RIP Neil Peart: Rock’s New-World Man

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By Ira Kantor

Neil Peart made rock and roll stoicism its own kind of virtuosity.

If we were to look at the Rush drummer compared to other legendary luminaries like Keith Moon, John Bonham or Peter Criss, we’d see that the latter three spent countless time building their sound — and look — around flash and fun-fueled intensity. Peart would be odd man out, simply because he didn’t look as cool or as engaged in his surroundings.

Make no mistake though, Peart’s ever-present look of determination behind the kit whether playing bars, Buddy Rich tributes or global stadiums emphasizes something the other drummers never concerned themselves with — wanting to play what was right, not what looked right or could be morphed to sound right.

A man defined by enigma and a bibliophile’s sense of imagination, Peart doesn’t have a true equivalent. He wouldn’t expose himself to fans because he didn’t want to be judged on vulnerability. Nor did he need external validation to justify his talent. Enveloping himself in an immense kit, barely blinking, and hiding his teeth as he provided the backbeat and heartbeat for Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee cements his iconic status — all while inadvertently turning Rush into one of the greatest bands of all time.

We have a tendency as human beings to judge our role models harshly if they won’t engage directly with us when the opportunity arises. I can fault artists for rushing through an autograph signing or not wanting to be bothered when they’re sitting out in the open at an event because they’re showing indifference in people who care about them. I can never fault Peart because his stoicism was never indifference; he just could never visualize himself as being somebody “above” his fans.

Humility is an underrated quality in rock and roll and for Peart, it makes his sudden loss that much harder. He was never in the music business for fame. He just wanted to dedicate his life to doing what he loved. Adulation scared him so he never had reason to be pretentious in an industry built upon such a quality. In fact, when personal tragedy struck his life, he had no qualms kissing the industry goodbye. He had the foresight to know personal happiness was found in other areas apart from recording studios and tour buses.

Most other bands I grew up loving thrived on so-called “Suck me, fuck me” songs. Peart’s prowess with words and philosophy gave him a markedly unique musical advantage. Rush became deserving Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees by singing tales inspired by the worlds of Ayn Rand, Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, J. Robert Oppenheimer and on and on. Listening to Peart’s lyrics tells me there’s nothing wrong with having a vast vocabulary, even though some may find reason to make fun of you for it. As a genre, rock and roll is not built on “big words.” Neil Peart responded with a giant middle finger.

In the beginning, Geddy Lee once called his Peart’s lyrics “a mouthful” but even he knew Rush was poised for a different kind of greatness versus a contemporary like ZZ Top. Instead of “girls, girls, girls” — topics like temples, the eternal spirit of radio, suburban conformity, and even the Holocaust made the Canadian power trio wholly original and successful whether they had radio hits or not.

This is quite ironic considering the man with the gift of words was never one for stage banter.

Despite stoicism in his face, true emotion flew through Peart’s hands and feet. Where other musicians might balk at the challenge of having to play something like “Tom Sawyer” each night, Peart loved the challenge because he knew it was easy to get wrong. If he got it right, he considered it a personal best. Breaking down workouts like “YYZ” and “La Villa Strangiato,” even now, is like trying to understand the fundamentals of quantum mechanics.

We all know the songs that define Rush so I feel it’s unnecessary to spend time running through more of Peart’s defining tracks. If you want that just type his name into YouTube. Instead it’s the trifecta combination of instrumental virtuosity, literary intelligence, and personal humility that make Neil Peart not only a musician to be missed, but a man I sorely wish I had had a chance to know personally. His unexpected death is a heartbreaking loss and I hate fate in this instance because it took him away at the time when he should have been able to live his retirement — like everything else leading up to it — entirely on his own terms.

Rest in peace Ghost Rider and know you are loved for reasons beyond your music.

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