A Better Managed Time: A Tribute To Neil Peart

Hal Stern
Hal Stern
Feb 5 · 5 min read

My Rush infatuation began with “Moving Pictures,” its release synchronized to my college freshman year. Commencement from rock radio Rush to album Rush coincided with a host of other wonderful influences on my life: meeting people unlike me, broadcasting old and what is now nostalgically “First Wave” music on WPRB-FM, appreciated and understanding both no money and the big money. Musical involvement transformed from a high school arts program where I was modestly adept to a passion for listening, live music and trivia that has lasted forty years. I was the perfect Rush fan, although it took me another ten years to realize the full import of that fact.

“Moving Pictures” captures Neil Peart’s affect and effect perfectly. His lyrics are a mix of science, history, literature, and a pragmatism seen through the eyes of future dystopia. Throughout the Rush catalog, Peart paints with the brushes of hope and self determination, broad strokes that make us want to inhabit his characters. The modern day warrior, in all shapes and sizes, whether the battle is for freedom of expression or through a particularly thorny partial derivative problem set.

The drumming on “Moving Pictures” is a synopsis of the craft that Peart brought to his playing. He isn’t just keeping time and marking the boundaries of measures — he is creating time and space. Michelangelo said that he released the shape within the marble, and so Peart’s drumming chips away at convention to reveal beauty and structure. With Geddy Lee on bass, the interplay in a rhythm section that also comprises the majority of the band is complex at best, and a recipe for competing egos at worst. What you experience with “Moving Pictures” is audible art.

Listen to the fills — sparse and precise — in “YYZ” or “Red Barchetta” and you sense that the drums let the sound expand, unboxing and truly releasing it. “YYZ” remains a percussion masterpiece, from the triangle opening to the crash of wooden blocks on a table to punctuate the guitar solo. Peart cooks tension from of the least likely of rock and roll ingredients. As listeners, we madly batter our imaginary kits, joyful to survey our circular kingdom of tom toms from our office chairs turned air drum thrones (admit it: you always air drum the fills on YYZ, Red Barchetta and 2112. You always did, even before you saw “I Love You, Man”). Peart simply better manages time, with surgical precision, as you are guided about, around and through the song. The tom-tom runs are fun, but more impressive are the rudiments between the runs, not where you expect them on the downbeats but aside and astride the flow. His non melodic instrument carries a line for emphasis and effect. If it is possible to make drums sing, Neil Peart gave them a voice.

Peart’s song lyrics created worlds for us to mentally explore; grounded by reality and experience, his books exposed reactions to life on and in multiple stages. From his prose, I learned about Macallan whiskey, the standards to which he held himself and his musicianship, his intense need for privacy and performance precision, his unbridled love of friends and family independent of their stations in life. “Nobody’s Hero” isn’t an attempt to write an anthemic song; it’s simply the most matter of fact way to think about inclusion. Via Rush songs I revisited Cervantes (the Rocinante of Cygnus X-1), Ayn Rand (2112), and even a 1973 Road & Track piece that served as the basis for “Red Barchetta.” (Hat tip to Kevin Anderson’s “2113” for the full reference). Rush fans were indirectly encouraged to be nerdy, ponder life in a sci-fi novel, and challenge the status quo that didn’t fit your mental, physical, or emotional status.

Through Peart’s prose writing, I also discovered how to learn as an adult, the joy of finding a good teacher, and to set goals beyond the current plan. Peart was never shy about proclaiming his musical heritage, whether it was lessons with Freddy Gruber or his “Burnin’ For Buddy” concerts. Sitting forlornly in a drawer with a decade of travel flotsam is my own National Parks Passport, procured after reading his motorcycle travelogues. I relay the inspiration for my blue book when it makes a vacation appearance at the oddest of times. Predominantly east coast stamps inside tell a fraction of the true backstory: Neil Peart made us want to be more literate, more tolerant, more worldly, and more creative. Those goals define an idol, a hero, and a good person.

Some of my most vivid memories are from Rush shows: my first show in the front row, first show in which I was in the “drop zone,” first show for which I bought over-face tickets, my son Ben’s first concert (he was four, and stood on his seat to be able to see), a dozen ensuing shows that chronicled Ben’s trajectory from kindergarten to college graduate, and our dad and lad road trip to Las Vegas for their penultimate show. After Peart’s death, Ben texted me to thank me for introducing him to the wonders of live music, and yet the gratitude is mine for making this dreamer less alone in celebrating our favorite band.

With the news of Peart’s death rumbling profoundly through the music industry, outpouring of adulation, reverence and respect for his genius bordered on the religious that most likely Peart would have disavowed. The accolades surfaced slowly, the long exhale of cultural whales’ breath, musical giants rising up from the depths to reflect on inspiration and near perfection as a performer. For a week, it was the final scene in “Revenge of the Nerds” as everyone revealed a latent Rush fascination in the best of all possible worlds. The most commonly quoted tribute lyrics came from “The Garden,” the last song on the last Rush album, a very fit metaphor. In the three weeks since his passing I’ve listened — really, intently listened — once again to “Moving Pictures.” And with forty years of educational and work history, I have found my inspiration obliquely in the white haired uncle from “Red Barchetta,” the surreptitiously naughty steward of an era slipped past. He links culture across generations and regulations, preserving heritage and history with adroit playfulness.

I think I know who I want to be when I grow up. Thank you, Professor.

As fans, air drummers, and misfits now so alone with our grief at Peart’s passing, we inherit this similar communal responsibility for his legacy, his syncopated bridge from Gene Krupa to modern drumming, to protect, to promote and to cherish, to remind ourselves and the next generation to hear the beauty of this better managed time.

Hal Stern

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