This is just a tribute
Rush’s music is embedded so deeply into my personhood that I honestly can’t remember the first time I heard their songs. I inherited them from my father like a gene. The sounds from their catalog served as heritage, baptism, and paternal conversation. The clearest recollection I have that might be placed first on my timeline was when I was shockingly corrected by my parents for mistaking Geddy Lee for a female vocalist while listening to the radio in the back seat of the car.
In grade school, I walked into the open playground hoping to find friends by broadcasting my tiny, newfound sense of self. Do you like Zelda? Do you play with Lego? Do you like Rush? Remarkably, such a random question found a response among a few others whom also imported the band into their lives via their parents or older siblings. We didn’t know why we liked them; we just knew that we did. And that was enough to have a sleepover.
Those playful nights rolled forward into middle school. I began going to hockey practices in a roller rink one hour away from my house. My mom drove me there and back again whenever necessary, demonstrating her love and support before I was mature enough to realize it. In the comfortable silences after exhausting drills, Rush’s live album, Different Stages, spilled forth from the car speakers, presenting me with audio from an unforgettable spectacle witnessed by people in the past. The unusual character of familiar songs filtered through live recording equipment explained to me that my indulgence of the band could continue growing. They were real, and I could see them.
Rush’s 30th anniversary tour had no choice but to make a stop in my backyard at the Pavilion, one of the most famous open air venues in the United States. It was finally time for me to meet the great and powerful Oz. My dad’s excitement was evident by his repeated recollection about my mom’s first Rush show. “She kept asking, all that sound is coming out of those three dudes??”
I remember feeling the need to prepare for the experience. I knew it would be special and I wanted to maximize the enjoyment of each second. My middle-school mind had been busy memorizing drum fills and song transitions as if they were as important as the anatomy charts from my biology homework. Rush had sharpened from a passive presence surrounding my life into an object of focus, and however much attention I dumped into the music was returned reflexively by an expanding depth of novel details to discover.
The specifics of that first show have been smudged in my mind by time. Looking at it from afar, I recognize it as an essential moment which encapsulates the intense bond my family shares. Air drumming along in perfect chorus with hordes of devotees not only earned my dad approving fist bumps and head nods from fellow fans excited to see another youngin’ join the Rush family, but also implanted in me a craving for enthusiastic crowds as an essential ingredient for good live shows. The 30th anniversary poster still hanging on my wall was once a trophy, but is now an artifact in the historical timeline of my fandom and life experiences.
Later on, Rush provided a table around which my closest friends gathered during high school. We broke each album like bread to initiate another timeless night in each other’s company, drinking in every track, enjoying the unfolding of conversation by professing reverence for their intricate time signatures and sophisticated phrasing.
Their presence was inescapable. YYZ was a treasured battleground in our desire to prove dominance in Guitar Hero II. Tom Sawyer was the verification that we could gold star a four-player song with three people in Rock Band, just like Rush proved that only a trio was necessary to push a hard rock symphony out of a radio.
Once the calendar turned to a page that afforded us the freedom behind the wheel of a car, inserting a personal mix of Rush songs into the disc player became a required step in starting the engine. The range exhibited by the band’s catalog supported the head banging intensity needed to withstand Texas summers, and also set the mood for late-night cruising under the stars. From some 26 albums we chose mood music to map out our pecking order in the teenage social ranks, or to battle test our love of rhetorical combat over nonsensical claims of the superiority of this cartoon over the other.
We took notice that Rush was not just a niche passion of our exclusive group. As my friends were forming their first bands I wound up being a groupie at small shows or talent auditions. The crews who commanded the most respect scattered obscure Rush tracks in between their unrefined original material. No single Rush song can be considered simple, so executing a cover with some form of accuracy proved their devotion to the temple of rock.
As the space between ourselves and graduation shrank, my friends and I were lucky enough to see Rush together in concert three times. Our unsophisticated antics on the Pavilion lawn were a ridiculous release of juvenile energy and commraderative elation that exploded whenever a single note announced the coming of our favorites songs. We nodded easily along with the concert essentials, and we could distinguish a rare track like The Trees or Natural Science. Reflecting now, I can’t think of more fortunate conditions for us to discover the joys of our growing independence.
The first days of college awkwardly started with the standard “introduce yourself” circles. Here, an echo of my playground tactics remained. “Hi, I am Chase Williams, I am from Houston, Texas, and my favorite band of all time is Rush.” Only now this proclamation carried the weight of four live shows, knowledge of ten-something albums, and a willingness to argue with a grave tenacity that Neil Peart was the greatest drummer ever to play.
Yet, despite the mark on my identity that my passion for Rush had made, a large selection of their early catalog was still foreign to me; up until that point I had been so focused on the songs featured in their concerts. The stature of Rush is so monumental that my lifetime of fandom was not enough to touch their whole library. So, as a freshman, my rediscovery began with the 21-minute-long epic 2112.
The distance between my dorm and class was just long enough to hit the halfway point in this song, leaving the last half for the walk home. I stayed on this routine for the. entire. semester. My journey with this side of the album taught me the meaning of magnum opus. But more, it renewed my love for the band.
Suddenly I was giving speeches in my communication classes on the three gods comprising Rush, convincing students of the might in their rocket sauce. I spun their vinyl while speed running Dark Souls after class. I scored a part-time job by showing the interviewers they didn’t know what they were in for when they asked me, “if you had to pick one song to listen for the rest of your life…”
This new ascent of Rush fervor reached its zenith in 2013 during the Clockwork Angels tour. A high school acquaintance who I hung out with on occasion (which was long enough to forever connect my name with the holy triumvirate) messaged me saying his buddy was working as a tour manager, and that he could maybe get me good seats.
We connected. He said he could get me and a plus-one some tickets, maybe even a great spot depending on availability. I expected no more than nosebleeds and was happy to have them. I called my dad to ask if he could make the drive for a potentially great vantage point, but he had a meeting to attend.
Instead, I drove to Austin with my good friend Chris. This would be his first live concert. How great that I could contribute by ensuring it would be an epic first time. At the venue, Colin greeted me, went into the box office, and returned with stickers. “I’ve got you a meet ‘n’ greet. Hang out by this door and I’ll let you in in a moment.”
As my mind melted from my skull and ran onto the pavement from trying to process this reality, I was approached by other fans who immediately offered me cash for the stickers. It was the easiest “No” I have ever given. I called my dad, excited to tell him what was happening, but aware that this circumstance was the exact recipe for the biggest possible FOMO in his life. He had the grace to be happy for me.
Meanwhile, Chris and I shook the hands of Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee. Neil stayed back stage in his privacy: something any fan would expect and not be disappointed by. I congratulated them on their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and we got a picture together. The moment is cemented in my mind, and I can treasure it any time I want. It stands as a representation of my luck and good fortune in this life, and I love to tell the tale.
The last time I saw Rush was in 2015, again in Austin, for their 40th anniversary and farewell tour. This would count as my eighth show, and again, Colin proved to be the homie. No meet ‘n’ greet this time, but front row tickets for myself, my dad, my sweetheart, and my best friend. Another gratitude impossible to repay.
I love my father beyond my capacity to express it. We stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the band, making eye contact and catching their goofy smiles. Neil’s piercing gaze even met our own on occasion over his megalithic drum kit. Listening to their music with my dad in reverse chronology as the stagecraft reflected iconic Rush imagery was like witnessing a metaphor spoken by the universe.
Adding to the memory still was seeing the love of my life witness that same magic I had encountered myself 10 years before at my first show. Watching the reverence grow in her while she integrated into crowds of people connecting with the music that they held dear confirmed the immortal magnetism of the trio.
We all knew there would be a time when the last show was seen. Kept even more distant in our minds was the day we would have to reckon with their passing. To start the process now is miserable.
So far, this tribute may seem suspiciously absent of direct mentions of Neil. But quite the opposite, Neil and Rush are synonymous. A drummer’s role as the heartbeat of the music is proven by the example of Neil Peart. His inconceivable talent, megaton creativity, academic mind, and dark and brooding personality is indivisible from the ensemble.
Every drum track he provided was a work of art in its own right: so intricate and deep that they thwart expectations and inspire anticipation even on the thousandth listen. Still more, his lyrics were so contemplative and stoic that I have trouble deciding if they had subliminally sown my own philosophic inclinations early on, or if instead that honing these capacities have only allowed me to appreciate his ability to frame life in poetic terms as I have grown older.
I won’t dedicate time here trying to convince you that he was the greatest to ever play; I’ll leave that to the army of legendary musicians, music enthusiasts, and fans whom he inspired. But I will include a line of rage at cancer’s indiscriminate and annihilating scourge.
Rest in peace, Neil. While the rest of the world bargains with the Devil for passage into the halls of rock mythology, the Devil sleeps restless knowing his chance at a deal for the hands of Peart has passed.
Originally published on OK Beast