We are strangers to each other
Full of sliding panels
An illusion show
Acting well-rehearsed routines
Or playing from the heart?
It’s hard for one to know
We are islands to each other
Building hopeful bridges
On the troubled sea
Some are burned or swept away
Some we would not choose
But we’re not always free.
I was about twelve years old, just after the turnover into the new millennium. I was driving down Highway 747, amid the endless wash of uniform grain fields in rural Saskatchewan, in the passenger seat of my father’s questionably clean little pickup truck. On one of the two FM rock stations that Dad would frequently have on in the background (from either nearby Regina or Saskatoon), a song came on that I wasn’t familiar with. Usually, an unfamiliar song would just blend in with the rest of the banal rock standards, but this one stood out. Soaring vocals, instrumentation and a composition style I didn’t know existed within rock. I asked, “Who’s she?”
With mild irritation Dad replied, “She is a man. His name is Geddy Lee, but the band is Rush.” That moment has stuck with me, for that day the band was rammed into my mind and hasn’t left for twenty years.
I am a stereotypical Rush dorks, fully immersed, like millions of others. We hear the band, our minds are blown and the band’s music becomes a notable component of our existence from then on. To many, one member of the Ontarian trio stood out more than the other two virtuosic rockers: the drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart.
Last Friday, we learned that Peart had died several days previously, on 7 January 2020. He’d been battling glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, for the past three and a half years—a fact that his family and friends had concealed from the public. He succumbed to the illness at age sixty-seven.
Peart cemented a position within the broader rock milieu as the all time great, the quintessential drummer. Usually, those enthralled by a tune will hum the hook, melody or solo, but Peart’s percussion parts are so captivating that people do mouth drums. Rush songs inspire more air drumming than air guitar. Peart’s intense fills and rhythms stand out as much as the choruses and guitar or bass solos—if not more so. When most rock groups play live, the drum solo provides an opportunity for the audience to replenish their beers or relieve themselves. Rush’s long and elaborate drum solos were always one of the highlights of their performances.
Peart’s skill was not limited to an ability to play complex parts with incredible dexterity and to provide a spectacular stage presence. Unlike most progressive rock and heavy metal musicians, he could weave immense, complex passages into a song with perfect fluidity, effortlessly matching the rest of the arrangement. Many drummers perform complex passages, or play in odd meters—but this often stands out as rigid and angular. Peart’s over-the-top fills always fit in flawlessly, adding dimension to the pieces, and, however bold, all his transitions are so smooth they often go almost unnoticed—while other drummers who attempt similar feats usually sound abrupt or jarring.
Rush are not only my favorite group, but have acted as a musical portal, opening the door to other bands who defied the simple parameters of popular music, smashed stylistic barriers and possessed mind-blowing musical skill: artists such as Frank Zappa, Primus and Yes, who became part of the soundtrack of my youth.
Rush—and especially Peart—were more than just icons of progressive rock. As their primary lyricist, Peart created a persona for the group, as integral to the experience as the music. It was a persona that stressed ideals of individualism and personal perseverance, and it was expressed through his words, music and life.
In their early years, some of Peart’s most notable lyrics were based on the writings of Ayn Rand. Rand’s novella Anthem inspired a song by the same name and—along with Rand’s The Fountainhead—formed the basis of the twenty minute epic “2112,” a song about a future in which a man is battling the tyrannical clergy of the Solar Federation, in an effort to bring back music. It was “based on a development and progression of some things I see in society,” Peart notes in an interview with Martin Popoff. He also wrote lyrics based on libertarian philosophy, such as “Something For Nothing” and “Freewill”; songs about anti-collectivism, such as “The Larger Bowl”; and songs with an anti-revolutionary ethos, such as “The Trees” and “Bastille Day.” Since rock music is usually characterized by left-wing activism, in which protests against war, poverty and inequality are commonplace, Peart’s lyrics stand out. As a result, Peart and the band have often been panned by critics and labeled as very right wing, “Republican” rockers, or, as one journalist puts it, as appearing “polite, charming even, naïve,” while “preaching what seems to me like proto-fascism.”
Some of Peart’s values are aligned with philosophical and political libertarianism and—to a lesser extent—objectivism: self reliance, economic liberalism and personal freedom. He took a somewhat traditionally conservative stance on technology and was apprehensive about hasty advances, as the songs “Natural Science,” “Distant Early Warning” and “Digital Man” show. Still, to call him conservative or part of the North American right wouldn’t be accurate. He was a generous philanthropist, and—as his travel memoirs show—a strong believer in environmentalism. He was also quite hostile towards religion, a theme that recurs throughout his songs, but especially in the group’s penultimate album, Snakes and Arrows, which is mostly a scathing indictment of religious dogmatism.
All these things rendered Peart and Rush perennial rock pariahs in the music press, but an outsider status was part of what they were cultivating anyway. Powerful songs about striving to remain an independent individual, such as “Tom Sawyer,” or about getting by as an outcast, such as “Subdivisions,” were not just messaging—they expressed their genuine values. These songs spoke to their listeners. They encouraged fans to think of themselves as mavericks, outsiders—like Camus’ Meursault or Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, though Peart’s vision was more endearing and less bleak.
Much of Peart’s later material was concerned with personal development, with resilience and with overcoming personal troubles. He practiced what he preached. In 1997, he lost his only child, Selena, in a traffic accident. Less than a year later, his wife, Jackie, succumbed to cancer. He went on an extensive motorcycle journey to heal from his grief and find himself again. Peart remarried in 2000, rejoined Rush (he had retired from the band immediately after Selena’s funeral), and had another daughter, Olivia. His personal revival culminated with the release of Rush’s final album, Clockwork Angels. A steampunk re-imagining of Voltaire’s Candide, the band’s nineteenth full-length studio effort came out in summer 2012, over forty years after the band was formed, and several months before Peart’s sixtieth birthday. It was their first (and sadly last) full-concept album, their best material in thirty years, and one of the band’s greatest musical outputs. Three years later, they held their R40 tour, capping an incredible career.
Like David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, Neil Peart was a singular artist. Unlike those other greats, who worked with many different collaborators, Peart stuck with the same band mates—and much of the same crew—for over four decades. This fits the theme of their 1978 masterpiece “Hemispheres”: the dynamic between the Apollonian and Dionysian. Peart was an astute individualist and a caring and compromising musical partner. He was idiosyncratic, but he moved with the times. He was a reclusive family man and a revered celebrity. A shrewd libertarian and a compassionate liberal. A drummer of military precision and a romantic poet. There will never be anyone quite like him again. Exit the warrior.
Image by Clalansingh – Taken at concert., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10996351