How Neil Peart and Rush changed my hard-rock loving life

Neil’s song “Subdivisions” still resonates with every dreamer or misfit: “In the high school halls, in the shopping malls, be cool or be cast out.”

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Legendary drummer Neil Peart of the band Rush died at age 67 on Jan. 7, 2020 in Santa Monica, California.

Legendary drummer Neil Peart of the band Rush died at age 67 on Jan. 7, 2020 in Santa Monica, California.

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As I piled into an old Ford LTD with five of my hard-rock loving buddies on the night of May 28, 1976, I had no idea I was about to enjoy a life-changing experience.

But that’s what my first Rush concert was on that Friday at the Riviera Theatre in Uptown, and that’s why the recent death of drummer and lyricist Neil Peart hit so hard. From guitarist Alex Lifeson’s riff of concert opener “Bastille Day,” I was hooked for life.

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I had gotten into hard rock during the previous year, seeing the likes of Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult and Ted Nugent in concert. But as an aspiring writer and journalism student at Loyola University Chicago, I was looking for something more substantive, and Rush provided it. There was the power and the precision of the music provided by Lifeson, bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee and Peart.

Then there were the lyrics, almost all of them penned by Peart since he joined Rush for its second album, “Fly By Night.” The centerpiece of the Riviera concert was “2112,” Side 1 of which was Peart’s Ayn Rand-inspired 20-minute suite about one person’s fight for individuality and personal creativity in a dystopian post apocalyptic world run by the mysteriously evil priests of the Temples of Syrinx. Just to lighten the mood slightly, Side 2 of the record opened with “A Passage to Bankok,” about a worldwide quest to obtain something that recently became legal in Illinois. As Peart put it, “We only stop for the best.”

Over time, Peart disavowed Rand’s views, eventually describing himself as a “bleeding heart libertarian.” And that’s the thing about Rush that kept me hooked for the rest of their 40-plus-year run: They were always evolving musically — from hard, blues-inspired rock to progressive pieces and finally to more streamlined yet challenging songs — and Peart was evolving as a lyricist, to say nothing of his growth as rock’s most prodigious percussionist. Having already mastered his craft, Peart took drumming lessons from jazz drummer Freddie Gruber in the mid-1990s to get more of a groove into his playing.

With his pen, Peart tackled it all, from politics to religion to coming to grips with the dropping of the first atomic bomb in World War II (the sonically beautiful “Manhattan Project”) to teenage alienation and isolation, something Peart himself experienced in his own life, as did many of his fans. The song “Subdivisions” still resonates with every dreamer or misfit: “In the high school halls, in the shopping malls, be cool or be cast out.” A second second-generation of Rush fans are singing that chorus and saying, “Damn right.” I know. I’ve talked to one: my daughter.

Appealing to two and even three generations of fans may not be unique to Rush, but the appeal is definitely there, as evidenced by parents with their kids in tow at venues across the continent. During the shows, kids and their dad would air-drum together during “Tom Sawyer” and other songs. That’s something I witnessed at several venues in Chicago and at shows I attended in Cleveland, Denver and in Rush’s hometown of Toronto. No doubt the music written by Lee and Lifeson and the words of Peart engage listeners on a timeless wavelength.

Rush’s final studio work, the mature and accomplished “Clockwork Angels,” is a concept album featuring an individual’s quest for truth and answers, set in a steam-punk world. The album’s final song, “The Garden,” was inspired by Voltaire’s “Candide,” which speaks of tending to one’s garden.

The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect

The way you live, the gifts that you give

In the fullness of time

It’s the only return that you expect

The future disappears into memory

With only a moment between

Forever dwells in that moment

Hope is what remains to be seen

Neil Peart’s words will continue to give us hope. Fare thee well, Neil, on your headlong flight home.

Journalist Bruce Miles covered sports for 31 years, the past 22 as the Chicago Cubs beat writer for the Daily Herald. His twitter handle, fittingly enough, is @BruceMiles2112.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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