Music by VICE

For Small Town Nerds, Neil Peart Was a God

The Rush drummer and lyricist, who died last week, was a weirdo-poet philosopher who expanded the minds of impressionable young dreamers for decades.

by Drew Brown
Jan 15 2020, 11:00am

Drummer Neil Peart from Canadian progressive rock band Rush recording their album 'Permanent Waves' at Le Studio, Morin Heights, Quebec, Canada in October 1979. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns via Getty Images)

Neil Peart was my favourite poet.

Had I been born somebody else—the son of a wealthier, more properly bourgeois family outside of rural Newfoundland—I’m sure I’d have poured over someone more respectable. But in this timeline I was born a profoundly weird, profoundly shy nerd to a sailor’s family living in a declining factory town in the middle of a boreal forest. I read too many books, I was compelled and repelled by both the same and opposite sex, and I nursed a desperate—if outwardly defiant—need to be liked by all the ignorant people whose chief joy resided in treating me like shit. My only escape was writing amateur sci-fi, playing bass guitar, and caring a lot about atheism like it was a personality.

In other words: Rush was a band designed in a 1970s Cancon laboratory specifically for me, personally, a guy born in the late 80s.

I once photoshopped Geddy Lee’s face over an icon of Jesus and put it on my wall. I actually bought Alex Lifeson’s solo album, which was no mean feat for a rural teen in the dark ages before easy online shopping. I memorized every word in every song on every album and treated Neil Peart’s words like Gospel. I can still vividly remember the bittersweet moment I heard “Entre Nous” for the first time, sitting in my car outside Bride’s Convenience in the rain, knowing that deep cut from Permanent Waves was the last ‘classic’ Rush song I would hear for the very first time. They were literally the only band I listened to for a solid 24 months of my young adult life. I cannot overstate how fucking intensely I loved Rush as a 16 year-old boy.

Geddy was the patron saint of my short stint as an aspiring prog rock bassist, but Neil was the beating heart of the band and the captain of my teenage soul. His genius as a drummer is legendary—he was the best, untouchable, fucking fight me—and his storied simple kindness as a human being gives him an equally mythic dimension.

But for me, he was chiefly a philosopher king—a truly self-made, small-town intellectual. I felt the fire and fury of “Anthem”s corny libertarianism in my bones. I was every introverted fugitive straining to escape their claustrophobic “Middletown Dreams”. “Old enough to know what’s right and young enough not to choose it” was the conscious mantra of all the pleasurable self-destruction I did for fun when I was 20 (and also for a long time after). I could “see the hand of Man arise/with hungry mind and open eyes,” and was determined to forever remain “young enough to remember the future/the way things ought to be.”

As I grew up and my own cultural world expanded, I also grew away from cultish devotion to rock’s greatest power trio. Now, it’s honestly rare for me to circle back to Rush unless I’m feeling nostalgic for my adolescence, which admittedly does not happen often. But part of the beauty of the band is its four-decade catalogue: Neil’s world never stopped expanding either, and he never stopped reflecting on it. The man’s body of work is now given over to us so that we too may expand with him forever. He grew over forty years of life and history from a hot-headed young man reading too much Ayn Rand into a wizened old magus communed with the highs and lows of human experience and the true depth of our connection to one another. You can hear the change in him as he reassembles the pieces of his broken life on “Vapour Trails”. He is a model for maturity. The brazen youth who set out seeking the “Fountain of Lamneth” finds upon the mountaintop not the maddening immortality of Xanadu, but peace and quiet among the shade of a simple Garden.

Time ticks away; your cells tick away. The measure of a life, he wrote on the last track of the last Rush album, is a measure of love and respect: the way you live, the gifts that you give. The future inevitably disappears into memory, with only a moment in between. Forever lives within that moment; it is the only place it grows. It is, indeed, a garden to nurture and protect.

I will never forget the poet who first taught me how to plant those seeds and help them grow in barren earth. As dark clouds and rain feed the beauty of the flower, I know not to fear the thunder: that is Neil Peart, drumming now for all the Gods.

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