A Spirit with a Vision: The Eternal Manifold Impact of Neil Peart
They say that time heals all wounds, yet there is still a sense of disbelief and pain associated with the death of Neil Peart that continues to resonate, even now on the one-month anniversary of his passing. Though the pain continues for many fans across the globe, this past month has highlighted just how far-reaching the impact of Neil and Rush has been - and continues to be. Rush fans, actually make that the Rush Family, have always been a close-knit group, sharing their stories with one another, as they all cope with their grief.
To that end, freelance writer and historical consultant Marshall Patrick Garvey reached out to me shortly after Neil's passing. He was developing his own personal tribute to Neil that he wanted to share with the broader Rush community. While this is atypical of the Rush news that is usually posted here, given the circumstances I wanted to provide Marshall an outlet for his piece. In reading it, I hope you take away a renewed appreciation for what Rush stands for, and how through the lyrical and percussive genius of Neil Peart, people from around the globe are members of a very passionate, very personal family.
A Spirit with a Vision: The Eternal Manifold Impact of Neil Peart
It is one of the most tragic measures of the day and age we presently occupy where celebrity deaths occur at such a breakneck pace that it feels borderline impossible to properly grieve them all. Given the advancing age of multiple generations, paired with more instantaneous media platforms to discover and get attached to celebrities, what’s worse is that its overwhelming nature is inevitable. It doesn’t help that the news cycle is increasingly dominated by apocalyptic news from across the globe, further robbing people of both the time and energy necessary to grieve.
It thus speaks volumes that when the news of Neil Peart’s death broke last week, it slammed the world to a halt similar to David Bowie and Prince’s departures in 2016. My preferred Twitter follows, ranging from U.S. historians to baseball geeks to political journalists to actors, had thoughtful tributes within seconds. Dedications sprang up across the globe in the form of billboards, marquees, moments of silence, impromptu concert covers, and much more.
For me, it is the famous death of my lifetime, the one that comes closest to the traumatic sensation of losing a loved one. It is a loss that feels impossible to even measure. It’s trite to merely say that Neil Peart is one of the most influential drummers in rock history, and for one of its greatest bands. After all, staggering grandiosity was just the bare minimum for Rush. This is the band that, after being told by their record label to stop making multi-part prog suites in favor of radio-friendly singles, kindly responded by starting their next album with a 20-minute sci-fi epic about an Objectivist outlaw rediscovering the power of rock.
Really, how is it possible to capture Neil Peart’s legacy in all of its tom-bashing glory? And moreover, what that legacy means to me? That it’s taken a couple of weeks to come remotely close speaks volumes. One could take something as singular as his drumming on “YYZ” alone, and it would make for a sufficient tribute. But I can certainly try.
As much as I would love to begin by regaling stories of old school Rush fandom, the truth is I hopped aboard the bandwagon when it was easiest: 2013. The same year Canada’s thunderous trio were finally (FINALLY) enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, following years of sudden pop culture prominence in the likes of South Park, I Love You, Man, Archer and the Rock Band video game series. It was no longer uncool to admit, yeah, you dig Rush. Especially given the likes of Billy Corgan, Taylor Hawkins, Trent Reznor, and Kirk Hammett had raved like fanboys about their influence in Beyond the Lighted Stage.
No, I never had to endure the pain of having to conform or be cast out, or being stuffed in a locker for wearing a Hemispheres shirt. Quite the opposite, my fanhood blossomed just as my life came together once and for all. Prior to 2013, I had been inconsistent in my vision of what I wanted my life to be. Like many of my generation, my first few years after high school were an uncertain muck of aimlessness and indecision. I would often let petty regrets cloud my judgment. Even after getting accepted to UC Davis to study history, I didn’t fully grasp the gravity of what my life meant.
That changed in the summer of 2013, which I spent working two history internships at the Richard Nixon Library in Southern California. Upon returning to Sacramento in September to start my final year at UC Davis, my longtime friend Michael Ros began flooding my Facebook page with videos of Rush performances. Even as an exhaustive music enthusiast of many years, I had never bothered to listen to them, and knew precious little about them in spite of their outsized legacy. So I figured it wouldn’t hurt to oblige and listen to what my good friend was sharing.
Then...well, it’s like those scenes in comedies where the gluttonous character takes one food sample at an event. Then another, then another, and then he begins stuffing his shirt with dinner rolls, and...you get the idea. The Time Machine version of “Marathon” intrigued me, and then it was a clip of “Leave That Thing Alone,” which led to Michael straight up ripping their entire discography to my Macbook. In a matter of 1-2 months, I was aghast at myself for having lived almost a quarter century without Rush. While indeed blossoming far later than it should have, my fanaticism was likely predetermined: I entered this mortal coil on November 21, 1989, the same day Presto hit shelves.
In the years since, Rush has been less like one of my favorite bands and more of an omnipresent engine that drives every facet of my life. I pride myself on my ever expanding taste in music, with hundreds upon thousands of favorite artists ranging from one-hit wonders to critically revered legends. But none are as omnipresent, as entrenched, as meaningful to my every sensibility, as Rush.
To start, their musical precision and restlessly cerebral lyrics go hand-in-hand with my most diligent hobbies. They are my go-to band to listen to as I hone my craft as a baseball writer, providing audial sustenance through long nights of rants about the Los Angeles Dodgers and researching Sacramento baseball history. Since 2014, I have challenged myself to take up boxing, an arduous hobby that has tested me physically and mentally far unlike anything else. When my mind and body hit a wall, it is almost inevitably a Rush song that will occupy my brain to will me through it. Even more precisely, the visual of Neil pounding the drums becomes an obvious stand-in for gloved fists pounding away on the heavy bag. (Another one of my allegorical visuals is, while skipping rope at the beginning of class, to jump from side to side like Alex Lifeson playing “Red Barchetta” in the Exit Stage Left concert film.)
Most importantly, Rush has thread a fabric of friendship that no other musical act even approaches. For Michael and I, the sound of Geddy Lee’s limber bass, Neil’s hand-of-god drumming, and Alex’s pristine polyrhythms is the sound of our shared story: of two suburban kids with big dreams we hope will take us far. There is no mathematical system in the world that could tally the number of times the trinity have provided the soundtrack of friend hangouts, graduation celebrations, road trips, nights out at the movies, video game marathons, and everything in-between.
Of course, no time were they a greater soundtrack to life than the solitary instance we saw them in concert. R40 Tour, July 23, 2015, at the SAP Center in San Jose, accompanied by our friend Jake. While it would prove to be our first and last, it felt like we had lived decades of seeing them in those few hours. Singing along with complete strangers in the next row to “Distant Early Warning,” exclaiming “THE MAIN MONKEY BUSINESS!” at each other the moment they started playing it, standing in awe as they muscled through hardcore epics like “Cygnus” and “Xanadu”...knowing it was the fifth-to-last Rush show ever is as gratifying as it is tear-inducing. Fellow Canadian rock titan Neil Young said it was better to burn out than fade away. Rush proudly did neither.
Of course, me and Michael’s story is just one of literally millions across the globe. The Rush fandom is one of the most notoriously loyal in music, similar to those of the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffet, and Pearl Jam. But Rushians separate themselves from the rest in how personally they identify with the band itself, to a point that hardly feels vicarious. What other fanbase would actively protest the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for not inducting their favorite group, rather than just start a petition and whine on Facebook like other plebeian faithfuls?
It’s a unique fandom that’s attuned to the singular path the band forged. It’s also a path that would have remained untraveled if not for Neil Peart. The story of his arrival is deeply familiar to all. Geddy Lee, seeking to break out of the standard blues mold and move into more prog rock directions, wanted a new drummer to replace John Rutsey. Peart, a journeyman local drummer, stumbled his way through the audition. But his emulation of hard-hitting British drumming like Keith Moon and Ginger Baker made him the ideal choice to help morph the group’s overall style.
Thus, a new dynamic was born, a proudly idiosyncratic one where the drummer wrote the lyrics. For the rest of the ‘70s, Rush took the symphonic aspirations of Yes, King Crimson, and similar prog giants and continually ratcheted them up with equally epic stories. Peart, then influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand, distilled her philosophies into the likes of “Anthem” and “2112.” Geddy added synthesizer to his bass and vocal repertoire, the time signatures ventured into 7/8 and beyond, and Alex even dabbled in classical guitar. Every album had at least one side-spanning epic, the finest being their best overall song, the instrumental “La Villa Strangiato.” Sonically, Neil’s hard rock drumming made it all thunder with aplomb, quickly earning him accolades as rock and roll’s new rhythm god.
Conversely, one could fill the Hoover Dam with the amount of ink spilled by shallow rock critics’ invective towards Peart’s lyrical prowess. Yes, the Randisms were indeed awful (by his own admission), but even they were a measure of the sorely needed lyrical growth required in order to attain true immortality. The band’s self-entitled first (and only pre-Peart) album remains a mostly solid collection of barreling Sabbath-esque riff rock, anchored by the timeless “Working Man.” But one would be hard-pressed to think Rush’s lyrical strengths should have plateaued with it. (Sample lyrics from “Need Some Love”: “Ooh I need some love/I said I need some love/Ooh yes I need some love/This feeling I can't rise above/Yeah, yeah.”)
His literary proclivities and overwhelming intellect (one born out of a leviathan reading list) were especially evident as the band wisely shifted their aesthetic for the ‘80s. As Lee began to sing in a lower register and the songs shortened in length, Peart defied his critics with thoughtful lyrics that traipsed a wide breadth of topics new and familiar: science fiction, nuclear paranoia, individuality, integrity, suburban life, the crushing passage of time, grief, and of course, fear.
“Limelight,” arguably their most representative composition, captured the sudden onset of fame with a level of candor seldom heard from other major acts. “The Spirit of Radio” and “Vital Signs” celebrated the importance of individuality and integrity that shaped the trio’s ethos. “Red Barchetta” spun a tale of motorized escapism on par with Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” against a musical arrangement that revs into gear like an actual car. “Subdivisions” sincerely channeled the angst of suburban adolescence, becoming the de facto rallying cry for much of the band’s alienated fanbase. (And did so at a topical time, coming out the same year Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial used the stultifying loneliness of the suburbs as the backdrop for liberating adventure.)
My favorite Rush track (and the song that triggered my rabid fandom) is “Manhattan Project,” from their unsung 1985 masterpiece Power Windows. With spare references to the places and people involved in developing the nuclear bomb in the 1940s, Peart conveys the gravity of the human race entering the Atomic Age better than a 15-minute missive could have. It’s all subtly underscored by the military cadence of his drumming, proof that his understated performances were just as powerful as the bombastic fills that launched an army of air drummers worldwide.
Of course, it was that famously heavy rhythm that redefined the art of rock drumming. He made the drum solo a true art form, and enthralled audiences with meticulous showmanship. Most importantly, Peart’s painstaking craft was the foundation for one of the most innovative bodies of work any band has undertaken. Album to album, sometimes even song to song, Rush never stopped evolving. Multi-part progressive rock, reggae, new wave, pop, power ballad, electronic, contemporary alternative...no style, and certainly no time signature, eluded their grasp. 19 albums and 167 songs, almost all killer and no filler.
Yet Peart’s boundless spirit and insatiable quest for growth were not limited to how he fueled the band’s lyrical and musical evolution. They were just as prevalent in his other great love: motorcycling. The day after the news of his passing broke, I, like many others, was almost paralyzed by grief. The moment I awoke, I felt the lacerating pain in my stomach, and leaned towards sleeping in. I had planned a trip to the Black Chasm Cavern in Amador County, California, but considered calling it off. Beginning to despair, I stuffed my face into my pillow in preparation for a somber nap well into the afternoon.
Then, in one fleeting moment, the visual of Neil gracefully knifing through the countryside on his chopper popped into my head. Most eminently, how he used cycling to process the unconscionable grief of losing his wife and daughter within months of each other. I knew I had to do the same, and sprung out of bed. As I cruised the back roads of Amador’s verdant ranches and forests, I felt an even greater connection to Neil. I appreciated the basic sense of adventure and freedom that a simple drive can unleash. Perhaps if R40 had included a stop in Sacramento, he would have mapped out those very roads for his neverending motorcycle saga.
Even in his nonpareil drumming talent, Peart was just as restless and exploratory. If ever there was a drummer who could wallow in arrogance, it was him. No percussionist before or since has been the subject of as much idolatry, to the point where the Peart-worshipping teenager has long been a stereotype (i.e. Jason Segel’s character in Freaks and Geeks). His godly image was mirrored by a drum set that mushroomed exponentially throughout the decades, incorporating bells, chimes, gongs, triangles, glockenspiels, and god knows what else. It was almost like a rhythmic Winchester House, but that just made it more awe-inspiring when he managed to pound every last component during his mammoth solos at each show.
Yet all that wasn’t enough. In the early ‘90s, Peart was invited to play a Buddy Rich memorial concert with the Buddy Rich Big Band. Believing his playing wasn’t up to the task, he subsequently took up lessons with jazz legend Freddie Gruber. The Professor became the student, working diligently to hone his skills anew. It wasn’t some brief interlude to add credibility, as he would incorporate jazz drumming into his playing style from thereon.
In my quest to grow as a writer, I often find myself ruminating on this episode as a reminder to never be satisfied with the quality of my craft. If Neil F’n Peart could push himself to be better, then it goes without saying that I have to do the same. It’s one thing to be great; it’s another to be grounded enough to realize that there is never an excuse to not be greater. His own words say it far better than I could: “What is a master but a master student? There’s a responsibility on you to keep getting better.”
It was a humility befitting a band whose other members were sons of refugees and Holocaust survivors. Collectively, even as the trio ascended to a level of royalty unthinkable to even some of the greatest acts in rock history, their attitude flew in the face of the tropes of stardom. They didn’t party with groupies, overdose on drugs, record a crappy sellout album, or have egotistical infighting tailor-made for a VH1 Behind the Music episode. Arrogant self-worship was supplanted by dressing up in fatsuits for their concert films. Just three goofballs who were the closest of friends, who just so happened to be the best goddamn band in the world.
The corpulent bulk of tweets, memes, articles, and tributes to Peart have mostly referenced Rush’s world-conquering anthems to capture the gravity of his passing, and understandably so. “Exit the warrior” pops into the mind first in almost pavlovian fashion, as well as “A Farewell to Kings.” Most appropriately, the paralyzing grief of “Afterimage.” (“Suddenly you were gone/From all the lives you left your mark upon.”) Perhaps most fitting is the finale from their last ever album, “The Garden.”
The ending of their conceptual 2012 triumph Clockwork Angels, it serves as a pensive end of the journey for the album’s protagonist. But even long before fans had to grapple with any of the band passing on, it wasn’t a stretch to construe it as a moment of self reflection for their musical end. Over a lush string section, Geddy weaves the group’s most achingly poetic moment:
So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect
In the rise and the set of the sun
'Til the stars go spinning - spinning 'round the night
It is what it is - and forever
Each moment a memory in flight
Yet there is one song in the band’s vast catalogue that resonates deeply with me as the ideal swan song: “Mission.” An oft-overlooked ballad from the underrated 1987 album Hold Your Fire, it’s one of the band’s best songs, one of many from an LP whose radio-ready hooks could have garnered widespread popularity. (Granted, in my world the album would have two-thirds of its tracks be hit singles a la Thriller.)
Released in an era saturated with hair metal ballads, “Mission” is the true kind of song lighters were made for. Led by heavenly keyboards and one of Geddy’s best vocal performances, it all builds to a glorious outro that can dampen the sturdiest of eyes. The keyboards spike in an almost churchlike manner, as Geddy belts out the chorus more emphatically. Alex closes it out with a goosebump-inducing solo that merits consideration as his best.
For our visions of paradise
But a spirit with a vision
Is a dream with a mission
Neil Peart was indeed just that: a spirit with a vision, a dream, and a mission. His vision helped turn a run-of-the-mill ‘70s cock rock band into a prog rock behemoth that never stopped pushing envelopes for the next four decades. His mission was to bring rock drumming to a new level of technical meticulousness and prominence, even in the rhythmically conscientious genre of progressive rock. His dream was to make rock as a whole more high concept than it had ever been before.
Most of all, he lit a fire for millions around the world. You don’t have to be a drummer, or even a musician, to be inspired to chase your dream by Neil Ellwood Peart. I head into my thirties with a sense of identity and resolve I never approached before I was ushered into Rush fandom in 2013. Neil and the boys taught me to embrace my path and take it seriously, yet also to balance my passion with humility. Even so, the rest of my life - of all of our lives - is going to have a Starman-sized hole in it that may never fully heal.
Yet through this pain is the chance to live those lives in a manner that honors The Professor. Sit down at your drum kit and bash out your best rendition of “The Spirit of Radio.” Hop on your motorcycle or in your car and tear down the highway through the most bucolic scenery closest to you. Wed yourself to your keyboard or desk and write until your eyes roll back into your head. Do it again and again, never settling for anything less than perfection. And if you do attain that perfection and gain universal renown...stay humble.
As Neil said in one of his finest lyrical moments, “If you choose not to decide/You still have made a choice.” Do not live your life in indecisiveness. Choose to live it on a grand scale, even more than you ever previously envisioned. Make it as gargantuan, eclectic, and demanding as the fortress he called a drum kit. If you feel a modicum of complacency, snap out of it and push yourself to improve. All the same, don’t let it take away from the precious time you have with your loved ones.
After all, we are only immortal for a limited time. But by making the most of that limited time, our impact can outlive us. Neil Peart may be physically gone, but his legacy is one that even the most hectic news cycle or time period can’t push down the memory hole. For 40 years, from the nascent turn to prog rock of Fly by Night in 1975 to the final bow in Inglewood in 2015, he, Geddy and Alex forged a musical world on their terms. A world without which our lives, and the very being of music, would be worse off.
It was a world whose every note, every performance, was always molded closer to the heart. Not only in their individual hearts, but the giant, collective heart of millions of fans the world over.