January 10th for me has never meant anything else but the birthday of one of my dearest friends. On a more universal level, it marks the taking of effect of the Treaty of Versailles, officially ending World War I, the release of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, the birth of Frank Sinatra and Rod Stewart, and the death of David Bowie. 2020 adds another entry to this extensive list – the day that the world at large came to know of the passing of arguably the greatest drummer to ever live, Mr. Neil Elwood Peart. It turns out that Neil died on January 7th, but for some reason not yet explained, this was kept a secret for a few days.
Up until that point, the day was going well for me – I was wrapping up a sourcing process at work with significant savings and celebrating an interview I had done at lunch time with a great musician. At around 4pm though, people started texting me with news that Neil had died. In the age where a new euphemism for lie is created every day – “fake news”, “deep fake”, “post truths” – I kept hoping this was just an internet hoax, another one in an ever-expanding collection. But it turned out to be true: my musical hero, the man that made me a better person through his words and beats, had passed away. I had plans to go for a workout after leaving the office, but with that initial shock I couldn’t get myself to do it. Luckily, my wife and I work near each other, and I was able to meet her for the ride home. And as soon as I saw her, I couldn’t help but crying.
Unsurprisingly, the night was rough, and my intention of listening to Rush to honor Neil’s memory could not be fulfilled, at least initially – I could not find the drive to listen to the band knowing we had lost him. I waited for my girls to go to bed and put on “The Garden”, the last song they ever recorded in the studio, and sobbed like a baby. Only now, some hours after the fact, I’m able to write a few words. And I’m not doing it for journalistic values, or in the pursuit of something that hasn’t been said about the man so far. No, I’m doing it to be able to cope with this loss, and to get it out of my system. It’s a cathartic experience that I recommend to everybody, especially when it comes to your idols – people that you not necessarily had a relationship or close contact with. I never met Neil, and don’t consider myself to be an authority figure when it comes to Rush. This is purely a longtime fan’s account of what this band means to him, and how he’s dealing with such unexpected tragedy.
Unlike many of other Rush fans, who seem to have been hooked on their first listens, I didn’t get them straight away. My initial contact with them was through “Presto”, a great album, but not a good starting point when the other bands I listened to were Slayer, Anthrax and Iron Maiden. I made another attempt with “Caress of Steel”, and although I enjoyed a couple of tracks, it didn’t seem to be enough to foster a more expansive pursuit of their discography. I eventually sold those two albums, and spent years saying that I respected the band, but they were not my cup of tea. Honestly, after knowing all their albums and songs in detail, those two were not good gateway drugs into the realms of Rush. It was only halfway through college that I got my hands on a copy of “A Show of Hands”. If I remember correctly, I traded it at a used CD store for Living Color’s “Vivid”, of which I had had enough at that point. Finally, it clicked! Not too long after, I had all their albums, and on the last year of college I was already known as “that Rush guy”.
What struck me on this journey before I got to admire the band, is how my “clicking” with their sound had to undergo that process – starting with heavier, more direct forms of music, and gradually going for subtlety, complexity and more sophisticated sounds. I was drawn to their music at first, but what really hooked me were Neil’s lyrics. As I matured and started to question more philosophical and existential aspects of life, the tale of misfits and outcasts described in “Subdivisions” fit like a glove in my endless reflections. When my opinions and choices started to clash with those of my parents, “Entre Nous” and “Different Strings” provided comfort. In my first years as a professional, my constant questioning of my vocation and my abilities were fueled by the lyrics of “Hemispheres” and “Mission”. The first Rush album I bought upon release was “Test for Echo”, whose last song was a twist in the tale of Sisyphus, the legendary king of Corinth condemned eternally to repeatedly roll a heavy rock up a hill in Hades only to have it roll down again as it nears the top. What a gloomy metaphor for the corporate world that is! Ultimately, I realized that any Rush album, or any Rush song, for that matter, is a crash course in philosophy, existentialism and motivation.
One particular incident is worth mentioning here: I had serious self-esteem issues at one point in my life, and my dad took me to see a psychiatrist. He used more traditional methods but also Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and suggested the following exercise: “think of a person you admire deeply – not your mother of father – and imagine him or her giving you a compliment on what you think you do well”. Immediately, without blinking, I thought of Neil. I can’t quantify how much that influenced in my confidence improving, but that memory came back vividly upon Neil’s passing. Just like describe in an article published a few days ago, he was “the mental mentor I sought to please, whose approval I would interpret as success”.
Musically, I would be hard pressed to find three individuals more in tune with each other. Not equals, but complimentary. Alex was the soul, with an endless well of beautiful chords that flew over the tightness of the rhythm session. Geddy was the heart, with bass lines that pierced through the drums, uttering words that weren’t penned by him with unparalleled conviction and playing keyboards with his hands and feet. Neil was the brain: a consummate example of power, passion and precision. Listen to his performance on “Exit: Stage Left” or on “Grace Under Pressure Live”: every beat is reproduced to perfection, every movement is fully intentional, and not a molecule of his body seems to be employed unintentionally in those concerts. Even more impressive than that was to witness his comeback after the tragedy that struck his family in the mid 90’s. After giving us so much meticulousness through the years, he gave us a lesson in persistence and on how to face adversity headfirst, with the band triumphantly returning to the scene with “Vapor Trails”.
November 2002 marked a time when I was able to make myself a part of Rush history, by attending the show that would become the Rush in Rio release. I, with another 39,999 souls, air-drummed with“YYZ”, did the “we’re not worthy” gesture during “Freewill”, and celebrated the coming of the three sonic alchemists to our country, after waiting for hours on end until the crew fixed all their gear that was damaged by the rain that hit Sao Paulo on the night before, where they played to 60,000 fans. I was at the Sao Paulo show as well, but the atmosphere in Rio was something else. As Neil would put it in “Countdown”, the excitement was so thick you could cut it with a knife. My sister got a last-minute ticket to that Rio show and saw it from a different section, and when we met at one of the exits she said “that drum solo…that was playback, right?”. What a laugh my friends and I had at that question! Rush would play in Brazil on another tour, the amazing Time Machine in 2010, and again, I saw both Rio and Sao Paulo shows. They had offers at the table to come back on R40, but reportedly, Neil said no, much to Alex and Geddy’s chagrin.
As the R40 tour reached its conclusion in 2015, us fans came to realize that things would never be the same. After years rushing out of the stage to get on his motorcycle and escape traffic, Neil lingered on after the last note of the final concert of that tour and hugged his counterparts for the first time in front of an audience. The ever-circumspect professor lowered his guard, perhaps already aware that this was not only the end of Rush as a band, but that his existence on this planet would soon be challenged.
As expected, moving to Toronto in 2017 only strengthened my connection with the band. I was able to visit the most significant Rush sites in the city, the most notable of which being the Ontario Legislative Building, featured on the cover of “Moving Pictures”. But the cherry on the cake of my Rush fandom is called “Grapes Under Pressure”, an exclusive charity event held in 2018 where a dozen fans were able to interact with Alex and Geddy, while on a wine tasting trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Being able to share with both how much I admired them, the shows I attended, getting a hug from Geddy and a laugh from Alex, are memories I will carry with me to my grave. This was not your typical 30 second meet and greet: we spent the day with our heroes, and both had attentive ears to our stories and anecdotes and engaged in our celebration of Rush geekiness. But a gratifying and unpredictable side effect were the friendships made on that day – 150 incredulous pairs of eyes watching every move of two thirds of the holy triumvirate, interacting with them and taking turns at picking our jaws from the floor. Many of us are still in contact to this day and helped each other through this difficult time. In retrospect, Alex and Geddy’s humorous responses to the million questions about a possible comeback (Alex hinted at R70 with all three guys on wheelchairs) must have hurt them deeply, knowing how critical Neil’s condition already was at the time.
As I was still trying to come to terms with the loss of Neil, one of the best pieces of advice came from a friend who said: “you were lucky to know who he was. A lot of people never will or will never care. You do.” That’s a different perspective for sure, but a sobering and encouraging one. Whilst going back and forth through the various stages of grief at light-speed, I find that the biggest takeaways from being a Rush fan are LIFE lessons: be relentless in pursuing your goals; live life to the fullest; be true to yourself. Neil’s last “official” picture gave me even more evidence of that, with him celebrating in January 2018 – while already struggling with his disease – the fact that he became a member of the California Channel Islands All Eight Club – a select group of around 200 people who have visited all 8 of the Channel Islands.
I know this band doesn’t have many casual fans – you’re either a diehard or you can’t stand them – so it’s comforting to know that whenever I talk to a fellow Rushian, I can throw caution to the wind and trust that he/she also feels the same way. This week we were given the clearest evidence ever that we’re only immortal for a limited time, and I encourage all Rush fans out there to reach out to each other, share your stories, let the tears flow and process together this gut-wrenching news. Rest in Peace Neil and thank you for so many surges of energy and sparks of inspiration.