Monday, August 04, 2008

Neil Peart provides sensible reading material, albeit a bit tenuous in nature

Neil Peart, one of the best percussionists in modern music for the past thirty-five years, is more than just a "drummer". He transcends modern rock three-chord boredom with a real academic talent for a range of percussion instruments, and also happens to be a published poet and novelist. He's probably in his late 50s and has had two tragedies in his life - his first wife and only child, a daughter, were both killed (one by cancer, one by automobile accident) within about a year of each other in the 1990s.

Still, he plows ahead by touring regularly with his band-mates in Rush, in full appreciation of what his fans mean to him and what he means to them. A favorite treat for the fans at each performance is a nine or ten-minute drum solo, during which Neil raises from his seat mid-measure, turns around, sits in another seat, and the platform turns 180 degrees so that he's once again facing the crowd as he begins drumming on a second drumset. In other words, he has a 360 degree set with two seats; one is heavy on your basic snare & tom setup, the other is heavy on a variety of percussion instruments like xylophone and others I can't even name. He uses every single instrument; he doesn't just overload the drumset for the sake of appearances, like some 80s arena rock drummers would have done.

As mentioned above, Peart is also a poet and a novelist. He's just a creative human being, the kind of Romantic (not sure if that's entirely accurate, but we'll move on) that few people appreciate today, and of which we see fewer still. He writes about the simple pleasures of nature: Snow-covered cross-country ski trails, mostly deserted, in his native Canada, and the hard but rewarding work of plowing through them (online blog). Bicycling through West Africa ("Masked Rider"). Motorcycling on "the healing road" (in his book, "Ghost Rider", he talks about his loss of family and also the healing process & moving on, where most folks talk only about the drama from losing close relatives and dwelling on the loss). This depth is also reflected in his lyrics (he writes lyrics for all of Rush's songs as well as plays all percussion parts). What are today's lyrics about in pop music? Well, nothing really; the more generic with the less meaning, the better; so goes the modern logic. It has to be "universal", right? Well, when "universal" stupidity is prevalent, what does that make most universal modern rock lyrics? Peart has consistently strived for meaning in his lyrics, taking more of a poet's approach, and has never sunk to the level of what most people listen to, simply to make an album sell.

Peart writes about his own personal experiences in his publications, but also applies them to the world around him; to reality. While he stops short of preaching, probably a good idea for a man with so many fans of varying IQ, the intelligent reader can gather his true feelings from the settings he provides and some of the minor criticisms that are clearly setups for larger points he chooses not to make obvious to the reader. He's clever in that regard; you can take his readings at face value, or you can read into them and try to gain a better understanding of what the author is trying to say.

One example of this tenuous yet insightful writing is in his most recent "News/Weather/Sports" blog, a diary he keeps during tours with Rush. He doesn't travel on a bus with the band anymore; he rides a BMW motorcycle cross-country and tries to find the hidden natural treasures of North America between tour stops. In the July entry (here), he not only discusses the politics of riding a motorcycle without a helmet (as any intelligent human being would, he rides with full leather body-armored suit and helmet at all times, in all climates), but also takes backhanded lashes at the fact that most of America is being paved-over with strip malls and chain stores. He mentions how it is increasingly difficult to find an independent hotel chain in this once-great country and how in the Northeast, the seasonal business has scared away the larger chains from sea and beach areas, a refreshing change on his most recent motorcycle journey through the region. Smartly, though, he blames people more than the corporate giants: we allow it to happen, he infers, because what is business but a reflection of what the people want, to a large extent? It's these points where his writing truly shines, providing a criticism of modern life without as much bite as, say,, but written in an artful way which reflects the most positive views he has on life and perhaps even hinting at how we can make it better.

I grew up with the music of Rush, thanks to one of my best friends, and also grew up in a family of musicians, with many of my academic influences being musical in nature (music teachers in middle school and guitar heroes I idolized in high school). My father played in a band and loves the melodic genius of the Beach Boys; my uncle is a Jazz guitarist and professor at Berklee (Massachusetts), and I grew up playing the drums and wanting to learn the guitar, though I tried to discipline myself into it too early and for the wrong reasons (Guns N' Roses were big then, I'll say no more). As such, I didn't stick to it even though I should have. Still, with all these great influences and admittedly limited direct musical experience, I can tell the difference between a band or musician which is merely performing what the masses desire, and a band or musician which truly believes in what is being played. Rush is a rare band, in that the mass media tends to ignore them since no one can put a label on them & sell them easily, but they still sell out every single large venue, every single time they tour; they remain hugely influential to other musicians even in their late 50s. Neil Peart is definitely at the heart of that influence, with his excellent writing (both musical and lyrical) and wonderfully grueling performances. I recommend his blog, and his books (found here at For the musicians out there, I also recommend his drum instruction DVDs - expensive, but I'm told they are worth it.

Here is Neil Peart's website; for his blog, follow the links to "News, Weather, and Sports".

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