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A Homeric Life: Neil Peart (1952-2020)

The legendary drummer of the singular band Rush was always his own man, a seeker of the truth, and a pursuer of excellence.
Rush Recording Permanent Waves

On September 12, 1952, Neil Ellwood Peart entered the world, appearing first in southeastern Canada, near the coast of Lake Ontario. If, on that day, the earth shuddered, or lightning struck, or a comet flared in the skies, or if some itinerant wisemen showed up at his birth, we no longer possess a record to support such a fact or facts. Yet, it might very well have happened. And, regardless, whatever is lacking in fact is fully alive in faith.

On Tuesday, January 7, 2020, Neil Elwood Peart valiantly lost his three and half-year battle against brain cancer. On that same day, he entered Valhalla, escorted by at least one Valkyrie, but quite possibly by two or three.

Peart was, after all, as much man as he was myth. As he and his co-author, Kevin J. Anderson, wrote in their second novel, Clockwork Lives: “Some lives can be summed up in a sentence or two. Other lives are epics.”

Peart’s was Homeric.

Best known as the drummer and lyricist of the Canadian rock trio, Rush, Peart was also a successful man of letters, a novelist, an autobiographer, and an essayist. As such, he influenced and reached generations of North Americans (and others) in profound but nearly unfathomable ways, probably even he in vast ways he did not fully understand nor desire to understand.

My own case is not exceptional. Born in 1967 and growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, my family always had music playing throughout the house—everything from big band to jazz to classical to opera to rock. Having two older brothers, the Birzer taste in rock flowed toward the progressive side of things: Yes, Kansas, Genesis, and Jethro Tull. Though we had nothing harder in the house than Kansas, I was certainly primed to encounter almost any experimental rock excellence and innovation.

In the spring of 1981, for reasons I can no longer remember, I found myself in 7th grade detention, Liberty Junior High, Hutchinson, Kansas. At the time, I was sporting a Genesis, “Duke” lapel button. My fellow inmates—Troy Swartz and Brad Libby—acknowledged the greatness of Genesis but then asked me if I had yet encountered the demi-god like band, Rush. I had not, and they graciously explained to me all that was good, true, and beautiful about the band’s latest album, Moving Pictures. Having served my detection time and just returned to the good graces of Lady Justice, I biked down to our local record store that very afternoon and purchased my first Rush album.

When I got home that day, I took the cellophane off of the album, pulled it gently out of its sleeve, and then properly dusted each side of the album to avoid the unavoidable pops. Before playing the music, though, I studied the lyrics, the liner notes, and the sleeve photos. For some reason, the three members of the band—Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart—looked really old to me, but I heartily approved. If old people could make rock music, they must be ok!  Little did I know, then, that Peart was only fifteen years old than me.

The needle on my turntable descended and that first massive chord opening “Tom Sawyer” thundered throughout the house. I was a devout follower of the band from that moment through today.

Without being too sentimental in these autobiographical reflections, let me just state that what ever wonderful things I experienced in childhood, I also experienced hell—living in a crazily dysfunctional family with a step father who eventually (and justly, from my standpoint) served time in prison. Such a life drove me toward finding persons and ideas to love and to emulate, as I sought stability and justice. I found a semblance of order and inspiration in the lyrics of Peart and in the music of Rush. Looking back now, at age 52, I happily realize that Peart influenced my own view of self, of culture, of society, and of life as much as did J.R.R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Leon Uris, William F. Buckley, Robert Ringer, Milton Friedman, Henry Hazlitt, Friedrich Hayek (I first started reading Friedman, Hazlitt, and Hayek at age 14 because of debate and forensics) and, later, John Paul II, Russell Kirk, Christopher Dawson, William F. Buckley, and Robert Nisbet.

Though Peart had briefly been a follower of Ayn Rand and of the television show, The Prisoner, in the 1970s, he had more openly embraced a non-conformist, libertarian view of the world by the 1980s, espousing a healthy form of individualism in personhood and excellence in all pursuits. Indeed, one had to give Peart a label in this whirligig of a modern and post-modern world, the label “stoic,” as understood by the ancients, would best fit. Not only did he believe in excellence in all things, but he also suggested time and again in his writings and his lyrics, that one must accept reality—whether good, bad, or indifferent—as it is. He was, in almost every way, along with Steve Jobs and Tom Wolfe, the ultimate modern stoic, a “man in full.”  Today’s Tom Sawyer, Peart wrote in 1981, had a mind “not for rent to any god or government.” When I first heard these words, my wounded teenaged soul yelled in relief.

Through a strange set of circumstances, Neil Peart joined the band Rush in the late summer of 1974, replacing the band’s first drummer (since 1968), John Rutsey. The band found Peart working in his father’s farm supply store at the time of interview and admission, and Rush had already released its first self-titled album. Peart had to learn the material quickly, as the band went on tour immediately. On that tour, the band began to work on its second album, Fly By Night, and the two original members of the band, Toronto’s Lifeson and Lee (each the sons of immigrants who had escaped ideological death camps (Communist and Nazi, respectively) in , quickly realized that this lanky young man from the rural areas of Canada had real talent with the written and spoken word. Almost instantly, they made Peart the official lyricist of Rush.

Between 1974 and 1978, Peart wrote his album lyrics as massive concepts, the rock equivalent of space operas. Rush’s Caress of Steel (1975) dealt with a mystical journey while 2112 (1976) explored rebellion against dystopia; Farewell to Kings (1977) considered the downfall of tyranny; and 1978’s Hemispheres rewrites Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy.

Beginning in 1979, with the band’s Permanent Waves and lasting through 1996’s Test for Echo, Peart’s lyrics dealt with huge concepts, but generally only expressed in songs three to six minutes long as Rush moved away from the over-the-top length of progressive rock songs toward a more FM-format friendly rock. The band, however, never stopped experimenting, melding New Wave, jazz, fusion, and even rap with and into their power rock. Peart’s lyrics remained as intelligent as ever, drawing upon current events, philosophy, cultural criticism, science fiction, mainstream literature, and high-brow fiction, as well as the latest scientific theories in genetics, artificial intelligence, physics, and chemistry.

On August 10, 1997, Canadian police arrived at the Peart household to inform Neil and his wife that their nineteen-year old daughter, Selena, had died that evening in a car wreck. Mortally wounded by the news and suffering from cancer, Peart’s wife passed away less than a year later. Distraught, confused, and broken, Peart got on his motorcycle (a long-time hobby) and began a fourteen-month Odyssey across the United States, Canada, and Mexico, trying to escape the tragedy that had become his life. His award-winning memoir, Ghost Rider, recounts this harrowing trip, as Peart loses himself, only slowly becoming aware again of grace in the world. “I once defined the basic nature of art as ‘the telling of stories,’ and never had I felt that more to be true” Peart wrote. “I played the anger, the frustration, the sorrow, and even the traveling parts of my story, the rhythms of the highway, the majesty of the scenery, the dynamic rising and falling of my moods, and the narrative suite that emerged was as cleansing and energizing as the sweat and exertion of telling it.”

Everyone—including the three members of the band—thought Rush was done after Peart left on his trek. For months and months, he was not only lost to himself, but he was lost to the world.

In 2001, Peart surprised everyone, not least himself, when he told Lifeson and Lee that he was ready to write a new Rush album. Three years earlier, he had met and fallen madly in love with photographer, Carrie Nuttall. They married in 2000, just three days prior to his 48th birthday. Remade, he wanted to come back to Rush. He, in some way, needed to come back to Rush. Together, the band wrote 2002’s stunning, Vapor Trails, an album of innovative rock and mercurial emotions, testifying that Rush (and Peart) were not only alive, but profoundly so. On June 28, 2002, in Hartford, Connecticut, Rush played its first concert since 1997. Terrified and panicky, Peart quickly excelled in his drumming, and the three men—for the first time in their career—hugged each other for 10 minutes at the conclusion of the show. Peart and Rush were back, better than they ever had been.

In 2007, Rush released Snakes and Arrows, a playful and intense album full of mischief and the progressive blues. Five years later, the band release its final album, a masterpiece, Clockwork Angels, not just a concept album, but a steampunk science-fiction and fantasy about a young man who leaves the countryside of his fathers to find the ultimate meaning of integrity and individuality. In one way, the album is unique, but, in another, it reflects every Rush lyric ever written, but now, on Clockwork Angels, perfected. Since, Peart and Kevin J. Anderson have released two Clockwork novels and two graphic novels. All have done well, and the Clockwork universe remains a wide-open and fertile one, with the potential to become even larger—perhaps through Netflix or Amazon Prime—than it is now, especially in the loving hands of Anderson.

After Clockwork Angels, Rush went on tour twice—first to commemorate the album and, second, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the band (tellingly, counting back to when Peart joined in 1974, not when the band actually formed in 1968). In 2015, I proudly drove my oldest son and oldest daughter 18 hours (there and back) to see the band on that tour. It was one of the greatest evenings of my life.

After the 40th anniversary tour, the band, for all intents and purposes, retired. Peart continued to write and publish, but his writings became fewer and fewer. The family kept secret that Peart had been fighting brain cancer. Yesterday, Friday, January 10, 2020, Lifeson and Lee announced that Peart had died on Tuesday, January 7, 2020.

Peart, as mentioned already in this piece, has shaped many, many, many of us very quietly and sometimes not so quietly. Given my own past, I can state with certainty that I would not be here today without the inspiration and support of Neil Peart’s witness and words. To varying degrees, many could, have, and will similar statements. And, as with all true individuals, Peart avoided the limelight, wanting his example and his art to speak. And, even better, as a true individual, he never sought to make mini-Pearts in the world. He did not want us to imitate his life, but, rather, to imitate his example, and to become the best individual human being we can possibly be, each unique, each unrepeatable, each brilliant.

May the gods welcome him, for he has earned a place among them. He was always his own man, always a seeker of the truth, and always a pursuer of excellence.

Brad Birzer, a professor of history at Hillsdale College, is author of Neil Peart: Cultural Repercussions (2015) and, most recently, of Beyond Tenebrae (2019).