The Professor is Still Missed

One year ago today, Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Ellwood Peart succumbed to the form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma at the age of 67. More than any other celebrity death, Peart’s passing affected me to such a degree that I wrote an entire book about Rush fandom and why his life, his work, and his death resonated with so many people who never knew him. 

At the end of the day, my conclusion was that Peart’s lyrics and Rush’s music made people feel good. His words never condescended to listeners, never cast blame at this group or that, and expressed a childlike fascination with the world, with nature, and with history, to deliver deep, universal truths about the human condition. Far from the typical rock fare about sex and drugs, with Peart penning the lyrics to accompany Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson’s wonderfully wild prog-rock compositions, Rush became such a beautifully strange and thought-provoking hard rock band.

Anyone who tells you that rock music is, by its very nature, degenerate, has obviously never listened to Rush.

It is rare that any celebrity, regardless of their field, is as universally loved and respected as Neil Peart was. In addition to his words which gave so much meaning and comfort to fans, to his drumming which propelled Rush’s music to new and exciting heights, the way he lived his life and his work ethic were also an inspiration. People I interviewed for my book and fans who shared their stories all had the same thing to say: It was like we all knew him. Nobody had a negative thing to say about Neil, and indeed he is one of the few pop culture figures who had an unabashedly positive impact on the culture at large.

We are all better for having had Neil Peart in the world, and we are poorer for his having exited it. 

Brian Hiatt of Rolling Stone, who penned many fantastic Rush articles over the years, many of which I used for my book, has a great commemorative piece out today where he speaks to both Lee and Lifeson, as well as Peart’s second wife Carrie Nuttall, who are talking explicitly about Neil Peart’s last days for the first time since he died. It’s worth a read, and it will just make you appreciate Peart’s character and personality even more. 

I’ll close this piece by sharing a few of my favorite Peart lyrics. I’m also going to be doing in-depth reviews of all Rush albums over the course of this year, but for now here are ten of my favorite Neil Peart lyrics in no particular order:

1. “Mission”: A rumination on how we admire artists and their work, but on the flip side how artists would likely gladly exchange the turmoil in their lives that helped them produce art for “something a little more plain . . . maybe something a little more sane.”

2. “Bravado”: Just a gorgeous song about how we so often pursue our dreams at a great personal cost. 

3. “Marathon”: Life is a race, get it? But this hackneyed metaphor becomes utterly inspiring in Peart’s capable hands.

4. “Red Barchetta”: The most thrilling song about driving ever created. Peart imagines a world after something called the Motor Law bans the internal combustion engine. Our unnamed narrator has an uncle who kept a Red Barchetta in his shed that he lets his nephew drive regularly to “commit [his] weekly crime.”

5. “Natural Science”: It’s about tide pools as a metaphor for how we far too often fail to see outside of our little universes! But it’s also a rumination on the need to make sure science, like nature, is tamed to our needs and not vice versa. But it’s also about how the music industry dehumanizes art and artists. And it’s also about the need for honesty to prevail. And it just rocks. 

6. “Time Stand Still”: A beautiful song about growing older and wanting to be present in the NOW, not focus on the past or continually worry about the future. “Available Light” from the following album is in much the same vein, but “Time Stand Still” did it first. 

7. “The Pass”: A hauntingly powerful anti-suidice song. The number of people who told me that this song literally saved their lives is staggering and testament to why Peart meant so much to so many people. 

8. “Subdivisions”: This, along with “The Analog Kid” from the same album, absolutely nail what being a small-town teenager is like. I still get chills listening to it. 

9. “Wish Them Well”: Some people are toxic and not worth keeping in your life. You don’t have to hate them or be mean to them. Just “turn your back and walk away.”

10. “The Garden”: The final song on Rush’s final studio album is one of their finest. Peart pens the ruminations of an old man (the main character in the Clockwork Angels concept album) about what truly matters in life. It’s utterly tear-inducing.

There are so many more, but these are just some of my favorites.

Rush will be missed, as will Neil, because without Neil, there is no Rush. All of us fans selfishly held out hope that, despite retiring after their triumphant 2015 40th anniversary tour, there might be more albums and a one-off show or two. That can never happen now, but we have 18 studio albums (Neil didn’t play on their debut), ten live albums, and hundreds of lyrics to remember him by. 

Godspeed, Professor. 

Dreamers & Misfits, my smash-hit book about Rush fans, is available here. 

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