NEIL PEART: AN ASTRONOMER REMEMBERS
Dr. Stuart Clark on the passing of a legend…
I clearly remember the first time I heard Rush. I was rapidly approaching my teenage years. It was the late 70s and I was with a friend for an after-school visit. Although I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about at the time, it will have been something to do with space and science fiction – it always was. And then the epiphany happened.
Through the bedroom wall of my friend’s older brother came the sounds of 2112. I didn’t know what on earth I was hearing at the time, but I knew I had never heard anything so exciting in my life. That was the beginning of my lifelong love affair with the music of Rush.
It was uncanny how I completely took to the band. Album after album delivered music that I simply devoured. Without a doubt, a large part of my attraction to Rush in those days was their science fiction lyrics. The song 2112 – an epic of more than 20 minutes in length – was about a totalitarian future in which freedom of expression was outlawed. A similar theme cropped up in Red Barchetta from Moving Pictures. Rush plunged headlong into modern astronomy with Cygnus X-1, a song about the first black hole to be identified. On Hemispheres, they presented a full-on myth about classical gods battling each other for control of humankind.
All of these amazing lyrical themes – which spoke of timeless struggles and futuristic realms – came from drummer Neil Peart. As both a literary and musical influence, his effect on myself is difficult to overstate. His mastery of both technique and feel in his drumming has always been a major inspiration, driving me to try harder in my own fields of endeavour. The same is true of his band mates Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee. Indeed, I playfully tell people that Alex was my first guitar tutor – in that I learnt to play by jamming along to Rush records in my bedroom.
The pinnacle of Rush in those earlier days was summed up by their live video Exit… Stage Left. I wore out that VHS tape watching Neil and his bandmates play the epic medley of The Trees and Xanadu over and over again. My 13 year old brain had no idea music could be that damn good. To see Neil walking – yes, walking! – around his monster kit, hitting everything in sight and getting percussive sounds out of things that I thought were just part of the framework – not to mention Alex Lifeson’s volume pedal work and Geddy’s double neck bass – was simply mind-blowing! Still is, if I’m being honest.
With each new release, I pored over Neil’s lyrics. I would sit and read his commentaries in the tour books with rapt attention while waiting for their gigs to start. I would marvel at the grace and power he displayed behind the drum kit, and the uncanny way Rush slotted together as a band without losing the individual identity of their musicianship. And eventually I realised it was the product of hard work and dedication.
Over the decades, Rush’s commitment to their art drove me to see them some 50 times in concert. Every night was a special experience. I have so many memories I’ll never forget, but one in particular is being in the third row at Birmingham NEC and hearing the power coming from Neil’s kit. Goodness me, did he hit those drums hard.
The news last week that Neil had died of cancer at the age of 67 was a numbing shock. I’d accepted that Rush retired in 2015. But after more than 40 years of extraordinary music, I imagined that Neil was having a long, well-deserved, glorious retirement – not battling the disease that finally took his life.
I never met Neil, but the depth of my upset at his passing has made me realise that through his music he has been like a lifelong companion. There was a time when I wondered what I would say if I ever did meet him, or Alex or Geddy. Now I know it would be a simple, heartfelt “thank you”.
Rest in peace, Neil.
Stuart Clark (@DrStuClark) can be found on the web at www.stuartclark.com
Neil Peart live in 2008 by Matt Becker.
Rush live in 2004, anonymous.