Neil Peart died last week.
I found out on the company Slack, when a good friend and colleague sent me a link to the CBC article announcing his passing, followed by a simple “sigh”.
My reply was an equally succinct four letters, but far less sanguine.
I took a deep breath, flipped off my computer, and headed out into the mild San Francisco winter to think and reflect. But I didn’t bring headphones. I wasn’t ready for that. Not yet.
It is impossible to overstate how important Rush, and Neil’s lyrics, have been to my life. I’ve been listening to them almost obsessively since I was 10 or 11 (circa Signals). I’ve made, maintained, and rekindled friendships through Rush. They got me through an often painful childhood and young adulthood. Simply queuing up one of their songs can transform my mood from execrable to ecstatic.
I can still remember hearing “New World Man” on my brother’s boombox while sledding on a random snow day, and curling up with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader while “Tom Sawyer” played in the background. Whenever the weather was bad and we had an indoor recess I used to drive my 6th-grade classmates crazy by playing the 2112 album over and over and over. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the intro to 2112 — a resonant filter sweep on an Arp Odyssey, FWIW — created a fascination with sound, synthesis, and synthesizers that led, in a roundabout way, to my current career.
Pause rewind replay
Warm memory chip
Random sample hold the one you need.
Grace Under Pressure was the first album I ever bought, and my first rock concert (for which there is a widely-circulated bootleg!). I snuck a Walkman into my no-electronics summer camp so I could listen to Power Windows. [A (now defunct) summer camp that was within spitting distance of what is now Jiffy Lube Live, the location of DC-area Rush concerts in the 2000s and 2010s.] I used to blast Hold Your Fire on my mom’s stereo so loud I could hear it upstairs while in the shower. My high school and college careers were punctuated by the steady release of each new Rush record. Every two years I sat down with a new album, closed my eyes, and listened. Despite being fortunate enough to catch most of their tours in the 80s and early 90s (I still regret choosing Yes’s Big Generator tour over Hold Your Fire) it was the recordings that most captivated me.
On a timeless wavelength
Bearing a gift beyond price
After hearing the news of his death, I walked along the Embarcadero, looking out over the Bay, trying to appreciate the here and the now. I found myself tapping out the beats of “Limelight” on a cold steel railing, resisting the urge to flail my arms along with the drum fills running through my head. Trying not to cry.
In college I majored in materials science and engineering — going as far as a master’s degree. But I relied on a string of classes in electronic and computer music to keep me sane in an otherwise punishing curriculum. It was Rush’s use of synthesizers that interested me in electronic music in the first place. I took so many, in fact, that I ran out of undergraduate computer music and recording courses, and was left with only the graphics and video art classes offered by the integrated electronic arts program. And it was these classes that allowed me to plausibly claim three years’ experience when I applied for my first real job, designing an interactive CD-ROM for NASA.
Excitement so thick, you could cut it with a knife
Technology high, on the leading edge of life
Like a pillar of cloud, the smoke lingers
High in the air
In fascination with the eyes
of the world we stare.
Sometime after grad school, with the ascendance of grunge and alternative rock, I stopped listening to Rush. I’m not exactly sure why. At the time they had neither mainstream appeal or indie credibility, and would never be heard on, say, WHFS. I began to consider their music a guilty pleasure, and then just kiddie stuff that wasn’t worth spending time on.
Probably just trying too hard to grow up, trying too hard to be cool.
Then you learn the lesson that it’s tough to be so cool.
Test for Echo was the first Rush album I didn’t get day of release since I was old enough to buy music — I was so far out of the loop I didn’t even know it was out. It would even get linked in my mind (due to an unfortunate roommate situation) with an extremely painful breakup. It took me years to warm up to. I missed the first few “evening with Rush” tours (when the band dropped opening acts, and extended their concerts from 90 minutes or so to three hours), and with it the opportunity to ever hear many of the songs on Counterparts, Test for Echo, and Vapor Trails live.
It’s just the age
It’s just a stage
We turn the page.
I started to be drawn back into their orbit with the release of Vapor Trails. My boss at the time was a drummer and huge Rush fan, and we bonded over their music. Major technical flaws in the recording made it hard for me to love Vapor Trails when it came out, but I did like it. A few years later he suggested going to the R30 tour, and that show made it clear the band still had it. And my love affair was back on.
When my walk was over I went back to work, and sat staring at the screen. It was time to move from playing Rush in my head to playing Rush for real. I already knew what I wanted to listen to — Different Stages, the live album that covered the period when I was most detached from the band — but I wasn’t sure if I could handle it.
The 30th anniversary tour brought me a new appreciation for experiencing Rush first hand. As a band they’ve often been criticized for being bland live — too precise, too consistent, every concert exactly the same, sounding exactly like the record. But one thing the critics were missing is that Rush wasn’t trying to capture their recordings live, they were trying to capture their live performance in their recordings. Experiencing Neil, Geddy, and Alex first hand was sublime.
But it wasn’t just the music — Neil’s lyrics resonated with me in a way no other songwriter or poet’s has. Yes, I am the archetypical disaffected straight white male suburbanite fan who grew up in the ’80s, played D & D, read Heinlein, and can recite “Subdivisions” by heart. But it’s Neil’s writings on the nature of science and art, his willingness to engage with new technology but still be wary of its effect on society, and his persistent optimism — despite personal tragedy and a relentlessly existential worldview — that stick with me.
Science, like nature, must also be tamed
With a view towards its preservation
Given the same state of integrity
It will surely serve us well.
Yes, the Ayn Rand obsession is/was problematic, but Neil grew up, and so did I. He could be both corny and transcendent, often in the same song (but then again, so could the music).
Put your message in a modem
And throw it in a cyber sea
Like a pair of vagabonds who wave between two passing trains
Or the glimpse of a woman’s smile through a window in the rain
I can smell her perfume, I can taste her lips
I can feel the voltage from her fingertips.
I carry his words and his ethics with me in my work and life, trying to do what I do as best as I possibly can, being honest and passionate and dedicated and kind. I spent almost 20 years at NASA creating graphics based on incredible data, and the individual piece I’m most proud of is publishing a snippet of “Earthshine” (with the band’s permission!) along with a photo of the crescent moon rising above the horizon, taken from the International Space Station.
By the time Clockwork Angels was released there were inklings the end was coming. New albums only arrived once every five years, and Geddy’s voice showed signs of age that the rest of him didn’t. Despite this, they still toured (and toured, and toured) so I was able to get my fix. My most recent Rush show was their R40 tour in San Jose, with some old and (relatively) new friends. The rumblings on the street (“last major tour of this magnitude”) and format of the concert (backwards through their catalog both sonically and visually) indicated it was likely last opportunity I’d have.
When Neil stepped out from behind his kit and took a bow for the first time ever with a (shocked) Geddy and Alex a few days later in L.A., it was clear Rush was done as a touring band.
But I held out hope there was more coming. Maybe a one-day show or short residency? New EP? Soundtrack work? Anything! As the years passed and silence from the band continued my hope dimmed, but it was always there.
Ever since Rush’s last show, I’ve wondered how I’d react when one of the members died. After all, the passage of time, loss, and endings have been a consistent theme in their music, dating to “Lakeside Park,” written when Neil was all of 23 years old.
Though it’s just a memory, some memories last forever.
Would I still find joy in their songs? Would I be able to listen their music without feeling a sense of loss? For years I’ve avoided binging on their music, trying to avoid over indulgence, knowing that I’d never again hear a Rush song for the first time.
And then, last week, the band announced Neil Peart had died. Neil toured extensively on his motorcycle, and I harbored a fantasy that I’d catch him in a national park cafe or on the street in Santa Monica, and (knowing his abhorrence of fame) simply say “thank you” as he passed by.
Since hitting play on Different Stages last Friday afternoon, I’ve been listening constantly to my own carefully curated Rush playlist. From the ferocious Live at the Hammersmith Odeon, through the synth-drenched 80s, to the staccato blasts of “Far Cry”. Yes, even Test for Echo.
It seems to me
As we make our own few circles ’round the sun
We get it backwards
And our seven years go by like one.