I’m still reeling from the news that Neil Peart is dead. I’m sure you all are too. None of us expected this. I think we all held out a glimmer of hope that Rush would play another show now and then or come out with another album without a tour. I certainly never imagined in 2015 that Peart would be dead within five years. My heart truly goes out to his wife, daughter, Geddy, and Alex.
This isn’t an obituary. Many others know the details of Peart’s life far more than I do, and I’ll direct you towards them for those kinds of remembrances. Instead, my thoughts on Peart and Rush are deeply personal. There is nothing unique about my experiences with Rush. I know for a fact that others, possibly thousands or millions, have had similar experiences. But this is mine.
I have two early memories of being exposed to Rush. I’m not sure which came first, but I know it was my Dad who introduced them to me. In one instance, maybe around age 10, 11, 0r 12, I was sitting with my Dad in a car in a church parking lot chilling (lot was empty so we must’ve been there during the week), and my Dad said “I think you’ll like this” and played “Bastille Day” off of “All the World’s A Stage.” I did like it. Another instance one of my Dad’s college roommates was visiting our house, and my Dad put on 2112 from “All the World’s A Stage.” I liked that too.
Maybe around seventh grade, I remember my older brother playing “Working Man” and “Tom Sawyer” for me. At some point in junior high I picked up a copy of their 2002 greatest hits album from the library. I proceeded to devour the 70s music from that, as well as Tom Sawyer. I’m a little ashamed to admit that those songs (Working Man, Fly By Night, 2112 (overture + temples of Syrinx), Closer To The Heart, The Trees, The Spirit of Radio, Freewill, Limelight, and Tom Sawyer) were the limit of my Rush knowledge until my freshman year of college. But I soaked those songs up. I loved the lyrics, I loved Geddy’s voice, the guitar, the bass, and, oh yes, those drums. I was blown away by the drums on Tom Sawyer. I wondered how anybody could play like that. Don’t worry – I’ve since soaked up all of their music.
I was always a bit of a social outcast. I went to a small private school from kindergarten through high school. I grew up with many of the same people for all those years, and there weren’t many of us. I was an easy target. I was easy to rile and get a response out of, something I’ve only been able to temper with age and time. On top of that I was shy and socially awkward. A misfit so alone. I used to listen to Rush’s music most evenings, and as I grew a little older in high school Kansas, Styx, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Muse, and some more contemporary metal bands joined that group.
[In college my music tastes in prog absolutely exploded thanks to the influence of my good friend and fellow Progarchist Connor Mullin and then Brad Birzer, co-founder of this site and one of my college professors. I actually met Connor the first week of college when I was playing Rush in my dorm, and Connor, who lived in the room next door, popped in to introduce himself because I was listening to Rush and he was a proghead. We became quick friends.]
I always came back to Rush, though. I distinctly remember sitting on the floor in school around eighth grade listening to them with my first generation iPod nano (it had a color screen!). I withdrew from the chaos around me and settled into Neil Peart’s lyrics and precise playing. Three decades after the music had been written Peart managed to reach out and impact a weird awkward kid’s life. He told me it was ok to not be in the limelight. He was in it and didn’t like it. I was far from it and being told from every angle that you should be in it. Neil told me it sucked, and I found that encouraging.
Neil proclaimed the excellence of being oneself when he made an anthem about Tom Sawyer. You could say my mind has been for rent to God since I was very little, but I won’t hold that slight against the mighty Peart. He told us it was ok to stick it the man in Tom Sawyer and in 2112. He was the wise uncle telling me and showing me that it was ok to be me. It was ok to be a misfit. He showed us all that being normal sucks. Look at the music that all the normal popular people were listening to in the late 70s. It was crap, just like the popular music today. Yet Rush were selling out massive stadiums forty years into their career. Go figure.
While I’ll always prefer the progressive and metal heaviness of 1970s and early 1980s Rush, I have grown an appreciation for their later music, and I particularly enjoy the last three albums they made. The new millennium found them with a new sound that was still distinctly Rush. The lyrics grew more and more personal over time. Neil’s final track, “The Garden,” leaves us with a wise perspective on life.
The arrow flies when you dream, the hours tick away – the cells tick away
The Watchmaker keeps to his schemes
The hours tick away – they tick away
The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect
From the wisdom of a twenty-something in the 1970s imparting his love of individuality to a 15 year old kid struggling to figure out if he matters to the hard-fought wisdom of an older man reflecting on a life well lived still impacting that now 25 year old “kid” (who still struggles with being a misfit).
With his parting words from Rush he tells us that being popular and socially skilled doesn’t matter at the end of things. What matters is the way that you lived: the love and respect you gave freely to others. How did you use the brief moments you were given on this earth? Did you use it to build up or tear down? A lot of us misfits have been on the receiving end of the actions of those who chose to use their time to tear others down. Peart gave us an example of a staunch stoicism that took those blows and turned the other cheek. He didn’t fight back at their level. Instead he turned back to his misfit fans and told us to rise above. He gave us a beautiful example of how to live. I hope I can live up to a tiny percentage of that example.
Thank you for everything, Mr. Peart. You’ve given me encouragement when no one else did. You’ve given me stories and music to lose myself in when I felt the same despair as your protagonist did at the end of 2112. I cry as I write this, Neil, because you’ve meant so much to me for such a long time. Your music and your band gave me a love of rock music at a young age. You taught me not to settle for trash. You taught us that rock music could be complex, intellectual, and utterly high-brow while still being smashmouth and bombastic. You’re beloved by millions, yet despite that I feel like I’ve known you personally. Perhaps that’s what makes saying goodbye so difficult.
We… I love you Neil. You’re gone, but you will never be forgotten. Thank you for a life well lived and for being a hero to us misfits.
PS: the following video is a wonderful way by which to remember Neil and his bandmates. The joy here is absolutely infectious. A life is well lived if you can have two good friends to sit down with and have a meal like this. Even here the stoic Peart is teaching us how to laugh and enjoy the simple things in life.