My wife and I were driving through Greece one night over a decade ago. It was more like early morning, and we were returning home after a night of partying. To stay awake, we had flipped on the radio and were cruising through stations.
“Whoa, hold it!” I said when I heard a familiar clatter of wood hitting metal floating over rumbling bass-drums and machine-gun snare.
“Rush. It’s Neil’s drum solo. From Rush In Rio.” Yup, I’m such a dork, I recognized the different versions of Neil’s concert-staple show-stopper from this particular 2003 live album.
“Okay,” my wife said, and rolled with it. She’s not a rock n’ roll fan, though she knew about my love of Rush before we were married.
The solo ended, exhilarating as always. I was awake now, boy was I! The DJ came on, speaking something that sounded like Russian but was probably Bulgarian given our location in Greece and our proximity to that country. And then he played the Rush in Rio version of “Natural Science,” a fantastic song, the 10-minute closer to 1980’s landmark Permanent Waves.
Permanent Waves marked somewhat of a reinvention of the band, eschewing for the most part the multi-part, prog epics of past albums like Caress of Steel, 2112, A Farewell to Kings, and Hemispheres in favor of shorter, punchier songs that were no-less technically complex. Permanent Waves had more keyboards, more major-key non-blues-based song structures, and guitarist Alex Lifeson’s newer, more shimmery tone that seemed to usher in the decade. And Neil’s lyrics tended to be more personal than ever before.
Of course, Permanent Waves had not one, but two epics: the underrated “Jacob’s Ladder” in addition to “Natural Science.” But “Natural Science was what that Bulgarian radio station played that night/early morning on the car radio of an old, well-maintained Mercedes (from a “better, vanished time,” perhaps?) in Greece.
We listened and rocked out–well, I listened and rocked out. At one point near the end of this undeniable tour de force, my wife asks, “What are the lyrics?”
Now, Geddy Lee had just sang the stanza: “The most endangered species: the honest man/Will still survive annihilation/Forming a world, state of integrity/Sensitive, open and strong.”
“Oh,” she said. “What’s that mean?”
“Uh . . .” What a question! What did this mean? Neil Peart’s lyrics always meant something. More often than not, they meant more than one thing. “Natural Science” is a song about tide-pools and stuff, right? But it’s also a song about the music industry. And art. And the importance of staying true to your principles. You know, standard Neil Peart stuff that, in between the guitar solos and rumbling bass and symphonically precise and powerful drumming, gets the old noodle working.
I don’t remember what I told my wife. I think I said something like “It’s kind of hard to explain,” because otherwise I’d have to embark on some long, dorky discussion that would have put my wife to sleep, defeating the purpose of us turning on the radio in the first place.
“Okay,” she said, and we kept driving.
When the song was done, we resumed our station-surfing, but that blast of live Rush coming through over the wave on those roads in the hinterland of northern Greece felt like a touch of home. That was the magic of Rush. “The Spirit of Radio” indeed.
Neil Peart’s passing meant a lot to people, because Rush meant a lot to people. Lots of people.
Why? I don’t know but I’ll give you my theory. Keep in mind it’s based on my own personal experience as a Rush fan, back when it was still un-cool to be one, but I think I’m on to something:
Rush were one-hundred percent sincere. This earnestness, devoid of smirking cynicism, nihilism, and ennui, shone through not just in their music but how the members lived their lives. Rush were serious people taking their music seriously in an utterly ridiculous industry. Yet by playing it straight–despite the band’s goofier moments and sense of humor (evident mostly in their albums’ liner notes)–Rush felt like they were on to something important and were inviting you in.
Rush were like the other nerds at school who were really good at something, so good that even the jocks and the cheerleaders had to tip their caps, metaphorical or otherwise and say, “Yeah, those guys are nerds, but they’re kind of cool nerds” and they’d leave them alone. Naturally, as Cool Nerds, Rush were a safe haven for the rest of us Uncool Nerds who might have been socially awkward or featured some kind of physical characteristic that made us not quite as popular as our coutnerparts.
Rush never condescended to their fans, and Neil’s lyrics were a massive part of this. He wrote poetry, if you ask me, poetry set to music.
“Duh, Alex! That’s what lyrics are!”
I know. But have you heard most rock lyrics? They’re completely retarded. Some are fun, but still retarded. Neil Peart was different. Neil wrote about, in part, things like: dystopian futures, fantasy battles, ancient Greek gods as a metaphor for the battle between the heart and mind, growing old, losing hair, insecurity, teenage angst, fear, piloting spaceships through black holes, sentient trees, cities, civilizational decline, travel, the corrupting influence of money, recovering from tragedy, and the freaking French Revolution.
Their final album was a steampunk epic as a metaphor for the battle between utter chaos and restrictive control. And it’s probably the best thing they ever recorded.
Bear with me: 2012’s Clockwork Angels was a concept album–Rush’s first, if you can believe it. And Neil even co-wrote a companion novel. But Peart was such a skilled lyricist, each song worked on its own, detached from the overarching story. Each song had its own mini-narrative with a beginning, middle, and end that works within the album’s overall arc. It’s utterly brilliant, and if you’re a total Rush neophyte intrigued by the band due to the overwhelming outpouring of fan-grief over Peart’s death, it’s a fantastic place to start.
When Rush retired in 2015, the official explanations were Alex’s arthritis and Neil’s chronic tendonitis, foot injuries, and shoulder pain. All of us fans appreciated the band’s 41 (!) years of fantastic music and wished them well. But we all secretly–and yes, I feel comfortable speaking for all Rush fans since we’re very, very similar in so many ways–thought that they’d surely get together again someday for a one-off show or another album, or even a single. Neil’s untimely death put an end to those admittedly selfish hopes.
I generally find it kind of sad when people base their entire lives on a genre of music or a particular musician. But, perhaps hypocritically, I make an exception for Rush. This is because Rush were a unique and utterly weird animal in the world of rock: three regular guys who make music they love and invite the rest of us along for the ride.
This matters because it’s very difficult to separate the art from the artist no matter how we try. The three members of Rush were faithful to their wives, and as far as I know, Geddy and Alex are still married to their high school sweethearts. They are all fathers and family men. Other than youthful dalliances with marijuana, Rush was not a drug band. Their story is, by rock standards, pretty boring! Kiss used to make fun of them for not partying when they toured together, for crying out loud. Geddy Lee got interested in baseball because he was bored on tour and didn’t party, and back in the 70s and 80s daytime baseball was still a thing so he’d watch games in his hotel room. Neil would read. A lot. I remember some interview with Geddy where he said, and I’m paraphrasing: “People ask us what Neil’s like. I tell them he’s just like a normal person, but one with a really big brain.”
Now, Neil’s personal tragedy is well-known to fans. In 1997, Neil’s only child, his daughter Selena, died in a car accident at age 19. His wife died of cancer 10 months later. He essentially quit the band to ride his motorcycle around the world. When he returned in 2002, the band leaped back into action, releasing Vapor Trails, a pounding, vital album that showed Neil’s renewed vigor and, somehow, optimism, in both his drumming and lyrics.
The whole album is a masterpiece, easily a 9-out-of-10 if you want to rate things this way. The centerpiece, though, at least lyrically, is a song called “Secret Touch”:
You can never break the chain
There is never love without pain
A gentle hand, a secret touch on the heart
You can never break the chain
(You can never break the chain)
Life is a power that remains
(Life is a power that remains)
A healing hand, a secret touch on the heart
A gentle hand, a secret touch on the heart
Neil would remarry, wedding photographer Carrie Nuttall, and he would have another child, his daughter Olivia. He remained a reader and a clean-liver with a strong work ethic who never complained about playing the hits like “Tom Sawyer” every show because “every concert is someone’s first Rush concert.” He continually improved his craft. He kept reading and writing. He didn’t do drugs. And he died at the age of 67 anyway while many of his chemically compromised colleague shamble on in undeath.
Sometimes the world of rock n’ roll doesn’t make sense.
Neil Peart was famously private. Reading and watching interviews with him, especially when he was younger, revealed a rather prickly man who routinely got his words twisted by the low-consciousness music journalists he spoke to who really hated the band for not being trendy and not being left-leaning socialists. So for a time, he stopped giving interviews.
Later in his life, especially after he rejoined the band in 2002, Neil comes off as much more relaxed, although there’s a part of him that still seems closed off, still the nearly-thirty-year-old who wrote “Limelight: (“I have no heart to lie/I can’t pretend a stranger is a long awaited friend”). Neil always seemed like he had to slow down his thoughts to communicate with normal people, though he did so with a gracious demeanor and a smile on his normally stoic face.
In the documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage, there is a scene where the three members of Rush are sitting at a table in a fancy restaurant, drinking fine wine (Lee and Lifeson are wine fanatics). They’re cracking jokes and having a good time. But what struck me when watching this sequence is that, though the three of them had been bandmates since 1974, Neil still seemed like a bit of an outsider.
A part of this is inevitable: Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson had been friends since, I believe, elementary school. They have that telepathy that only grown men who have known each other nearly their entire lives can have. And even though Peart had been a part of the band for four decades, he still couldn’t penetrate that invisible wall. He laughed along with them, but when he interjected with jokes and comments of his own, they were somehow . . . off. Not bad, not wrong, not unfunny, just . . . it’s hard to explain. Maybe the best way to put it is “too cerebral,” as though even when telling jokes Neil thought very deeply and very seriously about them.
Geddy and Alex laugh along, of course, and build on his contributions–the classic improv comedy idea of “Yes, and . . .” But there’s no denying that Neil was a bit of an outsider, a misfit, even within the band of outsiders and misfits that was Rush. You have to watch the scene to get what I mean.
And yet that was one of the most endearing part of Neil’s very being: he never lost that young man’s tendency to think very deeply and very seriously about everything. This is why his lyrics and drumming were so good. He never phoned anything in. Not even his jokes.
I don’t care if Neil was an avowed atheist who even wrote a song called “Faithless.” I like to think he’s at peace and that his family will find some measure of peace as well.
I’ll be posting some of my personal favorite Rush tracks later. In the meantime, check out some of my own writing.