Neil Ellwood Peart passed from this existence one year ago today. When the news broke and I heard, I involuntarily got choked up. I have no pretensions to have felt anything approaching the grief felt by those who knew him. I am a fan, that is all. A Rush fan, though, is a little bit of a different breed. Our love, respect, and admiration for this band is not only because we love the music that has meant so much to us for (in my case) nearly half a century, but also because of the human goodness one finds in the members of this band. As a fan—just a fan—I want to remember Neil Peart.
As a fan, I cannot talk about Neil without talking about Rush. My introduction to Rush came when I was 11 years old. I know this because the album 2112 had been released, I do not think the live All the World’s A Stage had been released; and by the time A Farewell to Kings was released in 1977 I had already been a devoted fan for some time.
From the moment the needle dropped on side one of 2112, I was mesmerized. Rush became my favorite band immediately. Listening to a Rush album was a different experience for me than listening to many other bands. I could simultaneously isolate each instrument in my mind as well as taking in the orchestral goodness of the combined power. Just three guys in this band and all three of them were masters at their instruments. Alex Lifeson was my inspiration (among others) to take up the guitar. If memory serves, the first song I learned to play was In the End from the 1975 album Fly By Night (incidentally, FBN was released February 15, 1975, which was my tenth birthday). As my talent on guitar has never been overly astounding, I can say I have learned to play parts of several Rush songs, but a precious few in their entirety!
Neil is known as “the new guy” in Rush, having joined the band on July 29, 1974 (Geddy Lee’s birthday, incidentally) succeeding the original drummer, John Rutsey. Rush’s debut album was with Rutsey. After Neil joined, it was not long before he became the band’s lyricist. With just a few exceptions (and, yes, this Rush nerd can name them all), Neil has written the lyrics for every Rush song since he joined the band. For Rush fans, Neil’s lyrics have spoken to us, inspired us, challenged us, touched us, and, well hell, shaped our lives in many ways. I would give examples, but once I start, I would not be able to stop myself and I am afraid you would not go on to read a 100,000-word post. So many songs have meant so much and still do.
Like I said, I never met Neil or had any personal interaction with him in any way. As with all the members of Rush, however, having feverishly and nerdily followed this band my entire life, I cannot help feeling a sense of the kind of person all three of them are. They are deeply involved in charity yet never wear that on their sleeve or make a big deal about it. Their reputation in the rock and roll world can be described as one young crew member put it in the documentary, Time Stand Still: “…the nicest guys in rock and roll.”
Recently, I have had the incredibly good fortune to have befriended Dr. Donna Halper and have shared a handful of conversations with her. Rush fans will know immediately why this is ridiculously cool. It was Donna who, as a Cleveland DJ in 1974, discovered Rush and because of whom they got their first major American tour supporting Uriah Heep (another of my all-time favorites). She is now a professor at Lesley University in Massachusetts. As fellow academics, we have a fair amount in common and in our conversations have spoken about a wide variety of subjects. Friends and family will not believe me, but we have spoken relatively little about Rush. However, one question I did ask her was about what kind of fellows they are in “real life.” I said that I had a certain impression and their genuineness seemed, well, genuine; and that I guessed that in their daily lives they were the kind of people who they seemed to be in the spotlight. What you see is what you get. Donna confirmed my suspicions. The members of Rush certainly never forgot where they came from and never let fame destroy their humanity. My question is one she receives from Rush fans regularly and wrote about it on her own blog. Give it a read.
Neil, of course, was known to have a few social boundaries (“I can’t pretend a stranger is a long- awaited friend”). Yet he still inspired us for a lifetime, with his lyrics and his life. He wanted to be the best at whatever he set himself to do, drumming especially. While already an incredibly accomplished drummer who influenced many who came after, and widely regarded as one of the best in the world, he never decided he had learned it all and could no longer be taught. He became a student of the late and very great Freddie Gruber. Neil’s line on Rush’s final studio album, Clockwork Angel’s, “I can’t stop thinking big,” is an apt description of Neil himself. Neil Peart gave us so much just living the life he wanted to live for himself.
Neil died on January 7, 2020 of glioblastoma. Private like he was, very few people knew he was sick. The news of his death became public on January 10, just a few days later. I had just opened Facebook and there it was. This man, this musician and great human, who I had admired since I was a kid, who had filled my life with so much goodness, was gone. Yes, I got choked up. I am just a fan. I did not know him. But I cried. It is hard not to think of Neil daily, especially when a day does not go by that I do not listen to at least some Rush. But on this first anniversary of his death, I am thinking of him, thankful for the many gifts that he gave. Also, on that final album, he penned the line, “the measure of a life is a measure of love and respect.” I feel like he wrote those words, not as a description of himself, but as a challenge to himself; to always live your life in a way that is the best you can possibly be.
I will close with a line from the song Presto from the album of the same name: If I could wave my magic wand…I’d make everything alright. Well, Neil Ellwood Peart, you did wave your magic wand and made a lot of things alright for a lot of years for a lot of people. You most certainly did for me. Thank you, Neil.