Neil Peart

A Tribute To “The Professor,” Neil Peart

I was a somewhat nerdy kid in school. (A shock, I know.) My nerdish credentials: Band (Drum Major), Choir, Drama, and Latin Club. I read comic books. I listened to jazz and opera. I watched Doctor Who and Monty Python’s Flying Circus and I wasn’t terribly athletic. But loving the Canadian power-trio of Lee, Lifeson, and Peart (AKA, Rush) cemented my nerd status. (Read on, and you’ll see how this ties in to my blog’s “building better beliefs” tagline.)

Rush played a leading role among my teen influences. They were geeky, not glamorous, like me. Musically, they defied conventional forms with albums like “2112.” They did things only a musician could appreciate. They played “prog (progressive) rock.” But lyrically, they introduced me to new ideas and taught me to question mainstream thought. Neil Peart (pronounced “peert”), the band’s legendary drummer (center, below), wrote those lyrics.

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As much as I love “2112,” this photo makes me cringe.

“Professor” Peart

When I heard the news that Peart had passed away a few weeks ago, my grief surprised me. All I wanted to do was listen to Rush. They already occupied a prominent spot on my Spotify account, but now I played them exclusively for hours on end. I read more about them, especially Peart, more than I ever had. I watched interviews, I looked through concert archives. And slowly, a notion formed in my mind: Neil Peart was my first step into philosophy. I owed that to him.

Peart was a skeptic about religion (as was I in the 80’s); his songs were oozing with his sometimes-optimistic secular worldview. But he was a believer in wonder, and freedom, and beauty. His song-writing comprised one part philosophy, one part mythology, and one part science fiction. Nerd-vana. Aside from his short-lived devotion to Ayn Rand, I still resonate with him in many ways. Songs like, “Freewill” (which I didn’t fully understand until grad school), “Closer to the Heart,” “Red Barchetta,” “Natural Science,” “Tom Sawyer,” . . . ok, this is an endless list. I’ll just say, all their songs were philosophical. I confess that my love for Rush’s music focuses mostly on their pre-1990 work, but the same high standards of Peart’s wordsmithing are evident in every album.

Peart the G.O.A.T.?

“The Professor” was not just a philosopher and poet, though. Many (most?) rock ‘n’ rollers consider Peart to be the greatest rock drummer of all time. As a music major at Florida State University, I gained an even deeper appreciation for his rhythmical genius and virtuosity. A friend of mine even featured Peart’s percussive compositions in his own senior recital, arranging one of Peart’s solos for percussion ensemble. Get that? Peart’s solos were so complex that they could be arranged for an ensemble.

So I owe a debt to Rush and Peart. They helped (along with Douglas Adams, et al.) spark an interest in the big questions about life, the universe, and everything. I feel that I can repay that debt somewhat by instilling the same love of beauty and wonder through music in my own kids. They don’t all enjoy Rush, but many of the bands they listen to are in the same tradition. “Alternative” groups defying convention and fostering deep thinking. I’ve seen Twenty One Pilots twice with my older kids, and I love their music. I used to tell my oldest son that the talent in a band is (usually) inversely proportional to the number of people in the band. So maybe Twenty One Pilots (2 people) are even more talented that my favorite trio? Nah.

Reminiscings of Rush

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I could tell lots of stories about my love of Rush. Like the time in 8th grade when a girl invited me to her house while her parents were gone, but I spent the whole time listening to her dad’s Rush collection. I think this was when I discovered “Hemispheres.” Or the hours I spent listening to “Signals” over and over again because it spoke the words I couldn’t find for myself.

I remember my utter astonishment when I picked up a Rush songbook (piano score) and saw, for the first time, their music in print. The complexity far exceeded my imagination. I was completely entranced for days, listening to “La Villa Strangiato” while following along in the score. Or when I spent hours on the story/campaign mode of Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, just so I could get to the final stage: playing through the entirety of 2112 (on drums, of course).

The seeds planted by Peart, Lee, and Lifeson would take more than a decade to germinate into a full-blown philosophical itch. They were the gateway drug that led me to 11 years of graduate study in philosophy. We diverge sharply when it comes to belief in God, but I appreciate his struggle with the arguments and evidence.

So What?

Here’s the tie-in to my website: independent thinking must be fomented by more than abstracted philosophical instruction. Good music inspires creative thought. Creativity isn’t just a feature that some music has. It is the feature of all good music, and absent from the bad. Challenge yourself to listen to music that will stretch you. Try music you don’t fully understand, “alternative” music, sophisticated (classical, jazz) music, unfamiliar “world” music. Pay attention to lyrics. Are they glib, syrupy trash? Or do they have multiple layers? Critics disagree on the quality of Peart’s poetry, but there’s no doubt that he exposed his listeners to big ideas and beautiful stories. He made us think. And that is good.

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