Cultural Junkdrawer – Neil Peart: A tribute from a lifelong fan.

GameStop, Inc.

He played a little.

Suspicious-looking stranger

Flashes you a dangerous grin

Shadows across your window

Was it only trees in the wind?

Every breath a static charge

A tongue that tastes like tin

Steely-eyed outside to hide the enemy within

I’m not giving in to security under pressure

I’m not missing out on the promise of adventure

I’m not giving up on implausible dreams

Experience to extremes

 

My sophomore english teacher took his glasses off after the last line, a smile on his face like I’d never seen before. “Wow, Michael, that was amazing!”

 I smiled as best I could with the panic rising inside of me.

 “I didn’t know you could write this well. Good work!”

 This had driven right up to the border of “too far”, gotten out of the driver’s seat and stood at the demarcation line on the map metaphorical aviator glasses reflecting the barren wasteland beyond. I really didn’t expect this to have happened but now I had to go along with it.

Back in my sophomore year of high school I had blundered into my one and only act of plagiarism and it was because I was a huge fan of Rush.

 

Like many guys (and probably more girls than we ever knew) of my age I went through a serious period of being a Rush fan. Embodying the “canadian power trio” subgenre more than any other band (apologies to Triumph, April Wine and Zebra) Rush was a rock group you came to when the heady cocktail of teen hormones, bookish 70’s Sci Fi leanings and weird feelings of being out of sync with your surroundings came together. You came to Rush when you were realizing you are capable of thinking and feeling more than you were ever led to believe and also wore that outsider badge with pride. Rush was for nerds; music nerds, reading nerds, math nerds, Science Fiction nerds, outsider nerds. Rush was a common ground for a group of people that were so niche that even the regular nerds only glanced across the community. Their unique alchemy: being proggy but accessible, loved by rockers to music dorks, lyrically deep but didn’t get in the way of surface enjoyment was something that, if you got, made you feel smarter but also isolated you. 

 Sure they were a staple of rock radio and AOR (album oriented radio) programming. A rock station couldn’t have a claim at knowing what they were doing if the didn’t have Tom Sawyer, Freewill and New World Man in their rotation. You could certainly enjoy their music without subscribing to the melancholy dreamer vibe Peart’s lyrics gave off but if you considered yourself a Rush FAN  you understood that there was so much more going on under the hood of the Red Barchetta than just some bitchin drum work.

 That was primarily due to Neil Peart’s lyrics. He blended literary and hard SF ideas and concepts with examinations of big human themes, a poet’s concept of the individual  human spirit and more than a little positivity snuck in for good measure.

 I joined the Rush fandom for roughly a twenty year period beginning with the “Grace Under Pressure” album and ending off with “Roll the Bones”. Naturally I quickly delved backwards into their catalog discovering the brilliance of “Moving Pictures” and tracks from other albums like “The Trees”, “Spirit of radio” and “Fly by night”. Grace under pressure, though, really was my gateway album. Songs such as “Distant Early Warning” , “The Enemy Within” (more on that later) and “The Body Electric” fuckin Rocked (with a capitol “R”) but were also lyrically entrancing. The idea of an Artificial Intelligence having a crisis of faith/existential dread (The Body Electric) just set off myriad synapses in my teenage brain. A brain that was already thoroughly awash in Star Wars, Harlan Ellison, Dune, Doctor Who and countless other SF fandoms reflective of the more esoteric, inward looking SF of the 70s. Now I had a soundtrack to go with what I saw/read/felt. And it rocked! It fucking rocked! Alex Lifeson’s shimmering guitar, Geddy Lee’s frantic yet precise base licks and Peart’s jaw dropping, expansive drumming just blew me away. Even then I knew I’d never be a rock star but I’d be damned if I didn’t get the complexity and expertise of what these three guys were doing. 

 Ultimately, though, it was Peart’s lyrics that kept me coming back. Each album cycle had a recurring theme. For example Power Windows had songs about the forces that directly or indirectly affect our lives: Money, Ambition, Imagination, even the origin of the nuclear bomb and how things would never be the same after. Presto was all about illusion versus reality. Roll the bones – The randomness of an unconcerned universe and our struggle to find meaning. Looking backwards there were concept albums like 2112 which told the SF story of an individual re-discovering the long lost beauty of music and how it brings the forces of religious orthodoxy down on him (it was also a reference to a difficult time signature but you had to be in the music nerd category to get that). Suffice to say Peart had a lot more on his mind that writing standard pop love songs. I loved him for that! As much as I dug a good mindless pop song I could go to Rush and have songs that were concerned with bigger things like “Mystic Rhythms” or “New World Man”. Songs that I felt nobody else really got except for the reasonably smart SF geek with deep emotions (like me) that I couldn’t really find in my bleak, backwards hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

 

Growing up, it all seems so one-sided

Opinions all provided

The future pre-decided

Detached and subdivided

In the mass-production zone

Nowhere is the dreamer

Or the misfit so alone

Subdivisions

In the high school halls

In the shopping malls

Conform or be cast out

Subdivisions

In the basement bars

In the backs of cars

Be cool or be cast out

Subdivisions from the album Signals

That shit hit me square in the gut.

 

 Back to the inciting story of my plagiarism…

 I don’t have a head for poetry. When given the assignment to write a poem everything that came out of me was cliched and tone deaf. I came to the conclusion that I would play a sly joke on my teacher (or justified my lainess might be a better descriptive) and copy down the obscure Rush song “The Enemy Within” (from Grace Under Pressure) and have a good silent laugh that I fooled my stuffy english teacher with rock lyrics. Turns out my choice was too well selected. He read it in front of the class. Nobody caught it but it freaked me out enough to never try such a prank again. 

 Neil Peart was a beautiful, interesting soul. Even never having met him he spoke to me and parsed out an area where people like me could trod and see that there were other footprints. Maybe we weren’t there at the same time but it was comforting to know I wasn’t alone. I wouldn’t be quite the person I am today without him and his beautiful amazing body of work. Thank you, Neil, you’ll be sorely missed. I end this main part with lyrics from one of my absolute favorite Rush songs. “The Pass” off of Presto and it just might have saved my life at one really difficult low point for me…

 

“… all of us get lost in the darkness/Dreamers learn to steer by the stars.

All of us spend time in the gutter/Dreamers learn to look at the cars.”

 

STUFF TANGENTIAL TO THE MAIN WORK THAT I COULDN’T FIT IN ORGANICALLY

 

 I can whimsically envision that at this moment there are cherubic roadies setting up a massive kit. Prince is tuning his guitar and Bowie has his Sax ready and Neil will play the drums in the coolest jam the afterlife has ever heard!

 

 Going back over Rush songs this weekend I rediscovered the instrumental “YYZ” off of Moving Pictures. If you want to get a taste of the musicianship this band was capable of play this track on the streaming service of your choice.

 

 Yes, I know Peart was an Ayn Rand fan. I’m am the furthest thing from a Rand apologist. Understand, though, that the themes of the individual versus society are the core concepts for most of Peart’s work and once again those themes are also prominent in most SF works of the era that informed him. This was also long before Rand was used by greedy politicians and rich assholes as an excuse for being so.

 

 It wasn’t all serious stuff: Peart and Rush were lovingly name checked in Jason Segal movies, South Park, MST3K, Aqua Teen Hunger Force (including Peart making an animated cameo in their movie) and Archer. Plus they’d always play the three stooges theme before they came out on stage and, during the Presto tour, had giant inflatable bunnies rise out of their speaker systems and dance during “Tom Sawyer”.

 

 Nick Zigler is a good buddy. He is also the drummer for the excellent rock band The Forty Nineteens and spent a chunk of the 90’s as the skins man for the alternative rock band Mary’s Danish. He knows drumming. I asked him to say a few words about Neil Peart:

When one thinks of Neil Peart, there tends to be a mention of machine-like style drumming. As a youngster, I heard that and seemed to follow the train of thought. Time passed and as I listened to more of his playing, I discovered he was anything but machine-like. What changed my mind? In 1994 I saw his video performing with The Buddy Rich Big Band. It all made sense. He wasn’t a machine, he was Precision,  Buddy Rich precision. No one dared called Buddy a machine, an animal behind the kit, yes, but not a machine. So there it was, I connected the dots. To me he kept Big Band style alive in a Rock n Roll setting, and influenced a whole new generation of drummers.  A monumental talent, that will be missed.

 

 My brother-in-law is a lifelong drummer and an accomplished sound and drum technician who has worked with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Terry Bozzio, Bootsie Collins and many others. Here are his thoughts on Neil Peart…

 

 The album “Moving Pictures” came out at the perfect time in my life. I was just starting a fascination with a wide range of music, getting ready to join the band in school & MTV was fresh & new (& still showing music videos). “Tom Sawyer” played in modest rotation, because there were so few videos to play. Rush opened my eyes to the idea that a drummer could do more than play a backbeat, & that the drummer could play melodically on a kit.

 By the time “Hold Your Fire” was released, I started to explore the bands that influenced Neil. He was the gateway to musicians like Bozzio, Bruford and Colaiuta. Neil Peart has been as important and influential to a generation of drummers as Bonham and Buddy Rich were before him. The lengths to which he moved the musicality of drumming into the mainstream cannot be emphasized enough.

Shawn Shaulis

Drummer, Sound Tech, Bozzio Drum Tech

 

Here are the lyrics for “The Trees” tell me this doesn’t scan today just as much as it did in the 70’s…

There is unrest in the forest

There is trouble with the trees

For the maples want more sunlight

And the oaks ignore their pleas

The trouble with the maples

And they’re quite convinced they’re right

They say the oaks are just too lofty

And they grab up all the light

But the oaks can’t help their feelings

If they like the way they’re made

And they wonder why the maples

Can’t be happy in their shade?

There is trouble in the forest

And the creatures all have fled

As the maples scream ‘oppression!’

And the oaks, just shake their heads

So the maples formed a union

And demanded equal rights

‘The oaks are just too greedy

We will make them give us light’

Now there’s no more oak oppression

For they passed a noble law

And the trees are all kept equal

By hatchet,

axe,

and saw.

 

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