I remember being thirteen and going to a local store in town. It was called Kings. They had a music section where you could buy tapes and records. My Uncle and I drove over there because he wanted to grab some new music. Rob, my uncle, is only 4 years older than me. I liked hanging out with him (still do). He was one of the “big kids”. Big kids are really important in a “little kids” life. They turn you on to all kinds of music, introduce you to cool new words, and talk about girls, dating, and hanging out in a way your parents never can. Rob never minded that I hung out with him and his friends. His buddies all seemed to like me. I sometimes felt out of place and didn’t understand what they heck they were talking about, but I loved listening to their big kid vernacular… and even more so I loved listening to their music.
We walked into Kings with purpose that afternoon. Rob grabbed two tapes – one of which was a band I never heard of, the other I knew, but only from a distance and through the eyes and ears of my thirteen year old self. It was Led Zeppelin. I knew who they were obviously. It was the 70s for god’s sake! Their music seemed dangerous and otherworldly to my kid ears. I think when you are pushing your early teens you really JUST start to listen to music for the 1st time. Songs and bands start to weave in and out of your brain and identity as you are assaulted with hormones and new views of a world opening up before your adolescent eyes.
Rob and I exited the store with said tapes and jumped back in his car. It was a beautiful late September afternoon in 1979. There’s something liberating about being in a car without a proper adult when you are a kid. Rob was my cool uncle. He was still learning to get the feel for the road – he was just seventeen! Perhaps knowing my teenage years were opening before me made me feel older that day, or at least aware that my childhood was slipping away.
We rolled the windows down in his 65 Mustang and headed out of the parking lot. Rob popped in the Zep first. It was Physical Graffiti. I didn’t know what that was. I had never listened to Zeppelin knowingly. The wind swirled in the car and Custard Pie blasted from the speakers. I was mesmerized. Next The Rover drum groove started and seemingly amplified the power and churn of the Mustang engine. I was speechless. Then came In My Time of Dying. It scared me in a glorious, eye watering, “where have you been all my life” moment that only a newbie teenager can know. Side one of Physical Graffiti came to an end. Rob and I didn’t talk the entire time it had played. He looked at me. I said, wow, that was amazing, or sat there speechless – I don't remember which. He then told me to put in the next tape to change things up. I could tell my life was changing in real time. My brain was opening up. I found the case of the next tape. The cover had this naked dude standing on a brain while gesturing to another guy who had a cane and bowler hat. What the heck is this? Rush, Hemispheres? I never heard of these guys. I wanted to see what was on side two of Physical Graffiti because I was still in the haze of my first proper Led Zep experience, but Rob was in charge. He said he had just seen Rush in Allentown (September 12th) with Pat Travers (another Canadian artist I knew nothing about) and wanted to pick up the record they – Rush – were touring behind. At this stage in my life going to concerts was for big kids. Rob and his friends would talk about their pilgrimages to see bands. I had yet to partake in one of these magical journeys. I was still a little kid… but things were changing as we drove through the September afternoon. I could feel the change blending with sunlight, wind, and music, all bouncing through time within the car. I pushed the Rush tape into the tape deck. Hemispheres swelled into its first big accented chord, then another, and another. What was this!? These chords were new to me. The guy singing was like no other. The drums were being played with weird timing and robot precision. Back then I didn’t know what time signatures were… but I definitely knew I couldn’t tap a steady foot to some of the drum parts. I felt as if I was being initiated into some sort of sci-fi, intellectual, secret sect. This was from another solar system! Cygnus X-1 Book II?? WTF? How long is this song?? Eighteen minutes later I knew. I’ll never forget that day. It was the beginning of a soundtrack that forged my teenage exuberance.
Rush was integral for that soundtrack. By the time I was fourteen I picked up the next Rush album (Permanent Waves) on my own. By then I had a job and could buy my own music. I wore concert shirts with cool artwork to proclaim my loyalties. Rush and many others inspired me to learn the craft of guitar playing. Rush stands out for me because Neil Peart’s playing taught me about precision and varied time signatures. I pretended I was in Rush and played my guitar along with the songs in my bedroom. I would practice with the intent to get through a song without messing up. If I did mess up, I’d go back to the beginning and try again. I learned all of Hemispheres. I learned every note and time change. I built up my chops and timing to all those early Rush albums. I obviously listened and learned from many bands, artists, and composers, Zeppelin being one of them during those formative years. I think it was rather synchronous that those two bands were played back to back that September day in 1979. I would go on to learn most of those artist’s catalogues as a means to hone my ear and playing skills. I could easily play for 12 hours at a stretch. My parents thought I was weird for playing music all day and night in my room. I’m sure they were wondering who this Rush band was and what they were up to with their son. "Why was Brett constantly playing that same part over and over again!?"
There were no YouTube videos with people showing you how to play songs. I had to do it by ear, on my own. I had a few other musician friends in my later teens. It was always magical to share an inspired moment of a recently learned lick, riff, or chord sequence. Learning those songs made me better. Years later when I found myself in various studios the engineers and producers would notice I had solid timing and feel. They would hire me because they knew I could play in time, would remember parts, and could add something unique to a recording. All three of those things come from practice, and yes, a certain innate musicality already in me.
I always think of the countless hours playing along to Neil Peart’s drumming in my bedroom; learning those changes and trying to be tight with the band. I also loved that Neil brought a certain amount of literature savviness to the band. Come on, how many people read Ayn Rand because of Neil? I know I did. I liked that he wrote about different situations and concepts than the normal humdrum you hear in most songs. You have to give him a nod for that. I really enjoyed his book, Ghost Rider: Traveling on the Healing Road. What a powerful memoir of a man wrestling with horrendous tragedy. I respected that he allowed readers to be part of his healing process. It's difficult to be transparent like that. He was fearless.
I’m taking the time to write this because Neil Peart died on the 7th of January. I wanted to just mention how his contribution and talent affected me in a positive, formative way. One of my favorite songs of his was Losing It. It’s a Rush tune that usually gets forgotten. But it’s (IMHO) a standout song for the band. The playing is sublime and full of space. The melody just perfect. The lyrics are simple and reflective of our inevitable ageing and fundamental impermanence. Indeed Neil, indeed.Well said.
Thank you Mr Peart for that wonderful September afternoon back in 79’ when your music "avalanched" into my life with those big F#7sus chords... and for the countless teenage hours in my bedroom where I got to play guitar in your band.
Rest in peace Neil.
BWK 10th Jan, 2020