin tragedies that befell Neil in 1997 and 1998. That his second family should now be suffering similarly is hard to take. On hanging up his sticks in 2015, Neil must have been looking forward to spending all his time with that family, watching his young daughter grow into adulthood. He wouldn’t have known then that he would soon receive the diagnosis of the illness that would ultimately end his life.

Why does it happen? Because it happens. But that doesn’t make the pill less bitter or any easier to swallow.

Rest in peace, Professor.

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