RIP Neil Peart, a man whose words meant as much to me as his otherwordly drumming

Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images

A friend texted me in the middle of work Friday afternoon. Neil Peart was dead. I went outside and just walked around. How was this possible? I didn’t know there was anything wrong. That’s not a surprise, because Rush was a band that didn’t jam all their personal details into social media. His passing from brain cancer felt like it came out of nowhere, but obviously he and his family and friends had been suffering for a while.

I’m not a drummer. Never was, never will be. Yet I still followed Peart everywhere he went for at least the past quarter century. Not literally or physically. I absorbed every bit of his music with Rush, consumed every word he wrote, was able to bask in his greatness live, and he felt like a noble elder whose words and ways I could follow. Yeah, Geddy Lee sang those words. Alex Lifeson brought more power to these songs. But Rush, as a body and spirit, was Peart. The guy who wasn’t even an original member. He joined after the band’s self-titled debut, a good record that contained all-time classic “Working Man” that helped the Canadian band find favor among working towns such as mine. He replaced John Rutsey right before a U.S. tour, and that first show? Right here in Pittsburgh at the Civic Arena in August of 1974, a month before I was born. Maybe Rush was in my DNA before I knew it.

Peart’s drumming is a thing of legend. His solos were so wonderfully self-indulgent that you never thought he was full of himself. He just loved what he did, and he was a goddamn space wizard at it. I also fell in love with his words and the songs he helped create. Words that came to define who I am. A little background on my fandom, not that it matters. I heard all the Rush hits on local rock radio institution WDVE. Also, being a huge wrestling fan, I knew “Tom Sawyer” from when Kerry Von Erich would come to the ring on World Class Championship Wrestling shows. The first song I remember really being aware of besides that one was “Time Stand Still” because I saw the video at my friend Jason’s house on MTV during a summer barbecue. But they didn’t spill into my blood until my friend Nick in high school kept pushing them on me. So, I bought “Presto.” Then I bought “Roll the Bones.” Then “Dreamline” woke me up. Then I finally saw them live April 20, 1994, at the fallen Civic Arena. They fittingly opened with “Dreamline,” they went into “The Spirit of the Radio,” then into personal favorite “The Analog Kid,” and then I was converted religiously, wholly and fully. Genuflected before their altar. I never left, despite personal crises, existential chaos, what have you.

Back to Peart. People laugh at his sci-fi craziness, but you know, that is also what hooked me. The priests of the Temple of Syrinx. All the planets of the Solar Federation. Dining on honeydew. I loved it all. Still do. But his words went so far beyond that. He seemed to understand the weird shit about who I am and my nerdiness and my issues that no one else did. I was able to escape in their music with an implicit message that you are who you are, and if you’re good and passionate, that’s OK. Don’t hide. Don’t apologize. The song “The Pass” from “Presto” got me through depression, pain, misery, and so much more when I couldn’t find answers. Or friends. These songs and words were what I needed, and it got me through. All the while, I bought every one of their records and attended their live shows, my last two coming at Consol Energy Center (it’s now PPG Paints Arena), the building across the street from the Civic Arena’s old ghost.

The last time I ever saw Rush and shared oxygen with Peart was Sept. 11, 2012, the Clockwork Angels Tour, a show that comprised one set of great deep cuts, the second a front-to-back playing of their latest album. That record is a gem. It was a perfect way to end their career (which no one realized at the time) and conclude my live relationship with one of my favorite bands of all time. It was a night I’ll never forget, them ending with three parts of “2112,” the last live music from Rush I’d ever see. The last time I’d ever see Geddy, Alex, and Neil live. A night to treasure. And I do.

Peart passing was a gut wrencher. The man who lost his wife and daughter within 10 months, who rode the country on motorcycle to mourn, only to come back with “Snakes and Arrows,” a strong record that bled with his passion, mourning, and will to survive, himself passed. It felt like he deserved more from the universe. He should have more time with his wife Carrie (he married her on my birthday in 2000) and daughter Olivia. He should be able to keep improving his ridiculous game that he always tried to level up. He should be able to decide if, after his daughter grew up and moved out, he wanted to ride with the boys again. But life is unfair. And a great man was left to suffer. And die. And now we all hurt. That sounds ridiculous because I cannot image what Carrie, Olivia, Geddy, and Alex are feeling. It has to be indescribable. But it hurts, man. A man who I looked up to as a hero (which flies in the face of “Nobody’s Hero,” a song he wrote that I’m not sure enough people appreciate) is gone. I still can’t explain what this means to me.

With Peart passing, part of me is over. This means Rush has passed. This means a person whose words helped me navigate life is gone. I don’t know that another musician will come along in my lifetime and have the same impact. But I appreciate that Peart had such a pivotal part in my life. He was a mentor and a leader and a torch in the night. Politics aside. He always seemed like a good and generous man. He seemed like he cared for his craft and wanted to be genuine. “All this machinery making modern music, can still be open hearted.” It still resonates. And so does he. We never will have another Neil Peart again in our existence. But if there are people who followed his words and examples, maybe he will have disciples. Hopefully music can be “not so coldly charted, it’s really just a question of your honesty.” And his never will be questioned. Thank you, Neil Peart. You’ll never understand what you gave to me.

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