Connecting With Neil

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.

 

 

 

 

Top 10 Albums-2019 (and then some)

Been away for a while but I’m making a conscious effort to come back to the blog, and the way I have chosen to do so is with the obligatory Top 10 Albums list. All us music geeks do this every year so we can compare, contrast, and argue about the records included (and placement of said records on the lists) with our friends. If you’re not into this sort of thing…sorry. I’ll write something with more universal appeal next time. But maybe check it out anyway, you could find a new favorite for yourself.

A quick note about the list. These are all records/cds I actually purchased. I know, crazy. My tastes lean toward rock music and most subsets thereof, and Americana/outlaw country ( not pop country or bro country or whatever it’s called these days). While I do listen to other miscellaneous genres I don’t tend to actually purchase full records very often in those areas. I just hear a few songs I dig on the radio now and then, but not full albums so you will seldom find that stuff on my list.

Rules: Only new releases count. No compilations or live records. No E.P.s.

PART ONE: THE ALMOST MADE ITS

This is the stuff I really dug but just didn’t quite get on the list. Still very much worth listening to though. Here we go, in no particular order:

STRAY CATS-40 (It’s everything you expect it to be. Lots of fun, but perhaps overlong.)

ELI “PAPERBOY” REED-99 CENT DREAMS (A modern Stax album. R&B soul that is infectious and always makes me smile when I hear it. I will kick myself later for leaving this off the actual list.)

DADDY LONG LEGS-LOWDOWN WAYS (Three guys keeping Delta blues alive. Lots of harmonica,)

ELENI MANDELL-WAKE UP AGAIN (Mandell is a singer/songwriter who uses straightforward arrangements to create electric folk/indie songs that are powerful, sobering and relevant. Inspired by her visits to women’s prisons, teaching songwriting. Good stuff.)

Okay, here it is, 2019 TOP 10

10. KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD-INFEST THE RAT’S NEST                       (METAL!!! This is an interesting take on the Thrash Metal genre by a heavy psych band. Maybe it’s not the metal masterpiece they envisioned, and it’s probably one rewrite away from being an excellent concept album…but the thrash is there-as is a long Sabbath-y jam in the middle. And it reminded me of listening to early Metallica and Anthrax in my room as a teen and discovering this type of music when it was all new. And that’s enough to put it on the list.)

9. THE RUBINOOS-FROM HOME                                                                                                      (Power pop perfection from one of the greats of the genre. This one’s a little sugary-sweet compared to some of their more recent output, but a class record nonetheless.)

8. THE BLACK KEYS-LET’S ROCK                                                                                                     (I am a casual at best fan of this band, but when I like their stuff I really like it. Almost every song here is a good one and a few of them remind me of old T. Rex. it’s a good time.)

7. BOB MOULD-SUNSHINE ROCK                                                                                                    (More punk/alt/hard rock from onetime Husker Du and Sugar member Bob Mould. This is a upbeat record for him and sounds great played loud. I just wish the vocals were louder in the mix, but that’s a minor complaint.)

6. VOLBEAT-REWIND, REPLAY, REBOUND                                                                                  (This is the big rock record you didn’t know you needed. Volbeat are often criticized for having an identity problem as they have touched on lots of different rock genres throughout their career. I say that’s what makes ’em interesting. While there is  a little bit of metal and rockabilly punk mixed in, this record is all big rock riffs and catchy hooks. If you think rock is dead, listen up and think again.)

5. DRESSY BESSY-FAST FASTER DISASTER                                                                                   (My main summer record. It’s a cool mix of indie rock and power pop with a touch of girl power attitude that I dig more and more every time I listen.)

4. THE WHO-WHO                                                                                                                               (I know, I thought it would go higher too. Having The Who back is wonderful, and the fact that the tunes are as good as they are is fantastic. They are my favorite band, and this is their best record since Moon died. The references to their career both musically and lyrically are much appreciated. However…I have issues. This album, good as it is, doesn’t have that song on it. All Who records, even the bad ones, have at least one song that really gets to me and I just don’t hear it here. In fact, a lot of thee tunes sound like unfinished demos to me that Pete just decided to call good and get Rog to sing on. I’m also not a fan of the sequence of the songs. I get why they structured the record as they did, but it explodes out of the gates and limps to the finish line. Now, maybe it came out too late in the year and I will grow to like it more with time. Some albums take a while to get under your skin. As it stands though, I think it’s a very good record, but not a great one.)

3. THE ALARM-SIGMA                                                                                                                        (Okay, so it’s basically part 2 of last year’s Equals, but it’s just as good. Mike Peters faces his wife’s cancer fight, and his own experience with the disease, head on. There are big rock anthems mixed with reflection and introspection, all sung with passion, poetry and honesty. A prime example of an 80’s band that keeps getting better.)

2. THE HIGHWOMEN-THE HIGHWOMEN                                                                                      (Possibly the most important record of the year. This is a well made record that does exactly what good country music should do. It can make you laugh one minute and then punch you in the gut the next. Sure, this is a super group and super groups tend to fall apart after a few years, but these four strong, powerful women have created a record that I believe will stand the test of time. And no, the name isn’t about disrespect, but equality, and acts as an homage to the greats who came before.)

And finally…

1. JOE JACKSON-FOOL                                                                                                                         (I started out this year saying that this was the album to beat and, well, nobody beat it. The songs alternate between humorous and serious, and are all expertly written and performed. This record also features one of the best mixes I have ever heard. If you have dismissed Joe Jackson as a guy who had a few piano pop hits in the 80’s, do yourself a favor and reinvestigate his catalog. This would be an excellent place to start.)

 

Okay, that’s it. Thanks for reading all this nonsense those of you who did. Back soon.

 

 

 

Love Hope Strength

This afternoon I  watched a documentary that had quite an effect on me, and I thought I’d share a little bit about it with you.

The film is called “Man In The Camo Jacket” and it’s the story of a man named Mike Peters. Mike is the co-founder of the Love Hope Strength Foundation, which is a charitable foundation whose purpose is to raise funds and awareness to benefit people with cancer and leukemia. Oh, and he also happens to be the lead songwriter and singer for legendary ’80s rock band The Alarm (who are still going strong today, thank you very much).

The first half hour or so of the film follows the trajectory of that band through their skyrocketing success and inevitable break up in the early ’90s, when Peters quit the band to go solo. He toured and released music to minor success but was happy rebuilding his career from the ground up. In 1996, while on tour, Mike was diagnosed with Lymph cancer. Through sheer willpower and stubbornness, he beat it and recovered.

After this, he put together a new version of The Alarm, continued recording and touring, and having a more successful time of things. Then, in 2005, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Here’s where the movie and life story gets interesting for viewers who aren’t just music geeks. The film details his many rounds of chemotherapy, blood work, and the stresses it puts on himself, his family, and bandmates. Mike Peters decided he was going to keep touring around the world, keep recording, and making music. He was not going to slow down, not going to have a bone marrow transplant, and this disease was not going to beat him. And so far, it hasn’t.

Where the movie is most effective is when it shows the toll leukemia takes on the man while he’s choosing to smile on and power through it. We see the love , fear, and encouragement of his wife, Jules, the unsung hero of the relationship. the movie also documents the troubles the couple has trying to conceive through IVF. Their story is touching and quite inspiring.

And then there’s the charity work. Love Hope Strength (named after an Alarm song) has so far saved thousands of lives by registering people to “get on the list” and be a bone marrow donor. They have also built cancer treatment centers throughout the world in places that didn’t have access to modern treatment.

Unlike with most celebrity charities Mike Peters is very hands on, he has a passion for this charity and it shows. Apart from appearing in Parliament to help change donor laws in the UK, Mike and LHS hold events where they gather musicians, supporters and cancer survivors CLIMB FRIGGIN’ MOUNTAINS and hold concerts in remote locations such as Everest base camp, Snowdon in Wales, the ruins of Machu Picchu, and Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Needless to say, this story got to me. I have been a fan of The Alarm for quite some time and I knew some of this story, but I never really realized the full depth until now.

My advice to you would be to check out the film “Man In The Camo Jacket”, check out the Love Hope Strength foundation, and while you’re at it check out (or revisit) the music of Mike Peters solo, and The Alarm. As for me, I have a new musical hero…and a new charity to support.

P.S.-Before the film was released, Jules Peters found out she had breast cancer, multiple growths. She is currently in remission. Mike is currently in remission as well.