The year I turned twelve, I really, really wanted to celebrate my birthday at Chuck E. Cheese’s. The closest one was nearly an hour away, somewhere in Columbus, but I really wanted to go there and play video games and generally be eleven. My parents agreed, but said I could only bring one friend. I chose, and we went.
I don’t remember driving there or back. I don’t really remember the dinner (probably pizza) or playing any of the video games. What I do remember is unwrapping the small present my friend had brought, there in the half-lit cacophony of Chuck E.’s place, to discover he’d given me a cassette of Moving Pictures by this band I’d never really heard of called Rush. I must’ve looked nonplussed, because I remember him assuring me it was a good album and he thought I’d like it.
He was right.
I saved money to buy other albums, to get the P/G concert video on VHS, and eventually to see them live. The second rock concert I ever went to was the Hold Your Fire tour at Richfield Coliseum. I saw the next few tours there or at Blossom Music Center, standing in line at the Ticketmaster desk at the local Sears to get my tickets. Post-college, my mother started coming to see them with me, and later my sister. At almost every tour, I bought one T-shirt and the concert program.
What drew me into Rush fandom was partly what drew most fans: the technical virtuosity, the effortless shifting between moods and time signatures, the sheer joy of listening to three masters of their craft producing a sound that sounded like it required five or six, minimum. But I was also drawn in by the lyrics: unlike all the other rock groups I heard on the radio, Rush exposed me to literary stories and philosophical questions. They were just unlike any other band I knew, and the artistry captivated me.
The news broke today that man who wrote almost every line of those lyrics, Neil Peart, died earlier this week at age 67, after three and a half years of dealing with brain cancer. It came as no surprise that the news came as a surprise: Peart was notoriously reclusive, even writing an entire song about his discomfort with and rejection of the social structures that exist around fame. It still felt a little ironic, given that all through junior high and high school, a “Neil Peart is dying” rumor circulated at least once a year. When he actually was dying, there were no rumors.
The news hit me hard, but not in the way I would have expected in my youth. I’m old enough now, and have seen enough other legends die, that the loss of a personal hero is… if not expected, at least accepted. This is the time of life where that sort of thing is just going to happen. But the brain cancer that killed Peart, glioblastoma, is the same cancer that killed Rebecca, and my breath froze when I read it.
It feels in some ways like a cruel final twinning. Throughout my life, I’ve found again and again that Peart and I had evolved in similar ways. As a teen, I modeled some aspects of myself on his lyrics and the band as a whole; as an adult, charting my own course, I would sometimes learn that the parallels had continued. To pick one example, many years ago I started calling myself, only part-jokingly, a “liberaltarian”. Years after that, I found out that Peart identified the same way. There were other times when I’d read one of his blog posts or books, or an interview with him, and something he said about his thoughts and opinions would resonate with me anew, seeing in my youthful hero a reflection of myself. As I struggled to live after the death of my daughter, I would sometimes think about how he struggled under similar circumstances, and found a way forward. At times, I used it as motivation to push myself to take another step forward.
I may be a fan, but even I will admit that his lyrics weren’t always brilliant — for every jaw-dropping turn of phrase, there was also a jaw-dropping clunker, though of course forty years of writing is more than long enough to turn out both diamonds and doggerel. His drumming, on the other hand, absolutely was brilliant, beginning to end. He was the first rock drummer I ever heard who played the drums like an instrument instead of a click track. Expressive, intricate, sometimes bombastic, occasionally perplexing, but never boring.
There are many, many lyrics he wrote that would be relevant here, but instead of quoting, I’ll just say what I would have said if I’d ever met him: Thank you. For so many different things at different points in my life, from the profound to the mundane. For giving me more to think about in my music than almost anyone else. For living life on your own terms, and for dying on those same terms. For being an important and motivating part of so many, many lives.
Goodbye, Professor. Thank you.