Farewell To A King: RIP Neil Peart

[Beyond the Lighted Stage: Banger Films]

Rush is for the nerds. Okay, sure, the band is clearly for everyone, but it’s hardly a newsflash to reaffirm the fact that, in a great many cases, people who consider themselves Rush fanatics are often one in the the same with those who collect comic books, get Star Trek tattoos, comb estate sales for first edition fantasy novels, and have intimate knowledge of saving throws. We are bookish, curious dreamers who rely on fantasy and imagination to escape the horrors of reality, and Rush just so happens to be comprised of three sorcerers skilled in a style of wizardry that uses complex music to transport us to places like Cygnus X-1.

Beyond that particular form of sorcery, Rush also embodies the philosopher, who often walks in step with the daydreamer, but remains grounded by a natural want to overthink their place right here and now in this universe—feet on the ground, and with convictions and sentiments at the forefront for examination with other likeminded individuals.

Outside of those two specific roles, Rush also encompasses the music fiend—the people who appreciate and marvel at the band’s brain-exploding capacity for intricacies across a span of multiple decades, numerous sub-genres, and endless touring. Take any of the three players and place them (very gently) under a microscope, and you will find a perpetual amount of A+ material for investigation, consumption, assimilation and (significantly reduced) imitation.

Rush epitomizes all of these personifications and more, individually and combined, and they do so in a manner that’s always felt curiously kind, outwardly humble, and imbued with a perception of humor and love that results in an immediate sense of kinship / friendship for any and all who choose to heed the call and share their passion for this remarkable band.

Neil before a show: Rush Facebook

Unfortunately for us all, The Round Table now features yet another empty chair with the passing of the Good Sir Knight Neil Peart, drummer for Rush from 1974 forward and one of a select few individuals capable of eliciting feelings of genuine excitement upon seeing the words “drum solo” attached to a live setlist. The news of his passing following a valiant fight with brain cancer on January 7th left an immediate mark on this earth, uniting heroes and the faceless alike under a shared banner of heartbreak. (And also prompting a sudden dash for the band’s discography that has since left Amazon’s LP coffers essentially dry.)

We didn’t know Neil Peart personally, you and I, but of course we feel as if we did because we’ve seen endless photos, videos and live events over the years that feature Neil, Geddy and Alex smiling and laughing and cavorting just as we do with our friends. We want to know these individuals as friends because, as is often the case with legendary acts such as this, we’ve grown up with Rush as an integral part of our lives. We’ve reached for their records in times of sadness and celebration, and we’ve introduced their world to our sons and daughters and nieces and nephews—not just as a consequence of connecting very deeply with the music, but also because we understand that the individuals involved are actually good people who’ve worked tirelessly to put favorable energy into the universe.

2112: Mercury Records

As for Neil Peart the man, despite the fact that he achieved what would have to be considered the absolute pinnacle of professional achievement—a spot directly alongside titans such as John Bonham, Keith Moon, and Ginger Baker—he was also, necessarily, extraordinarily human. Life spares no mortal their share of suffering, no matter the level of celebrity or prosperity, and Peart suffered the worst of it following the loss of his teenage daughter and wife of over two decades just ten months apart in 1997. I’m sure many would agree that his eyes revealed the weight of that sorrow for all the years that followed, but it didn’t mask the kindness etched in his face, which complicated matters when the side of Neil Peart who never really sat well with fervent fandom was forced to confront unchained veneration. This facet of his personality—a genuine shyness that somehow found itself attached to such a kingly talent—was understood and respected by his fans; he was a kindhearted individual whose waters ran deep, and we appreciated these benefits from a comfortable distance. Where youth demonstrated a true sense of whimsy and playfulness in the form of a curled mustache or chiffon robe for a promo shoot, Neil Peart the celebrity was the sort of person who wouldn’t think twice before pulling over to help a traveler in distress, but he’d likely do so with the hope of anonymity.

And as for Mr. Peart’s mastery behind the kit… Well, the music obviously speaks for itself. He was unmatched in terms of innovation—a truth that makes even more sense upon discovering his introduction to the game came via an early captivation with the late, insanely great Gene Krupa. The rest, as they say, is history, and much of the finer details of what made his playing special to so many of us will be covered below in the form of a handful of tributes penned by Last Rites personnel. For certain, many of your favorite songs won’t be represented, but these aren’t really “a list of our absolute favorites” as much as they are snapshots within what feels like hundreds of gold standards. It would be difficult to choose incorrectly, but I’m sure at least a few of you will faint from shock over the fact that none of us picked the remarkable “La Villa Strangiato” as their tribute.

A point of fact in closing: there is no past tense when speaking of Rush. The magic has already been cast into the aether, so all one need do in order to call it to life is let the needle drop, hit that play button, or stumble through those first few fills at the outset of “YYZ.” What has been loosed will forever color our vision, and even though we lost an individual who was widely considered the greatest living drummer from one of the greatest bands in rock & roll—and a human who was surely considered a remarkable husband, father and friend—the spirit and energy of this great man now mingles with the comforting sound of distant thunder. [CAPTAIN]

“We’re only immortal for a limited time.” ~ Neil Peart

“Manhattan Project” – Power Windows [1985]

“Rat-a-tat-tat-tat,” opens Rush’s “Manhattan Project,” which appears on their 1985 album Power Windows. The tightly tuned snare sound mimics both a machine gun and that of a military marching band. The synths lead the way as was common during this era of Rush. Peart leans into it, bouncing on the hi-hat like a big band jazz drummer. At over five minutes, “Manhattan Project” wasn’t destined to be a radio-friendly hit, but the track certainly contained a pop sensitivity that belied the dark underpinnings of the brilliant lyrics Peart penned for the bright, happy tune. Those underpinnings aren’t hidden: The title of the song is the very same as that of the secret project that led to the development of the oh-so-deadly atomic bomb. Peart, who seemingly had time to accomplish more during a single day than should be humanly possible, read a number of books about the Manhattan Project before writing the lyrics just to be sure he had an accurate and complete picture of the banality of evil that penetrated the project. The track stands as a monument to his lyrical genius.

The opening verse is ominous, yet bright. At a time before World War II, scientists position themselves attempting to split the atom and create science, not for the betterment of the world, but for the absolute and utter destruction of whole cities. The second verse hones in on Robert Oppenheimer using an amalgamation of him and fellow scientists dedicated to such research. The third verse carries the listener out to the New Mexican desert, where scientists would put this dark weapon to the test. And, as Peart subtly points out, it worked. The bomb would go on to be dropped twice on Japan, taking down the “rising sun” (a lovely word play that visualizes not only the Japanese flag, but also the silent footage of atomic bombs exploding in vacant deserts). Finally, Peart lifts us into the belly of the Enola Gay, the plane that would drop the first atomic bomb on a civilian population. The chorus, perhaps the happiest sounding part of “Manhattan Project,” is also the darkest. Using “big bang” as a clever double meaning, Peart hints at how the world was reborn after the blasts of the two bombs (named Fat Man and Little Boy), just like the bang that created the birth of the universe. And just like that: “Rat-a-tat-tat-tat” the track fades out with the familiar snare rolls from the intro.

And all that genius, a brain clever, full of knowledge, and beyond adept at getting that knowledge out in a poetic fashion takes something of a backseat to Peart’s superb drumming. To paraphrase what he said of Power Windows: Although the album sounds simple, it’s actually more complex to make something seemingly simple, which is another thing that Peart was a master of – making the most complex drumming look and seem easy. As “Dr.” Algernop Krieger says, “Neil Peart stands alone.” “Manhattan Project” remains a shimmering tribute to a dark time in world history, a time that we are destined to experience again, and this time without Neil Peart. [MANNY-O-WAR]

“Natural Science” – Permanent Waves [1980]

Any long time Rush fan will tell you that they were more than gods of progressive rock—they felt like friends. And Neil Peart… well, Neil always felt so relatable to me because of the three of them, he was the one that was rather inaccessible. Geddy and Alex were always the charismatic stars, and I love them for it, but Neil was soft-spoken, gentleman-like, and deeply intellectual, traits that are rare in the world of platinum-certified hard rock bands. I always found this comforting, that a truly deep thinker could still find a way to inhabit this typically most hedonistic of arenas. Neil was a delightful aberration in so many ways, the antithesis of a balled-up thunderstorm like John Bonham, but no less thunderous.

Neil was often rightly noted for his technical prowess, but take away the most legendary moments – his live solos, the entirety of “Xanadu,” that part of “Tom Sawyer” – and the truth is that he was actually easy to take for granted. “Natural Science” is an incredibly complex, multi-tiered progressive rock masterpiece, but across its nine-plus minutes, it constantly shows how absolutely balanced Rush was at all times. That balance meant that you always heard the full song first, even above all of Neil’s technical wizardry. And there’s wizardry aplenty. Neil spends the song shuffling on the hi-hat, playing intricate and unpredictable staccato snare patterns, egging Alex on during the guitar solo, and getting downright peppy during the final movement, “Permanent Waves.” It’s easy to forget just how nutty all of it is because it blends so perfectly with everything else. Of course, when you really tune into the drumming, it’s pretty mind-boggling, but this balance is what often separated Neil from many of his followers. Complex but rarely over-indulgent; tight but never uptight.

“Natural Science” is also one of his finest moments as a wordsmith. It manages to communicate a wonder with the universe, the cosmos in both the micro and macro, a warning about untamed use of science and technology, and a trust that goodness will prevail. Perhaps no stanza in all of his career perfectly encapsulated Neil’s simultaneous fear and hope as much as the following:

“The most endangered species, the honest man, will still survive annihilation. Forming a world state of integrity, sensitive, open and strong.”

High level topics, but always personal and human, which also describes Rush as a full band, and it all started with Neil. He influenced generations of drummers and lyricists, but few of either possessed his nuance, subtlety, and grace. He could move continents with his thunder but understood how sometimes a gentle, perfectly timed breeze was just as important. He will be missed more than most heroes that have been lost in my lifetime. Farewell, you gentle colossus. [ZACH DUVALL]

“YYZ” – Moving Pictures [1980]

At some point, many thousand moons ago, I decided to take my irrepressible music fandom one step further and learn to play an instrument. The instrument I chose was the bass guitar, simply because it appeared to be the easiest. (It’s not, particularly, but that’s another topic for another time.) And thus, with cheaply purchased Yamaha bass in hand, 9th Grade Me showed up at my first band practice with some equally adventurous classmates, whereupon we set about making the important garage band decisions about which songs we were going to cover on our way to fame and fortune. I’m sure I picked something kick-ass like Skid Row, whose first record was what prompted me to pick up that guitar to begin with, although I don’t remember us ever learning any Skid Row, so that probably means I was promptly shot down. And of course, because we had a drummer and all drummers love Rush (it’s scientifically proven), our drummer Dave chose “YYZ.” So, yes, we had no idea what we were doing…

At that point, I wasn’t intimately familiar with Rush, having heard “Tom Sawyer” and maybe “Limelight” on the radio, but not much else. “Get Chronicles,” Dave told me, and I did. And it didn’t even have damned “YYZ” on it, so it was useless for me in terms of learning the song, but it wasn’t at all useless in terms of opening my eyes to the wonder of a wonderful band. My Rush fandom was instantaneous, from that first cyclical riff of “Finding My Way.” I wore those two tapes out, and then replaced them with CDs, and then I bought every other Rush album I could find. They weren’t my favorite band (Queen was and is), but they weren’t far behind. They were the perfect band for a teenage nerd: science fiction themes, borderline metallic riffs balanced against nearly synth-pop later tracks, a wealth of intricate arrangements, a fanbase that felt like some kind of secret club. They were all those things, and they were everything.

“YYZ” is the perfect example of why I’ve always held that Rush is one of only a few rock bands that should be allowed to write instrumental songs. From that 5/4 stuttering riff, “YYZ” rocks through a slew of melodic hooks, eminently catchy even as it’s almost inhumanely intricate, culminating in traded showcases for Geddy’s bass and Neil’s drums. (For the record, I don’t remember ever getting any of those bass fills right, way back then.) It’s a staggering display of technical prowess for both players, and yet, most importantly, it’s also just a damned good song, filled with those hooks and never once losing sight of the simple truth that, at the end of the day, a piece of music has to be entertaining and not just impressive.

As for my high-school band, we must have spent a year working on “YYZ,” playing it over and over in Dave’s bedroom. (I’d bet his mom and stepdad probably still have nightmarish flashbacks any time they hear that 5/4 pattern on the ride cymbal.) Truthfully, I doubt we ever got it — in thinking about it now, I’m sure it was an awful mess to hear, but we were proud of it, regardless. It was our showstopper, our tour-de-force, and of the 20 or so gigs we played in three years, we played it at every show that I can remember. Every time I hear it now, I’m taken back to those days, and I just shake my head and laugh at the thought of a bunch of idiot kids even attempting it, especially after playing for about six months. But that’s the beauty of Rush — they showed us what could be done, and they made us want to do it, too.

We also learned a large part of “2112,” at my behest, but the less said about that, the better… [ANDREW EDMUNDS]

“Distant Early Warning” – Grace Under Pressure [1984]

I was a relative latecomer to Rush. The ubiquity of “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of Radio” on the rock radio I grew up with meant I had a passing familiarity with the band, but it took some time before I found myself doing a deep, astounded dive into the breadth of their catalog. Even from those hits that everybody knows, though, there was a sense that this was a band where each member of the trio played their parts with a clear sense of narrative purpose. Although Rush sank their hooks in me when I got around to paying careful attention to 2112, A Farewell to Kings, and Moving Pictures, Grace Under Pressure is the first album of theirs that plowed me over with an emotional resonance to match its musical complexity and inventiveness.

One of the most beautiful things about all the tributes to Neil Peart that have come pouring in is that they spend nearly as much time talking about his role as an avid, thoughtful reader whose curiosity found such wide expression as a lyricist as they do about his utterly world-class skill as a musician unmatched on his chosen instrument. Thus, although the subject matter across Grace Under Pressure varies widely, the unifying theme to Peart’s lyrics is empathy. In language that ranges from perfectly plain-spoken to elliptical and suggestive, Peart pushed at the vacuum of disconnection by finding exactly the chords of felt emotion that can be shared by friends, neighbors, and even strangers. The evocation of the experience of concentration camp survivors (including Geddy Lee’s own parents) in “Red Sector A” is surely the most harrowing example, but the directness of “Afterimage” cuts even deeper: “Suddenly you were gone / From all the lives you left your mark upon.”

When I heard of Neil’s death, though, I thought of “Distant Early Warning,” and I thought of my dad.

“Distant Early Warning” is hardly a showcase for Peart’s pyrotechnics. For most of the song, he hangs back and supports Geddy’s full-throated and reggae-leaning bass tone, and carefully accentuates Lifeson’s descending scales in the song’s thrilling bridge without stepping on them. When the synths from the opening return at the end of that bridge, he steps up the intensity with some busily taut fills, but still, he finds the mood of the song and rides it out at just the right level. His performance on the song is slick, streamlined, perhaps even a little restrained, but just at the end, those two measures where he hits quarter-note snares on each beat are simply ferocious.

When I saw Rush at the Allstate Arena in Chicago on the 40th anniversary tour, I went by myself and I thought about my dad, but not because he liked Rush. In fact, I have no clue what my dad thought about Rush, because we never spoke about the band. My dad would have been in his mid-20s at the height of Rush’s popularity in the States, so chances are he had an opinion one way or the other. But as I sat in an anonymous crowd of tens of thousands, watching these three beautiful friends share the ongoing currency of their decades’-long conversation, I thought about all the other things my dad and I never had the chance to talk about. Whether or not he liked Rush seems rather trivial in the grand scheme of things, but goddamnit it all, when they ran through “Distant Early Warning” it felt like the most electrifying, most important, most “We are speaking directly to you” thing I had ever heard in my life:

“I know it makes no difference, to what you’re going through / But I see the tip of the iceberg, and I worry about you.”

The song’s verses are oblique, even a bit cryptic (apart from passingly clear references to environmental concerns, geopolitical tensions, and generalized anomie), but that chorus is so perfectly genuine that it affects me deeply every time. We can’t know – not truly – what anyone else might be going through, but to see someone else’s struggle and extend our own typically self-centered worry to them… it’s a bit of rare and necessary kindness in a cynical world (which might also be the best way to describe Rush’s musical career as a whole).

Hail and farewell to Neil Peart: a true giant, an almost inconceivable confluence of outrageous talent and humility, and a warm-hearted and insightful communicator whether he spoke through his lyrics or his drums. I know it makes no difference to what his friends, bandmates, and family are going through, but we who saw only the tip of the iceberg that was his life are much the richer for it. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]

“By-Tor and the Snow Dog” – Fly By Night [1975]

“By-Tor and the Snow Dog” was the first song I experienced from Rush. I was a kid, which seems like a thousand years ago, and it happened during an age when you could still discover hard rock on the far left of the radio that wasn’t afraid to get weird and mean.

I recall being confused by…well, basically all of it, because I was young and had no clue what the hell was going on with Geddy Lee’s voice and all that weird grumble-growled distortion in the front half of the song. But there was an order behind the chaos, too, thanks to the precise hands of Neil Peart, who was new to the band, despite sounding as if he’d been aboard since the dawn of time.

Beyond being my first exposure to Rush, which was monumental, “By-Tor” was also my introduction to music being spun from a true storyteller’s perspective. This was also owed to Peart, who could not only hammer his way across the skins with the clarity and force of a fusion drummer with a newfound grudge, he had the ability to pen lyrics torn straight from the pages of a 70’s Sword & Sorcery book to boot.

“Across the River Styx, out of the lamplight His nemesis is waiting at the gate The Snow Dog—ermine glowing in the damp night Coal-black eyes, shimmering with hate. By-Tor and the Snow Dog Square for battle, let the fray begin…”

This was fiercely appealing to me in my youth, just as it remains today, and the fact that the actual By-Tor (from Hell) and Snow Dog (from the Overworld) were based on a pair of rambunctious dogs owned by Rush’s manager at the time now serves to fuel my love of the song further in the modern age.

Peart sets up “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” with a lightning fill that quickly settles into a snappy groove for the first two parts (At the Tobes of Hades and Across the Styx), and it’s his calm and measured pace throughout the actual battle in part three (Of the Battle) that helps keep things grounded. The highlight of the affair, though, hits shortly after Peart jumps through a series of explosive fills just before the song’s extended quiet stretch; right around the 6-minute mark, the dust from the quarrel has finally settled and the story’s epic climax launches at the behest of one of the finest snapshots of Peart’s incredible command of roaring but disciplined thunder: he rolls the snare around 6:20 in a slow crescendo, and then POW—a rapid but deafening fill with the power to crack a mountain suddenly jumps from the speakers. Alex Lifeson follows with a beautifully doomy and extended lead, and everything eventually circles back to the snappy charge heard at the song’s outset.

Pure magic, this song. And for once, I didn’t really envision myself as the singer or guitarist in a band I was newly obsessing over, which was the routine prior to my introduction to “By-Tor.” With Rush, I desperately wanted to be Neil Peart. Unfortunately for me, that particular talent reached its peak as a rather unremarkable air-drummer. And even now, after decades of practice amidst endless hours of listening to Rush’s discography, I still botch up those brain-bending fills.

I am old now, by some people’s standards, and with that burden comes a newly developed connection with death. Its face is an unwelcome menace amidst friends, heroes and family with increasing regularity—the unavoidable cloak that will eventually envelop all who dare live. But hope bides in the shadows as well. Hope that all the good from the great people we’ve experienced in life will act as some sort of beacon to help comfort our passing into whatever’s next. In that realm, Neil Peart glows like a sunrise. [CAPTAIN]

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Posted by Last Rites

GENERALLY IMPRESSED WITH RIFFS

  1. Wow. Simply beautiful tributes. All of you are to be commended. Thank you.

    Reply

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