On August 1, 2015, Rush played their final concert together as a band, completing a career that began in 1971. Even purists will admit that the band’s debut was recognized in mid-1974 when Hamilton-area drummer Neil Peart joined the trio. Sadly, the band and millions of fans said goodbye to Peart on January 10, 2020. It was revealed he had succumbed to glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer three days earlier after first being diagnosed in late 2015. Lamentations poured out from every type of star, not just the rock sort, though a scan of tweets revealed what most people already knew – that Neil Peart wasn’t just a drummer, or an author or a lyricist or even a Canadian. But that to many, he defined those titles.
I was a child of the 80s but more important to my development than the era, I had an older brother. These people were responsible for many things; thumps and bruises, defence and influence. My older brother dished these out as needed and it all formed me to be the kid I was. Both of us were likely introduced to Rush, as we were to most music via radio stations like CFNY and CHUM, new wave and rock respectively. Both of those stations would’ve been playing Rush’s The Spirit of Radio frequently. For my birthday in 1981, I received a single speaker JVC cassette player and one cassette, Moving Pictures, still my favourite Rush album. I played it over and over again and if I had to pick a single Rush song to listen to, it would be the album’s second track, Red Barchetta. When I was 10, it was a cool song about a future where cars were banned. But all these years later, I believe it’s a showpiece for the band and each member’s individual contributions. When I learned that not only did Neil Peart play some of my favourite rock drums ever on the song but also wrote the lyrics, it was an awe-inspiring discovery as a young kid. My brother and I took turns buying Rush albums, dipping back to the band’s embryo, Fly By Night and our favourite live album, Exit Stage Left. I probably started scaring some teachers when I took to drawing their 2112 star on every notebook I had. The following year, with the release of their ninth album, Signals I finally got to see the band live in November 1982 at Maple Leaf Gardens. I wish I still had the tour shirt I bought that night and wore the next day to school, so proudly like a glittering jerkin of chainmail.
As most fans know, Rush can be a musically dense band that takes some time to figure. Perhaps it was for this reason that back then, Neil Peart was my favourite band member and my favourite drummer. Drums are easy to pick out of a song and easy to mime in some approximation. Looking at his fortress of chrome hardware drums and hearing his bombastic playing, it’s easy to see how he drew fans as he did. And yet, as we learned by pouring over his lyrics, he wanted nothing of the fame he attracted. As a righted mirror image of rock star excess and entitlement, prior to riding his motorcycle from show to show, Peart brought boxes of books on the road and spent his off-hours looking for more. It’s no surprise that he eventually became an author himself, releasing his first novel, The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa in 1996. Four more tomes of travel biographies would follow in coming years, but none as deeply emotional and raw as 2002’s Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road where Peart wrote of his nomadic motorcycle wanderings following the unimaginably wrenching loss of both his daughter to a car accident and his wife to cancer in less than a year. It’s a book I’ve read several times and will read again soon to try and fail to fill the void left by Peart’s death. Spoiler, Neil finds love at the end of the book, remarries and has another child, whom he cites as the reason for his retirement back in 2015. To paraphrase, he said that after 40 years on the road, he had found a way to live with being away from home, but he could no longer be responsible for his young daughter’s sadness from his absence. Coupled with acute body issues that came from being a near-lifelong professional drummer, retirement, not just from touring life but from drumming must have been a relief. To be ‘downgraded’ from reluctant rock star to stay-at-home Santa Monica dad (Peart reported the amusement he found in overhearing his daughter describe him as a ‘retired drummer’) was well-earned.
He survived the Everest-climb recovery from losing his entire family to open his heart and create a new one. Not only did he rekindle his love of drumming to put out one of the band’s strongest late-career albums but Neil Peart, the best rock drummer ever, became the student and studied drumming to further refine his technique with Freddie Gruber and Peter Erskine. Perhaps what may have been the saddest moment of a life mixed with soaring heights and deep valley lows, is that it was a mere few months between the end of the R40 tour and Peart’s initial cancer diagnosis. He barely had time to think of his next step in life before he was forced to ponder how he would choose to let it end. We can only hope and trust that he embraced his personal coda as he had every other endeavour in his life. Famously within the band, he never complained about any ailment. This included the final shows of the final tour when a foot infection required a wheelchair to get to the stage where he would painfully shuffle to his drum kit to play each night’s 26 song set. I’m sure he took this same stoicism into his final years and days – without overt complaint, driven to put his all to make it the best damn performance he could and thinking only of the ones he loved and paying his own pain no mind. My self-serving wish is that he wrote it all down and that we somehow get to read what he may have written about this experience. A mind like Neil Peart’s would doubtlessly give us immersive perspectives woven with eloquence and grace. The only way to close this piece and the flood of emotions his passing stirs are through his own words. Few feel more succinct than the opening lines from his lyrics to Afterimage.
Suddenly, you were gone
From all the lives you left your mark upon.
Farewell to the king.
May his road be smooth but with many curves.
May it end in glorious reunions.