Exit… The Professor

So if you read my post about being a Superfan, knew me in high school, or know me now, you know I’m a huge Rush fan. My first exposure to them was in high school when some guys played “Bastille Day” and “Working Man” in the talent show, and afterwards I asked who the band was. I went right out and bought Exit… Stage Left, a live recording, on cassette. A fellow Rush fan and I would tool around our little one-mile-square town in my grandfather’s ’76 Buick Skylark and play that tape over and over. It had a small flaw in the word “crackle” in “The Spirit of Radio,” and to this day, when I hear the song, my brain adds in that little flaw. Those three ordinary guys from Canada were all masters at their craft and their music has brought me joy for almost 40 years.

Two weeks ago, the drummer and lyricist Neil Peart died from brain cancer. Glioblastoma. He was only 67. He had been battling it for over 3 years.

And none of us knew.

The fans, that is. Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, his bandmates, they knew. And his family and some of his closest friends and colleagues knew. But they managed to keep it from the rest of us, his millions of fans around the world. And after years of “knowing” Neil as we did, that’s not surprising.  For all Rush’s fame, he was a very private guy. He lived and, as it turned out, died on his own terms. Privately.

So, when the news first broke, we were all not only devastated, but incredulous. I found out when a friend left me a voicemail. I called him back: “Wait, WHAT? No, that’s a mistake.” Followed by many expletives. Because, how could it be? Wouldn’t we have known? Why didn’t anyone TELL US? Then we would’ve had time to get ready for this. Instead, it was just a shot to our collective hearts.

Neil Peart was not only Rush’s drummer, but their lyricist as well, having written almost all their albums. He was also a prolific writer, having authored 6 books. His lyrics ranged from the simple yet never trite, to the complex, profound, and sometimes sadly prophetic. His nickname was “The Professor” not for obvious reason, but because the guys liked to equate his demeanor with the Professor on Gilligan’s Island! Neil’s other passion, besides music, was cycling, and then motorcycling, and he’d chronicled his adventures on his bikes in his books. In 1997, his only daughter died in a car accident, and then his wife died within the following year, of cancer they say, but probably more of a broken heart. Neil stopped playing, recording and everything else associated with the band, and hit the road on his motorcycle. Out of that came his book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road.  

But by 2001, he had found his way back to Rush, started writing albums again and they were back. He got married again and they had a daughter.

I saw Rush in 2011 at Madison Square Garden in their “Time Machine Tour.” Our seats were high, but on the side of the stage, and there was no better place to be, because I had a perfect view of Neil at the kit, working his magic. Not to mention, I had a great view of the entire arena air-drumming along with him. A sight that needs to be seen to be believed.

In late 2014, Rush announced they were doing a tour: “R40” – as in Rush 40 years: they had been touring and making music for a little over 40 years. And then word got out that in all likelihood, this would be their final tour. I was there, in the 10th row at Madison Square Garden on 6/29/15. It was a bittersweet show, they had worked out the setlist to travel backwards, starting with their most current songs, and going back in time to how it all began. The sets followed suit, getting smaller and simpler as the show progressed, ending with what looked like a school gym. How far they had come.

Neil

In November 2015 they released a box set, which included the R40 show. When it was released there was a Town Hall at SiriusXM, and I was lucky enough to go. It was only Geddy and Alex. Neil was never one for those sorts of events, so while it wasn’t surprising, looking back, I wish more than ever he’d been there with them. But as it was, I was a mere ten feet away, if that much, from Alex and Geddy, and to hear them talk about the history of the band was something I’ll never forget.

Time went on. “Will they reunite, will they record another album” were frequent topics of conversation on the Rush Forum. Usually greeted with “get over it, they’re done, they’re living their lives.” And as it turned out, they were also living with Neil’s secret. Geddy Lee wrote a book about bass guitars and did sporadic book signings. I met him at a local bookstore. A great, albeit brief, experience.  Standing on line (for hours) and reminiscing with fellow fans, reliving the good old days, it was great. But now, looking back, how hard it must’ve been for Geddy to have to keep saying “he’s fine, we see him sometimes” when some well-intentioned fan asked how Neil was doing.

Sometimes we’d see a picture of Neil posted somewhere and again, having no idea what was going on, and someone would post “he looks too skinny” or “he doesn’t look well” to which someone else would angrily say “he’s fine.” Geddy and Alex continued to do their things, playing here and there on occasion, Geddy toured with his book in random places around the world.

And then this. I think for most of us, it was like Rush had retired all over again. Except this time, there wasn’t the initial hope of any reunions or one-offs, or, ANYTHING with the three of them.

It didn’t change anything, really. Neil being Neil, we were all pretty sure we’d never have seen him in the public eye again anyway, but just the fact that he’s not in this world with the rest of us anymore is what gets me the most.  He’d lived through tragedy, found happiness with a new family, and then to retire and have so little time left, it’s just so unfair. Everything he went through and then to have his life end that way.

I think by now, most of us had finally come to terms with Rush being “done”. We had the music, the bootlegs, the DVDs, the YouTubes, and our own memories. And then this crushing blow. Eventually we’ll come to terms with it again, but for now, we’re all just trying to deal with it. Luckily there’s a lot of Facebook pages, and other fan forums, and everyone has been sharing their thoughts and memories, and that helps. I suppose there are those out there that don’t understand our grief, our sense of anguish for the loss of someone we didn’t even know “in real life.” But to us it’s real, it was way too soon, and it’s heartbreaking.

There are so many lyrics I could quote, but this is “The Garden,” from Clockwork Angels, Rush’s last studio album in 2012. The song was also played during the closing credits of “Time Stand Still” a 2016 documentary that focused on the band and its fans, and gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the R40 tour.

In this one of many possible worlds, all for the best, or some bizarre test?
It is what it is – and whatever
Time is still the infinite jest
The arrow files when you dream, the hours tick away – the cells tick away
The Watchmaker keeps to his schemes
The hours tick away – they tick away
The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned
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
In the rise and the set of the sun
‘Til the stars go spinning – spinning ’round the night
It is what it is – and forever
Each moment a memory in flight
The arrow flies while you breathe, the hours tick away – the cells tick away
The Watchmaker has time up his sleeve
The hours tick away – they tick away
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
The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give
In the fullness of time
It’s the only return that you expect
The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect

It’s a measure of a life, indeed.

PS: Neil Peart’s last name? Is not pronounced “Purt” like the shampoo. It’s “Peert” – like those two things on the sides of your head that you use to listen with. Though, in the case of we Rush fans, I almost feel like his name should be pronounced like “Heart” instead because we listen to Rush with our hearts as well as our ears.

5 thoughts on “Exit… The Professor

  1. I loved reading this…from the joy of recalling your earliest times of becoming enamored with the band and the guys in it, to all the years we’ve spent with them being a part of our collective conscience.

    We Rush faithful all have our own story, and I love learning about other people’s, and the perspective that we have, now that it’s all unfortunately receding into the past.

    But the music, and all the words, and the good times and good feelings that they have given us, will always be in the present tense.

    Thank you so much for posting!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “A thousand years have come and gone
    But time has passed me by
    Stars stopped in the sky
    Frozen in an everlasting view
    Waiting for the world to end
    Weary of the night
    Praying for the light…”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi.

    I see you when commenting on Fish on Friday show.

    Great post. Do you have the Clockwork Angels book?

    A couple of years ago I came across The Garden picture disc in a vinyl shop. It was from a pre-Record Store Day sale. It’s my favourite song from that album.

    I was blessed to see Rush live six times. My first was the Hold your Fire tour. They remain my all time favourite band.

    Great blog by the way.

    Regards, Matthew.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! No, haven’t read CA yet. I’ve been meaning to. The Garden is one of my fave songs of theirs.
      I didn’t get to see them enough,I wish it had been more.
      As for Fish, he’s just so great! Fish on Friday is a weekly highlight for me. I’m loving Weltschmerz so far.
      Thanks for reading!

      Like

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