Remembering Neil Peart of Rush, dead at age 67

Categories:  Music    The Arts
Thursday, January 30th, 2020 at 6:42 PM

When you go to a rock concert, it’s a thrilling experience. The hum and thunder of the crowd is coupled with the screaming and stomping of feet. The energy is like a thunderstorm that’s only a few seconds away from lightning adding to the maelstrom of anticipation. And as the band walks onto the stage, the fans shout and scream as they start their first song. Most people would turn their eyes and ears to the lead singer or guitarist. But for fans of the band Rush, they would focus right on the drummer.

Neil Peart was a legend in the music world, influencing rock ‘n’ roll and music on a global scale. He brought the drums to the focus of the stage.

Peart died from brain cancer on Jan. 7. Artists from all over the world paid tribute to him, such as the Foo Fighters, Jack Black, Brian Wilson, Metallica, Black Sabbath, KISS, and even actors Jason Segel and Paul Rudd, who played fans of Rush in the 2008 film “I Love You, Man.”

Musicians and fans from across the globe mourned a drummer considered one of the greatest of all time, including fans from Edinboro. I knew of Rush and Peart, having heard the names many times, but I never took the time to really appreciate them, as they weren’t a big name in my household. However, they were for a few people I spoke to.

My own revisit of them started with a suggestion from student Thomas Statkun. “My first phase with Rush was when a friend of mine introduced me to ‘Farewell to Kings,’ which was the one that came after ‘2112.’”

“Cygnus X-1” is the final track and is a science-fiction epic in its own right. I had already been listening to a few tracks from a compilation album when I decided this would be the best way to do it. To enhance the experience, I laid down on my bed in darkness, with only my soundproof headphones. I was immediately taken by the sound mixing and editing, which was astounding, as well as the science-fiction feel. It was a journey and a large story that extended to the next album.

From there, I went on to listen to three albums: “Fly by Night,” “2112” and “Moving Pictures.” One of the things that stood out to me was how the drums took center stage, echoing the guitar and melody in a way I never thought was possible. The opening track to “2112,” “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight” showed me Peart knew precisely when to use the drums and how. He was a songwriter on many of Rush’s tracks and a master storyteller.

Listening to the opening track to “Hemispheres” was like watching a movie, except all of it is audio-based. These big 15-to-20-minute tracks can only be described as rock operas, telling stories on a grand scale with the grace and precision of a maestro. 

His drum kits were massive, containing more pieces than I’ve ever seen. Watching live performances, it was clear why he was considered one of the best. The kit would surround him, nearly encompassing the entire area. It would contain more than just snares, toms and cymbals, however.Sometimes, it would have pitched percussion such as mallets. When he was going fast, he always looked calm and collected. He brought mastery, grace and control to his drumming, even when going all out for solos. 

Park Zilhaver, a student at Edinboro and campus media member, told me about his own experience with Rush. For him, it was his father’s cassette tapes that brought him in. “I started to get into classic rock more; I got their ‘Spirit of Radio’ greatest hits compilation album for Christmas that year,” he recalled.

Zilhaver went on to talk about his appreciation for Peart, even down to his improvement as a musician. “Thirty years into the game or so, he’s just like, ‘you know what, I’m doing this drumming thing wrong.’ He goes to Freddie Gruber and talked to him about completely revolutionizing his drumming style. I really admired that about Neil, he was never too big. Everyone’s calling him the greatest drummer of all time, and it’s like, ‘I got to change my style, I’m not doing it right.’”

Rush always played big with radio stations, in particular with one song that stood out to me: “The Spirit of Radio.” The way the lyrics excited and thrilled, it made the radio feel like this fantasy world, where music made a long trip worth it and anything was possible.

The freedom of the road connects with the freedom of music, relieving burdens and helping you just enjoying life. When I’m driving down a stretch of highway on a sunny day, I want songs that makes me feel like I’m free of all responsibilities, and make me want to enjoy life. The radio is always there, never needing to be charged like a smartphone. All it takes is a good antenna and a signal, and you have the world of music at your fingertips.

All it takes is a turn of a dial.

For Dr. Ronald Raymond, journalism professor and advisor for WFSE Radio at Edinboro, it was hard to pick a favorite. “‘Moving Pictures’ is a tremendous album. I like ‘Tom Sawyer’; everybody likes ‘Tom Sawyer.’ That’s probably one of my favorites. ‘Free Will,’ tremendous song. There’s just so many.”

For drummers, Peart had an even bigger impact on them. Elric LaValle is an EU student and drummer with a minor in music.

He said he knew Rush, having parents that were big into classic rock, and his connection is through different genres of music. “My biggest connection to Neil Peart is I’m much more into alternative music. My favorite drummers are Rian Dawson from All Time Low and Travis Barker from blink-182. And I guarantee that you can find some place they have been influenced by older bands like Rush.”

LaValle reflected on Peart’s style, including how fast he was, comparing his work to someone at the Erie Philharmonic. “You see a lot of fast drumming in heavy metal, which is fast and loud. With his drumming, it’s not just fast but it’s also melodic. He does a lot more technique in there…and that sets him apart, because in that era it was unheard of. He was a great drummer, but he also wrote music. And the drum parts have a nice equilibrium of fast and loud, and knowing when to go soft. He definitely encompassed everything into one.”

Listening to a lot of Queen growing up, he compared that same style of drumming to Peart’s and how they pushed the excellence of drumming.

“If you think about ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen, he really echoes some parts. Neil Peart was part of the same era, partly around the same age as Queen. Those two have in common where they used the technique of echoing other parts a lot and pushed it forward.”

When asked about Peart’s legacy in the world of music, LaValle had an interesting answer. “I think while he was alive, Rush already set a legacy by being so popular and so good. They’re not as known as The Beatles or Queen, but those are more popular genres. Rush, in its genre, is one of the most popular bands. I think his legacy as a drummer will just continue to be an inspiration to others, and [he] will be one of those artists 10 years down the line who will have memorial albums to him because he was so good. I think he will forever be renowned as one of the most iconic drummers of his time.”

The world of music can be changed in an instant, from the birth of new recording technology or an instrument, to one iconic performance that makes history. Neil Peart will live on in the heart, soul and beat of every drummer who plays. To quote the lyrics written by Peart in the song “Everyday Glory,” “If the future’s looking dark, we’re the ones who have to shine / If there’s no one in control, we’re the ones who draw the line / Though we live in trying times, we’re the ones who have to try / And we know that time has wings, so we’re the ones who have to fly.”

Tags: rush

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