Half a life with RushVale Neil Peart (1952 - 2020)
“How many musicians do you think are in the band?”
I sank into the lounge chair. Headphones blocking out the world. The music filled my head as I counted the number of instruments I could hear – drums, bass, keyboards, and guitar .. possibly a second guitar? … or maybe a percussionist as well as a drummer, I thought. It was a full sounding song.
“At least four”, I said.
“Three! the bass player is the singer and plays keyboards AT THE SAME TIME!”, Simon explained.
My introduction to Rush
I was hanging out with some high school friends who were musicians. One of them, Simon, was a drummer and had handed me the headphones to listen to this song. We were talking about bands we liked, and the topic had narrowed down to musicianship. It was that topic that prompted him to put on Rush and hand me the headphones.
The music I was hearing was pulsing with energy. Complex without being messy. The drummer was playing cool fills but stopped short of overplaying. The guitarist was playing things that weren’t your typical blues-rock riffs. Then my attention shifted to the bass player.
His parts were complex while still keeping the rhythm in perfect unison with the drummer. AND … underneath all of it, keyboard parts added a layer that filled out the song and almost bound it all together in a sense. I learned soon after that he triggered the keyboard parts with his feet on Taurus pedals. I liked his voice, it reminded me of Robert Plant a little. High pitched and powerful. Redolent of a tone typically found in rock and heavy metal.
No, his mind is not for rent
To any god or government
Tom Sawyer, 1981
The rebellious teenager in me screamed, “Yes!” that’s me!
It was 1983. The song was Tom Sawyer from the album Moving Pictures, the band was Rush. I was instantly hooked.
I could relate to how difficult their music must be to play. As a child, I was enrolled in piano lessons. However, despite encouragement to continue, coupled with warnings like, “You’ll regret it when you’re older”, or “I really wish I could play, don’t waste the chance.” Like the fool I was, I quit.
Whatever seed of music appreciation those lessons might have sewn, I was drawn to music with a passion. I became an avid listener. So music has been a part of my life since childhood.
Fast forward to the later years of high school. I had taken a few drums lessons, fiddled around with synthesisers but landed on bass and guitar as instruments I wanted to learn… and could almost afford!
When that fateful day at Simon’s house rolled around, Pink Floyd and The Police were on high rotation in my bedroom. I was also listening to Jean Michelle-Jarre and bands like The Yellow Magic Orchestra. So the music Rush created seemed like a natural extension to the music I loved.
Rush captured everything that appealed to me, the rock guitar, the drums, the use of synthesisers. The lyrics were thought-provoking, the music rhythmic and melodic, they had incredible musicianship, and great album art!
After that day at Simon’s, listening to and hearing about Rush. The next day, I immediately tried to find that album – Moving Pictures. I ended up at a specialist record store, that I would return to many times over the years that followed. I picked up the album Signals at the same time.
Again, I was instantly enthralled by the music. There was so much to explore. I immersed myself in the music, the lyrics and the art on the album covers. The first song, Subdivisions, spoke of suburban life and the tension between conformity and individual freedom. It questioned the notion of a homogenous society.
In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
As someone of mixed ethnicity, there was no way for me to hide my “difference” even if I wanted to. At that age I felt like the world was subdivided into the white, and the non-whites. The sentiment of the song resonated deeply.
Thus began my journey into the music of Rush. I formed a lifelong pattern where every six to twelve months, I would head over to the record store in the hope they had released a new album.
After Subdivisions, I then started listening to their previous work. From their self-titled first release from 1974 through to Permanent Waves in 1980. I could hear their growth as musicians and songwriters. I became familiar with some of Neil’s favourite drum patterns or rudiments. Alex had a way of hitting a note you least expect but making it perfect. However, It was Geddy’s bass playing that really got me hooked. Not only does he play complex lines while singing, but he also plays really great rhythmic melodies when Alex is soloing. I don’t mean I like complexity for its own sake. More that Rush has a knack of writing great songs that just happen to require maestro-level musicianship.
Seeing Rush live in concert
The years rolled by, my passion for music continued unabated. The one constant was and is still, Rush. Though I enjoy listening to a wide variety of bands and genres, I find myself cycling back to Rush. For me, their music has the technical skill and complexity of jazz and classical music but set in a rock context. Which is what sparks my heart.
Fast forward to 1988. I was living in Taipei, studying Mandarin. An old school friend of mine, Adam, who was living in London at the time, wrote to me saying Rush would be playing at Wembley Arena that year. The implication being, that I should travel to see him and go to the concert. In our school days, we had spent many a night lounging back listening to Rush together in awed silence. We had a lot to catch up on. A voice in my head told me, “You have to go there!” The problem was, I couldn’t afford the plane ticket.
I realised I’d probably never have another chance to see them. So I sold my motorbike and set the adventure in motion.
Landing in London
I arrived at Gatwick Airport. So far so good. I looked around, my friend was nowhere to be seen. Then it dawned on me. There was another major international airport called Heathrow. I had naively assumed that’s where I would land but hadn’t actually confirmed that with Adam, nor bothered to read my ticket. Mobile phones weren’t a thing, and I didn’t have his home phone number either. Time passed, he hadn’t shown up and I realised I’d have to go to Heathrow in case he was waiting there.
It was about an hour by train from Gatwick to Heathrow. The whole time I was in a state of mixed emotions. The excitement of being in a new country – the sights, the sounds, the smells – balanced with mild panic. What if he wasn’t there? What if he was but I couldn’t find him? I decided there was no point panicking, I should just enjoy the moment. So I hit ‘play’ on my portable cassette player, and gazed out the window while Rush became the soundtrack once again. The sky was overcast, I hoped it wasn’t an omen.
The train doors finally swished open.
“Mind the gap” advised the voice over the station intercom.
Okay okay, train voice. I get it… although I do like your accent.
I walked around briskly in search of my friend. Hoping there might be an information booth or something that might be an obvious place to go when you’ve lost people. Just when the panic was about to return, I spotted a large circular notice board. Salvation beckoned in the expanse of hundreds of little notes of varying sizes. My eyes darted around the sea of names and numbers and hastily scrawled messages of hope.
Suddenly, there it was! My name and a message saying he’d waited and was going to try Gatwick. Excellent! I know how to get there! At the back of my mind, I wondered how many times we might circle and thereby pass each other before finally meeting. Well, I had to keep moving, for time was passing and I had a mission!
I switched tapes. “Exit… Stage Left” seemed like an appropriate choice.
I recalled those high school days when Rush was new to me. It was the first time I heard the term “tight” used in a musical context. It means that moment when all the musicians in the band are playing perfectly in time. All of them hitting the beats and notes in unison. I remember visiting another friends place, who was also a musician – much more accomplished than myself. Naturally, I had brought along some Rush. So I put on “Exit… Stage Left” and another musician in the room commented that they were “so tight!”
Since then, I’ve felt a sense of moral purpose to introduce as many people to Rush as possible. So that they might share in the “joyful noise” with me.
Mind the gap.
I was back at Gatwick. Assuming my “brisk walk” mode (after all I was in England. One doesn’t run.) I searched for what might be a logical meeting place. After a quick check at the arrival gate, a sense of deja vu swept over me when I spotted another notice board. After another semi-panicked search, there it was. The note with my name. Adam had again waited and decided it best if he gave me his number, and address and that I find my way to his place.
I had all my Rush tapes and a couple of other mixtapes. So I was all set. The train station was easy to navigate, I discovered it was roughly three hours by train to Chigwell.
At the ticket office, I asked where platform 2 was. A kind person behind me said, “I’m going to the same platform, I’ll show you.” Great! Maybe I’ll have someone to talk to on the way. We boarded the same train. Great! I sat next to her and turned to attempt a conversation. Without a word, she put on her headphones. We sat in silence, each with headphones maintaining the invisible wall of privacy.
Mind the gap.
The train arrived at Chigwell. I stepped out into the light rain. The brown brick walls and overcast sky confirming the stereotype English weather I’d formed in my mind. Luckily, Adam’s flat was close by and the walk was made adventurous by the reminder that I was close to 10,000 kms away from where I started.
Green and Grey washes
In a wispy white veil
The Camera Eye, 1981
The concert was two days away. I explored London with Adam as my guide. One day we stopped for a pint of beer at The Intrepid Fox. With a name like that, there was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity to be able to repeat that name in stories to come. Later, on Carnaby Street, I bought badges shaped like electric guitars. I’ve kept to remind me of those truly special days. After all this time, the memories have faded into postcards of moments.
Soon, it was time to go to the concert!
Mind the gap.
We were on our way! Another long train trip made exciting as I noticed that, as far as I could see, up and down in every carriage were … Rush fans! I could tell from the embroidered badges on jackets, t-shirts, and other regalia that adorned almost every person that boarded the train. Smiling faces, masked with anticipation, connected all of us in unspoken camaraderie. I was amazed at the age range too. It was obvious their music had bridged generations.
Adam and I talked about the songs we hoped they’d play, as the train urged its way through the tunnels (“the tube”), punctuated by sudden shifts in direction as the tracks curved through London towards Wembley. The carriages filled with more fans. Amazing. There were more fans in one carriage than I had met in my entire life!
This was my first arena concert. My first time in London.
I think the largest concert I had attended previously might have been about 2000 people. When I saw The Doobie Brothers at Festival Hall in Brisbane.
Mind the gap.
Arrival at the arena
“This place is huge! You can even buy food here!”, I marvelled as the crowd made its way into the arena. Where I was from, you bought a hot dog from the guy at the stand on the street outside. We circled the arena, spoiled with the choice of different cuisines on offer. The band would be playing soon. If we ate, it would have to be quick and not messy.
Turns out there were around 12,000 devoted Rush fans there that night.
Excitement so thick, you could cut it with a knife
The lights dimmed. An animation featuring three blind mice played over the stage on a massive screen behind Neil’s drum kit. The Three Stooges theme music greeted us with their iconic, “Hello. Hello. Hello” and the band launched into The Big Money. I was mesmerised the whole time.
Surely I was dreaming. Here I was, 18,000 km from home, 10,000 km from Taipei. In London watching Rush!
Everything about the concert was amazing. As expected, they were… tight. The sound was fantastic, I could hear all the instruments clearly, even Neil’s high hat. The crowd was singing or air-playing along. To top it off, as they say, the light show was the best I’ve ever seen, even to this day. I hadn’t seen laser lights used to create three-dimensional shapes in the air before. It was one of those moments in life that you know you will never relive again. Since then, every time I hear a song from Hold Your Fire, those memories surface and I feel humbled and amazed that I had that experience.
I flew back to Taipei at the end of the week. The memories still fresh, the joy still making me smile.
“Time is still the infinite jest”
Now here we are in 2020.
On Saturday, 11 January. I had slept in. I was woken by a notification on my phone.
“RIP Neil Peart”
My heart sank. It can’t be true I thought. Maybe it’s a stupid prank? A deep sadness washed over me. Nobody would joke about that.
I immediately checked Geddy’s instagram.
Neil Peart had passed away after a three year battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, on January 7, 2020
When I heard that he was gone
I felt a shadow cross my heart
Nobody’s Hero, 1993
It was so sudden. There was no prior news that even hinted that Neil was sick. In retrospect, that is characteristically Neil. He was an introverted, private person who would not have wanted the attention, as well-meaning as it would have been. So that made it hard to accept I think. For me at least. Afterwards, part of me was in denial I suspect.
Truth be told, as I write this, I realise I’m still grieving. I’ve never felt this way for someone I’ve never met. Yet I feel, like many fans, a connection to him. A bond of spirit that goes to the core. It’s Neil’s lyrics and Rush’s music in general that resonate so deeply with me. Again, like many others, Rush has been the soundtrack to my life.
In typical Rush fashion, their music was a truly collaborative effort. The album making processes is documented nicely in The Game of Snakes & Arrows documentary. Neil would write some words. Geddy and Alex would write some music – often a result of jamming. Then they’d choose which of Neil’s songs matched the music and work through the song together. Since Geddy had to sing Neil’s words, there had to be an emotional connection for Geddy to feel and express them in song. Sometimes the lyrics would be changed to make them “singable” by Geddy. You’ll notice, the songs are credited to all three of them.
Rush’s music meant so much to me then and still does today. From the early songs about individualism and creativity cloaked in science fiction themes, to the life lessons and experiences he shared in the later albums. I loved the experience of putting on a new Rush record or CD and reading the lyrics as the music played.
When things happen in life, a line from one of Rush’s songs will pop into my head that sums up or otherwise speaks directly to that moment.
The last album by Rush, Clockwork Angels, was released in 2012. Their last concert tour, named R40, was in 2015. They had been together for more than 40 years. I had been listening to them for more than 30 years.
As this story draws to a close, I want to leave you with a verse from The Garden, the last song on their Clockwork Angels album. The sentiment is perfectly Neil and Rush to the core.
The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect
It’s a measure of a life
The Garden, 2012
When death passes our door, we think about life. My thoughts have turned inwards, making me think about what I’m eventually leaving behind. Am I doing something worthwhile with my life?
I’m reminded that it’s often through loss that we realise what we have. So I think of my family and friends.
As a consequence of all this introspection, I find myself diving even deeper into all things Rush. I’ve even bought more t-shirts, more books from the Rush store, and have been listening to Rush every day. Reading the lyrics, again. I think it’s a way for me to process things and keep them close to me, to assuage the feeling of loss in some way.
I think I’ve said enough. I’ll let Rush finish for me.
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
Though we know that time has wings
We’re the ones who have to fly
No matter what they say
Everyday Glory, 1993