Reflections of Neil Peart.
by Paul Hutchings
It’s 1982 and a skinny 12 year old enters one of the plethora of record shops that blessed Cardiff at the time. A few minutes later he was heading home, gripping one of the first compact discs he ever owned. Moving Pictures by Rush.
He can’t remember what prompted the purchase. Likely a recommendation from his best friend from junior school, whose older brothers he held in high esteem, thanks to their denim jackets covered in glamorous patches of unheard bands and their long flowing hair.
What he does remember was being hooked within minutes. Tom Sawyer with its heady mix of synth, deep undulations in the bass, crisp guitar and a drum sound that was unlike anything he’d ever heard. The music was heavy enough for someone who loved Lizzy, Maiden, UFO and Priest to like, the power of Red Barchetta, the trio in full flight on the instrumental YYZ, and that riff on Limelight, something that he would play a thousand times over the years. Peart’s lyrics not quite understood then but in time becoming crystal clear as he railed against the demands of being in the spotlight, his discomfort with the pressures all too clear: “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long awaited friend”. Then The Camera Eye, the chilling description of human intolerance on Witch Hunt and the reggae beat of Vital Signs. It was a moment to savour. No band ever captivated him like that again.
Having slowly sought out the back catalogue of this remarkable Canadian band, he was fortunate not only to be bewitched by the seminal 2112, the raw power of Fly By Night and the intricate story telling on Hemispheres and A Farewell to Kings, but to be around as new Rush was released. He marvelled at Grace Under Pressure and fell in love with the synthesiser driven Power Windows, devouring the lyrics of Manhattan Project and Marathon, absorbing the powerful messages of Distant Early Warning and the sheer musical tapestry that unfolded on Between the Wheels. And then Hold Your Fire arrived and at last an opportunity to see the band in the flesh. He travelled with the brother of his girlfriend at the time in a Ford Capri Ghia 2.8 to Wembley Arena and spent the best part of three hours captivated by a set crammed with 24 songs. Rush never did short sets and the amount of thought and planing into the show simply blew his mind. A set that was crammed with songs from their 1980s catalogue. And then it arrived, segueing from a blistering YYZ, it was time for The Rhythm Method. The Neil Peart drum solo that inspired a million air drummers. Having watched many bands in the years before, the drum solo had always been an opportunity to ease the bladder. Not this time, as The Professor delivered a master class. It was intricate, intense, thoughtful and measured. Our man was amazed and even more hooked.
The 1990s and children meant easing back on live music and buying as much music. However, he continued to purchase everything Rush produced and revelled in, and absorbed, the changes in direction that the band took. Lyrically, Peart continued to stimulate and provoke. Roll The Bones, Counterparts and Test for Echo contained songs that he loved, the return of Alex’s guitar to a more prominent position in the band’s sound exciting, but it was the sum of the parts that made Rush so vital. And Peart’s drumming was integral to that.
Tragedy struck in 1997 with the death of Peart’s daughter in a car crash, followed months later by the second horrendous blow as his wife Jacqueline succumbed to cancer. Whilst every Rush fan feared for the future of the band, it was impossible to think of anything but the heartache that Peart must have experienced. His book, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road describes the pain and the way he inched back from the abyss. Rush fans across the globe willed him on, silently urging him to return to the band but fully understanding the need for distance, time and space. How he coped we just don’t know.
And then in 2001 the news all fans desperately wanted. Peart had remarried, and announced his return to Rush. The resulting album, Vapor Trails arrived in 2002 and contained poignant tracks such as One Little Victory (all about Peart’s return to the band), Ghost Rider and The Stars Look Down. Interestingly, this was the first album not to feature keyboards since Caress of Steel whilst Peart’s drumming has been compared to Keith Moon. It was certainly powerful, creative and unrestrained. Tours followed, the R30 UK tour supporting the Feedback release, and our man finally got his second viewing of the band at the MEN Arena in Manchester. 32 songs included the R30 overture, La Villa Strangiato, Xanadu, By-Tor and the Snow Dog and Der Trommler, Peart’s revised solo for the tour. How do you describe it? Possibly the best gig ever attended? Yes, certainly until 2007 when Snakes & Arrows arrived. This is an album probably played less often than much of the Rush catalogue, yet it contains some cracking tunes including The Way The Wind Blows and Armour and Sword. Peart’s words continued to resonate and the tour that followed included another new mesmerising solo, Der Slagwerker.
It was 2011 when that 2004 gig was surpassed. The Time Machine tour rolled into Birmingham NEC and it was back to the beginning. Moving Pictures, live and in full. It was at this gig that our man watched in awe as Peart delivered Love 4 Sale, his latest solo, a blistering ten minute composition, complete with multiple free style jazz elements. Rush also teased the crowd with BU2B and Caravan. Little did the rabid audience know that these were to be essential elements to the finale in the Rush journey, 2012’s Clockwork Angels.
Clockwork Angels sits alongside the best works that Rush ever released. From the opening Caravan, to the seven minute rocking out on Headlong Flight and the delicious closing song The Garden, this is Rush at their most imperious. Peart’s lyrics followed his book, co-written with Kevin Anderson; a steam punk adventure which was a gripping read. Peart’s writing, already ensconced in his other books, which included Far and Wide and The Travelling Road, was as cohesive and powerful as ever. Clockwork Angels tells the story of a hero who desires to break free of the mundane life prescribed by The Watchmaker, who tells all his subjects that “everything is for the best”. If you haven’t read it then you really should.
In 2013 Rush embarked on their Clockwork Angels European tour, complete with their string ensemble. Our man arrived at the NEC flushed with anticipation , having flown into Birmingham that day from a Venetian holiday. The event was spectacular, the set list stunning and The Professor delivering three solos. Where’s My Thing closed set 1, Peart threw in a further solo during Headlong Flight before The Percussor, sandwiched between Dreamline and Red Sector A. Peart was on fabulous form and the entire gig was magnificent. The album remains a favourite to this day and possibly the best album of the decade.
Rumours of a farewell tour circulated in 2015 as the band headed out on a US tour. European fans clamoured for dates but nothing was forthcoming. Peart had for some years made it plain that touring was no longer an exploration of new places, but a chore. The hourglass emptied as footage from the US tour teased the rest of the world; Neil, Geddy and Alex playing the most amazing set. And then 1st August arrived, the final show played and Geddy, Alex and Neil disappeared. The occasional whiff of a reunion vibrated through the wires, films were released but it was pretty clear that Neil had retired. “I would rather set it aside than face the predicament described in our song Losing It” he said in late 2015. Roll forward to 10th January 2020 and a shockwave reverberated around the rock world. We wept, we sighed and the news that Neil had passed away echoed across social media.
I wrote this within 24 hours of the news breaking. It may not be that concise, but it is from the heart. Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee have been a part of my life for nearly 40 years. I know lots of people who saw Rush in the 1970s, whose last encounter with the band was during the 2112 era. I know many more who were not lucky enough to see Rush live. Rush will be my favourite band forever. Musically the band combined everything I want in music. Neil Peart was pivotal to the band. Lyrically clever, observationally astute and versatile in his literary knowledge, his early Tolkien based lyrics, the adaptation of The Fountainhead on 2112 and move to more social observations echo with my own moral compass. Add in a drummer of the most extraordinary quality and you’ll see why his death hurts so much. Listen to La Villa Strangiato, The Trees, The Spirit of Radio or The Weapon. His craft is evident in each. I’m out of words. Neil Peart RIP. Thank you for the memories, the music and for the inspiration.