I was a bit drunk when I heard that Neil Peart had passed away.
It was a Friday. I’d wrapped up work early, and I thought I’d have a Bloody Mary before hopping on the train to meet my two old roommates for dinner.
For most of my train ride, I’d been engaged in a Wikipedia deep-dive: just before rolling into Merchandise Mart, I’d been reading about Christopher Hitchens, which lead me to Salman Rushdie, which lead me to the fatwa, which lead me to various distractions on Facebook, and…
“Neil Pert has passed away.”
It stopped me cold, and I couldn’t help but feel a very specific heaviness, and sadness wash over me.
The severity of my reaction struck me as odd. It’s always sad when you hear of someone’s passing, but with the Bloody in my system, I expected to process that news in a more objective (albeit solemn) way, the opposite of the fairly emotional response that was coming over me.
Sitting there in that moment, I tried to probe that: “Why am I feeling this?” I liked Neal Peart just fine, but he was never my favorite drummer, and I didn’t hear Rush for the first time until I was 18.
In any case, the feeling came to pass. However, I’ve started to think about it some more, and it brought me to the specifics of Rush’s album, “Hemispheres.”
“Hemispheres” was my first Rush album, and no matter what, it will always be my favorite.
“Hemispheres” is more special though. It occupies a particular place in Rush’s catalog and maybe more so than anything else of theirs that I’ve come across, it speaks to something inexplicably wonderful, due in no small to the late Mr. Peart’s contributions.
When Rush released the album, in 1978, popular opinion was that no one was trying to hear any sort of “rock” music with the word “progressive” in front of it.
Now, as Rush hails from Canada, perhaps you can’t technically lump them in with early/mid-70s Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Genesis, and ELP: the commonly identified progenitors of “progressive rock.”
In any case, as I delight in my occasionally die-hard contrarian nature, I tip my hat to Rush for not caring about popular opinion (or, being so steadfast in believing in what they were recording) and deciding to put out Hemispheres when they did, as they did.
What we’re talking about here is a 4 song album, which includes an opener just under 20 minutes, and a closer, just under 10.
Some might call that bloated or self-indulgent, and to certain listeners, perhaps it is. It’s also delightfully sprawling and triumphant. Upon first hearing it, it was difficult for me not to smile ear to ear.
There’s a lot to like— from the DOG-WHISTLE pinch harmonic that Alex Lifeson plays towards the end of his second solo, on “Cygnus X-1: Book II”, to the fairly silly (but carefully considered) narrative of “The Trees.”
There’s also that little number called, “La Villa Strangiato.”
To be clear, “Circumstances” is a fine song too, but this album is essentially about its opening and closing songs.
They speak to power, joy, enthusiasm, and hope— sonically, embodying a curiosity and belief in possibility.
A cartoonist who I admire gave an interview awhile back where he spoke about a writer proving his worth by exercising restraint. His rationale was that a writer writes because he loves to write, and by showing restraint/editing himself, he was showcasing whether he was a high or low practitioner of his particular craft. How much can you say with a little? What can you contribute to the proceedings that will both engage, and also keep the ball rolling?
Throughout Hemispheres, Neil Pert plays a lot. Not like, Billy Cobham-a-lot (please note that Mr. Cobham is my favorite drummer) but he gets busy.
That said, he does so in service of the music.
It seems like non-musicians or fans lauded Mr. Peart for what a great drummer he was, because he fell outside of the cookie cutter, lowest-common-denominator “rock drummer” mold. He had a couple tricks up his sleeve that his peers didn’t, and he was fun to watch.
On Hemispheres, while his playing is pretty damn tremendous, it never really strikes me as flashy or excessive. It’s considered, and appropriate: again, in service of the music.
His playing under Alex Lifeson’s (perhaps) career-best guitar solo on La Villa Strangiato (live performance here) is almost an exercise in restraint. He could get real slick, real quick with his footwork, while Mr. Lifeson disembowels his guitar, but instead, he builds the beat slowly, allowing his collaborator to stretch out upon the canvas.
It’s a gift to your fellow musician, something like that. Such a gift requires trust in your collaborator, and a lack of ego, two things that don’t always come easily to artists. As this is so, you have to have a tremendous amount of respect for it.
Sitting there on the train, I think I felt all of these things and then maybe some more too. Similar to when Kobe Bryant passed last week, I feel like some of my sadness had to do with how much I know he meant to people other than myself— how many young minds he inspired, and how many kids picked up two sticks because of his work.
His music will live on, and this album will always have that magical ability to remind me that I was once a younger person, awed by the possibility of great art, and the freedom of expression that comes with playing music.
Things like that throughout our lives are rare, and I’m so appreciative that this piece of work found its way into my life.
Hopefully, it, along with Mr. Peart’s contributions to both his instrument and music as a whole, will continue to find a place in the lives of others for many years to come.