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.
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.
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.
There are drummers, and then there are really good drummers. And then there is Neil Peart. It’s almost fitting of Peart that his death was not announced until today, January 10th, three days after his actual death on January 7th. Whereas others did things in simple time and merely kept the beat, Peart’s timing – in drums and in life – was never conventional. Hence the announcement of his death not on the day he died, but three days later. The beats never fell quite where they were expected.
Today is the sixth anniversary of the release of the final Rush studio album, CLOCKWORK ANGELS. It can get “nun more” prog.
[This piece is dedicated to my great and brave friend, Steve Horwitz, fellow Rush-ian]
Rush’s nineteenth studio album, Clockwork Angels, came out on June 12, 2012. It was the first album to be distributed by heavy-metal label, Roadrunner, and the second to be produced by Nick Raskulinecz. As mentioned at this beginning of this book, the story of Clockwork Angelsis such an artistic success—as a story, a concert, a novel, a sequel to the novel, a graphic novel, an audio book, and a series of comic books—that it really overshadows not only the actual album but much of Rush’s other art. It is, of course, the culmination of forty years of care, of love, and of purpose. However much the Clockwork universe has dwarfed the album itself, it is very much worth considering the original source material.
Clockwork Angelscame out a full six years after Snakes and Arrows, a break between albums even greater than that between Test for Echoand Vapor Trails. Still, few worried as hints came out frequently about the forthcoming Rush album during that time, and Rush even released versions of the two opening songs as singles, performing them on the Time Machine Tourof 2011. As few would disagree, the wait for the final product was well worth it. While Moving Pictures—because of its time and place in history—might always remain the iconic Rush album, Clockwork Angelsis arguably the best, cohesive piece of art the band has ever made. It reveals a maturity in lyrics and music understandably absent in the first few Rush albums, but it also possesses every explosion of energy those albums expressed.
It would not be an exaggeration to argue that meeting Carrie Nuttall served as one of the most important moments in Peart’s life and in precipitating Rush 3.0. In her, Peart found a reason to live fully, a reason to rediscover excellence, and a reason to return to his life in Rush. It was through their mutual friend, Andrew McNaughton (now deceased), that the two met.
In those days, Andrew and I often talked on the phone from wherever I wandered, and shared our sorrows and anxieties. Typically, Andrew was determined to find a “match” for this crusty old widower. When my motorcycle had carried me back across the continent yet again, to pause in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Andrew sent me a few test Polaroids of a photo assistant he had been working with-a pretty dark-haired girl named Carrie. Again, I was reluctant, gruffly telling him, “not interested”—but finally I made my meandering way west again, and stopped for a while in Los Angeles.[i]
When she met Peart, she knew next to nothing about the band.[ii] She told him, however, that she would love to see him perform again, especially considering his reputation as a drummer and his own love of music. For Peart, all of this proved almost Faerie-like.
Andrew introduced me to Carrie, my real angel of redemption; in less than a month we were deeply in love, and in less than a year we were married in a fairy-tale wedding near Santa Barbara. Carrie: Beautiful, smart, cultivated, artistic, affectionate; Deep green eyes, long dark hair, radiant smile; Tall, slender, shapely, nicely put together; Half English, half Swedish, all American, all mine. The answer to a prayer I hadn’t dared to voice, or even dream. Carrie. Soulmate, a lover, a wife, a new journey to embark upon, the greatest adventure. [iii]
Though still in pain—a pain that would (and will) never fully cease—when he met her, he found her instantly attractive intellectually as well as personally. They bonded almost immediately in friendship. She considered him a modern-day Conquistador, armed in black leather and mounted on a powerful red horse, forever seeking the road and adventure. But, his days of restless exploration had come to an end, and the Ghost Rider faded into memory. On September 9, 2000, just three days short of his forty-eighth birthday, Peart married Nuttall in Montecito, California.[iv]
My favorite Rush album has been, at least going back to April 1984, Grace Under Pressure. I realize that among Rush fans and among prog fans, this might serve as a contentious choice. My praise of GUP is not in any way meant to denigrate any other Rush albums. Frankly, I love them all. Rush has offered us an outrageous wealth of blessings, and I won’t even pretend objectivity.
I love Rush. I love Grace Under Pressure.
I still remember opening Grace Under Pressure for the first time. Gently knifing the cellophane so as not to crease the cardboard, slowly pulling out the vinyl wrapped in a paper sleeve, the hues of gray, pink, blue, and granite and that egg caught in a vicegrip, the distinctive smell of a brand new album. . . . the crackle as the needle hit . . . .