Neil Peart, the Canadian drummer and leader of the Seventies hard-rock band Rush, has died. Peart had battled brain cancer for three years.
I saw Peart and his band perform at the now-demolished New Haven Coliseum during Rush’s Power Windows tour in 1985 (I think), and he was even more phenomenal in person than he was on the records. Fan polls routinely agreed he was the greatest rock drummer of his time (or indeed of all time, I would argue, though some would go with Keith Moon). I’m not sure any rock track boasts drumming that can match Peart’s breathtaking work on the 1981 song “Tom Sawyer”
Unusually for a drummer, Peart also wrote the big majority of his band’s lyrics, which were among the most ambitious ever attempted in the hard-rock space. Like many other rock lyricists (Roger Waters, Pete Townshend), Peart was a genius at tapping into the restless alienation of late-teen boys who think they’re smarter than everyone around them. It occurred to me many years later that it’s an odd kind of gift, to keep your mind stuck in that mode of detachment, anger and frustration as you advance into middle age and accumulate mansions and supermodel girlfriends. Peart told Rolling Stone four years ago, “I set out to never betray the values that 16-year-old had, to never sell out, to never bow to the man. A compromise is what I can never accept.” Well, no one wants to hear rock lyrics about property taxes and the failings of the kitchen staff.
He also labeled himself a libertarian and in youth dabbled in Ayn Randism, naming Rush’s 1975 song “Anthem” for her 1937 novel Anthem, which was among George Orwell’s influences for 1984, and crediting Rand in the liner notes for her influence on the 1976 Rush album 2112. What teen boy didn’t also flirt with Rand? To persist with a Rand fixation is not the mark of a healthy mind, though. When asked in 2012 (again in Rolling Stone) if Rand’s words still spoke to him, he said, “Oh, no. That was 40 years ago.” Peart did retain his libertarianism, after a fashion. He explained:
In that 2112 album, again, I was in my early twenties. I was a kid. Now I call myself a bleeding heart libertarian. Because I do believe in the principles of Libertarianism as an ideal – because I’m an idealist. Paul Theroux’s definition of a cynic is a disappointed idealist. So as you go through past your twenties, your idealism is going to be disappointed many many times. And so, I’ve brought my view and also – I’ve just realized this – Libertarianism as I understood it was very good and pure and we’re all going to be successful and generous to the less fortunate and it was, to me, not dark or cynical. But then I soon saw, of course, the way that it gets twisted by the flaws of humanity. And that’s when I evolve now into . . . a bleeding heart Libertarian. That’ll do.
Peart died in Santa Monica on January 7. R.I.P.