Neil Peart (1952–2020)
Stewart Copeland made me notice drums, and Charlie Watts made me want to play them. Neil Peart made me want to learn how. He died on Jan. 7.
Listening to Moving Pictures at work last Friday after I heard the news, I teared up towards the end of “Red Barchetta”. It sounded like Peart’s soul was running up a staircase of drums to the clouds. I’ve heard that song probably a hundred times before and this was the first time Geddy’s voice sounded sad, from out of nowhere.
My friend Grady introduced my brother and me to Moving Pictures one night in about 1982 or ‘83 when we visited on a trip back to Georgia. He put it on reverently, like we were about to be let in on something big. I vividly remember at least hearing “Tom Sawyer”, “Red Barchetta”, and possibly “YYZ”. The message coming from the speakers seemed to be, “You’ve listened to KISS long enough; you’re ready to graduate to an adult band now”. Rush didn’t sound like anything we’d ever heard before. It was coming from some parallel universe, where a record that commercially unviable could exist and be sold. And those eight-tom fills on “Red Barchetta”! My little brain went, “Ohhhh. DRUMS!”
My brother soon got his own copy of Moving Pictures on vinyl, back when that’s all we could get. And it was my first CD when Dad bought our family’s first CD player in 1985. It blew my mind that it was a “DDD” recording, meaning a digital multitrack > digital master > digital disc. We thought this was as close as you could get to Rush actually being inside your stereo. (Never mind that technically, Moving Pictures doesn’t sound anywhere near as good or “real” as its totally analog predecessor, Permanent Waves.)
When I had my 6th- and 7th-grade stint at taking piano lessons and waited with Mom in our parked car while the teacher finished the previous student’s lesson, what I really wanted to be learning was drums. While scrambling to finish my music theory homework, I would listen to a home-recorded Maxell XL-II of Moving Pictures on a Walkman.
I was obsessed with Rush and would play cassettes of everything from 2112 to Signals while mowing our lawn. This was in the days before protecting your hearing was something we had internalized, so I (regrettably) cranked up the headphones loud enough to hear the drum parts over the mower.
In 1985, my first concert was Rush at Richmond Coliseum on the Power Windows tour. My buddies and I got downtown that afternoon and we lurked around, across the street from the Marriott, hoping to catch a glimpse of the band. After not waiting very long, we saw Geddy and Alex walk right out of the lobby and get in their bus! We may have even seen Neil. They moved too fast and we were too shy to approach, so we just stood there with our mouths open, not believing that these gods were walking around in human form. During the show that night, I don’t remember many details other than that we were close enough to feel the thump of the PA speakers in our chests and smell a lot of pot.
I remember the day in 9th grade Geometry when I was tapping out the “Red Barchetta” drum part on my desk (again) and finally nailed some amount of limb independence for the first time. A milestone silently reached! All while Ms. Saxon was teaching us about Oscar Had A Heap Of Apples.
Before I had any real drums, I practiced Rush drum parts with drumsticks while seated on the side of my bed’s mattress, using a discarded 8th-grade French textbook as a “snare drum”. When it was finally time to buy my own Pearl Export kit in 11th grade, I worked as a bagger at Food Lion long enough to pay back the drum loan from my parents. That modest kit was loud enough that no one in the house could hide from the noise when I played in my second-floor room. I don’t remember my saintly parents ever complaining. How did they stand it?
I missed out by not taking lessons, and my playing has always been a bit one-dimensional because of it, but it was ok enough to play with our show choir and in lots of other bands with friends and my brother over the years. Neil Peart was my first drum teacher. The closest I ever came to a real drum lesson was with very occasional (and badly needed) pointers from Mr. Barton in after-school jazz band. I eventually got the “Drum Techniques of Rush” sheet music book, which was about 85% accurate, and revealing enough to make me realize there was even more going on in those tracks that I thought.
Other drummers I tried to emulate later (Bill Berry, Mike Joyce, and Larry Mullen, Jr.) were more restrained and subtle. I guess I was getting away from my Neil Peart roots with them, learning how much you could do with just a 4-piece kit instead. But I needed that initial Peart flashiness to get my attention and get me hooked.
It’s funny to see journalists who aren’t Rush fans write about them. Sometimes they’re called “prog”, or “art rock” or “metal”, but none of those fit all the time. Rush never slotted into any category long enough for one label to stick. That may be one reason for their appeal to a nerdy teenage boy whom no girls were interested in. Rush was the ideal refuge, with enough twists, surprises, heaviness, intricacy, and detail to explore for years.
Last Friday, I played Permanent Waves in the car, and once I was home, Hemispheres, Fly By Night and A Farewell to Kings (on Roon and Qobuz). I told Sarah that hearing all those drum parts again was like reading the dictionary of your native language. Every word, yep, yep, yep, that one, that one, that one.
Neil, thank you for writing and playing music and for giving me and so many other people the gift of learning the drums. We miss you.