As lyricist, Neil Peart knew where our heads were

Neil Peart appreciation

Neil Peart, 1952-2020

[Editor’s Note: Neil Peart of Rush died of brain cancer on Jan. 7, at the age of 67. This essay was first published on Medium.com, and is being reposted here with Paul Brubaker’s permission.]

After hearing that Neil Peart died, I needed a place to mourn.

Peart was an iconic rock drummer of the Canadian-based progressive rock band Rush, a descriptively observant lyricist and a prolific writer.

I went online. I read the first round of obituaries that appeared just after the news broke. The New York Times’ brief ended with a line saying a full obituary would be published soon. They didn’t see it coming either.

In the back of my mind a list was forming. It was of all of the guys I knew in my life, most of them in high school and most of them drummers, who idolized Peart.

And this was one instance when social media was a good thing. I found the postings of friends I had years ago. Photos of Peart, excerpts of his lyrics, remembrances of Rush concerts, memories of the first time they heard a Rush album were strewn throughout my newsfeed. We were all teenagers when Rush was at the height of its powers in the 1980s.

Most of the talk was about Peart’s drumming. Not surprising. Peart was one of a kind, permanently affixed to the top of “greatest drummers” lists put out by a variety of music publications. All of us who listened to Rush in our teens still remain at our core huge Rush fans. Kids, there’s a reason why Daddy needs to bang out the drum parts of “Tom Sawyer” on the steering wheel, even if Daddy never played drums.

Peart was so much more than a musician. He was someone who resonated with us, while we were stuck in the suburbs in the thick of our restless dreams of youth.

Peart wasn’t the greatest looking guy in the world and not the worst. Ditto for most of us. But he had a superpower in playing the drums. Maybe each of us had a superpower, too. That was hopeful.

Neil Peart, left, with Geddy Lee, center, and Alex Lifeson of Rush.

In his role as the band’s lyricist, Peart articulated many of the thoughts we had that we wouldn’t, or more likely, couldn’t. And in his words we saw our reflection.

At times, we were as badass as Peart’s character in “Tom Sawyer,” whose “mind was not for rent to any god or government/Always hopeful, yet discontent.” Other times, we were as contradictory as the “New World Man” who was “wise enough to win the world/But fool enough to lose it.”

We were affirmed by the “I will choose a path that’s clear” self-declaration of “Freewill,” but understood that it was in the face of the unrelenting “conform or be cast out” peer pressure of high school he described in “Subdivisions.”

Teenage boys are natural born rebels. But in the early ’80s, we were rebels who had no cause. David Stockman’s budget cuts, the conflict in Falkland Islands and the Iran-Contra affair just weren’t the flashpoints that the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement had been for the previous generation.

That might have been one of the reasons we were drawn to Peart’s stories of dystopia and rebellion. His Ayn Rand-inspired 2112 created a world that put a lone guitar player against a group of priests who controlled all artistic expression. “Red Barchetta” was about a boy and his uncle speeding a well-preserved Italian sports car through the countryside in a futuristic place where motors had been outlawed. Peart seemed to be telling us that it was okay to break the rules, so long as you had a good reason, so long as you were true to yourself.

The cover of Rush\’s 1976 album, “2112.”

Loners and individualists figured prominently in Peart’s lyrics because, at heart, he was a loner. Even in the exclusive trinity that was Rush, Peart was the odd man out. His bandmates were there first. Guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee were friends since childhood. Peart was brought into the band after an audition in 1974.

And as Canadian columnist Matt Gurney pointed out, it was Lifeson and Lee who hung around after concerts to greet fans. By the time they boarded their tour bus, Peart was already on his motorcycle on his way to the next gig. He had slipped out of the concert hall as soon as the last song was finished. His reason for his reclusiveness was shyness. “I can’t pretend the stranger is a long-awaited friend,” he wrote in the song “Limelight.”

As we teenage Rush fans were growing up to be middle-aged diehards, Peart’s daughter from his first marriage was killed in a car accident. Her mother, Peart’s wife, died soon after of cancer, although Peart believed her broken heart from the loss of their daughter was the real cause. The road, his motorcycle, his writing and his solitude would all be a great part of Peart’s recovery from losing his family. It’s okay to be alone. He later reunited with his bandmates, and Rush rose again.

Skimming through the social media posts of my friends, I started to realize that I am thinking about us more than the drummer who died.

Rush (from left, Geddy Lee, Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson) in a vintage publicity photo.

One guy I knew, Mike, had a town-wide rep for being a great drummer while he was in elementary school — before any of us had even heard of Rush. His nickname was Boomer.

Another guy, John, had almost an exact replica of Peart’s drum set in his house, and could play all of Peart’s parts in perfect synchronization with the records.

Paul was my bandmate in our garage band and the original Peart fan in our circle. We first bonded when we played “Limelight” together in a rehearsal break while getting ready for some church event.

I would meet Alan years later when we formed a band that was trying to make it.

It’s a good thing that we can go online and reflect ourselves back to each other.

The man who did it for us when we were younger is now gone.

Paul Brubaker is a singer-songwriter who lives in Montclair.

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One thought on “As lyricist, Neil Peart knew where our heads were

  1. thank you for writing this. this one hit me way harder than rock star deaths usually do.

    as much as i loved neil as a drummer — and i sure did — i loved him even more as a writer and a thinker. subdivisions was the first song i ever heard that described my reality. i was ten years old and growing up in a new jersey automobile suburb, and every line of that song resonated. neil’s description of the world as he saw it was completely different from what i was getting on mainstream radio. that’s because it was honest. neil was the rare rock star who cared too much to lie to me.

    by all accounts he was a wonderful guy as well as a wonderful musician. his unbreakable bond with geddy and alex speaks volumes about the sort of person he was. while other famous musicians feuded and jockeyed for power, rush hung tight to the end. it breaks my heart that i’ll never get to see those three onstage together again.

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