In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
Neil Peart, the deep-thinking, world-traveling, book-reading, book-writing, virtuosic drummer and primary lyricist for the Canadian power trio Rush, has died at age 67. Peart died of glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, that had first affected him just over three years ago. He joined Rush in 1974, replacing original drummer John Rutsey, who had to leave the band due to health-related issues. Peart was a drummer’s drummer, with dozens of industry and press awards and hundreds of accolades from his peers. While his technical prowess is beyond impeccable, he received nearly as much attention for the lyrical direction in which he steered the band. As we mark his passing here at Cover Me, we’ll look at cover versions of Rush tunes that honor both of these equally important contributions.
There is no single descriptor that accurately fits Neil Peart’s body of work as a lyricist. A voracious reader, he tended to write about what he was reading about at the time. As he experienced life, those interests changed over time, leading to shifts in viewpoint and lyrical focus. And although Rush was never a “commercial” band, Peart was both private enough and astute enough to recognize the value of making ideas accessible. In a 1987 Boston Globe interview, he said:
… I never studied philosophy in school; that interest didn’t develop until later. It’s more a matter of questing for knowledge: I’ve always had a monkey on my back, as far as needing to know things. But lately, I’m more concerned with observation — looking at how people behave, and trying to find out why. I’ve never liked writing first person, confessional songs. So if I’m going to write about my own life, I’ll try to find parallels to something universal.
One example he gives in that same interview is the first song he wrote for the album Hold Your Fire, “Time Stand Still,” which he described as “a plea to the present” for people to enjoy their lives without getting too wrapped up in the things going on around them. Here it is, performed by Brazilian Rush tribute band Rash.
One early influence on Peart’s lyrics was the Russian writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, whose construct Objectivism is based (in her words) on “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” An early Rand work, 1938’s Anthem, is set in a future dystopian Dark Age, where technological advancement is totally controlled and individuality has been eliminated. This influence is most clearly seen on Rush’s breakthrough album 2112. In “The Temples of Syrinx,” Peart wrote:
We’ve taken care of everything, the words you hear, the songs you sing
The pictures that give pleasure to your eyes
It’s one for all and all for one, we work together, common sons
Never need to wonder how or why
Look around at this world we’ve made, equality our stock in trade
Come and join the brotherhood of man
Oh, what a nice, contented world, let the banners be unfurled
Hold the red star proudly high in hand
Florida’s YYNOT gives us a powerful, straightforward cover, with Billy Alexander on guitar, Tim Starace on Bass, Rocky Kunar on vocals, and Joel Stevenett admirably holding down Neil’s drum parts.
As we said earlier, though, things change. When asked in 2012 if Ayn Rand’s words were still a source of inspiration for him, Peart responded, “Oh, no. That was forty years ago. But it was important to me at the time in a transition of finding myself and having faith that what I believed was worthwhile.”
Peart didn’t always write alone. “Tom Sawyer,” from 1981’s Moving Pictures, began its life as a poem called “Louie the Lawyer,” written by Pye Dubois, a friend who also wrote songs for another local band, Max Webster. Dubois had penned the poem after reading the American classic, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Peart saw the titular Louie as a “modern-day rebel,” and found the themes of independence and rebellion to be consistent with the concepts he had explored in 2112 and after, and so worked with Dubois on a few tweaks, including changing the title. The focus on individualism is clear:
A modern-day warrior
Mean mean stride
Today’s Tom Sawyer
Mean mean pride
Though his mind is not for rent
Don’t put him down as arrogant
His reserve, a quiet defense
Riding out the day’s events
Fittingly, individualism is also at the forefront in the next band’s name: Mindless Self Indulgence. MSI gives us an electro-punk, amphetamine-paced version of the song, which lyrically fits with the post-punk sensibilities of this New York City outfit.
If that’s not your cup of tea, you might prefer this version by Brazilian acoustic cover specialist Emmerson Nogueira.
As a drummer, Peart was always up for developing his craft and trying new things, even taking drum lessons later in life to learn new styles and refresh his perspective. One example of this translating to record is 1980’s “The Spirit of Radio,” from Permanent Waves, where he seamlessly slips into a reggae beat during the final bridge, then back out again to finish the song. This is captured well by the British band the Catherine Wheel.
There is no better testimony to Neil Peart’s technical virtuosity than emulation. Mike Portnoy, known largely for his work with Dream Theater, is one of the technically best drummers in music today, and is the second youngest drummer to be inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame. The youngest drummer inducted? Mike Portnoy’s friend and greatest influence – Neil Peart. Portnoy refers to Peart as one of his greatest personal heroes of ail time, and was close enough to Peart to know about his health struggles these past few years. On this video, Portnoy is joined by Paul Gilbert of Mr. Big and fretless bass master Sean Malone of Cynic, as they tackle one of Rush’s few instrumentals, “YYZ.” This piece is a showcase for virtuosity—it’s nearly nine minutes long and is written in an unusual time signature (10/8, for you musicians out there).
While there always have been, and always will be, great drummers, Neil Peart was a unique individual who brought much more than talent to what we lovingly refer to as “progressive rock.” Rest in Peace, Professor. Your contributions to our lives are immeasurable, and we miss you already.
To end things on a lighter note, here’s the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing “Fly By Night.”
Be sure to check out other covers of songs by Rush in our archives.