In A World Where He Felt So Small, He Couldn’t Stop Thinking Big

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. 

“What’s that?”

“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

https://youtu.be/MxL7x2AHgs0

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.

18 comments

  1. Alexander

    Thanks for that tribute. What Rush and Uzeb teach us as well as aspiring musicians
    1)if you want to excel ya gotta work don’t skimp on the rehearsals and practices
    2) be professional and don’t be dicks
    3) be sincere
    4) keep growing musically
    5) be as normal as you can be settle down have a family
    6) the music industry is so fake so take it seriously but still make great music that appeals to your listeners.

    xavier

    Liked by 1 person

  2. —Wow, Alex! That was a great tribute. Really well written and I appreciate the insight on the dinner. I’ll take your word for it as I tried watching it but couldn’t get very far. I guess that’s pretty much sums it up with me and Rush, just can’t get through most of it; a friend of mine overplayed them so much I grew to hate the band (for a while).

    –But this isn’t about hatred but about the love you have for the band and this drummer and his amazing talent.

    —His drum solos have a lot of character, especially when he worked in some samples to play along with. Would Rush even exist without him? Not in the form they’re most known for, his skills elevating the others’ playing, along with his unique lyrical and thematic touch. Despite being known as a nerd rock band or prog, I think some of the lyrics in Closer to the Heart are his most heartfelt and powerful.

    –I’m sure the other tributes to Rush out there aren’t as unique and interesting as yours.

    —A lot to admire too, his creativity, his skill, his lyrics (whether or not I liked them, I respected he went for something different as you say) and his dedication to his art (I think the record company told them to go a more popular route before they recorded 2112 but they following their creativity regardless)

    —He was a one-of-a-kind drummer. Just incredible. Those rhythms and fills are astounding…and it takes a lot of introspection and guts to retire at more or less the top of his game as well.

    —I hope he’s reunited with his loved ones in a much better place. I believe he is. I believe we all will be too, God willing.

    cheers

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I don’t think one needs to enjoy Rush’s music to appreciate Neil’s immense talent. He truly had a gift and the world is better that he was able to share it with so many.

      “Closer to the Heart” does indeed have great lyrics. Rush’s lyrics grew more personal and introspective and less “out there” as the 80s turned into the 90s and the new millennium (though 2012’s Clockwork Angels album is quite the throwback!). Check out the lyrics to some songs like “The Analog Kid,” “Circumstances,” and “Ghost Rider” for good examples of that.

      Like

  3. Great article. Sums up my sentiments exactly.

    One of my favorite moments from my favorite concert of all time — the Time Machine tour back in 2011 — is one of those obligatory audience favorites that so many bands end up hating but Rush never seemed to tire of: the Overture and Temples of Syrinx, from 2112.

    The crowd was totally into it as always, and Geddy and Alex were hamming it up. Then one of them came out of one of those stop-time pauses a bit too soon and off-tempo…and it didn’t immediately fix itself. For a long couple of seconds, the song went a bit off the rails as the guitar and bass went out of sync with each other and lost the beat. If you weren’t a Rush fanatic or a musician, you might not have caught it, but this being Rush, virtually the whole audience aside from my 12-year-old son (who was at his first Rush concert and only knew the songs I’d played for him) was one or both, so of course everyone noticed. This is not a band that just screws up.

    Geddy and Alex both turned around and got a visual on Neil’s drum sticks while they got their poop back in a group, and then they simultaneously turned and looked out at the audience with big shit-eating grins on their faces. When the song ended, the crowd went nuts (as always after 2112). Up at the microphone, Geddy said, “I blame that on Neil.” Professor Peart smiled and laughed at his wayward cohorts, and the audience did too. Everyone knew what had really happened. “Ah, Syrinx,” said Geddy. “Always a nugget.” And then launched into introducing the next song.

    They’d been a bit too complacent and it had bit them on the butt. They knew it, we knew it, they knew we knew it, and we knew that they knew we knew it. The whole thing just made everyone laugh harder and cheer louder. And that song WAS a nugget. Pure gold.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a great story! Rush screwed up live so rarely it’s almost cool that you got to see it happen.

      My enduring concert memory of Neil is the first time I saw them, in Mansfield, MA on the Vapor Trails tour. Alex was doing his customary gibberish during the middle of “La Villa Strangiato,” some ridiculous bit about smoking his high school diploma, that sort of thing. He said something that got the crowd laughing hysterically and then turned to Neil.

      The huge video screen just showed Neil, kind of hunched over his drum kit and looking over the tom-toms staring at Alex with this stoic sort of “What the hell is wrong with you?” look. And Alex kept setting back for like ten seconds. And then finally, finally, the corner of Neil’s mouth perked up slightly and he nodded his head a few times and then BANG! They were on to the rest of the song.

      My brother had gotten a copy of that show, actually. I should dig it up and listen to that part again.

      Man, Rush shows were special. They were like one big party.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s awesome. Reminds me of when Alex went off the rails at their induction into the (so-called) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rush is the best.

        Also, your article reminded me of the video intro to the Time Machine tour. One of the weirdest and most awesome things they’ve done. It leverages the band members’ individual personalities and the more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts thing they had going. It was an amazing way to open a show. I’m so glad I got to see it in person.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, this was an awesome tribute. To go through what someone like Neil Hart did and yet still find the strength to move on and still have a positive outlook in life is divine, honestly. No wonder he is despised by some; his entire being is a refutation on the idea that all people are miserable, life is meaningless and you can never escape your pain and misery. R.I.P. to a great man.

    As someone who is not familiar with a lot of RUSH’s works (having listened only to a song here or there), what’s a good album to start with? I want to listen to their music.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “his entire being is a refutation on the idea that all people are miserable, life is meaningless and you can never escape your pain and misery.”

      That’s a great way of putting it! All us fans were fine considering the band done when all of this happened in 1997 and he famously told Geddy and Alex at his wife’s funeral, “Consider me retired.” Totally understandable and acceptable. We all just wanted him to do okay.

      When the band came back some 5 years later…and started putting out great album after great album, it felt like Christmas. Neil could’ve walked away from music and everyone would’ve understood but he just loved it so much.

      Now where to start with Rush’s music? I’m gonna say their final album, and in my opinion best, Clockwork Angels. It really encompasses every aspect of their style. It’s a throwback yet very forward-thinking and it rocks unbelievable hard. Check out the song “Headlong Flight” on YouTube and if you like that, then you’ll like the whole album.

      After that, I’d say the consensus picks for new Rush listeners are 1981’s Moving Pictures and/or 1980’s Permanent Waves.

      Hope you find some stuff you enjoy listening to! They’ve got a LOT of albums to dig into if you like those.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Alexander

    Thanks

    In the end being a regular guy who happens to be damned good at something is perhaps the most important thing

    Family friends and a regular job anchor people and give them a sense of rootedness.
    All this gives people a path to what’s real and truly durable
    Doubly so for creative types

    xavier

    Like

    • Being a regular guy who takes the craft of being damned good at something definitely helps! This is why a lot of artists we know and love had short careers because they were mentally and emotionally unstable with turbulent personal lives. Sure, such lifestyles MIGHT be conducive to some great art, but the burnout happens quite rapidly.

      Like

      • Alexander

        Yup. And worse is when totally evil people take advantage of that vulnerability to burn the artists out even faster. The music industry is a case study of this. I now understand Prince’s chemically pure animus against the music industry and the execs.

        I was glad when Napster and then Itunes came out, watching the music industry exesc shriek as their gates were completely demolished and their obtuse protection racket shakedown to stop filesharing via the RIAA backfiring was just awesome to watch. I enjoyed every minute of it and gloated.

        xavier

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, the “REEEEE!!!”ing was spectacular. It was sad to see Metallica be branded as the face of corporate music, though. They did the heel turn for the execs.

        Many disgusting and unscrupulous people, many of whom are lawyers, call the music industry home. Frank Zappa was equally repulsed by it. On his death bed he reportedly told his wife, “Sell everything and get out of this awful business.”

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Xavier wrote: ” gates were completely demolished and their obtuse protection racket shakedown…”

    —-Ridiculous what they were charging people for cds years ago considering what they cost to manufacture and how little they paid the musicians. Greed did them in, to a degree I guess.

    cheers

    Liked by 2 people

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