Saturday, January 11, 2020

There's Something Here As Strong As Life

"Suddenly you were gone
From all the lives you left your mark upon
- I remember."

-Neil Peart, Afterimage, Grace Under Pressure (RUSH)

Earlier this week the world lost legendary drummer and author Neil Peart. Peart, who was born on Sept 12, 1952 in Hamilton, Ontario died in Santa Monica on Jan 7, 2020. RUSH and Peart's family made the announcement late on Friday Jan 10th.

“It is with broken hearts and the deepest sadness that we must share the terrible news that on Tuesday our friend, soul brother and band mate of over 45 years, Neil, has lost his incredibly brave three and a half year battle with brain cancer,” began a statement from Rush. He was 67.

I first learned about Peart when my dear friend Pete Mihajic insisted that I listen to the 1984 album, Grace Under Pressure.

I had been spending a lot of time thinking and reading about anxieties over potential nuclear war and gotten involved in some nuclear disarmament groups. Pete said that this RUSH album had themes that were reminiscent. Certainly, the album's first track "Distant Early Warning" brought that to mind, as did many of the other tracks, such as "The Enemy Within" and "Red Sector A" - although I later learned of Peart's inspiration for the song of a prison camp being inspired by fellow bandmate Geddy Lee's mother's accounts of surviving the holocaust.

I listened to Grace Under Pressure over and over and over on the cassette tape that Pete recorded for me. Then I went out and bought the album. Then the cassette.

I fell in love with the thoughtful and pensive lyrics, the musical styling, everything about this band.

As an interesting aside, earlier this month an anthology of science fiction stories, Galaxia was published which includes a short story called "Grace Under Pressure" which I'd originally wrote to try to sell to Kevin J. Anderson for an anthology he was editing. Because I knew he was a huge RUSH fan I titled it that as a nod to our favorite band. ;) I didn't sell the story to Kevin, but was able to get it into this other anthology.

Then I bought the album Signals which also resonated with me with songs such as "Subdivisions" and "The Analog Kid" which were stark reminders of growing up as a nerd who never felt like he fit in. I wrote articles for the high school newspaper about how the songs resonated with me.

RUSH became a centerpiece for my friendship with Pete and Steve Gaydos and John Ellis.


I actually can't count the number of RUSH concerts that we saw together over the years. And I would never be able to count the number of hours we listened to their music and talked about the meaning of the songs. We loved that the guys of RUSH seemed to be more like us (nerds) than they were larger than life rock stars. They were three best friends who thought of one another like brothers and enjoyed making music and playing together for forty years.

But I got a little ahead of myself there. After discovering how much I loved Grace Under Pressure and Signals I moved on to get more backlist albums like Fly By Night and their first album, Rush. That first album did not include Peart, and so many of the lyrics weren't as philosophical and pensive. But John and I used to play many tracks from it before heading to high school dances, in particular the song "In The Mood" because it was, as the song lyrics go, roughly "a quarter to eight" when we were listening to it and getting ready to head to the dance.

The title track off of "Fly By Night" has been a song that has been with me through virtually every single significant change in my life over the decades. I first showed up to play it for Steve when he moved away to college, then it became my "acknowledge" change song for so many things.

I, of course, worked my way through all of their albums, and so many of their songs have been the backdrop to the soundtrack of my life in so many ways.

"Hold your fire
Keep it burning bright
Hold the flame
'Til the dream ignites
A spirit with a vision
Is a dream with a mission

I hear their passionate music
Read the words
That touch my heart
I gaze at their feverish pictures
The secrets that set them apart

When I feel the powerful visions
Their fire has made alive
I wish I had that instinct
I wish I had that drive"

Neil Peart, Misson, Hold Your Fire (RUSH)

It's rare for me to get into any sort of meaningful conversation about something without likely bringing up something from a RUSH song lyric that pertains to the topic. From songs like "Entre Nous" or "Spirit of Radio" or "Cinderalla Man" or "Circumstances" or "Madrigal" or "Limelight" or "Marathon" or "Mystic Rhythms" or "Dreamline" or "Far Cry" or "Caravan" - oh, who am I kidding? There are too many songs so meaningful to me to mention.

RUSH's music has been an integral part of my life. And it will continue to be.

"Listen to my music
And hear what it can do
There's something here as strong as life
I know that it will reach you."

- Neil Peart, Presentation, 2112 (RUSH)

I met Liz in 2014, just as RUSH was beginning to near retirement. And, as I do, I shared many of the songs and meaning of the band, it's music, and it's trio of amazing people with her. We listened to plenty of their albums together, we watched Beyond the Lighted Stage together. Seeing the back story of this band helped her understand the depth of the importance they had to me. And we attended their final tour, the R40 tour, together, which was really special.

When I found out that Neil Peart also wrote fiction and non-fiction, I was beside myself with joy, gobbling up everything he wrote, from his first co-authored short story to his first non-fiction travel memoir, and all the way through his writing career.

I have loved all of his books, but if I had to pick a favorite, it might be Traveling Music: The Soundtrack to my Life and Times. One of my favorite pictures of me and my son when he was a baby, was of the two of us having an afternoon nap. On the nightstand there is a copy of Neil's book, which I was mid-way through reading at the time.

While I never had the pleasure of knowing Neil personally, I am good friends with Kevin J. Anderson, who has long been a close friend of Neil. Considering how private a person Peart was, and the fact that he enjoyed working hard as a drummer, lyricist and writer, but was never comfortable in the role of celebrity and the way that fans fawn over and place them on pedestals, I was perfectly fine never trying to push through that veil. Why make someone uncomfortable for no good reason. I could admire and respect the man and his phenomenal work without having to gush in person to him about the incredibly powerful and positive inspiration he had on my life.

"Living in a fisheye lens
Caught in the camera eye
I have no heart to lie
I can't pretend a stranger
Is a long awaited friend."

- Neil Peart, Limelight, Moving Pictures (RUSH)

The closest I suppose I ever got to him was when I re-published a short story that Neil Peart and Kevin J. Anderson wrote called "Drumbeats" in the 2012 anthology I edited, Tesseracts Sixteen: Parnassus Unbound. Tesseracts was an anthology to spotlight Canadian authors, and Anderson is the only American to make it into the series, because his co-author, Peart, was Canadian.

When my buddy Kevin was in town to launch the novel Clockwork Angels, he stayed at my place in Hamilton, and at the celebratory dinner of the book launch with Peart and ECW, Kevin brought a copy of the anthology so that Neil could sign a copy for me.

It was an honour to bring back into print a story that I have long adored. And, earlier this week, I had the privilege of bringing it to more readers, as I have included "Drumbeats" in the guest editor issue of Pulphouse magazine that I just turned in to Dean Wesley Smith and WMG Publishing. It'll be out later this year.

Several years back, Kevin and I were enjoying craft beers on a patio at The Winking Judge in Hamilton when he invited me to submit a story to an anthology he was co-editing that was going to be called 2113 and feature stories inspired by the music of RUSH. The title story would be written by Kevin J. Anderson, and be a sequel to the story told in the RUSH album 2112. He told me to pick a song that hadn't already been spoken for, and to send him something.

I chose one of my absolute favorite RUSH songs, "Losing It" and wrote a story entitled "Some Are Born to Save the World." The beautiful and haunting song, "Losing It" explores the lives of a writer who can no longer create, and a dancer who can no longer dance as they age and their mind and body begin to fail them.

"Some are born to move the world
To live their fantasies
Most of us just dream about
The things we'd like to be

Sadder still to watch it die
Than never to have known it
For you the blind who once could see
The bell tolls for thee"

- Neil Peart, Losing It, Signals, RUSH

My story was about a superhero who could no longer save people as he reaches old age and his own body and powers begin to fail him.

It was a significant honor to re-publish a story co-authored by Anderson and Peart. But it was another truly unique honor to be able to write a story inspired by one of my favorite RUSH songs of all time.

The book cover features the "Starman" from the album cover for 2112 standing up to his knees in water and facing away from the viewer. I can ALWAYS tell a RUSH fan when I have the book at a comic con or other show where I have an author table, because they recognize the font and styling of the cover as matching 2112 from across the room and often stop, turn, then make a bee-line to the table to pick up the book as if it were some magical oracle.

I know that look, because it's likely the look I get on my face every time a RUSH song starts to play.

Because I know I'm about to be transported into some special place.

"As the years went by, we drifted apart
When I heard that you were gone
I felt a shadow cross my heart"

- Neil Peart, Nobody's Hero, Counterparts

I have written and spoken about Neil Peart countless times over the years. The words and music and example that he set continue to inspire me, and will continue to inspire me.

Thank you, Neil Peart, for the amazing gifts that you shared with the world, for the inspiration in all of the truly remarkable work that you left behind.

You will be missed. But you will be remembered and honored.

[EDIT - On Jan 14 I recorded a special Thanks for the Inspiration: Neil Peart episode of my Stark Reflections on Writing and Publishing Podcast, which includes a bit of this same info]