Exit the Warrior: Thoughts on Neil Peart’s Retirement

international-musician-07.1984-5Word came this afternoon through a variety of online classic rock and musician sites that drummer Neil Peart (pronounced “PEERT” for the uninitiated. Accept no substitutes.) is putting away his ProMark 747 drum sticks for good. His announcement was a subtle one, as befitting a thoughtful wordsmith like Neil:

“Lately Olivia [his young daughter] has been introducing me to new friends at school as ‘My dad– He’s a retired drummer.’ True to say–funny to hear. And it does not pain me to realize that, like all athletes, there comes a time to… take yourself out of the game. I would rather set it aside then face the predicament described in our song ‘Losing It’ (‘Sadder still to watch it die, than never to have known it’).”

My first reaction was sadness, immediately followed by a sense of gladness for him, his family, and all that he accomplished as a musician and lyricist. I saw Rush on the R40 Tour in Denver this July, which was billed as likely being their “last tour of this magnitude” and Neil was as good as ever, as were Geddy and Alex, of course. I once heard a quote attributed to Stewart Copeland (another member of the Mount Rushmore of rock drummers) where he reminded those sit behind the kit: “The singer doesn’t need you. You need the singer. No one shows up at a concert for two hours of a drum solo.” It may be an apocryphal quote, but that makes it no less true of any drummer and any band. Rush is (was?) truly the sum of all three of its parts. If this is the end of their 40 year run as a band, they are going out on top.

In many ways, however, it’s the end of an era–especially an era in my own life. For most of my 52 years, Rush has provided the soundtrack and Neil has influenced my own lifelong love of playing the drums. My parishioners notice that I seem to be happiest when I am behind the kit hitting things with sticks and I love to tell them, with no small amount of truth, that it’s the one place in the world where I kind of know what I’m doing. But I think the legions of bateristas who have air-drummed to every song at a Rush concert over the last 40 years would tell you that even the best of us only aspire to be as good, as precise, as fast, as melodic, and as cool as Neil Peart sitting on a riser surrounded by drums. Neil has said that playing those three hour shows was a lot like “running a marathon while solving equations.” Many of us who play at the drum kit are still trying to figure out those theorems!

I first heard Neil’s work in the summer of 1980–the second summer after my mom had died of cancer. I was 16 years old, had just finished my sophomore year in high school, and had been drumming since I picked up a pair of fat student sticks and a rubber practice pad in the fifth grade. My way of dealing with the grief of mom’s passing was to hammer away at the drums, walling myself off behind the beat up old red sparkle Torodor drum kit that my she had bought from another mom at church for ten bucks after her son had given them up for cars and girls. Besides the rock and roll I listened to by tuning into Pittsburgh’s WDVE, the only music in the house was of my parents’ vintage: old 8-tracks of the Ray Conniff Singers crooning soft rock hits from the 60s and 70s, a few jazz records, and the Italian love songs of Jerry Vale. It wasn’t exactly the kind of music to which one pounds the drums, though in the 8th grade I did manage to buy Kiss’ Destroyer album on 8-track and keep it hidden for playing when the parents were out. It came in handy when I felt particularly angry (GOTTA LOSE YOUR MIND IN DETROIT, ROCK CITY!!).

That summer of 1980 I had the chance to go visit my friend Mark in Ohio, a fellow drummer who I met at church who had moved away when his dad got transferred. We spent a week or so down in his basement playing along with old Jazz classics from the likes of Buddy Rich (still the greatest ever), Max Roach, and Art Blakey. One afternoon, Mark’s older brother, Eric, stopped me in the upstairs hallway and said, “Come in here and listen to this. I think you might appreciate it.” He laid the needle on the turntable on the first track of the record. It was “Spirit of Radio” from Permanent Waves. The opening riff still gives me chills every time I hear it. The drumming was spectacular–quick, innovative, musical–much like those old jazz greats but on a different sort of frequency. I threw it on the downstairs turntable and tried to play along. It was thrilling and frustrating at the same time, and I was hooked.

I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my dear friend and fellow drummer Tom what I had heard. Turns out he had discovered this musical revolution at about the same time. We spent hours listening and trying to figure out the parts in his basement. I don’t think his parents ever truly recovered their hearing…

Moving Pictures came out in 1981, right about the time my family started falling apart. I wanted to be Tom Sawyer, and the escape fantasy of Red Barchetta took me to places I could only imagine. When I wasn’t at school playing in the marching and jazz bands, I was in the basement at home pounding the crap out of that Torodor kit along with the album for hours at a time, getting a measure of sonic revenge against my evil stepmother in the bargain.

I never really bought into the Ayn Rand style libertarian secular humanism in some of Neil’s lyrics. As a Christian, and now a pastor, I’ve always thought it would be interesting to have a conversation with him about all that (we’re not all deterministic neo-Calvinists, you know!). Still, there is an intelligence to them, a magnificent use of the language, an opportunity for deeper thinking than one got with the vast majority of vapid music back then, and even now. The word “baby” only appears once in a Rush song, for example (“In the Mood”), but that was a pre-Peart track. Drumming along and thinking along kept me sane during a very difficult time in my life, and I will be forever grateful to Neil and the boys for their help.

Through college, a stint in the Army, marriage, kids, and now middle age, I can track my life and memories with Neil Peart drum parts hammered out on the steering wheels of every car I’ve ever owned. I sit behind my kit at home or the one at church and still try to figure out how to play that piece of four-limb independence at the end of Subdivisions.”  I’m thankful for the musical elevation and the inspiration offered by one of the greatest drummers the world will ever see and hear. I’m glad I got to go along for the ride.

As the warrior exits, I wish him a marvelous retirement. After all, changes aren’t permanent…but change is.

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