R.I.P., Professor

I wish I could’ve met Neil Peart. But probably not for the reasons one might suspect.

I was shocked to learn of the passing of one of my all-time favorite drummers. I was even more shocked to learn it was brain cancer. Yet when I learned he had been fighting the disease more than three years without making it public, I wasn’t the least bit surprised.

I didn’t know the man — I never even came close to meeting him — yet I smiled just a little and said, “Yep. That’s Neil.” He was intensely private, and deeply embarrassed by the adulation heaped upon him. Why would he tell anyone about his suffering?

And so, like everyone else, I spend my evening in complete shock, unsuccessfully fighting back tears.

I’ve been working on a piece called My Musical Mount Rushmore. It’ll be done when it’s done. I was considering my all-time favorite musicians in assorted categories. When it came to rock drummers, Neil Peart’s name was second on my list only to Bill Bruford. Yet their styles were so different, they really could be numbers 1 and 1A.

I don’t recall my first Rush experience. I suspect it was hearing “The Spirit of Radio” in the early 80’s. Rush was pretty big among my friends in the suburbs of St. Louis. I remember hearing and liking the song. I also remember thinking what so many others must have thought: Jesus! That drummer is amazing!


Before long I heard Moving Pictures and “Tom Sawyer.” I was hooked. Rush became a serious part of my musical world. My friends and I would be the “air” band at parties. I handled Geddy Lee’s bass parts. My buddy Dave took on Neil’s drums. Something tells me we weren’t very good. But man, was it ever fun! And of course, we kept it pretty much to ourselves. What nerds we were.

Rush and Genesis were my gateway into progressive rock. I can’t say I would have been able to completely absorb King Crimson without them. Neil’s drums were and remain positively other-worldly. How could any human do that much with just four limbs? It had to be a trick!

That thought remained with me until I saw them live for the first time c. 1984 behind Grace Under Pressure. I watched Neil play intently. That is, I saw what I could as he sat behind that massive drum kit. One thing was certain: it was no trick. That cat could play!


I saw Rush again three or four years later, and again about five or six years after that. Then my interest started to wane, and I went in a different direction. That’s the way it goes.

I heard about Neil’s personal tragedies in the mid 90’s. Losing his daughter and wife within just a few months … man, I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. Neil dropped out of the band and hopped on his motorcycle. He rode and rode and rode, trying to sort it all out. Eventually, he did.

Still, I barely noticed when Rush came back. But one day — completely on a whim — I picked up a copy of their Rush in Rio DVD. I guess it just struck me as interesting. I went home and watched the guys step on stage in a jam packed soccer stadium and break directly into “Tom Sawyer.” The place exploded, and I was a born-again Rush fan. And “One Little Victory” became an all-time favorite.

I kept close tabs on them until the very end. Their final studio album, Clockwork Angels, is nothing short of brilliant. Their playing was so on-point, so heavy. There was no way these guys were in their sixties! But there they were, kicking ass with AARP cards in their back pockets. A lot of bands could learn from them.

But none of that is why I wanted to meet Neil Peart. Anyone could ask a litany of questions about drumming. But Neil was deeper than that. Much deeper. That was what I wanted to tap into.

He was incredibly well-read. I would’ve loved to get a small reading list from him. I never understood the fascination with motorcycles. I would’ve loved to talk to him about that. He was the band’s chief lyricist. He wrote words of unbelievable depth and imagination. What I wouldn’t give to tap into that part of his mind. Like many other nerdy outsiders, Neil’s lyrics spoke to me in a way few others could. I would’ve loved to talk about that at length.

I wanted to access the dry sense of humor, the rapier-like wit. I wanted to try to make him laugh. It might have been challenging, but I think I could do it. But there was no way that would ever happen. He was blocked off. The wall was too high. I wasn’t special enough to get to the other side. And I completely get that.

And now he’s gone.

Tributes from fans and friends are pouring in worldwide. Something tells me this would have embarrassed him, too. He didn’t see what we saw. He didn’t get the hero worship. He was just being himself. And that’s why we loved him. The music industry is littered with raging egomaniacs, eager to declare themselves special and above it all. Neil just read his books.

I wish I could’ve talked to Neil Peart because he struck me as a genuinely decent human being. And the world needs more of those, particularly today.

Rest in peace, Professor. You will never be forgotten.

(Top photo by Fin Costello)


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