Sunday, January 12, 2020

This Wasn't Supposed to Happen: Some Thoughts About the Death of Neil Peart

The first time I met Neil Peart, it was mid-1974. I was working at WMMS in Cleveland, where I had helped to launch the band's career in the US by getting "Working Man" on the air. I had first been sent the Canadian import version of their album by a record promoter friend of mine named Bob Roper, and that song resonated with the WMMS audience immediately.  John Rutsey was the drummer at that time, but he had health problems, and the other members (and their management) realized they needed to make a change. Neil was chosen because he was not only an excellent drummer but a talented lyricist. The next time Rush came to Cleveland, Neil was with them.

Back then, I was still sort of the "big sister" to the band; I helped them to get signed to a US record label, I called other stations to encourage them to play "Working Man" too (it was one of our most requested songs), and when they first performed in Cleveland, I was there to cheer them on. Naturally, because Neil was the "new guy," he wanted to meet me-- not because I was in any way influential, but because I already had established a relationship with Alex and Geddy, and he wanted to know more about me. So, I invited him to visit me and he did.  He came to my apartment and we talked for several hours. As it turned out, we had a love of literature in common-- in fact, I lent him my copy of Shakespeare's "King Lear," which had special meaning for both of us. 

We kept in touch sporadically. In April 1975, he sent me a postcard (which I still have) to let me know he was alive and well, touring was going great, and the band's new album was "pretty well written and will be recorded in July." Neil was always a very private person, and I did not expect that we would keep in touch with any regularity. In fact, as time passed, we only saw each other now and then, usually when I want backstage at a Rush concert. And because he never liked doing the endless "meet and greet" events where band-members shook hands with fans, I ended up seeing Geddy and Alex much more than I did Neil. But whenever I saw them, I always made sure they sent Neil my love.

Whether I saw him in person or not, Neil remained a presence in my life-- through his amazing lyrics, and through the privilege of watching him play. He was such a gifted drummer, and widely admired by his fellow musicians in other bands.  And I kept up with his life-- the tragic loss of his wife and daughter, his time away from the band, his eventual return... And then, one night in September 2010, when I had come to see the band perform in Boston, out of nowhere, he asked to see me. We hugged, like two old friends, and then we chatted about politics, about philosophy, about family, and yes, about "King Lear"-- he still had the copy of the play he had borrowed from me, and as I posted to social media at the time, I was very moved to find he still had it, and it still meant something to him.

And as he and I were saying goodbye, we were standing out in the hall and he remarked upon the lesson he took from "King Lear"-- that it's not enough to say you love someone; you have to show it. And he remarked upon second chances-- that he hadn't been there enough for his daughter Selena (he loved her, but by his own admission, he was on the road a lot); but he absolutely was going to be there for his daughter Olivia. It was a promise he kept.

I was not surprised when Neil decided to retire. I knew he had tendonitis. I knew he was in more pain than he let on. And while fans were, of course, disappointed, being a "retired drummer" gave him the chance to spend more time with his wife and daughter.  I kept in contact with him through his closest friend Craig, and I was so glad to hear he was content and enjoying his life.

And then it changed. A private person till the end, Neil shared with very few people that he had cancer. Even many reporters who had covered Rush over the years had no idea. When we all found out he had died, it was such a shock that few of us knew what to say. I am still finding it difficult to put into words what I feel about this tragic loss, but let me try:

Neil Peart was an honorable, ethical human being. Despite being one of the music industry's greatest drummers, he was never arrogant. He treated drumming, and song-writing, as art forms, and he elevated both. He loved being a musician, and his lyrics resonated with so many fans.  Neil was also a charitable person-- but when he gave (which he often did), he never wanted to call attention to himself.  He lived his life his way, never afraid to be himself, encouraging others to be themselves too. He left a large body of incredible music, that will live on. And he left years of wonderful memories that his millions of fans will never forget.  To think of a world without Neil in it breaks my heart. But I consider myself fortunate to have known him. May he rest in peace.