Only Immortal for a Limited Time
Neil Peart, 1952-2020

This is the last year of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M., and this is not how I wanted to start it. But when a musician you’ve admired for most of your life passes away, you say something. That’s how this works.

So of course I’m going to talk about Neil Peart.

I’m not absolutely sure how I started listening to Rush. I can tell you that they were in the background for me for a while before I started paying attention. I remember the video for “Time Stand Still” quite clearly, and that came out when I was 13. But I also remember people talking about Rush – friends at school and church and elsewhere – because when you’re a 13-year-old boy, Rush is one of those bands people talk about.

By the time Presto came out, I was 15 and I was making my own money. The video for “Show Don’t Tell” knocked me backwards. It was metal, but it wasn’t. It was melodic, but massive. It had a riff that went on for days, it found room for sweet keyboards in the chorus, and it had that head-spinning stop-time bit that I loved. I bought Presto. Then I bought Chronicles, because I’d read about just how vast the Rush discography was, and I had this cute idea in my younger days that greatest hits albums would ever do it for me.

Chronicles was amazing, but wasn’t enough, and over the next few months I bought every Rush album. There were 16 at that time, counting the three live records. And I proceeded to listen to those 16 albums over and over and over, puzzling them out. I loved the ones everyone else loved, of course. I remember listening to 2112 on the school bus, since the title track was just long enough to cover the whole trip. I devoured Moving Pictures and Permanent Waves. But I also couldn’t stop listening to Hemispheres or Power Windows or even Caress of Steel, a record I can probably still hum all of.

People sometimes criticize Rush for making cerebral music, for aiming for the head instead of the heart. To that I would say two things. First, I find a lot of Rush songs surprisingly moving, and not just “Closer to the Heart” either. I think they pulled on a lot of different emotions during their time. But second, I am so in for music that appeals to my head. I love twisty, difficult, even showy music that takes skill to write and perform. I love music I have to map out, music willing to take me down a hundred different melodic passageways. Rush’s work, as anyone who has tried to play it will tell you, is damn difficult. And sometimes you just want to stand in awe as masterful musicians play music masterfully.

Even at 13 I could tell that there was something special about Neil Peart. He did things no other drummer I could name at that time could do. I didn’t know, as I jammed out to “The Spirit of Radio,” that I was listening to one of the best rock drummers who ever lived. I just knew that bit in the beginning where he and Geddy Lee line up perfectly was awesome. And that he made that killer guitar riff work from behind the drum kit in a way that I couldn’t explain. And that the reggae bit was pretty cool.

Now, of course, I know how special Peart was. I know he somehow managed to hold the entire band together, giving them the bedrock they needed to explore melodically – Geddy was always up in the stratosphere somewhere, and it was Neil who locked everything in place. That he somehow did this while gaining a reputation as a flashy player is remarkable to me. I’ve never thought of him as flashy, at least not in the same way I consider disciples of his like Mike Portnoy to be flashy. Peart could play anything, and Rush songs often required him to, but listen again. He rarely does anything that doesn’t serve the song.

Peart’s lyrics helped shape Rush as much as his drumming, too. A staunch defender of free will and individualism who was also open to wonder in all its forms, Peart’s lyrics could be stuffy, but they could also be remarkably straightforward. And I think calling him overly cerebral does a disservice to his work. A song like “Bravado,” for instance, is simple and pretty: “And if love remains, though everything is lost, we will pay the price but we will not count the cost…” The Rush catalog is full of these smaller, more sentimental tunes, and I love them.

I want to talk about one of them a little more closely, if I may. It’s the first Rush song I really fell in love with, nestled there at the end of Presto, and it’s one I’ve carried with me since I was a teen. “Available Light” is probably my favorite Rush song, all told, and I don’t think it’s for nostalgic reasons – it really is a perfect piece of music. And it’s deeply, deeply hopeful: “Chase the wind around the world, I want to look at life in the available light.” When Geddy sings that line, as the band drops out behind him and cycles back to the sparse piano figure that opens the song, I still get chills.

Just listen to Peart during those choruses – he’s a monster, pushing the whole thing into orbit – and then during the instrumental bridge, in which you can hear Rush ignite my lifelong love of prog-pop. When Alex Lifeson’s soaring lead guitar comes in, I can trace every day of my fascination with the likes of Marillion back to that moment when I was 15 years old, listening to this on headphones. It’s a complex tune, but I also find it full of deep feeling and emotional power. If they’d given me nothing else but this, I still would have been a fan.

As I grew older, I realized what Peart’s true impact on my life was, beyond his incredible skill behind the drum kit. It was his absolute individualism, something that extends to Rush as a whole. Like all the musicians I admire most, Rush never played a note they didn’t believe, and never made a record for anyone but themselves. They’re a band who heard every criticism lobbed at them for 40 years and never changed or compromised. Peart’s lyrics are often about taking control of your own life, being your own person, and that’s the lesson I took from him and his bandmates. Peart was never anything but his own man.

I never did get to see Rush live, and it’s one of my great music fan regrets. I watched as the band slowed down after 1996, making music less frequently, and I knew my chance was dwindling, but I never got there. I know so many friends with stories of seeing the band live, of being gobsmacked by Peart’s technical skill and stamina – this is hard music to play for two and a half hours at a stretch – and I never collected one of my own. And now I never will.

Neil Peart retired from Rush in 2015, after one final tour. Their last album, 2012’s Clockwork Angels, feels like their last album – it’s a meaty, aggressive conceptual piece that sounds like they poured everything they had into it. I knew the decades of touring had taken their toll, and Neil wanted to spend time with his family. And after the tragedies that had befallen his life in the ‘90s, when he lost his partner and his daughter in the space of a year, who could blame him. He’d started over, fell in love again, and things were going well for him.

What I didn’t know was that Peart had contracted brain cancer, and though he fought it valiantly for more than three years, he succumbed to it one week ago today. He was only 67 years old. He leaves behind his wife and his 10-year-old daughter, and my thoughts are with them.

He also leaves behind a legacy like few others. His name stands tall with only a handful of rock drummers who have influenced damn near everyone playing today. Beyond just his technical skill, though, he carved out a 40-plus-year career doing exactly what he wanted to do, and success came organically. (Even the band’s multi-decade struggle to be recognized by the Rock Hall of Fame ended in their favor, without them having to change anything about themselves.) He set his own course, charted his own path, and made an indelible mark.

On behalf of 15-year-old me, curled up with my Walkman listening to “Available Light” for the 200th time, thank you, Neil. Rest in peace.

If you’re in the mood for a good piece on Neil’s life and career, I can recommend this one. 

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After that, anything else I might have filled this first column of the year with would seem inconsequential, so I will hold off until next week. As I said, this isn’t how I wanted to start this final year of tm3am. Hopefully we can get back to business as usual in seven days.

See you in line Tuesday morning.