The death of rock's master craftsman
The era of rock ‘n' roll is coming to an end, along with the lives of its greatest icons. We've already mourned the passing of some of the greats, and there are many, many more to come. But even with that sorrowful knowledge firmly in view, it came as an especially shocking blow to learn that Neil Peart, the impossibly proficient drummer and lyricist for the Canadian prog-rock power trio Rush, died this past week at the age of 67 after a 3-1/2-year struggle with brain cancer.
That's not just because (like David Bowie and Tom Petty before him) Peart died before the onset of old age, or because his medical problems had been thoroughly concealed from the world, or because it's always hard to accept the passing of someone we admire. The pain is especially wrenching in this case because Peart was so transcendentally great at what he did. As Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, a fantastic drummer in his own right, put it in a heartfelt tribute, Peart's "power, precision, and composition was incomparable."
It's a cliché to refer to the grand old rock stars as "gods," but there was something truly death-defying about Peart's capacity to write and play drum parts that seemed to mock human limitations. His metronomic accuracy, the complexity and speed of his drum fills, his ability to introduce and then embellish complex root patterns and accents across the expanse of a song, including forays across multiple time-signature shifts, were legendary. They also inspired countless thousands of young listeners to imagine themselves behind a drum kit, commanding and controlling the foundation of a band's sound with seemingly effortless dexterity.
Whether in drumming or lyric-writing, Peart was foremost an admirer of excellence, and he exemplified it. That made him a man of classical sensibilities and virtues.
His nickname was "The Professor," and it fit him perfectly. Peart was in many ways the antithesis of what we think of as a rock star. Where so many of the greats have indulged in (literal and figurative) orgies of excess, Peart was extraordinarily disciplined, devoted above all to the ideal of personal refinement that enabled him to master his instrument. Instead of partying before a show, he was far more likely to be found engrossed in a book. (His reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Greek mythology provoked some of the band's greatest early work, while Steampunk, a subgenre of science fiction, inspired the band's final studio album Clockwork Angels from 2012). While touring, he would often set off on a solo motorcycle ride to the next gig, soaking up the scenery in contemplation instead of succumbing to the hedonism that so often seduces superstars.
This sometimes made his interactions with fans somewhat fraught. Peart was flattered by their support and even adulation, but he preferred to remain at arm's length from its direct expression, finding unexpected encounters with admirers exceedingly awkward. As he memorably put it in a song exploring his ambivalent feelings about his own life in the limelight:
Living in a fisheye lens
Caught in the camera eye
I have no heart to lie
I can't pretend a stranger
Is a long-awaited friend
But Peart's veneration of excellence went beyond his skills. Yes, he strove to perfect his technical virtuosity, and he lavished great attention on the words he wrote for the band. But the pursuit of individual distinction was also one of the enduring themes of his lyrics, reverberating throughout Rush's catalog.
The song cycle 2112, written during Peart's brief but productive engagement with the novels and stories of Ayn Rand, sketches a future in which music has been banned by political-religious authorities and then gets rediscovered by a would-be musician who rises up in defiance of the system. Other songs — "A Farewell to Kings," "The Trees," "Subdivisions," "Countdown," "Marathon," "Dreamline" — explore the restless human drive to achieve exalted goals, rising above mediocrity and reaching for greatness, while still others — "Natural Science," "New World Man," "Manhattan Project" — focus on the challenges that follow from such achievements, especially the ethical dilemmas provoked by technological developments.
In the band's biggest FM-radio hit, "Tom Sawyer," Peart and his co-author (poet Pye Dubois) used Mark Twain's restive literary character as an exemplar of an enduring individualist ideal of striving, adaptive independence. Some of its lines can almost serve as an epitaph for the man who helped write them:
No, his mind is not for rent
To any god or government
Always hopeful, yet discontent
He knows changes aren't permanent
But change is
Though Peart inclined toward some form of libertarianism, he wasn't a one-dimensional booster for any political agenda. As a humanist, he was most interested in shining a light on mankind's greatest triumphs and perennial struggles. In "Losing It" from 1982, he reflected on the experience of working hard to master a skill and then enduring its waning with age. First he describes a dancer who can no longer command her body as she once did, then a writer who can no longer find the right words to express himself. Finally Peart spoke directly to the sense of inconsolable loss:
Some are born to move the world
To live their fantasies
But most of us just dream about
The things we'd like to be
Sadder still to watch it die
Than never to have known it
For you, the blind who once could see
The bell tolls for thee
Peart struggled through the band's final tour, in 2015, his advancing age making it increasingly painful to play at the level he demanded of himself. Now we know that he was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him less than a year into retirement. It wasn't his first brush with wrenching tragedy. Years earlier he endured the death of his daughter (his only child) and his wife within the space of just 10 months. He eventually fought his way back in the wake of that unspeakable trauma. But this time there would be no overcoming of adversity.
Neil Peart was rock music's master craftsman. Incomparable and irreplaceable, he will be sorely missed.