The first time I truly paid attention to the words in a song was when I heard Subdivisions. Even at a young age, I think I had grown tired of what I had been hearing. Songs were either about teenage love, sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, or they were weird fantasy-type stories. But when I first heard Neil Peart’s words Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth – but the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth… it was a revelation. Song lyrics could have an impact – I had never considered this before! And while he wasn’t the only lyricist who actually tried, his words were the ones that always stuck in my head over the years. Rush songs – musically, yes, but lyrically too – are like a part of my DNA. And without them, I likely would not have sought out the authors’ works Neil referenced, nor would I have considered the philosophies he injected into his own works. People tend to think of Rush lyrics as being rather cold and scientific, but in fact Neil often wrote about the human condition, and his words at times could be very moving. He was a brilliant writer, but a humble one, always striving to understand more about the world he lived in.
His integrity and commitment to what he did was so admirable to me that I couldn’t help but think of him as a hero, despite his well-documented distaste for such idolatry. I wanted to respect his wishes (and had I ever met him face to face, I certainly would have). But in secret, he was my hero. As a teenager in my room, poring over his lyrics and wondering how he might have refined them, all the way now to my forties, where I still shake my head and marvel at them.
I saw Rush play live nine times. And although his drumming was always a spectacular part of the show, it tended to be the lyrics that hit me, and made me turn just slightly from my friends, lest they see my obvious emotion (oh, if they could see me right now). Neil’s books adorn my shelves, full of his tales of adventure, wanderlust and naked humanity in the face of harrowing despair that punctured his life. His autographed response to my fan mail is still right where I can easily access it if need be, and has been ever since I was that ecstatic 18 year-old opening the mailbox and seeing that he had actually responded to me.
Thank you Neil, for teaching that dreamy kid all those years ago that words matter. You literally changed my life, and you never even knew it. It’s no exaggeration to say that your loss is staggering to me, and as ill-equipped as I feel to suddenly accept a world without you in it, I shall attempt to be stoic, and do so by exhibiting at least some of the qualities that you did, and sought to help others do via your words. You will never be forgotten. You will write no more, but I will keep reading.
R.I.P. Professor (12 September 1952 – 7 January 2020)
The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect
– N. Peart, 2012