I’m pretty sure I once met Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist for my favorite band, the power trio Rush.
I was in an airport in a TSA line, and there was a man nearby who looked exactly like Neil Peart, right down to the facial wrinkles and cropped black turf that marked a significant receding hairline, noticeable to all fans since the advent of high-definition television and Blu-Ray concert DVDs. The deep voice, rapid speech pattern and Ontario accent were also evident.
I shot him a knowing half grin. He looked at me, smiled, nodded and said “Hello,” then turned his attention back to his traveling companions. That was it.
Peart, and his band, had been perennial underdogs since starting in 1974. They were kind of a heavy, prog-rock outfit in those days, playing music with a high bar for degree of difficulty but still somehow relatable.
Their material didn’t get played a whole lot on the radio. Their record company was constantly leaning on them for commercialized music. Instead, they released concept albums where a single song took up an entire side of the record. They earned their following and their musical freedom by touring nonstop and releasing an album every six months in the early years.
They were a people’s band, but never the choice of critics or legions of teenagers screaming in hysteria when they rolled into town.
That formed who these guys, three high school dropouts from Canada, became. They were up against it, but always fighting.
Peart consumed literature voraciously, and this formed his lyrics, which would be edited and performed by frontman/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee. With no broad cultural context to go by, some of this would blow back on Peart, Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson. They didn’t know, for instance, that Ayn Rand was so controversial until citing her in album liner notes. One critic called them Nazis, to which Lee said in a later interview, “Being the son of two Holocaust survivors, I didn’t really appreciate that.”
Constantly evolving, they were soon past the period where Rand’s work was influencing lyrics. Still, whether misunderstood or just unconventional, they were polarizing.
In the early 1980s, that changed. As the group refined their process, what Rush was doing crossed paths with what people wanted to hear. Their albums began going platinum. They were playing to arenas (and they still were on their final tour, in 2015). Suddenly, these three fairly ordinary guys attained what they had been seeking, at least in terms of professional success.
But victory had its consequences. Peart had a tremendous struggle with the fame success brought. It wasn’t Beatles fame. It wasn’t Justin Timberlake fame. But it was fame, and Rush fans have always been a bit intense.
The man whom many would grow to consider one of the most talented drummers in the history of any form of music, could not process how someone he didn’t know would want to profess their adulation for his work, and treat him as if he were somehow different. He found it creepy, almost as if he were unworthy or distrustful of such high regard.
“People have this fantasy ... I don’t want to trample on it, but I certainly don’t want to live it,” Peart said in the documentary “Beyond the Lighted Stage” (which you should watch on Netflix right now, whether you care a whit for the band’s music or not).
In 1997, Peart’s daughter died in a car accident and his wife died of cancer. He understandably withdrew from the spotlight entirely. After an extended hiatus, the band got back together, and started putting out albums and touring again by the early 2000s. But Peart did no press or meet-and-greets or anything of the sort. He didn’t travel much with his bandmates, either, wanting to be “just a guy” as much as anything else.
All of this is why — despite the fact that I had labored over Lifeson’s guitar parts and even tackled a few of Peart’s drum parts in bands; despite attending at least one show on every tour since 1991 — I shot a guy I believed was Neil Peart a friendly grin, took the returned acknowledgement and left him alone. Maybe it wasn’t him. I prefer to think it was.
The band officially hung it up in 2015, following a tour that celebrated 40 years of music. I was in the audience twice.
Neil Peart died last week, at age 67, after battling brain cancer for more than three years. He remained a private individual, and so the news came as quite a shock to us fans. I’m not young, but I’m certainly not old. This is the first time a deeply personal hero of mine, someone who had been a part of something that was always there for me, is now gone.
I’ve always told people Rush is my favorite band, while quickly adding, “but I like all kinds of other music, too.” Rush fans are a different breed, and they’ll try to get you to understand why this band is so special with the fervor of a Mormon at your door. I used to be as guilty of this as anyone else, but I’ve since softened. I like it, and that’s enough for me.
Still, they are my favorite. I must apologize to anyone going anywhere in a car with me for the next several months, because Rush will be in heavy rotation on the stereo. And that’s the silver lining. My God, this band left 40 years of material for fans to enjoy. As long as people are there to listen, Neil Peart and Rush are never truly gone.