Friday afternoon, I sat at my desk working at my computer, when my phone buzzed—a text from a friend. Normally I just keep working on what I’m doing and check messages when I’m done, but this time I decided not to wait.
“Hey man, did you hear the news about Neil?”
Oh, no. My heart sank. No way.
A quick Google search later confirmed my feelings of disbelief: Neil Peart, legendary drummer from the rock band RUSH, dead at 67.
I was stunned. I am still stunned. It took me all weekend to process this.
No, that just can’t be true!
Let’s rewind for a minute. We’ve sadly seen the deaths of many great artists these past few years, from Tom Petty to Prince. Now, while I have great respect for these musicians and the bodies of work they’ve produced, and I of course hated to hear that they had passed on, I didn’t feel any great sadness about any of these losses.
This time, though, I get it. In fact, I got it—a punch right to the gut and a hole ripped out of my heart, to be precise.
I’ve written about how I became acquainted, and later infatuated, with the band RUSH in a separate post. I don’t intend to reiterate any of that here. However, when one looks at the band RUSH as a whole, what they represented, and the ethos that drove them almost non-stop through their forty-plus year career—at the center of it all was Neil Peart.
RUSH existed before Neil joined the band. At the time, they were a three-piece rock band out of Toronto that had just cut their first album, which was very Led Zeppelin-esque with hard-rocking riffs and lyrics about girls (with a working-class song thrown in for good measure). Just as they were about to embark on their first big tour, then-drummer John Rutsey quit due to health issues.
Enter our hero.
Had circumstances not worked out the way they did—had John Rutsey stayed with the band, or had Neil continued to work at his father’s farm equipment shop and not auditioned, or had the band decided to go with someone else—I seriously doubt that RUSH would have gone on to do the great things they did.
You see, Neil brought two things to the band that they didn’t have prior: hard-hitting, precision drum technique; and imaginative, thought-provoking lyric-writing. Had it not been for these two ingredients, folks wouldn’t be air-drumming to “Tom Sawyer” or quoting lyrics like “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
This in no way diminishes the contributions his bandmates, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, made to the band—RUSH would not be RUSH without any of them. But when you look at the musical and philosophical genius that is RUSH, you look center stage at Neil Peart.
The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.Neil Peart — Ghost Rider
I’m not a drummer, but I have admired Neil ever since I heard how he could hit the skins. He revolutionized the world of drumming with kits that almost completely surrounded him on stage, playing every component at some point during the show. And his technical mastery was unparalleled—he himself compared it to running a marathon and solving equations at the same time.
And his lyrics—once I started diving into them as an adolescent, my mind opened up. These weren’t your typical “hey baby wontcha come on over” kind of rock lyrics. These were lyrics about almost everything under the sun: science fiction, real science, relationships, philosophy, everyday life. In other words, his lyrics were about the world and how we relate to it and live in it. On the whole, they accept the reality that life is hard and painful (and sometimes downright cruel and evil), but remind the listener that dreams coupled with right action can be transformative.
For these reasons—among others—Neil was, and always will be, one of the few people whom I place on a pedestal. He strove for excellence in all that he did: drumming, lyric-writing, motorcycling, cooking, husband-ing and fathering. He lived no double lives, had no double standards. (In fact, he’s pretty candid about his flaws and foibles in his books—so he’s honest, too.) He inspired me to be a better human being. And I am forever grateful for it.
Love and respect are the values in life that most contribute to “the pursuit of happiness”—and after, they are the greatest legacy we can leave behind. It’s an elegy you’d like to hear with your own ears: “You were loved and respected.”Neil Peart — Far and Away: A Prize Every Time
Because he lived such a private life, his passing came as a shock not only to me but also to the RUSH community and the rock community as a whole. Most everyone knew that he was through playing music after RUSH’s R40 tour in 2015; tendonitis made drumming painful for him, and he wouldn’t accept anything less than his best—so he quit altogether. But none of us fans had any clue that he had been battling brain cancer for the past three years. In fact, it was three days after his death before we heard the sad news (he passed on the 7th but it was not announced until the 10th).
I knew I had to write something about the impact Neil had on my life, and I soon found that I wasn’t alone. Folks from across the RUSH fan base and the music industry have penned beautiful eulogies, telling stories about how they met him, how he inspired them, and so on. Reading these tributes from other people has reinforced to me just how much of an impact he had on so many people—and that, I think, is something he should be respected for.
So, thank you, Neil. Thank you for all the music, the words, and the wisdom you’ve given the world for so long. Thank you for being a positive influence on young men who (like myself, and like yourself) often found themselves on the outside looking in, and for encouraging them that it’s okay to be that way (in fact, that it might even be cool to be that way).
And above all, thank you for having the courage to stay true to yourself and your convictions, while inspiring others to do the same.
I’ll conclude with a fitting quote from Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame….
He was called “The Professor” for a reason: We all learned from him.Dave Grohl
And even in the wake of his passing, may we continue to do so.