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A Farewell to Kings: Remembering Neil Peart (1952-2020)

Recommended Tracks: Red Barchetta (Moving Pictures), Limelight (Moving Pictures), Closer To The Heart (A Farewell To Kings), Xanadu (A Farewell To Kings), La Villa Strangiato (Hemispheres), The Trees (Hemispheres), Subdivisions (Signals), The Spirit Of The Radio (Permanent Waves), 2112: Overture (2112).

Recommended Album: Moving Pictures (1981)

On January the 7th of 2020, at the age of 67, Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist of Canadian prog-rock power-trio Rush passed away after a three-year long battle with glioblastoma. I myself was at a social event at the time. My phone was turned off, my social media inactive, and I passing the time in the company of my peers. I had yet to realise that one of history's most talented musicians had left us, not like his retirement from Rush in 2018, but this time, for ever.

So who was Neil Peart? Ask any person on the street today, and you would honestly be pressed to find a correct answer, let alone recognition of the name. Criminally unknown in the mainstream due to his membership in Rush, whose ambitious, lengthy and technically outstanding compositions struggled to find radio-play when pitted against their uber-commercial musical rivals, Neil Peart was many things. In his personal life, he was a loving father and husband, shattered and burdened with the tragic death of his 19 year old daughter Selena Taylor, and only 10 months later forced to watch as his first wife, Jacqueline Taylor, passed away from cancer.

As a musician, he was a maestro and virtuoso, changing the face of drumming as we know it with eclectic and stunning techniques, lightning fast yet meticulously precise, so studious he was nicknamed ‘The Professor’. As a man, he was fallible, vulnerable, yet remembered in the outpouring of grief that followed his death as kind, humble, quiet and reserved. He was as far removed from the traditional stereotype of the debauched, flamboyant, boisterous and brash rock star as any man could ever be, possessed with a recurring social anxiety that plagued him as he and fellow band mates Geddy Lee (bass, lead, vocals) and Alex Lifeson (guitar) gradually grew in fame and amassed a cult following.

Born on September 12th of 1952, Peart's journey to stardom started at first reads like textbook introduction to a drummer's first steps into music. Heavily influenced by British titans Keith Moon (the Who) and John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) this led to his penchant for drumming with a pair of chopsticks on various surfaces of his house, resulting in his thirteenth birthday gift of a practice drum, some real sticks and of course, lessons. The die was cast.

Jumping from band to band, selling tractor parts at his father's business to support his ailing musical career, fate, luck, or perhaps divine intervention led Peart to audition for a new up and coming band called Rush, whose original drummer John Rutsey, much like Pete Best and Doug Sandom would join a long line of individuals who quit prematurely before their band exploded into stardom.

The audition was a success, and Peart joined the band, and oddly for the position of a drummer, quickly established himself as its leading lyricist. With a voracious consumption of literature, Peart was quick to differentiate his band from the rest of the music scene with intellectual, sweeping songs that covered themes of fantasy, mythology, magic and the supernatural (with J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings serving as primary inspiration) only to be met with derisive contempt from critics (in an unfortunate tradition of sneering and eviscerating prog-rock as a genre, one only has to see reactions to Genesis to understand my point) despite the band's ludicrously impressive musicianship.

Never one to be deterred, Peart plunged himself further into his art, blending a frenzied yet utterly professional and calculated style of drumming with a greater foray into literary themes for Rush's songs. The results speak for themselves: ‘Xanadu’, from the 1977 album ‘A Farewell to Kings’ took its central story from that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem ‘Kubla Khan’; ‘Rivendell’ from the 1975 ‘Fly By Night’ describes the Elven sanctuary of the same name in Tolkien's mythos, and so on and so on. The songs began to tackle broader humanitarian themes, as well as commenting on issues such as artistic integrity or lamenting the rise of over-commercialised music (‘The Spirit of the Radio’) as well as the importance of independence and free will, as seen in the band's hit single ‘Tom Sawyer’. Tellingly, Peart began to masterfully infuse his lyrics with personal elements: to this day, ‘Limelight’, one of Rush's most celebrated compositions is a deeply revealing insight into Peart's discomfort and rejection of the burden of fame.

Yet nothing represents Peart's legacy quite as much as the band (and drummer's) magnum opus, the science-fiction epic, ‘2112’. The product of Peart's imagination and interest in objectivist philosophies (especially Ayn Raynd) this epic, operatic-like composition tells the story of a world crushed by the oppressive, fascist Solar Federation, who mercilessly stifles all creativity and individuality, until the album's hero uses the discovery of music, and by extension free will and expression to overthrow them. A gargantuan achievement, spanning 20 minutes of mind-boggling musicianship that weaves an interplanetary saga to rival George Lucas, with its futuristic, cosmic sheen and powerful message, ‘2112’ was and remains possibly Peart's greatest work.

This is perhaps, the ultimate legacy of Neil Peart, why he influenced so many, inspired thousands to pick up their drum sticks and play, in the hopes of emulating the dervish, tracing lightning and bringing thunder from his kit that they saw on stage, encircled by a shield of burnished bronze and copper. So unlike the crazed, out-of-control rock gods like Bonham and Moon who excelled in their abilities to cause chaos.

Peart, however, was infinitely approachable, endlessly relatable. On the surface one of, if not the, greatest drummer of all time, a pioneer in his field. Deep down, just another shy, socially awkward geek who loved to write songs about books, poems, space-operas and sagas, a nerd, affectionately described by band-mate Geddy Lee as "the dorkiest guy I'd ever seen" a passionate super-star grounded in reality and chasing fantasies through music, committed to his own artistic integrity until the end, rejecting the critics who jeered him as he carved his name with the nib of a pen and a drumstick into rock and roll history.

The cover of Rush's ‘2112’ depicts a naked man standing, emblazoned against a crimson star. The figure draped by this cosmic emblem is the story’s Hero. Cover artist Hugh Syme would describe the protagonist as "the hero of the story […..] the pureness of his person and creativity." A faceless hero, unassuming, standing tall and proud with the power of music at his side, facing off against the mediocre, the vicious, the cruel, bland and uninspiring represented by the star of the Federation, a paragon of spirit, of talent, of dedication, honesty, innovation and inventiveness. That hero is no longer faceless.

He was Neil Peart.

R.I.P Mr Peart. You shall be forever immortal in the limelight.

Pablo L, Year 13

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