The most endangered species: the honest man
Will still survive annihilation.
— Neil Peart, 1952-2020
Growing up, one of the central things that my closest friends and I shared was a love of the band Rush. We went to several Rush concerts together and spent countless hours discussing the relative merits of the various albums, songs, and time periods of the band.
Most people who are aware of Rush are either huge Rush fans or disdainful of the band. If you’re a huge fan, you know why. There’s simply no other band that is as interesting to listen to. And arguably the main reason for that was Neil Peart.
Neil was the band’s drummer, and I firmly believe he is the best drummer rock music has ever seen and arguably the greatest drummer that has ever lived. He could take what might otherwise be a repetitive passage and completely transform it into something that was alive and new each time you listened to it. I spent a good chunk of yesterday evening listening to tracks that isolate the drums (or in some cases drums and bass) from a Rush song, and “Red Barchetta” is one of the standout examples:
Listening to that, you get a real sense of how integral the drums are to the exciting increase in the song’s intensity as it progresses, culminating in an orgy of rhythmic excitement. Here’s the original song if you don’t know it, for comparison:
But Neil wasn’t just an incredible drummer. He was also the band’s lyricist, and in that capacity wrote some of the most thoughtful and inspiring lyrics in rock history. Speaking as someone who doesn’t generally pay much attention to lyrics, Rush was the exception. I lost interest in Rush’s albums in their final years, when the songs started to sound the same to me — but at least up to a certain point in their work, I knew every word to every song. The words were moving, and powerful, and always suited the song. Again, an example will make the point clear:
The dancer slows her frantic pace
In pain and desperation
Her aching limbs and downcast face
Aglow with perspiration
Stiff as wire, her lungs on fire
With just the briefest pause
The flooding through her memory
The echoes of old applause
She limps across the floor
And closes her bedroom door
The writer stares with glassy eyes
Defies the empty page
His beard is white, his face is lined
And streaked with tears of rage
Thirty years ago, how the words would flow
With passion and precision
But now his mind is dark and dulled
By sickness and indecision
And he stares out the kitchen door
Where the sun will rise no more
I listened to this song again last night and it brought tears to my eyes. Neil died on Tuesday, January 7, at the age of 67, after fighting a private three-year battle with brain cancer. He was universally known as kind. He was private. He was a reader. He suffered great tragedy in his life, losing his daughter and wife within months of each other in the late 1990s. He reacted to these adversities by taking a long motorcycle trip through the United States and reading. He came back to the band about four years later, remarried, and had another daughter.
Some are born to move the world
To live their fantasies
But most of us just dream about
The things we’d like to be
Sadder still to watch it die
Than never to have known it
For you, the blind who once could see
The bell tolls for thee
For Neil Peart, the sun will rise no more. But he lived out his greatest fantasy: to be a principled artist who never gave in to commercial pressures, and always stood up to the powers that be. He was a very important influence in my life, and in the lives of countless others. His voice and his musicianship, and his influence on so many people, will live on. Cancer can’t take that away from him.
[Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.]