If you're anything like me, you can still remember where you were when you heard the news that Neil Peart had died. And perhaps, like me, you were surprised that he had lost his battle with cancer-- since you didn't know he had cancer in the first place. (I knew he had been ill, but Neil was a very private person, and I did not want to pry. I figured that whatever he wanted the public to know, that's what he would share. And I was fine about that.)
But it goes without saying that his death was a shock for every Rush fan. Many of us cried when we heard the news, including rock critics who knew him, and people who never met him but felt like they knew him--thanks to the lyrics he wrote. And today especially, on what would have been his 68th birthday, many of us are still in shock. I did not speak to Neil much after he retired, but I often spoke to his best friend Craig, and I kept up with how he was doing. I was glad he was enjoying his retirement, and I was especially happy to hear news about his latest adventures, like taking his daughter on nature walks. And I had no idea that when I saw him after the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was the last time I would see him.
I think for some fans, losing Neil was the final proof that Rush would not be reuniting, ever. Okay fine, most fans understood that fact intellectually. The band had retired, and Neil had decided he needed to stop performing (that he had been suffering with tendonitis had been widely reported, plus he wanted to be there as his little daughter was growing up). Geddy and Alex had famously said in the 2010 documentary "Beyond the Lighted Stage" that Neil was irreplaceable. And if he ever left the band, they would not try to find another drummer. "if there's no Neil, there's no Rush," Geddy said.
But fans being fans, there was still the hope, even after he retired, that somehow he might join Alex and Geddy one final time-- perhaps for charity. Or maybe he could go into the studio and record something with his former band-mates. After all, they were still friends, and they still kept in touch, so why not get together and make some music? Online rumors popped up periodically (I had to dispel quite a few of them); but no matter how many times it was pointed out that Neil was content, happy to be a "retired drummer," the fans kept hoping. Until the day when it became impossible to hope any longer.
Since he died, I've tried to find ways to honor the man I thought of as a friend, the man whose music changed so many lives. I make donations in his memory to my favorite charity, Donors Choose, which supports teachers and students in need of school supplies: I seek out classrooms (and individual students) who need musical instruments, for example. I've been keeping in touch with everyone at Overtime Angels, the group planning a night to honor him (it was supposed to be in October, but the COVID-19 pandemic put so many events on hold). And I've been on a number of radio shows and webcasts, sharing my recollections of watching Neil play or spending some time talking with him about literature (how many rock musicians can quote lines from Shakespeare's "King Lear"?). I'm doing my part to keep his memory alive. But I'd be lying if I said I don't still miss him.
I only have one photo of me and Neil, the one from the summer of 1974. Neil was famous for avoiding meet-and-greet events, and whenever photos of the band were taken, it was always Alex and Geddy who stuck around for those occasions. But others, including his friend Craig, have taken wonderful photos of Neil playing the drums, and sometimes I look at those photos. Seeing how happy he was still makes me smile.
Back in 1989, someone at his record company asked him to explain how he and the band went about making a new record. He said that the songs are reflections on life, and not just reflections-- but also responses. He said, as we travel on our metaphorical journey, each of us sees that life with different mirrors; and we see it filtered through our own lenses. But the lyrics Neil wrote were often unique in their ability to make the listeners feel as if he was talking about their life, their experience. His songs truly were the soundtrack for so many of our lives. In that regard, it's like he is still here. He lives on through the music he left for us, and the joy with which he played that music. It was an honor to share this planet with him. Happy birthday, Neil.