One year ago, on January 10th 2020, the world discovered that Neil Peart, acclaimed drummer and lyricist for the Canadian rock band Rush, had passed away three days earlier, on January 7th, after a three-and-a-half year fight with brain cancer. Like every fan around the globe this news came as a unbelievable shock. Ever since the band played what was never categorically stated as, but strongly implied to be, their final concert in America in the summer of 2015, we’d all assumed that Neil especially was simply enjoying his retirement; nursing his already substantial list of health issues that comes from more than 40 years of travelling and touring with a heavy rock band, but most importantly just spending time with his family and friends. But true to form, in the wake of this incomprehensible illness, he didn’t want to cause a fuss. This is just one of the many reasons why I and so many people idolise this man. He was an inspiration as a musician, chasing perfection in his playing and writing, but as a man as well, quiet and unassuming but with a big heart. This man is the reason I play my instrument, and to me there is no one better at it.
My Rush fandom started in the same way it does for a lot of young people; they were my Mum and Dad’s favourite band. While my musical education began at an early age, listening to cassettes from bands like Fleetwood Mac, Genesis and The Eagles during long car journeys, it was a while until I fully appreciated Rush. For the most part of my childhood they were just considered as “that weird band my parents like”, and were probably only listened to when my sister and I were out of the house. Maybe my Mum and Dad thought we weren’t ready for them yet! But flash forward a few years; I’m 16 years old, I’m now heavily into my rock music and decide I want to learn to play the drums. My Dad had picked up a copy of ‘2112’ on cassette while we were on holiday earlier that same year, and one of the first things he says to me upon hearing my decision is “You have to listen to this band Rush!”. So I did; we were driving somewhere together and he put it on for me. I had never heard anything like it before, and it instantly spoke to me. Sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on why you love a particular band or style of music; I just knew that I loved it.
Not too long after that, I listened to ‘Moving Pictures’ for the first time. I can remember so clearly, when the big fill section in the middle of ‘Tom Sawyer’ kicked in my jaw hit the floor. I’d already been starting to play closer attention to the drums in music for a little bit, but I’d never heard drumming like this before. Instead of a simple boom and thud, the sound rose and fell with explosions of noise and rumbles of power. I said to myself “I wanna play like that!”. And so I was drawn on a path that I’m still walking today. I dedicated myself to the instrument, packed up and moved to London to study the instrument, all in an effort to get better and closer to his level. Soon I was chasing a dream; to not only make playing drums my career, but to make my own mark in the music world by creating new and original music with any band that would have me. It’s often a thankless task and more people fail than succeed, but once again I tried to follow Rush’s example; stay true to yourself, make the music you want to make, and never give up.
Back in the present day I am very lucky to not only have a full-time career as a musician, but to be releasing original music that I have helped create into the big wide world. My love of drumming has boosted my own confidence and self-esteem no end, and it has given me some incredible experiences like performing all over the world in front of thousands of people at a time. It has given me an identity, and made me a better person. And Neil was my blueprint. I have seen Rush live several times, and have even travelled across the Atlantic just to see them play. Not wanting to miss out on the possibly-final R40 tour, I flew out to Las Vegas with my mother and father to catch their show at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in July 2015. What an amazing experience that was! To me, Neil was always an image of what a drummer should be; his strong powerful playing drove his band’s music forward, his uncanny drum part composition ability meant that the perfect drum fill was always in the perfect place, and he entertained his audience as an acrobat would do in a travelling circus, showing incredible feats of skill, dexterity and showmanship. I think there’s no other drummer, nor will there be any other drummer in history, that could make an entire arena full of people ‘air-drum’ along with the music quite like Neil Peart. And when I heard the news that Friday evening, it suddenly hit me that we would never see him play again. I was heartbroken.
For the next week or so, I found it impossible to listen to Rush without getting very emotional. I would always read every amazing tribute to him from fellow fans, but any video with a little clip of music that appeared on my social media had to be bypassed straight away. It hadn’t sunk in yet and it felt too hard. But I soon snapped out of it. I was at a prog gig in Cardiff and during intermission, ‘Xanadu’ came on the PA. This has to be my favourite of all the Rush epics (I even got the chance to write a short paragraph about the song and its album ‘A Farewell To Kings’ for Prog Magazine a few years ago, which was a great honour). I listened to the music, I sang every line, every guitar solo, every bass line and air-drummed every fill. It was like this amazing cathartic release and I suddenly felt just the same as I felt in the car with my Dad all those years ago. Along with my Mum he passed on this musical legacy, and while this passing may have massively shaken the foundations, my love of Rush, and Neil Peart’s drumming, is something that will never crumble. If I could say anything to him now, it would simply be “Thank you”. Thank you for the inspiration, thank you for creating the soundtrack to my life, thank you for bringing my family closer together, and thank you for being you. I will never forget him.