Whether for 50 years or for the four minutes and 19 seconds it takes for “Limelight” to play, it’s likely that anyone with even the slightest interest in rock music has wanted to be Neil Peart. Anyone who has said otherwise about Rush’s drummer is probably just posturing because it seems like such an embarrassing thing to desire.
Who, after all, hasn’t pulled the car over and emphatically air-drummed the relentless, pounding percussion of the Canadian band’s “Tom Sawyer”? There may be nothing more cathartic in this world. Just ask Mark Duplass and Steve Zissis, who memorialized this phenomenon in HBO’s “Togetherness.” After a particularly trying evening, Zissis’s character is down on himself, but for a brief few moments when he and his best friend (Duplass) slam out Peart’s famous drum line, all is well with the world.
I think about that scene constantly, because I’m not sure I’ve ever so intensely connected with one. It reminds me of the first time I heard Rush, and therefore Peart’s drumming. I remember that, almost as if by reflex, my hands started moving in front of me.
To this day, despite my status as a taxpaying adult male, I’m an unabashed air instrumentalist. Peart bears full responsibly for this affliction, and I suspect I’m not the only one he infected. As Stewart Copeland, the former drummer for the Police, told Rolling Stone, “Neil is the most air-drummed-to drummer of all time.”
Legions of Rush fans — and rock fans in general — probably spent the past week somberly punching the air to Peart’s most explosive solos. He died Jan. 7 of glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, which he fought out of the public eye for 3½ years. His bandmates, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, announced his death on Friday.
Most people know two things about Peart: For one, until his death on Tuesday, he was considered by many to be the greatest living rock drummer. (Now in his passing, he’ll spend eternity having to compete with the Who’s Keith Moon, Cream’s Ginger Baker and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham for the distinction.) And two, he had a gargantuan drum kit that consisted of dozens of pieces, each more confounding than the last, and the entire thing rotated so he could easily access them all.
It wasn’t just fans and critics who considered him the best. When asked by Rolling Stone’s Brian Hiatt if he could ever play drums for Rush if offered the gig, Dave Grohl responded, “I would say, ‘I’m not physically or musically capable, but thanks for the offer.’ Neil Peart, that’s a whole other animal, another species of drummer.”
I mean, just look:
But his prowess with the sticks only makes up part of the equation. Greatness isn’t what ultimately attracts dedicated fans. Sincerity is.
Rush was not a cool band, like the Rolling Stones, the Clash or the Replacements. Quite the opposite. Rush was easy to mock, and critics did so for years. They poked fun at the self-seriousness of the band, of the literary lyrics (some inspired by Ayn Rand, whose views Peart later denounced). The drummer didn’t care. Instead of toning things down, he wrote lyrics to the album “2112′s” almost 21-minute-long opening track, which tells the fantastical story of Priests of the Temples of Syrinx and the Solar Federation, which … actually, never mind. Suffice to say, it’s the sort of epic, storytelling lyricism that is easy to cynically mock but equally easy to sincerely embrace.
There’s no question which Peart would want you to do. He took this rock-and-roll thing as seriously as one could.
When Rush was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Peart spoke first. “We’ve been saying for a long time, years, that this wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “Turns out, it kind of is.” He proceeded to quote Bob Dylan, noted that the great honor as artists is inspiring others to follow in their footsteps and offered this poetic rumination: “All the previous inductees into this pantheon of rock are like a constellation of stars in the night sky. Among them, we are one tiny point of light, shaped like a maple leaf.”
Peart’s earnestness, then and now, almost seems revolutionary: He did something abjectly preposterous in a manner so serious that it’s very uncoolness made it cool. He made it okay to like ridiculous things just because you liked them. He made it okay to pull your car over and air-drum to a prog rock song if that’s what makes you happy.
In Judd Apatow’s short-lived and critically acclaimed 1999 TV series “Freaks and Geeks,” Jason Segel’s high school burnout character Nick Andopolis idolizes Peart. He excitedly persuades his new friend Lindsey, who is struggling to find her place in the world, to skip class and come to his house, where he shows her the drum kit he designed with “14 mounted toms, eight floor toms, four splashes, two gongs, 10 cowbells, four rides, five snares, man, a Roto tom rack! And it’s all mounted on my infamous quadruple kick-drum system. Six more pieces, and I got a bigger kit than Neil Peart from Rush!” The kit is Andopolis’s true love in life, which he calls “the essence of who I am now.”
The scene is played for laughs, until he tells his depressed friend, “You’ve got to find your reason for living. You’ve got to find your big, gigantic drum kit, ya know?”
Peart probably liked that. As his lyrics for that maybe-ridiculous/maybe-inspirational 21-minute song go: “Listen to my music/ And hear what it can do/ There’s something here as strong as life/ I know that it will reach you.”