Closer to our hearts: In memoriam; Neil Peart
“No his mind is not for rent
To any god or government.
Always hopeful yet discontent,
He knows no changes are permanent.
But change IS.” (1981).
Almost thirty years ago I travelled from Victoria to Kingston to give my first professional scholarly paper. I was nervous, not so much about the event itself but about the journey. I travelled alone, leaving my partner at home, meeting up with a childhood friend in Toronto, staying with him, and then being driven up the 401 the next day, some four hours plus, to Queen’s University campus. This once close friend of mine was a drummer, a jazz guy, for whom Tony Williams, Billy Cobham and Jack DeJohnette were the gods. Neil Peart had always received a tepid response from him. ‘He can’t swing’ was it in a nutshell, something even John Bonham was said to be able to do. For my friend, ‘swing’ was not meant to refer to the popular music of my parent’s era, but something to do with feeling, drive, vibe, and the throbbing character of the human heart. Needless to say, I couldn’t tell either way, being merely a guitarist. But by this time, long after high school graduation, music itself had faded into the background of my own life. I was an aspiring academic, about to present in front of an international audience for the first time. And the paper that had given me access to this elite world was a paper about Neil Peart.
I called it, somewhat pompously, ‘An hermeneutics of the heart: Neil Peart as poet and philosopher’. It went over well enough but not without some raised eyebrows. It was an inauspicious start to a truncated career which morphed from teaching into writing. Now, in attempting to do both at once, I feel a closer kinship with all popular writers who have something to say. Neil Peart was one such writer, teaching about feeling, using the head to communicate the heart. Though doubtless a consummate musician, my connection with Peart came through his often insightful, sometimes profound, lyricism. It was ten years before my journey that I first came into contact with Rush, as did many of my generation. It was 1981 and I was fifteen years old. I had just seen my family implode, never to recover. I had just lost my first girlfriend, a woman for whom I still have feeling. Though the music was different, I was able to first connect because I had heard that the trio were staunch fans of the UK progressive rock innovators Yes. When, in 2018, Yes were inducted into the hall of fame, it was Lee and Lifeson who did the honours. At the time, I too was a dyed-in-the-wool Yes fan. But Jon Anderson’s lyrics were of the mystical variety; Yeats-like, abstruse, and high-flown. Peart’s verse was punchy, epigrammatic, political, critical. It didn’t take long for me to become a follower. I never collected every LP, but I had everything from the 1980s and somewhat beyond. Decades later I returned to Rush through the DVD concert fashion and indeed, my wife and I own every concert and major documentary yet produced.
I am not much of a musician anymore. Though music is part of my being, my soul, I was trained in the classical world, and popular music was always at some slight distance from me. But as a writer, as a public critic, as a thinker, Neil Peart as a writer came to mean a great deal to me over the years. Engaging, witty, clever in the good way, sometimes sardonic, but with an unexpected detail that bordered on the ethnographic, Peart’s memoirs nonetheless would appeal more to a world traveller in the strictest sense, something I am very much not. His intimate effort concerning his own tragic losses was frustrating if poignant, groping if also gripping, and ultimately a failure. Not due to his efforts or his prose, but because all such efforts must, in the end, fail. We do not overcome such losses as these, we rather find substitutions, replacements. And what we find is loved perhaps all the more. For me, knowing only what everyone else knows about the man, the greatest tragedy is that he never saw either of his children grow up.
On the same road as my drummer friend and I travelled in 1991, some six years later, his first daughter was killed in a vehicle accident at all of age nineteen. His surviving daughter is around fourteen or so. Not yet being a parent, I yet wince at this more than anything else. Peart himself must have lived a full life, not so much in years, but in his own experiences. To die in our time at his age is to die young. To die from such an illness is to die horribly, lingering, knowing that living on could not be altered in its tenor, understanding that what ‘change is’, is now this and only this. Death is the completion of our being. We cannot experience our own deaths, only those of others. This is, perhaps, the most profound purpose of the other in our own lives. She is the one who will experience our death for us, as we would do for her, come what may. We are all dimly aware of this dynamic, but the writer lives within its manifold throughout the time he lives at all. Seldom did a memorable Rush song appear that did not address itself to this core aspect of human self-understanding.
And it was only through his verse that Peart publicly revealed himself to be the deeply concernful human being that he must have been. Awkward, even diffident in interview, distanciated, even dispassionate in his travel writing, Peart retained an enigmatic ambience. Simple shyness was the most likely explanation, and he was hardly the only music celebrity that evinced such a retiring stance. The humanity of any one of us comes forth most palpably through our works, and not from ourselves. Of whatever they may consist, our works are what connects us to the world at large, what survives us and what adds, however nominally, to the collective works of human consciousness. The casual phrase that nods its head to this relationship is ‘leaving the world a better place’. Neil Peart cared deeply about the world and those within it. Never having met the man, I can still know this without any uncertainty because of what he wrote about, how he wrote it, and how it was performed. Peart spoke of ‘passion and precision’, but I also hear, whenever I listen to Rush, dignity and clarity, integrity and most importantly, compassion. In short, concernfulness – Sorgeheit – a caring that emanates from our very being, the Dasein which we are.
Knowing about his epic bicycling, and seeing various footage of it in documentary form, my wife and I imagined we encountered Neil Peart no less than thrice. Once, along the Katy Trail in central Missouri. The fellow blew by us going the opposite direction without even a nod. I said ‘hey, that guy looked like Neil Peart, huh?’ My wife laughed and said, ‘for sure’. Aside from his actual features, his upright, rather Victorian posture, his unassuming equipment and his torrid pace all reminded me of the man himself. Then along the Dallas Rd. waterfront in my hometown, the same figure, the same kind of bike, tearing along in a world of his own. Rush were playing Vancouver the next day. Finally, years later, in our neighborhood in Saskatoon. This time there was a moment of contact, wherein I smiled and simply waved at the person. He raised his brows at me and took off, increasing his already allegro non troppo up the metronome. Whether any of these was the man himself I will never know. Indeed, I had forgotten all about these moments until yesterday evening.
That is, after I finished weeping at the sudden and fatal news. This too surprised me. I didn’t know the man, had never met him, and was never such a fan as to follow concert tours or their websites and certainly not any of the more personal news about any of them. The Sam Dunn documentary was tributary but also a little forced. ‘Time Stand Still’, appearing when I myself decided to call it quits as a professional, made a much deeper impact on me. In it, Geddy Lee described the fact of ending Rush as ‘feeling like a death’. Just so, that is precisely what it feels like. To do one thing your entire life, to have sacrificed more or less everything to it, and then to stop doing it and yet also commit to living on, this is one essential way we ‘die many times’, as Nietzsche suggests, with only the faintest hope of ‘becoming immortal’. From my own perspective, Peart’s passing strikes a somber chord given how little time he had to live after retiring from public life. On his behalf then, the rest of us are left to seize the day. From 1991:
“Time is a gypsy caravan, steals away in the night,
Leaving you stranded in dreamland.
Distance is a long range filter.
Memory a flickering light, left behind in the heartland.”
I will remember Neil Peart as a contemporary, a ‘fellow-man’ as Schutz has it. Someone who experienced much of the same world as have I, who understood much of it and was able to communicate this understanding in a powerful manner. I will remember Peart as a writer and as a critic before even he as a musician and an entertainer. As a clever poet and a lay philosopher, as providing the words to a soundtrack of insights and editorials and inspirations. Rush itself as a sound is the quintessentially modernist band, all glass, concrete and steel. But it is within the lyrics that one finds a wider compendium of the human ages; the wonder at the cosmos, the cosmic comedy and tragedy alike that we inevitably center round our small planet and even smaller selves. And finally, as with all good writers, one finds oneself, somehow, right in there with the rest of it. It is in this way that humanity, being bereft of final knowledge of its soul, brings itself closer to its heart.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, and social theory as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.