[A guest post by my younger brother, Suleman Khawaja.]
I can still remember being six years old, sitting on the asphalt basketball court behind St. Joseph’s church, tagging along with my older brother and the other neighborhood 12-year olds, trying hard not to be so conspicuously small. A hushed anticipation fell over the churchyard. I can still hear the ephemeral bumps and clicks as the tape unspooled in the little boom box, the sonic artifacts of fingers pressing Record and Play on someone’s Dad’s hi-fi, the click of the needle touching down on vinyl. “This is it, man!” The LP-to-cassette knock-off of Moving Pictures cued to launch the opening burst of “Tom Sawyer” into the air of North Jersey suburbia.
1981. West Orange, New Jersey. That’s the first time I heard Rush. The first time I ever heard of Neil Peart. One story among so many others. But mine.
Over the next few years, I worked both forwards and backwards (with my brother buying the records) through the ambitious oddball virtuosity of the entire Rush catalog, all the way back to the 1974 debut album, and forward through the album (and the VHS tape) of the Exit…Stage Left concert, up through 1983’s synth-laden, genre-bending Signals.
And from then forward, I can remember, for every single Rush album that came out, where I was, what time of year it was, what was going on in my life as I wore out that LP, cassette, CD, or MP3. Grace Under Pressure, summer after 3rd grade, nervous about a new school. Power Windows, winter 5th grade, the big family trip to Pakistan. Hold Your Fire, released first week of 7th grade, listened to the entire album twice every day on my Sony Walkman, last seat, back of the bus, volume dialed all the way up to drown out the awkwardness of middle school.
Presto, winter, freshman year high school, same bus, same awkwardness, first Rush concert that April. Roll the Bones, released the day before first day of junior year high school, now I could drown out the awkwardness behind the wheel of my first car. Counterparts, 2nd month of freshman year of college, I was only person in line at Millennium Records not buying Pearl Jam’s Vs., also released that day. Test for Echo, fall of senior year of college, soundtrack of my med school interview trail. Vapor Trails, end of intern year, watching my future wife dance in the aisles at the comeback show. Snakes and Arrows, first summer living in my own house, last year before fatherhood. Clockwork Angels, the sweet summer of 2012.
Along the way there was always a lot of other music in my life. I immersed myself at various turns into metal, classic rock, progressive rock, new wave, hip-hop, jazz, punk, grunge, trip-hop, industrial, shoegazer, indie rock, art rock, and every revival and reboot of all of the above that has rolled out in the creative depression of the last 10 years of rock music. For every time and place in my life, there’s been a soundtrack, and a lasting spiritual connection to the music that I wrapped myself in. But there’s only one artist whose every record has that lasting spiritual connection. Only Rush. Often music is meaningful in a way nothing else can be. But Rush has become more than that to me. Rush is personal.
Flash forward to Friday, January 10th, 2020. My teeth are still grinding, head still buzzing from my shift at the hospital. I’ve got a couple of errands before heading home. My car is playing my music library on shuffle play and “Vital Signs” comes on. I’m sliding my card into the slot at the drive-through ATM when suddenly my phone blows up: texts from friends, my wife, my mother-in-law, my nephew – have I heard? Heard what? How the hell can this be happening? Neil Peart has died? The next few minutes are a blur. I grab a wad of 20-dollar bills out of the ATM and clumsily drop it on the passenger seat. I’m driving, really can this be true? I end up in a parking spot at Peter’s Fish Market. I’m standing in line to pay. I’m wondering if the guy ringing me up can tell I’m completely losing my shit, hyperventilating, tears rolling hot down my face. He’s gone. How can he be gone?
Never before in my life have I gone into full bereavement over the passing of a person whom I did not know personally. How do I unpack all of this? How can I make it understandable what this all means?
In the time I’ve been a fan, much has been written about the cult of Rush fandom, and particularly on the Neil-Peart-as-hero phenomenon. Neil Peart leaves a legacy as perhaps the greatest virtuoso drummer in rock music. And yet, it is demonstrably true that there have been drummers of greater technical skill, probably even within rock, and certainly if you include jazz. What made Neil special was not just how great he was at hitting things with sticks. There was an expressiveness in his playing, a dynamism, that made Rush’s signature sound unique even among its own tight progressive-rock subgenre. In Rush songs, the percussion contributes a musicality beyond rhythm. It has tone and melody, and the guitars and bass bend in and around it, building that wall of sound for which the band is famous (“that’s just three guys?”). The beats define the texture and mood of the song, the drum fills actually work as pop hooks unto themselves. And the solos work as stand-alone musical compositions. I’m not a musician, so don’t ask me how this works. I just know what it sounds like, what it makes me feel.
What made Neil a hero and an idol, both to drummers and to people who’d never touched a drumstick that didn’t involve fried chicken, was the dedication to the craft, the intensity, and the peculiarly un-rock-star-like way in which he went about being a rock star. This is a guy who spent three decades making a reputation as a legend, and then after achieving legend status, decided to spend years in professional drum lessons to improve his technique. Twice.
One of the great ironies of Peart’s career is that he came up as a drummer idolizing Keith Moon of The Who – a guy who was legendary as a drummer, but even more legendary as a flamboyant bon vivant whose lifestyle ultimately ended the party and broke up the band. Peart, by contrast, went on tour with KISS as a 24-year old man in the mid-1970s, and spent his evenings reading books in his hotel room while debauchery of historic proportions occurred outside those four walls. As different as they might have been on the introvert-extrovert issue, Peart and Moon definitely were kindred outliers in how they saw the role of the drummer in a rock band as putting on a show rather than sitting behind the show keeping time.
That said, you could roll every minute of tape in existence of Neil drumming and never see a moment in which the drummer’s face conveys “showman.” I’ve long been told by those around me that I have the ultimate game face and, let me tell you: there were few game faces in the history of game faces like Neil Peart’s game face. He looked steely, businesslike, even angry behind that vast armory of drums, cymbals, and pedals. Combine that with his reputation for reclusiveness and his unwillingness to do press and fan appearances (a disposition he famously lyricized in “Limelight”), and the easy conclusion was that Neil was a scowling grouch, a difficult person who didn’t give love to his own adoring fans.
It’s a superficial critique, and one about which I’m especially sensitive, having dealt with versions of it myself as a sometimes hyper-focused natural introvert. What made Neil Peart a public figure and a cult hero was his craft. He did nothing but work and work to get better and better at it, and literally toured until his body fell apart. If your critique is, where was the love, then the problem is not that Neil Peart was difficult or aloof. The problem is that everything the guy did was an act of love, and you totally missed it.
To be sure, Neil was a cult hero for more than his drumming acumen. Peart’s lyrics, more than those of any other pop artist I can think of, reflect a specific and consistent credo: revere individuality; reject conformity and repression in all its forms; champion the misfit, encourage the dreamer; real heroism lies in advancing the cause of humanity through intellect, honesty, moral courage, and compassion. That’s not to say that that as a songwriter he’s the artistic equal of a Bob Dylan, or that every lyric he ever wrote is unerringly great. The early work can be stilted and grandiose.
The later work is uneven and often tilts toward blandness. But in that middle prime of his songwriting career, particularly 1980-1985, Peart’s lyrics are hyper-literate, rife with meaning, dense with ideas, and possess a directness and clarity that’s both rare and uncommon in rock music. Typically, the lyrics to “artistically serious” rock songs are coyly oblique, if not completely cryptic. Peart comes out and earnestly says exactly the thing he means to say. No talking in riddles. No speaking in tongues. It’s polarizing. Some people love it. Lots of people hate it. Critics have tended to fall in the latter category over the years.
But the lyrics aren’t for the critics and Peart’s aim is not to mystify. The lyrics are for the individualists, the nonconformists, the misfits, the dreamers. The people who self-select into the Rush fan base. And the aim is to inspire. Ask Rush fans why they’re so passionate about Rush, and one answer you’re likely to hear over and over again is: “Rush songs helped me through some rough times in my life.” There are plenty of rock songs about teen suicide. “The Pass” is the only one about which I’ve heard multiple people say, “If I’d never heard that song, I don’t know if I’d be here today.” You wonder why Rush fans are so loyal. Why the connection to Peart feels so personal, even knowing it would never be in his nature to reciprocate if your fantasy came through and you ran into him on a city street, or in an airport.
Neil Peart joined Rush in 1975, the year I was born. He and the band recorded and toured tirelessly, and almost constantly, from that year until 1997, the year I graduated college. Their rate of musical growth and evolution, and their sheer productivity, especially during the decade 1976-1985, is close to unmatched in the history of pop music. In that year, 1997, Peart lost his daughter Selena, his only child, a college student roughly my age, to a single-occupant car accident, and then months later his common-law wife, Jackie Taylor, to breast cancer. He was 45, roughly the same age I am now. He proceeded to leave society, aimlessly ride a perimeter of North America on a motorbike, somehow sort things out, fall in love, get remarried, reunite the band, resume tirelessly recording and touring, and restart a family, becoming a father again in the late 2000s, around the same time I became a father for the first time.
As he aged, he became increasingly vocal about his desire to stop touring, about the physical toll on his arms and legs of pounding day after day on that minor metropolitan center of percussion gear. And particularly about the emotional toll of leaving a young daughter to go on tour. As he once said, “I can handle missing her. I can’t handle her missing me.” Yeah. Wrap your head around that.
It was all but officially announced from the outset that the R40 tour of 2015 was the band’s swan song. Peart’s arms and legs weren’t going to hold up very much longer, and Alex and Geddy weren’t getting any younger either, but the band was cognizant of the fans’ desire for closure. One more tour, then Neil gets to ride his motorbike off into the sunset and be a dad, Geddy gets to go home and collect baseball memorabilia and basses, and Alex gets to paint, golf, and do whatever else it is that Alex does.
If ever a guy deserved a long, indulgent retirement after giving all he had, it was Neil Peart. I remember walking out of the Prudential Center thinking exactly that on that night in late June 2015, emotionally drained, still exhilarated, and a little bit deaf, after my 12th and last Rush concert.
We now know that the victory lap couldn’t have lasted more than a year from that last tour before Neil learned he had glioblastoma multiforme, beginning a 3 ½ year battle with the same disease that in 2017 would take the life of his fellow Canadian rock icon Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip. Not to mention John McCain, Ted Kennedy, and Beau Biden. Every year, I care for patient after patient with this disease. Every time, the same outcome.
There is no way to close this but to acknowledge that the end of the story is simply terrible. No silver lining. No suggestion that everything happens for a reason. No circle of life platitudes. Neil Ellwood Peart, drummer, dreamer, lyricist, human, has died of a horrible disease at the age of 67, leaving a wife, a 10-year old daughter, and us.