By Rush Evans
They called me 2112 in high school. Different kids, not knowing that others were doing the same. I didn’t get the reference at first, but when your first name is Rush and it’s the 1970s, that’s what happens.
I had heard of the band called Rush before, loving their name for obvious reasons. I heard that their performance at Austin’s Paramount Theater downtown had rattled the lighting fixtures at the hotel next door. So when I learned that their latest album was called 2112, that number people had been calling me, I went out and bought it. It sounded like nothing else I had been listening to, but I already loved Genesis and Led Zeppelin who had seemed worlds apart from each other. This somehow had merged those two rock and roll worlds.
It was a concept piece that told a story, and like The Who’s Tommy, it was grand, yet somehow, somehow, delivered by nothing more than a voice, a guitar, a bass guitar and drums. A wall of sound from just three players. I saw that the drummer wrote the lyrics for the futuristic tale of 2112, and I also noticed that he was no ordinary drummer. When Neil Peart played the drums, it was not merely about laying the firm rock foundation behind a rock band. It was melody, experimentation, power and storytelling.
Neil Peart died on January 7, 2020 of brain cancer, much to the surprise of a world full of Rush fans, though perhaps not to his family and friends, as he had been fighting the cancer over three years.
And so he is gone, and so, therefore, is Rush, though they had already ceased touring in 2015, but remember how you felt when John Lennon died a full decade after The Beatles had fully broken up? It was so much more than the end of an extraordinary life. The passage of Neil Peart effectively and officially brings to a close the existence of one of the most significant rock bands in music history, the only band of its type, a genre of their own invention, that of Progressive Metal.
Rush had come together through the organic friendship of two Toronto kids, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson. They were still teenagers when they formed a band with drummer John Rutsey, whose brother would give them the name Rush during a rehearsal at the drummer’s house. Rutsey would be out of the band over health concerns by 1974, the same year of the first album release, the only one on which he played.
Rutsey was replaced by a drummer from an Ontario band called Hush. Neil Peart left Hush and joined Rush that summer, just two weeks ahead of their first U.S. tour. Peart would forever be The New Guy over the next 40 years, but Rush could never have been Rush without him.
The next two albums further developed the band’s heavy sound while expanding it into progressive territory, each featuring long song suites that took rock music beyond the three-minute pop song format. 2112 was the fourth album, and the title track was also a suite of songs taking up the entirety of Side A and conjuring a futuristic tale of outlawed creativity and effective totalitarianism. The lyrics were all by Peart, and the drumming was as challenging and interesting as the story that unfolded.
The lyrics were inspired by Peart’s interest in the author Ayn Rand whose philosophical system that she called objectivism fascinated Peart at the time. This was the beginning of the public perception of Neil Peart’s political beliefs as right-leaning. But he provided hints over the many years that followed of his worldview as not landing easily on a right/left spectrum. One thing we know for sure is that Peart was an intensely private person, so I have long considered his personal ideology to be something more like “none of your business, but my music is your business, so let’s just stick to that.” (It is worth noting that in recent years, Peart became an American citizen).
The records got more interesting each time, as did the wild rhythm behind Geddy Lee’s iconic and distinctive high voice. Lee’s bass lines and Lifeson’s guitar work were every bit as original and fresh as what Peart was doing behind what became an ever-expanding drum kit. The mastery of their instruments came from their tireless work on the never-ending rock and roll road.
Some bands stay on the road to support a catalog of hits. Rush had a few hits, to be sure, but they were mostly an album band. They had a nuanced collection of songs boasting a diversity of sounds celebrated by a fan base that cared more about long pieces of experimentation like “La Villa Strangiato” and “Xanadu” than just hearing hits.
But the hits were cool, too, and they did come just in time for the ’80s. “The Spirit of Radio,” “Freewill,” “Closer to the Heart,” “Limelight,” and, of course, “Tom Sawyer” all crackled with life and expanded the sound and the audience.
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Rush staying on the road never seemed to be about paying the bills so much as simply delivering the goods. I saw Rush six times in 40 years, which is pretty good for a career-spanning experience of a band evolving over time. I’m proud to report that I took my son, Rush IV, to see them, because two guys named Rush have to see Rush together. But six times is dramatically closer to zero than the concert count for so many other Rush fans, whose fanaticism rivals that of Grateful Dead followers.
Much to their fans’ delight, the band would release 30 albums, 11 of which captured the live experience that had to be seen or heard to be fully understood. With the tragic losses of Peart’s daughter and then his wife in 1997 and 1998, the band went silent for four years, because there could be no Rush without The New Guy. He was the most irreplaceable drummer in the business. That’s not an exaggeration. What he did just could not be reproduced. The drums meant more to the sound of this band than any other, and keeping time, important as it always is, was only part of his job. During that time, Peart took to the road for 55,000 miles of motorcycle riding through North America. He was not recognized once during the entire journey.
The band came roaring back into the new century with Vapor Trails, and some of their best work followed, including so much more work on the road.
Never has there been a more physically demanding job in music than that of Neil Peart. He designed it that way, and when it became painful to reach the bar that he alone had set, he powered through and did his job. In the band’s final tour in 2015, he was riding thousands of miles on his motorcycle between gigs purely for the joy of it, resulting in various health problems causing intense pain in his hands and feet.
The world was painfully aware of the diminished physical abilities of Muhammad Ali at the time of his death in 2016, but our last images of Peart were much like our first, the guy behind the kit driven by the mind that created music like a songwriter does. He was probably in pain the night I saw Rush in Austin in 2015, but he was still the best drummer I had ever seen perform, which was also how I felt the first time I saw the band in 1979 (and by the way, “2112” was performed at both of those shows).
Every Rush concert featured a full-blown drum solo, a showcase for Neil Peart to create his own symphony alone on stage, putting the foundation of rock and roll out front and fiery, with a cacophony of sounds for five to eight minutes of jaw-dropping fury. If anyone else in music has mastered an instrument with more skill and innovation, I am yet to hear it.
Success aside, Rush was always a bit on the outside, never embraced by Rolling Stone magazine, not critically acclaimed at all in their early years, often seen as creators of music for nerds who just didn’t get the supposedly more sophisticated stuff. But nothing was more sophisticated (as if that’s even the point of any music) than what three best friends managed to create in the studio and onstage.
In 2013, when they were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Alex Lifeson’s speech consisted entirely of him saying “blah blah blah” for no less than two minutes. Rush was incapable of taking themselves too seriously. They were just three working men who totaled something far greater than the sum of their parts.
On an episode of HBO’s short-lived dramedy Togetherness, two middle-aged men played by two of the show’s creators, Mark Duplass and Steve Zissis, are driving in a car with “Tom Sawyer” playing in the background. As Zissis’ character mentions being embarrassed after a failed romantic pursuit, Duplass pulls the car over. “This song is called ‘Tom Sawyer,’” he says. “And it is about a magical, amazing and inspired person who lifts the spirits of everyone around him by the very nature of who he is. ‘Tom Sawyer’ never needs to be embarrassed. Okay?” Zissis nods in agreement.
Duplass asks, “Are we doing this, or what?” Zissis says, “Yes.” Duplass cranks up the radio, just in time for the iconic drum transition in the song, and both men break out into air-drum to the song that helped define them. And then they sing along.
No, his mind is not for rent
To any god or government
Always hopeful, yet discontent
He knows changes aren’t permanent
But change is!
Neil Peart was that magical, amazing, and inspired person who lifted the spirits of everyone around him by the very nature of who he was.
“I call it the backline meridian: I stayed behind my drums and cymbals for 40 years,” said Neil after what became Rush’s final performance, Los Angeles, 2015. “I never go out front, never. It’s not my territory.” In all those years of performances, Peart had slipped from the comfort of that backline meridian directly off stage, never joining his band mates at the front of the stage to take a bow. But on that night, much to the surprise of Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, he joined them out front and wrapped his arms around the best friends he ever had. “To work together with the same guys for four decades to our mutual satisfaction in every way? You can’t beat that. You can’t repeat that.”
It’s been many years since someone has called me “2112,” but sometimes, people say, “Is your name really Rush? Like the band?” I always smile and proudly respond, “Yes, exactly like them. And yes, I am a fan!”
Rest in rhythm, Neil Peart, and may the mighty sounds of Rush ring far beyond 2112.