I have, in the past, been taken to task by some people over how I react to celebrity deaths. Apparently, some people don’t understand the act of mourning someone you have never met. I don’t think they are being heartless or mean by stating this opinion, but clearly they just don’t get it. They don’t understand why, in some cases, a simple “Oh, that’s too bad. I’m sorry to hear that, I liked him/her.” and then moving on with your day isn’t enough. Allow me to try and explain.
Very often a small reaction as stated above is perfectly acceptable. Maybe an “RIP” picture on social media, and purposefully enjoy a piece of the artist’s work that evening (watch a movie, listen to some songs, re read a passage or two from a favorite book) and the sad occasion is marked. In fact, that is normally the extent of things.
But sometimes, as with any loss, a simple tip of the hat just will not do. And that’s what we as fans are dealing with, a loss. Because when you are a true fan of an artist’s work, and when the art is honest and real, there is a connection between artist and fan that cannot be explained. The mind expands, the heart swells, there is an understanding between fan and artist, even if it is never spoken. The piece is as personal to the patron when experiencing it as it was to the artist while creating it. Sometimes the meaning changes from person to person, but the connection is still there, and shared by many.
This, of course, brings me to the recent death of Neil Peart, drummer extraordinaire and lyricist for the progressive rock band Rush. You knew I was going there, right? Good. You’ve been paying attention and you know me. See, a connection.
Many people are mourning this loss to the music world this weekend, and you don’t have to look far on social media to find a tribute to the man, mostly concerning his drumming skills. Neil was nicknamed “The Professor” because so many people learned to play drums by trying to play along with Rush records. He is considered by many to be the world’s greatest drummer, a title with which I will not argue. Listen to the instrumental “YYZ”, or watch one of his solos on You Tube if you are unfamiliar.
But apart from the amazing beats, his lyrical output is also among the very best in rock music. It is not only heartfelt but intellectual as well. When I was growing up and had to endure the opinions of those who thought that hard rock consisted of stupid lyrics and simplistic music, all I had to do was pull up a few key Rush songs to make the accuser stop in their tracks. By the way, Neil was blessed enough to play along with one of the top bass players in rock and possibly the world’s most underrated guitarist.
My history with Rush is not unlike most other fans’ experiences. I was introduced to them by an older cousin (rest in peace, Patrick) at an early age and didn’t quite understand what I was listening to but I knew it was important. I’d heard a few songs here and there, and seen the 2112/Starman logo, but never really knew much about the band. This was in grade school when Kiss and Queen made up most of my record collection.
In elementary school, our gym teachers would often play a 45 during calisthenics. Students were encouraged to bring in their own music as well, and somebody got hold of “Tom Sawyer” by Rush, probably lifted from a big sibling’s turntable. I had the same reaction to it every other self respecting rock fan did. I flipped out and wanted to own this song immediately. So I saved up my allowance, bought the “Moving Pictures” LP and the rest is history.
Anyway, back to the lyrics. In the early days Rush wrote a lot of looooong songs. Some even took up an entire album side, and were mostly science fiction based in content. I was not a huge fan of these songs (except for 2112 which is a masterpiece), opting more for the shorter though no less complex songs. I didn’t really relate to the themes in the longer songs until much later but when the ideas were compressed I really got it. And many of them helped me through life.
I was always an outsider kid. In many ways, I am an outsider adult too. To me, Neil’s lyrics always spoke of hope. Take it on the chin when you have to, but never give up. Hold on to who you are and what you believe to be right. Use your mind and follow your heart. That is the central message I received. It helped me when I was the awkward shy kid who didn’t know how to make friends. It helped me when I was ditched by fake friends. When I was bullied. When I was heartbroken. When I tried to achieve a goal and fell short by miles. Rush was there for me.
Even as an adult those same songs had the same effect. Sure, my problems changed (kinda) and my worries were bigger, but Rush kept putting out new music and evolved with each record further along their own path, both musically and lyrically. The songs’ subject matter ranged form personal relationships to examinations of historical events, to pondering religion, to the political climate, environmental concerns, unexpected tragedies, the nature of life, and pretty much everything else under the sun.
Now, I didn’t always agree with what the lyrics were saying. For example, Mr. Peart was an athiest and made no bones about it. We differed here, among other places. But his lyrics always made me think. Even when I believed him to be in the wrong, these songs confronted me and made me examine my position and, often times, made me surer of it. But most of the lyrics were interesting and joyous, and that’s what I keep with me.
Until recently, say the last decade or so, being a Rush fan was not cool. It was like being in a secret club that no one else understands and tries to slander whenever possible. That’s okay with us fans. Most of us feel that way in our day to day lives anyway so it only makes sense that our chosen band be treated the same way. It’s just that the club has been getting bigger and bigger. Which is okay too. All are welcome. Whether you like keyboard, classic, 90’s, or late period Rush all are welcome to rock with us, and always will be.
Another thing about Neil. He suffered the tragic nightmare of losing his daughter and wife within months of one another back in the mid 90’s. He walked away from the band and everyone thought that he, and the band itself, were done. But he came back in 2002, and stayed with the band making new music until 2015. He fought his way back from the pits of his own personal Hell, to reclaim his life, legacy, and what he was put here on this Earth to do. That is as admirable and honorable as it gets, and defines my interpretation of the Rush philosophy. It is also a big reason why I feel that connection.
Neil Peart was a very private man. He was uncomfortable with celebrity and the attention it brings. So when he decided to retire in 2015, it wasn’t a total surprise. After all, he’d already left in 1997 and come back, so the later years of Rush were a gift, one that I am grateful for and did not take for granted. It was also no surprise that the public heard nothing from him at all after he stepped off stage. All we knew was that he was retired and enjoying it. After a while word got out that he no longer owned a drum kit, and was well and truly done. What we fans didn’t know was that he had been diagnosed with a very aggressive brain cancer. In true Neil fashion he fought his battle out of the public eye, a private soul maintaining his identity, integrity, and ideals to the end.
I never met the man. But I knew him. And that’s why it hurts. That’s why I have babbled on and on in this post for so long. Because these words are not enough to tribute a hero gone too soon.
I also managed to not reference a single lyric in a post mostly about lyrics. Why? Because I needed to use my own words, not his, to get this out. So now, if you are not familiar but still read this whole thing anyway (thanks!), seek this out for yourself. While I would hope you’d listen to some Rush music, it’s easy to google the lyrics, and I think most of them work pretty well read alone. There are some abrasive elements to Rush music, and it’s not necessarily the easiest stuff to get into . But it’s totally worth the effort.
If you read the lyrics, I hope they connect with you. If you listen to the music, I hope it connects too. And if it does…welcome to the club.