by Chris Tobias
Here is how I’ll always remember hearing that the world had lost a superb writer, the greatest drummer in music history and an intelligent, inspiring human being who, by his own admission in the lyrics of the 2010 Rush song “Caravan,” could never stop thinking big…
I came home to an empty house Friday. My wife was still at work, and my son had stayed after school to work out with some of his teammates. I fed the cats, poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down to unwind from the work day. I was watching the second half of the English Premier League soccer match between West Ham United and Sheffield United when I heard the familiar line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail that is my text tone: “Message for you, sir!”
It was my brother Randy (whom some of you may have met at Take Back the Sky’s outreach tables at Pittsburgh sci-fi and comics conventions over the years). His message instantly ruined my weekend.
“My day had really sucked already, so I didn’t think it could get worse. But, in case you haven’t heard, Neil Peart died this morning from brain cancer.”
I suddenly felt that odd tingling sensation and emptiness that come with a real shock. I had hardly finished typing my response when his second text arrived.
“I read the news release. He actually died on Tuesday, but the family did not release the information until today. Even at the end, the man wanted his life, and death, to be kept private.”
I doubt I have to tell you much about Neil Peart. A lot of people in the space community, and most self-professed geeks as well, have a high degree of reverence for the Canadian rock band Rush. Neil Peart, who joined the band in 1974, was regarded by many as the greatest modern rock-and-roll drummer, though he often infused Rush’s songs with elements of jazz, reggae and big band music as well. What really endeared him to lovers of science and science-fiction, however, were his lyrics. Peart took over the lyric-writing duties for the band starting with Rush’s second album, and his lyrics, as sung by the band’s bassist and lead vocalist Geddy Lee, immediately set Rush apart from the other rock groups of the day who only seemed to know how to sing about booze, women and decadent social rebellion. Over the years, Peart’s lyrics would draw inspiration from the writing of Ayn Rand and J.R.R. Tolkien as well as numerous works of science-fiction and philosophy, and it was this that made him a favorite of many fans of progressive rock, myself included.
Throughout his career with Rush, Peart often wrote about space and space travel. Some of the most well-known examples are “Cygnus X-1” from the 1977 album A Farewell to Kings, “Cygnus X-1: Book II” from the following year’s LP Hemispheres, and “Countdown,” the band’s tribute to the maiden launch of Space Shuttle Columbia, which appears on the 1982 album Signals.
Signals was the first Rush album I ever owned, and I did an oral report on the lyrics to “Countdown” for my Honors English class my freshman year in high school. If you’ve seen any of the panels I’ve conducted for Take Back the Sky since 2013 at Wizard World, Pittsburgh Comicon or West Virginia Pop Culture Con, you know I’ve never stopped talking about the song.
I’m fond of telling anyone who will listen the thrill it gave me to hear the band use actual recordings of the communication during the launch of Columbia between NASA’s mission control and the crew of STS-1, astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen, to augment the song’s driving rock beats and new wave synthesizers. It still gives me chills to hear it, and as I’ve said many times before, I reckon I’d get that same feeling to hear a member of the SpaceX flight control team utter the words, “Serenity, you are GO for launch” when the first Crew Dragon is launched with US astronauts aboard.
And every time I watch Dragon launch aboard a Falcon 9, I am reminded of Peart’s line from “Countdown:”
“Floodlit in the hazy distance
The star of this unearthly show
Venting vapors, like the breath
Of a sleeping white dragon…”
Rush was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, but they were also enshrined in a “geek hall of fame” of sorts when they were featured prominently in the 2011 science-fiction best seller Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. In the novel, the ability to play Rush’s song “2112” on a guitar is the key to winning one of the stages of a high-stakes treasure hunt in a virtual reality world called the OASIS. While this was omitted from Steven Spielberg’s 2018 film adaption of the novel, a 2112 poster does appear on the wall of a character’s bedroom during a pivotal scene, and Rush’s song “Tom Sawyer” was used as the background music for the film’s trailer.
Cline’s homage to Rush in his sci-fi bestseller is a fitting tribute because it was the music of Rush, and the lyrics of Neil Peart in particular, that served as one of the first signals (and yes, the pun is always intended) to the geeks of the world that despite the ridicule they endured daily “in the high school halls” and “in the shopping malls,” they were, in fact, kind of cool after all. I know this geek certainly felt that way.
Neil Peart’s work changed my life. He inspired me to take up drumming, and though I never amounted to anything more than a failed drummer in a few garage bands, I don’t regret the time I spent trying. But more importantly, he was also one of those who most inspired me to be a writer, and that spark lit a fire that I have been able to hold onto and keep burning bright. (True Rush fans will know what song I just made a reference to in that last sentence. Sorry, but I couldn’t resist. I’m feeling very sentimental tonight.)
In his later years, Peart’s writing became more personal and emotive. He published several books, many of which are travelogues that have a lot to do with his observations on sociology and philosophy but very little or nothing at all to do with music. Every one of them is an outstanding read, and I would recommend them all. I have seen Rush perform live more times than I can count, and I used to joke with my brother Randy that when I first started going to Rush concerts I would buy a concert t-shirt as a souvenir, but towards the end of their touring career, whenever I went to see Rush live I’d come home with one of Neil’s books!
By now you’re probably saying, “You know, Chris, this isn’t exactly the blog entry I expected to read on a site for Browncoats and space enthusiasts.” Maybe I am stretching the connection a bit, but I felt it might help me sort out what I’m feeling this evening. Learning of Neil Peart’s passing wasn’t the same as losing a family member, but I still feel a certain emptiness that I need come to terms with. Losing David Bowie four years ago was a shock, but I haven’t felt something like this since seeing the Challenger and Columbia disasters on television, and I certainly haven’t reacted like this to the death of a celebrity since my mom woke me up early on a December morning back in 1980 so I could watch the news reports before school because John Lennon had been shot to death the night before.
We’ll always be able to appreciate Neil Peart’s drumming virtuosity and masterfully crafted lyrics in Rush’s four decades of music. What saddens me the most is that there will never be any more words written by the man we all knew as “the Professor.”
Tonight I plan to pour out a glass of Neil’s favorite scotch, The Macallan, in his honor. And while I’m mourning his passing, I will also reflect on his lyrics from Rush’s 1989 song “The Pass:”
“All of us get lost in the darkness
Dreamers learn to steer by the stars…”
Thanks for the words and music, Professor. They will not be forgotten; nor will you.