A Series of Tributes to Neil Peart

by Michael Channing

A Series of Tributes to Neil Peart

When I parked outside the grocery store, I had a text from my wife. She was sorry to have to tell me, but Neil Peart was dead. In my car, in the parking lot of a Bi-Lo, a part of me died.

I messaged Bob. He already knew. I scrolled through tributes from fans and famous drummers on Twitter. I sat in silence. In the store I wandered the aisles in a daze. Somehow, people kept shopping and consuming, and the world kept going. I gathered my groceries and checked out, drove home. On the way, I put Roll the Bones in the CD player. Neil’s words reminded me that “we’re only immortal for a limited time.” I had been hearing and singing that for almost thirty years. But now I knew.

In high school, I had a t-shirt made with the 2112 album cover on it. On the back was a line from the title track, “IT DOESN’T FIT THE PLAN.” It was a copyrighted image so the shop would only do a subpar transfer, and the lettering was in an ugly, sans serif block font, and the thing cost way more than my sixteen-year old self should be spending on a single garment, but there was no other piece of clothing like it in the world. I wore it with pride.

In the run-up to awards day for my senior class, we were all supposed to wear dressy clothes to school on rehearsal day. I forgot. I wore jeans, which would have been completely unseen beneath the graduation gown. And, I really want to stress this, it was only a rehearsal. But I was out of uniform, so I wasn’t allowed to practice, which meant I wasn’t allowed to participate in the real awards day march. Sidelined because of my jeans.

On awards day, I sat on the bleachers with my mom while my friends and my classmates sat in the center of the gym as the principal handed out awards and certificates. When my name was called, I stood up and stomped down the wooden bleachers as loudly as I could. My footfalls echoed through the gym, and everyone turned to watch me trek across the room. I wore my 2112 t-shirt. I got my award, made my way back up the bleachers, took my seat.

I got a total of four awards that day, and with each, I thundered down and up those bleachers, grinning the whole time. I heard someone wonder aloud who was the junior getting all the senior awards. It wasn’t exactly a world-changing event. I wasn’t raging against an oppressive state. I was just a teenager taking the piss out of the adults. But I felt important with Neil’s words on my back. I felt as strong as life because of them.

I made Rush mix tapes for two of my teachers. I saw it not as youthful rock-and-roll but as literry music with adult themes, and I couldn’t think of any other way to connect with educated adults. A professor at the Governor’s School listened and said it reminded him of Grand Funk Railroad. I was disappointed, but at least he heard.

When I told my eleventh grade English teacher there was a song about Tom Sawyer, she said, Really? I said, You wanna hear it? And she said, Um, okay. So I filled up both sides of a tape for her. I especially wanted her to hear “The Pass.” It’s a song about suicide. I guess I wanted someone to know I was lost in the darkness but learning to steer by the stars. Sometimes I felt alone in my rage and confusion. Neil told me otherwise.

Neil was my first songwriting mentor. As a writer, I wanted to write in any form available, songs included. But I didn’t want to write about partying or dating or drugs or sex. I didn’t even know how those things worked. Neil wrote about being different, about finding your own path. He wrote about spaceships and Greek gods, things I could relate to. New ideas and themes opened for me to write about, so I put songs to paper. I pinned them to the wall of my room, and they fluttered with the wind through the open window. My catalog grew from a clipboard to a three-ring binder, then to several. I tried and mostly failed to write about a future society, about a boy who realizes he’s a god, about myself. That last one worked out pretty well, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Rush was my first concert. I went with Bob. It was the Roll the Bones tour, and it was amazing. They played “Tom Sawyer,” and “Time Stand Still,” and “The Big Money.” During “Vital Signs” red laser lights sprayed out through the audience. “Where’s My Thing?” ended with an enormous blast of sound and white light. There were cardboard dice sitting on the speakers. An inflatable rabbit (probably a holdover from the Presto tour) popped out of a box and headbanged to the music. Alex refused to play the guitar hook to “The Spirit of Radio” until we all cheered loud enough. And there was, of course, the drum solo. Six or seven minutes of Neil pounding on just about every drum in his titanic kit. In the center of the solo, the whole thing spun around like a carousel, and the crowd went wild, Bob yelling the loudest. Afterward, as we inched through the parking lot, he said the drum solo alone was worth the price of admission. The best part for me was seeing my friend that happy.

I met Bob at a mutual friend’s house, my upstairs neighbor. He had a fifteen-year head start on life and therefore a much larger collection and knowledge of music. He asked me a question that comes naturally to mind whenever you ask anything of a teenager: What kind of music do you listen to? I said I liked music with good lyrics. Then you need this, he said, and handed me Chronicles, a double-disc compilation containing songs from all of Rush’s albums at that time (from the first through Presto). That’s where it started. I became obsessed, borrowed the albums from Bob then bought them all one at a time. With each purchase, I would sit on my bed and read the lyrics as I listened over and over. I learned to play the bass. I wrote hundreds of songs because Neil showed me that even my weird thoughts could translate to lyrics. When I recorded an album on my computer, I liked to say it was half as good as Moving Pictures but with twice as many songs. My friendship with Bob started that day and has lasted thirty years. We played Rush on every car trip, saw them twice in concert, jammed out during gaming sessions, were both heartbroken when Neil died. That band has meant so much to me. Neil’s words are in my blood and tattooed on my heart. I once painted the coda to “The Analog Kid” on the wall of my room, but because changes are never permanent, I had to paint over it and leave it behind.

Neil Peart is gone, but his music and his words are still here. He changed a lot of us, inspired drummers and writers and probably even motorcyclists. His garden is tall and splendid. I was aimless on the day he died, but I knew for a fact as I slid the disc into the player, there were millions of others around the world listening to his words along with me. We put on different records, our favorites or whatever was closest at hand, and we said goodbye and thank you. I once thought I was by myself in the confusion of being alive, but I never really am. I never will be.

A Measure of Love and Respect

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Chokes and Warbles
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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing

June 19, 2020