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Somewhere in a box, I have a handwritten letter from the late Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. It was a response to a letter (and a book) I had sent him shortly after my younger brother died in an accident when I was 19. This tragedy was the latest in a series of events that had completely up-ended my life. In my pain, I reached out to a voice that had guided me through difficult moments before. And completely unexpectedly – for the 19-year-old me, miraculously – Neil Peart wrote back.
This was one of those moments from a really dark period that was of seminal importance to me, and so the letter stayed tucked away. I don’t think I’ve even talked about it until now, some 35 years later.
In early 2020, when I heard the news that Neil Peart died it affected me in ways that I would not have predicted. After all, I spent much of my adult life – for reasons that I am only grappling with now – hiding from the fact that this band, and especially Peart’s literate and thought-provoking lyrics, were so central to my life. I regret not making it to at least one concert when their last tour kicked off in May, 2015.
Rush grew with me. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, nearly everyone in my suburban New Jersey town listened to more-or-less the same music. Some of this was outstandingly good music—but mostly what we listened to was formulaic, insipid or just plain silly. Even at its best, it offered very little in the way of what could be called an intellectual horizon.
Not so for Rush.
Listening to this band, there was no contradiction between my blue-collar environment and my budding intellectual curiosity. Peart’s lyrics introduced me to a world of literature I might otherwise never have been exposed to. The more I began to immerse myself in Rush’s music – which included playing in a garage band covering their songs – the more I became curious about the many literary allusions in their songs. I began frequenting my local public library in search of the authors referenced: Ayn Rand, JRR Tolkien, Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner and a host of others. I might have been a kid from a blue collar New Jersey town, but I was rarely without some book or other in my back pocket. It is difficult to overstate how important this was for the trajectory of my life. It is quite possible that I would not have gone to university to study English literature – and then classics – were it not for this period of my life.
Musically, Rush was different, too. They never disguised or apologized for their virtuosic musicianship. And yet they grew with the times. They were not stuck in the formulas that they had created for themselves and that had made them famous in the seventies. Their music stayed on the charts throughout the 1980s, and they never sounded dated the way comparable bands did. Part of this undoubtedly was because of their relative youth but also, no doubt, because the musicians were restless, curious and above all, thoughtful. They were not stuck in the Ayn Randian landscape so central to their youthful lyric writing, so their music wasn’t stuck either. I can hardly think of a message more important to my teenage self: You can grow. You can change.
And yet, as an adult I have been extremely reticent to admit my affection – really my love – for this band. I am a high-school Latin teacher and I believe very strongly in using music in the classroom. I play music before and after class, while students are working independently and during extra help and office hours. I proudly and deliberately play music that crosses all musical genres: John Coltrane, Silvio Rodriguez, Anonymous 4, Ehud Banai, Sigur Ros and a plethora of other artists from across the globe can be heard in – and a good distance from – my classroom. But the music that was most influential to me as a young adult has always been conspicuously lacking: Neil Peart and Rush.
After Peart’s death, I began to be bothered by the fact that I was so reluctant to play Rush in my classroom. Perhaps it was a kind of self-consciousness about my childhood and adolescence. I teach in a wealthy, high-performing high school. The public school I attended in New Jersey resembled something more of a reform school. My friends, colleagues and students are all seemingly from stable, loving families. I was raised in the turmoil of a struggling, blue collar family. My students are almost all heading to top-tier universities. I went to a community college and then a state university. So maybe my apparent embarrassment about Rush, was really an embarrassment about where I had come from. Maybe I subconsciously considered all the music of my youth – no matter how unique, creative or inspired – to be “low brow.”
The irony is that Rush should be the best example of how absurd this line of reasoning really is. Even a cursory familiarity with Peart’s lyrics should make it patently clear that intellectual acumen and perspicacity crosses all backgrounds. It should also make it patently clear that being well-read and well informed, that having a searching and curious mind have nothing whatsoever to do with familial resources or blue-blood pedigrees.
On the band’s first live album, All the World’s a Stage, lead singer Geddy Lee introduces Peart with a phrase every Rush fan could repeat from heart: “Ladies and gentlemen: the Professor on the drum kit.” Most of us assumed he was referring to Peart’s well-known musical skills. With hindsight, I think there was something more to it. His musicianship was professorial. But the nickname was also befitting because of his unquiet and searching mind, because his lyrics took us to places otherwise unavailable in our intellectually circumscribed world.
“The treasure of a life / Is a measure of love and respect / The way you live, the gifts that you give,” Peart writes in The Garden, the final song on the band’s final studio album. In the life that he lived, in the gifts that he gave, Neil Peart has left us a treasure—a treasure that should be shared.
Brian Beyer lives in Highland Park, N.J.
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