I was shocked and saddened to hear of Neil’s premature death last week. From the little I know of the man, he would no doubt hate me referring to him as a ‘hero of mine’. So, I apologise to him now, wherever he is because that is exactly who he was to me.
I don’t know where my love of drumming came from. I can’t recall any kind of epiphany moment in my childhood. The interest in rhythms and drum sounds just seemed to be ‘there’ inside me somehow. I used to drive my poor parents up the wall by following whatever music was on the radio or TV and tapping out the rhythms on my lap or the arms of my chair. When someone gave me a pair of drumsticks I took to beating the crap out of my bed when playing records or sitting cross-legged and tapping the sticks on my thighs. I never got the chance of lessons or owning my own kit. That sort of thing was not a priority or possibility on an early 1970’s Council estate.
With a few listens I could usually follow the beats of music I was exposed to at that time such as early Status Quo, Led Zeppelin, Slade and my then favourite band, Thin Lizzy. Don’t get me wrong, following the beats and tapping them out on legs or armchairs isn’t the sign of some drumming prodigy! I am only too aware that it is a whole different ball game when you have to direct those beats towards actual drum heads and cymbals, with something resembling timing and precision.
I first encountered Rush when ‘Spirit of Radio’ hit the UK charts. It had a sound that I was instantly drawn to and the sound of those drums just did ‘something’ to me. The patterns sounded different from the other chart fodder, there were tempo changes, strange fiddly bits and rhythms I hadn’t heard before – I was hooked. I confess that I forgot about them for a while as I absorbed the drumming of other bands like Iron Maiden and the like. Oh, the shame of it.
It was a few years later when a friend of a friend re-introduced me to Rush by giving me a tape of ‘Signals’ with ‘Red Barchetta’ from ‘Exit….Stage Left’ tagged on to the final few feet of spare tape. I was really hooked this time! As well as the incredible drums, the intricate bass and soaring guitar parts, I also loved the lyrics. “What? The drummer writes the lyrics as well?? F***king hell!!” This was something completely new to me and my respect for the man grew even more. I could think of no better dream job than to write lyrics to songs and play the drums on them. Christ, I was jealous – I still am some 40 years later.
I didn’t listen exclusively to Rush as I took my music from all manner of places but they were my ‘goto’ band, my mainstay. I would spend hours listening to what Neil was doing and trying to copy the sounds and rhythms as best as I could. Challenging, frustrating, satisfying – I still tap along whenever I listen to Rush; I simply can’t stop myself. I slowly collected their back catalogue and stayed with them for each new release. I only had the joy of seeing them the once at Wembley Arena in 1988 on the ‘Hold Your Fire’ tour. I was disappointingly far from the stage and would have needed kestrel-like vision to watch what Neil was doing close-up. Ah well.
To this day, after all the times I’ve listened to their albums, there are still drum parts that I simply cannot fathom nor follow, rhythms that go against all my (meagre) powers of limb coordination and times when I am convinced that he employed the use of extra arms or legs to achieve what I can hear. The man was a genius. I’ve still never had a drum lesson but I have a small Roland V-drum kit in my box room. When I feel brave/foolish and I’m sure that nobody can hear my pitiful efforts, I play ‘Hemispheres’, ‘Moving Pictures’ or ‘Permanent Waves’ and tie myself in knots trying to follow that man. Beats get missed, rhythms get murdered, sticks get dashed together or fly out of my hands completely. Much cursing and exclamations of disbelief echo around the room.
It is one thing to follow but it takes something completely different and special to create the path in the first place. As a table-top tapping, steering wheel playing clot, trying to follow Neil Peart’s drumming is like trying to trace the Mona Lisa whilst wearing boxing gloves. Dreaming up all those intricate and precise parts in the first place simply amazes me.
Even in my advanced years, I would still sometimes daydream that I would get to meet him and be able to learn a little bit of magic. I think that’s what Neil Peart’s work gave me – dreams. Dreams of writing words like those of ‘Subdivisions’, dreams of playing a stick-perfect version of ‘La Villa Strangiato’ and a dream of being able to shake his hand and just say “Thank you.” Those dreams will never be reached but Christ, it’s good to have them!
So, to this hero of mine, thank you for the puzzles, the challenges, the frustration, the bewilderment, the blistered hands and the hours of continuing joy. Rest now.