Virtuosity. That’s really the only way to describe the career and skill of legendary Rush drummer Neil Peart. He was simply the best. Buddy Rich, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Mike Mangini, Marco Minnemann, they’re all up there, but even they would probably all agree there’s no one in history quite like “the professor”.
Here’s a sample if you’ve never witnessed his brilliance:
Neil Peart had been the drummer and lyricist for the legendary prog rock band Rush for 45 years until he suddenly retired from the band in 2015, citing health reasons. Peart had well-known bouts with tendonitis and many assumed that had gotten worse over the years.
Music fans around the world were shocked yesterday when Rush announced the passing of Neil Peart on January 7th after a 3.5 year battle with brain cancer. Cancer has taken many loved ones from my family, and brain cancer can be one of the worst ways to go, as it affects the memory. My heart and prayers go out to the Peart family, his friends, and the literal millions of fans. Countless drum careers have started because of this man, and his band fought through obscurity to bring prog rock into the mainstream, never apologizing for what they wrote, no matter the popularity. Rush are now rock and roll legends but it wasn’t always that way. They stuck true to who they were and finally reached the stardom they so richly deserved.
I’ll put it this way. In 2002 Rush performed to a sold out Maracanã Stadium in Rio to conclude their Vapor Trails tour, 34 years after they began their career. They’re so beloved that, during their seminal hit YYZ, the raucous crowd, many who were not born when the band formed, were singing along to an instrumental piece.
One last video, I promise. Peart’s drum fill during the solo in “Tom Sawyer” is one of the most air-drummed fills in history, next to Phil Collins’s in “In the Air Tonight”. I cannot hear that song without air drumming it, nor can this guy, caught at a football game:
Neil Peart, the traveler
Peart was a well-known motorcycle enthusiast and loved riding all over Canada and the United States. He was also a prolific writer, writing almost all the lyrics for Rush as well as numerous sci-fi books. But it’s a specific book I want to talk about and relate things back to traveling, for the travel-minded among you: Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road.
(if you click the picture above it’ll talk you to Amazon affiliate link but I promise I’m not just trying to make a buck or two if you buy it, I just wanted to make sure I had an image I could legally use)
In 1997, Peart’s teenage daughter tragically passed away in a single-car accident. Only 10 months later, his common-law wife of 23 years passed away from, in Peart’s words, a broken heart. “She just gave up,” he said at the time. Peart retired from Rush and tried to put his life back together. He retreated to a mountain cabin in Quebec, a place he called his refuge and the closest thing he could find to “home”. He felt he was wasting away, though, and needed to go. He packed up his BMW motorcycle with tent, sleeping bag, clothes, and the various other items one needs for a long-distance ride, and went. He didn’t know where he was going or when he would return.
55000 miles later, Peart had gone across Canada to Alaska, down into Mexico, and even made it as far south as Belize as his heart and mind began to heal. His journey of self-reflection and healing is well-written, engaging, and a sort of “encouraging melancholy”, if that makes sense, leading to his rejoining Rush upon his return for another decade of incredible musicianship. It’s an absolutely fantastic read, I couldn’t recommend it enough. It reminded me of Ewan MacGregor’s wonderful The Long Way Round, about an introspective motorcycle trip around the world with a good friend.
The power of travel
Really this post is a bit of encouraging melancholy as well. Music fans lost so much with the death of a man who had also lost so much. Neil Peart found his healing on the road. So many travel enthusiasts do the same. Others hit the road to run from problems at home, hoping the distance will give them room to find their way only to find that their problems are waiting for them when they return.
What is it that makes travel so powerful? I think we allow ourselves to feel more vulnerable when we’re on the road. We understand that things may go wrong. We know that other cultures will be different from ours and commit to “going with the flow”. And that all makes sense, but I wonder why we can’t do that at home? I guess at home we’re expected to have more control over our environment and succumb to the pressure to make life more predictable, and change/tragedy threaten both of those. With travel we willingly surrender control and predictability in a way that’s just hard to do at home. Ultimately, I don’t really know the answer, but I know a lot of music fans who idolized the career of Neil Peart will be looking for answers, so maybe they need to hit the road for a bit, or stay at home and be vulnerable.
“YYZ” is on my main travel playlist and has graced my ears on six continents over the past decade. My heart aches that Peart was taken by such an awful version of an awful disease. At the same time I’m thankful for the legacy he left. I once heard the word “legacy” defined as “a road left for those thereafter” and I couldn’t think of a more fitting definition for the legacy of Neil Peart. And maybe we’ll even hear the roar of motorcycle engines firing up from drummers around the world.
Rest in peace, professor.