The world can be a harsh place. People die every second of every minute of the day, many in unjust, unfair, and senseless ways. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and beyond has particularly stricken the elderly and those already immunocompromised. Into this daily death count often come news of celebrity passings. Most of these are logged into the “Oh, that’s too bad, I really liked that person in this movie or that song” category, and then we move on with our lives. Too much goes on in the world to invest the emotional energy required to mourn or really care.
And then there are some celebrities whose deaths, for whatever reason, really affect you even though you never knew the person and the celebrity in question had no clue that you existed.
This was the case for me when Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist of the legendary Canadian progressive rock band Rush, died on January 7 of last year from a form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. Peart, a famously private individual, had told nobody outside of his family and a close circle of friends that he was sick, so his death sent shock waves throughout the rock ’n’ roll community. Rush had retired from touring after its triumphant 40th anniversary tour in 2015, mainly because neither Peart (shoulder pain) nor guitarist Alex Lifeson (degenerative arthritis) thought they could physically play at the high level of musicianship they demanded of themselves any longer — though listening to the R40 live album one would never know. But surely there would be other albums like 2012’s excellent Clockwork Angels, or maybe a few one-off shows here or there.
And then Peart was gone, and Rush fans the world over felt his loss more than they arguably ought to have, given that he was a celebrity that the overwhelming majority knew only through his music and lyrics. At least, I did. Enough to write a book about it.
In a very strange and unsettling time in American history, it might seem strange to focus on the one-year anniversary of the death of a rock musician. But Neil Peart, and Rush generally, was a special animal in the world of rock music: he provides an unabashedly positive example of the effects pop culture can have on people.
A little context: I know that Rush has long been the butt of jokes and the bane of tastemakers since their 1974 self-titled debut — a record that, let’s not forget, Peart did not drum on, since he joined the band later that year. But now that the tastemakers are all people who grew up as Rush fans back in the 1970s and 1980s, the band has suddenly become OK to publicly enjoy. Suddenly, everyone who found meaning the band’s music and lyrics has come crawling out of the woodwork to extol the band’s virtues.
And a lot of people came out to express their love of Rush and Peart after his death one year ago. Many were famous musicians themselves — a fact that’s not surprising since Peart was one of rock’s most respected drummers, and also just an all-around good person.
Interestingly, in the course of researching my book, I realized that the music press’s hatred for Rush, with special ire for Peart, revolved around the age-old issue of politics. The press insinuated that Rush were “Nazis” for being fans of Ayn Rand and expressing libertarian views. Even 40 years after the release of Rush’s landmark 2112 album (1976), we have to talk about the Rand connection when we talk about Rush. But more fascinating is the tone of the attacks against Peart and Rush’s music, particularly from Barry Miles’s 1978 feature in New Musical Expresst:
The thing is, these guys are advocating this stuff on stage and on record and no-one even questions it. No-one is on their case. All the classic hallmarks of the right-wing are there: the pseudo-religious language (compare their lyrics to the Ayn Rand quote at the head of this article) which extends right down to calling the touring crew: road masters instead of road managers. The use of a quasi-mystical symbol – the naked man confronting the red star of socialism (at least I suppose that’s what it’s supposed to be). It’s all there.
They are actually very nice guys. They don’t sit there in jack boots pulling the wings off flies. They are polite, charming even, naïve – roaming the concert circuits preaching what to me seems like proto-fascism like a leper without a bell.
Unsurprisingly, Rush bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee, the child of two concentration camp survivors, found these allegations shockingly distasteful. “Nazi” has been the go-to insult of the overwhelmingly left-wing music press for generations. To quote the Rush song “Circumstances,” which itself is quoting Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s well-known axiom, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
Rush, politically, was interesting. The three members unabashedly enjoyed Rand’s The Fountainhead as an expression of artistic integrity during a trying time in their career. Their record label was disappointed with the prog-heavy, conceptual Caress of Steel (1975) and wanted something more accessible and basic like their first two albums. Rush instead decided to go out in a blaze of glory, dropping 2112 and its side-long title track all about an oppressive interstellar regime that squelched all dissent. Worse, the album was dedicated to the genius of Ayn Rand.
Fans loved it, though, and even before 1981’s Moving Pictures propelled Rush into the stratosphere of rock royalty from which they’d never leave, 2112 is what launched the band into the big leagues.
Peart later moved away from Randian libertarianism. As Donna Halper told me when I interviewed her for my book last February, Neil realized that things weren’t equal:
[W]e used to argue about this, his views aligned very heavily with what we might call conservatives in many ways. He was always socially liberal, but I’m saying like he, his, his ideology was much more fiscally conservative, you know, the virtue of selfishness … But as time went on, the more he got out there, the more he talked to people, the more he realized, he said this to me! He said, “You know the playing field just isn’t level, so he said, now I consider myself a bleeding-heart libertarian.”
That was another admirable quality of Neil Peart: this man who dropped out of school at age 17 was a voracious reader and a true autodidact, filling his down time on tour not with partying and womanizing but with reading. Rush’s lyrics are chock-full of references to literature, philosophy, history, fiction, and religion. Quite a bit different from the typical rock subject matter of fast cars and faster women!
Rush is unique for attracting a lot of right-leaning people — or at least seeming to. My research into Rush fandom indicated that a relatively small plurality, but a plurality nonetheless, are of the left. The next-highest political orientation was none or independent, followed by those describing themselves as of the right. Libertarians actually came in fourth. So much for being the band for libertarian atheists (Rush fans are split almost evenly between atheists and believers).
This widespread popularity is thanks to the magic of Rush and the importance of Peart, and it explains why his death affected so many fans so deeply. Peart’s lyrics resonated because it didn’t matter who you were. “If you’ve ever felt like an outsider,” as Donna Halper told me, “if you’ve ever felt not understood, if you’ve ever felt different, if you’ve ever felt not taken seriously, there’s a Rush lyric for you.” You could listen to Rush and not only never be insulted, but their music and lyrics would also make you feel good (his bizarre and uncharacteristic statement that it’s “very obvious” that Rand Paul “hates women and brown people” aside. But that was in an interview and not in his music).
As an Orthodox Christian, I never found Peart’s few mediations on religion offensive. None of his songs addressing political issues felt like personal attacks because Peart spoke in universal language about these matters as much as he did on more personal songs. Whether describing the difficulties of adolescence and how “the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth” in “Subdivisions,” environmental concern in “Red Tide,” or his own personal brand of atheism “quietly resisting” any and all attempts to convert him to any religion in “Faithless,” Peart spoke like a friend inviting you into his thoughts and letting you make up your own mind about them. After all, as stated in “Freewill,” “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” After all, your “mind was not for rent” to “any god or government.”
The older I get, the more I find myself attracted to Peart’s more contemplative lyrics — fitting, since as he aged his subject matter moved away from space battles, fantasy and mythology, and more oblique, impersonal ruminations on lofty philosophical and historical issues to more interpersonal matters. The Peart who wrote “Time Stand Still” or “Available Light” or “The Garden” was in a different place in life than the Peart who wrote “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” or “The Fountain of Lamneth.” And yet he was still the same.
This is why I feel it important to remember celebrities who left an overwhelmingly positive impact on our culture. Rush’s music has helped people get over suicidal thoughts through songs like “The Pass.” It has helped people stand up for their beliefs through songs like “Tom Sawyer” and “2112.” It has even helped people deal with growing older through songs like “Losing It” and the aforementioned “Time Stand Still.” Even simple things like the weather (“Jacob’s Ladder” and “Force Ten,” for example), or turning discussions about nature (“Natural Science”) and chemistry (“Chemistry”) are spun into meaningful, resonant metaphors for the human condition.
We haven’t even talked about Peart’s drumming. He came out of the gate in rock’s upper echelon — check out this recording of Peart’s earliest known drum solo as a member of Rush — and got better as the years marched by, culminating in absurdly wonderful solos like this:
In the early 1990s, particularly after the Roll the Bones album, Peart felt as though his drumming had grown stale. After playing with drummer Steve Smith during the “Burning for Buddy” Buddy Rich tribute Peart put together and realizing Smith sounded better than ever, Peart learned that Smith had been studying with legendary jazz stickman Freddie Gruber. So, checking his ego and putting his numerous “Best Drummer Ever!” accolades aside, Peart re-learned the drums and discovered new techniques to keep his playing fresh and exciting. The changes were subtle — even Lee and Lifeson responded with something like “Um, you sound just as awesome as you always did to us” when Peart excitedly asked them what the thought of his new style — but if you check the pocket and the feel of older songs played on Rush’s post-2000 live albums, the difference is palpable.
This drive is reflective of Rush’s middle-class, aspirational work ethic of always trying to be the best version of itself on every album and in every show. No matter how many times Rush plays “Limelight” or “Working Man,” the band wants it to be the greatest performance of those songs ever. And I haven’t even spoken about the challenge of Peart’s personal tragedies in the late 1990s, when his only child, daughter Selena, and his first wife, Jackie, died within 10 months of each other.
Neil Peart meant a lot to people because he wrote like he was your friend, and he understood you. He never condescended, he never insulted, and he never cast blame. He taught us that we had control over our own thoughts, emotions, and reactions to the world and that we could always find meaning in even the most mundane of things. Lastly, the way Peart lived his life was inspiring: constantly improving, investing in charitable giving and staying true to one’s ethics, overcoming tragedy and realizing that life is still worth living, and, as with Lee and Lifeson, living out fidelity to one’s spouse and being a family man and a good person (Peart remarried in 2000 and had another child in 2009).
Peart’s contributions to our culture are overwhelmingly positive. Listening to Rush made fans feel good about themselves, about life, and about their prospects for the future. The fact that the fan base is overwhelmingly white and male is still used to knock the band, but if you watch “reaction” videos on YouTube made over the past two or three years, you’ll see that black people really like Rush as much as white people. Rush also always had female fans, and acquired more as the years went on, and these tend to be some of their most passionate (see RushCon, the largest convention of Rush fans, whose board is made up of all women).
It’s good to remember people who made a positive impact, even if we never knew them personally. Because through their work, it feels like we did. As Halper said, “Rush brings people together, and it always has.”
Rest in peace, Neil, and God bless.