Closer to Our Hearts: A Tribute to Neil Peart 1952-2020
“suddenly you were gone… from all the lives you left your mark upon”, that is the opening line from the Rush song ‘Afterimage’ which appears on their ’84 album ‘Grace Under Pressure’ and after receiving the news of the death of Neil Peart, those words ring true more than they have ever before.
There is no point in writing a short biography of the drummer nicknamed ‘The Professor’, that dry and dull writing is available on Wikipedia for all to read. Instead, in tribute to Peart, I have decided to write a short set of anecdotes about a man who not only touched my life, but millions of others worldwide.
When it came to rock music, my Uncle Kevin was the best. For me, he was cool as fuck, leather jacket, plaid shirt, oil-stained jeans, a roaring motorbike and hair down to his arse, drinking ‘Stones’ Bitter; Kev was cast using the Motörhead mould and the epitome of his presence screamed ‘rocker’. In fact, Kevin was the man responsible for most of my early education into rock music; I used to look forward to birthdays and Christmas knowing that he would bring me an album of something awesome and one year, it was the debut album by Rush. As I opened this album, the words from Kevin was: “this is their best work, they go downhill rapidly after this”. Now, I have always respected the opinion of my Uncle Kevin, he knew everything there was to know about rock music, but in the case of Rush, he was wrong; very, very wrong. Kevin was wrong because in the July of 1974, Neil Peart joined the Canadians to make one of the most memorable trios of all time.
Neil Peart made Rush what they were, it was his artistry, drumming and lyrics which took Rush from Canadian Led Zeppelin knock-offs to the poster boys of progressive rock with tracks like ‘By-Tor and the Snow Dog’, ‘2112’ and ‘Cygnus X-1’. But, for me, that debut Rush album did little to inspire me with its rather generic 70’s hard rock sound. However, that would all change when a guitar teacher passed me the Rush record ‘2112’; I had never heard anything like that, the majesty of progressive rock set to a sci-fi Dystopian Orwellian future where music is outlawed.
Now, bear in mind that this is around the turn of the millennium, nu-metal and post-grunge were the flavours of the day, yet, at this point, nobody had even heard of Rush, they were MY band and with it, they became my obsession and if Rush were the uncoolest, most unfashionable band ever then that was cool with me. I scoured endless record stores to find their discography, devouring each one from 70’s progressive rock, to pseudo new wave reggae in the early 80’s, the keyboard heavy 80’s pop/rock era and into the guitar driven music in the 90’s, I lapped it all up and at the forefront of it all was Neil Peart. Both Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee are virtuoso musicians in their own right, but Rush are one of the only bands that you never feel silly air-drumming along to. Any Rush fan worth their salt has given little air-drum fills in ‘Xanadu’, ‘The Trees’ and ‘Tom Sawyer’ whilst out in public and if you know, you know.
There is no such thing as a passing Rush fan, those who like Rush drown themselves in their work and that is down to Peart, it is his lyrics, set against Lifeson and Lee’s musical backdrop which paints the world for Rush fans to inhabit; they’re not throw away lyrics, rhyming couplets that don’t make a lot of sense, they are a deep well of metaphor, simile and euphemism that explore political intrigue, spirituality and inner feelings of introvert and isolationism. Furthermore, I fortunately got to see Rush live on numerous occasions and although their sets are full of anthems like ‘The Spirit of Radio’, ‘Subdivisions’ and the perennial ‘YYZ’, an instrumental masterpiece that makes any Rush fan stand up, throw caution to the wind and play air-guitar/bass and drums loud, proud and without conscience; it was the ever present drum solo from the human metronome that is Peart that always stole the show. I have seen hundreds of drum solos in my time, but none have ever made the drum kit sing like Peart, he turned it into a real instrument, the beating heart of the band and one that was appreciated by both laymen and musicians alike.
Peart is a legend within the rock scene, a title that didn’t quite sit happily with him, Peart was a private man, often portrayed with a stone face; but to those who knew him, he was quick witted and funny. To those who didn’t know him, he was a stoic inspiration, a man who can bounce back from the tragedy of rock bottom to stand triumphant and strong. It is difficult to sum up a giant like this, but Peart was truly an outstanding musician and individual. Exit the warrior; you will always remain closer to our heart.
MHF Magazine/Adam McCann