Neil Ellwood Peart, OC announced his retirement from music yesterday.
There are orders of magnitude in which one might view this. For some, it might be a misplaced joy in the ending of Rush after forty years. For others it is the reality that rock itself would be forever changed musically in the lack of subsequently challenging composition and artistic progressiveness of releases from the forty year veterans.
For me, though, it is the realization that one of my heroes was doing as I had always expected of him. Redefining himself and thus challenging the world around him to thus redefine itself.
As I prepare for a world without Neil piloting Rush I am reminded of what I experienced R40 earlier this year. I said something to the effect of, “if this is my last experience with Rush I will be happy to have had it.” There were enough allusions to it being the grand finale to an otherwise otherworldly career for Messers Peart, Lee and Lifeson that it was difficult to not foresee this moment coming.
Neil represents the natural progression of human existence in many ways by always continuing to reinvent himself in nearly every aspect of his life and career rather than remain a static entity or succumb to the stereotypes that otherwise become the negative afflictions of the human condition.
For me, it began first and foremost from the percussive perspective. Neil is and perhaps will forever remain one of the most important rock drummers due to not just his technical proficiency but his creativity and innovation as a musician. Studying his approach to technique there are obvious bloodlines to where he came from and what he would eventually aspire to. The influences of Rich and Krupa, Bonham, Baker and Moon are undeniable but so are the effects of Freddie Gruber and Peter Erskine, as well as contemporaries like Steve Smith, Mike Portnoy and the ever changing landscape of pop music in his performance.
The most obvious aural and visual markers to this are in the design of his drumkits over the years. From the venerable double bass kit representative of the over-the-top-ness of the 1970s during the 2112 era to the incorporation of electronics, triggers and effects in beginning around Grace Under Pressure to the percussive heavy setup and experimental enlightenment of the late 1980s epitomized on Presto to the stripped down return to “basics” approach that encompassed the band’s post-hiatus years in the new millennium so beloved on their closing opus Clockwork Angels what Neil produced was a sonic pallet perfectly encompassing the cross-section of what was appropriate for the music and representative of the sound of his soul as it came forth through the performance.
Because Neil was a constantly evolving human his approach to playing constantly evolved from the finesse of “The Fountain of Lamneth” to the bombastic individualism of “YYZ” to the driving precision of “Subdivisions” to the inventiveness of “Scars” to the rawness of “Animate” and the melodicism of “Caravan.” You always knew you would get a world class interpretation of drumming you just never knew from what perspective Neil would reinvent what that meant. And, it was this ever changing, ever challenging existence that transcends the vast majority of not only percussionists but musicians in general suffer from.
I always wanted the kind of dexterity Neil was capable of behind the kit. Especially in the later years of Rush his ability to move so seemlessly between all the different styles of the band’s catalog was simply amazing to behold. Even today in my amateur performance I aspire to that type of musical diversity. While I may never possess the top end skill Neil had I draw in my own technique from his ever evolving interpretation of what being a percussionist should be as an individual practitioner. In that, I really enjoy experimenting with new techniques and adopting my own signatures behind the kit rather than adhering to the expected conventions of many drumming styles I enjoy.
And, it wasn’t just his ability to craft rhythm that drew me to him. As an aspiring writer myself, it was inspiring to follow his progression lyrically as well. Beginning with sci-fi and fantasy and later the incorporation of history and anthropology and then to the moody personal introspection and finally to the inspirational reflection of the human condition Neil challenged himself and Rush fans to view the world through an ever changing lens in his lyrics. As he as an individual grew so did the depth and breath of his approach and the wordsmithing he displayed became more comprehensive despite not always being more complex over time. Few have the command of language he demonstrates even if sometimes the rawness of the lyrics could be otherwise perceived as cheesy by some.
The levithianlike moves from the incorporation of a personal storyline on “Fly by Night” to the dystopian philosophy of “Anthem” from the introspection of “Limelight” to the literary-twisted interpretations of “Tom Sawyer” from the scathing social critique of “Big Money” to the undulating spiritual journey of “Mystic Rhythms” from the attempts are rap on “Roll the Bones” to the enlightenment of love on “Ghost of a Chance” from the ready-made scifi of “Clockwork Angels” to the self-determination of “Headlong Flight” Neil left his soul on the page so many times while drawing from the diversity of the world around him. Neil wrote about what interested him and his lyrics were a small look into the complexity of his soul often touching on subjects many of us would otherwise have not considered to be a part of Rock’s lyrical cannon if not for Neil’s singular perspective of what made an interesting song.
Few musicians will ever lead a fuller and more accomplished career as the nearly 40 years Neil spent with Rush. But, furthermore, few musicians musical careers will every straddle the diversity and ingenuity that Neil strove to experience throughout those 40 years.
But, it was more than just Neil’s musical experience as a drummer and composer that defined my interest in him.
During the autumn of 1997 Neil lost his daughter Selena Taylor in a car accident and then only 10 months later his common-law wife of 22 years, Jacqueline Taylor, died from cancer. For most, this would have been the end as an overwhelming culmination of personal tragedies besetting them on the ultimate downward spiral. And yet, for Neil, he found a way to demonstrate extraordinary resilience and redefine himself as a human being. My own personal tragedies have never been as tightly timed or emotionally cutting I cannot fathom most of what he must have went through in confronting the range of emotions and his own demons in order to come out the other side of that darkness. And, yet, against all odds, he did. And, in that resilience and reinterpretation of himself I can empathize and from it draw inspiration.
The result of his experience was Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road chronicling Neil’s emotional journey of self re-discovery. This wasn’t his first foray into long form novel style writing but it was a breakthrough release for him and the one that introduced not only me but much of the non-Rush world to the wonders of his intellect and inspiring approach to life itself. He continued to push himself as a writer beyond the diversity of his lyrics and beyond the personal narrative of his early works to delve more deeply into the breath of non-fiction as well as the novelization of Rush’s 2012 album Clockwork Angels and greater non-lyrical explanations to the 2112 story. As a writer myself this growth is intriguing and both his linguistic prowess and self-deprecating approach to his craft.
And, of course, his humanity was not limited to words and music either. His love of so many things from BMW motorcycles to scotch to his interest in photography and image manipulation to left-leaning, bleeding heart, progressive libertarian lifestyle that includes a rural alternative life in the Canadian backwooods he shows a deep view of what it means to be human.
While many people were mourning the untimely death of Scott Weiland who was never able to confront his own demons and eventually succommed to the tragedy that is the human condition I wasn’t phased. It isn’t because STP and his other projects didn’t resonate with me, and honestly for the most part they didn’t, it’s that his story was something I couldn’t relate to and didn’t want to.
Neil was more “that guy” for more… More than just someone who’s music I remember from my formative years in college radio as some transient nostalgia of the past. More than some aging rocker feebly holding onto some past incarnation of himself. More than just another cliche trapped in the idiosyncrasies of the rock and roll lifestyle.
And, in that, Neil choosing to retire now, to bow out gracefully while still near the top of his game in order to embrace the world around him in yet another new and innovative manner seems so in line with what I’ve come to expect from him. He is once again plotting his own course and challenging himself and thus all those around him to view the world in a new way.
Thanks Neil for the last four decades of your contributions as a percussionist and a writer but moreso for your contributions to the world as a human being and giving not just several generations of drummers and song writers someone positive to look up to in a world of occasionally less than positive influences but for giving all of us someone who has tried to just be themselves as someone we could all know from a distance and learn the positives of exploring one’s individuality through. You made it cool to be different and being different because of/inspired by you was cool.