Afterimage (My Tribute to Neil Peart)

“Suddenly you were gone, from all the lives you left your mark upon”

It’s heartbreaking that the man who penned those words following the loss of a childhood friend is now the subject of that very lyric.

Neil Peart gone.

Even as I write those words, my brain denies. It can’t be. It must not be.

“Tried to believe but you know it’s no good. This is something that just can’t be understood.”

Indeed.

Fridays are typically my stress detox day. I come home, I collapse into a short recovery nap before launching into my weekend. On this day, I awoke from my slumber to see a dozen missed calls from friends who don’t usually do so unless something major has happened. A flurry of texts were, too, competing for my attention. One childhood friend who also shared the same adoration of Rush as me wrote “Bob, Neil Peart died”.

Neil Peart died.

Honestly, my initial reaction was, “This is a hoax.” I’ve seen so many of these types of stories pop up as click bait in my news feed. Still, I started checking as many news sources as possible. Within seconds, my heart sank. Imagine a boulder being dropped from a plane toward the face of the ocean.

This was no hoax.

Then I saw the tweet from the official Rush account – the words of Geddy Lee himself. At that moment, that veritable boulder crashed into the sea with such ferocity that it splashed water through my eye lids, down the slope of my cheek.

All too real.

Every Rush fan (including myself) held that faint hope that maybe – just maybe – there would one day come a time when Rush could play together again. They might put together a limited city tour, or a one off show of some kind. Perhaps, they might release a single. If anything, there would be a new book release from Neil. Frankly, any crumbs thrown down by this band, would be eagerly gobbled up by us fans of the band, no matter how tiny or sparse they were.

But all those hopes are now gone. Washed away. In a vapor trail.

I never met Neil, but I’ve seen him play so many times, quantification is nearly impossible. Without overstating it, I feel like I’ve lost a member of my family. Yes, I understand how dramatic that may sound, but I actually feel like a part of me has died – that creative part, that intangible part that made me want make music in the first place.

I remember that day. Third grade. My brother’s bedroom. A cassette tape labeled “Rush: Fly By Night”. I listened to the first track “Anthem”. I was never the same again. I never heard anything like that before. I listened to a lot of music up to that point, but I had no idea it was possible to do all of that wonderful stuff on guitar, bass and drums. It was an epiphany for me. My little eight year old head couldn’t possibly process or comprehend what it was hearing. All I knew was I had a favorite new band. It was love at first listen. I couldn’t get enough. I must have went through three or four “Fly By NIght” cassettes, playing and rewinding all those incredible drum fills in “By Tor and The Snowdog,” astounding my friends with repeated replays.

Neil, Geddy and Alex were superheroes to me, the champions who got me into this thing called “music” and this concept of “playing in a rock band.” They are the reason I do this thing called “songwriting.”

The albums that followed were exponentially mind-blowing, both musically and lyrically. Unique. Poetic. Brilliant. Genius. I can think of few lyricists that are quoted so frequently and endlessly as Neil. The man was a master wordsmith, a craftsman.

Rush’s music has been in my DNA for a mighty long time. It fuels what I do. It is the unseen hand in my creativity. My band Elm Treason has forged its own unique sound and way of writing, but every once in a while, faint hints of Rush come out in my writing. It can’t be helped. It’s as if Neil, Geddy and Alex are hardwired into my brain. There were countless hours of playing “drop the needle” with my guitar in hand, learning every note of those songs. I memorized every syllable. I could quote from any song or identify any song from the most obscure of quotes and notes.

The one thing that has remained constant in an ever-changing, ever-evolving life of circumstance and reaction is Rush. They’ve always been there, regardless of what was happening in my world. Through the highest peaks and deepest valleys of my journey, that band was my rock (double entrende intended).

Neil was the consummate professional – a man whose work ethic was next to none. Always rehearsing, always trying to better himself, desiring to give the very best of himself constantly, he had an attention to detail that is almost superhuman. He just impressed the hell out of me like no one else. He treated the drums as a melodic instrument, not just a rhythmic instrument. That made him one of the best in rock history. The way he would slightly variate his beats in each verse of a song, his stunning precision and control, his composing – a wonder to behold, an influence on countless, yet a vastly underrated artist. Go figure. Even the fact that he sought a teacher late in his career (despite being considered one of the greatest drummers who ever walked the planet) is enough to warrant high praise.

Neil was so many things. Drummer. Lyricist. Philanthropist. Author. World Traveler. The man was dedicated to his fans. Dedicated to a fault. For instance, he played thousands of shows while sick with the flu. He hit the stage often with his hands cracking and bleeding from the endless hours of pounding drums with those drumsticks. He played through stomach viruses, tendinitis in both arms and even the excruciatingly painful trench-foot, without ever complaining. One roadie remarked that Neil could be shot in the shoulder while drumming and still finish the show. He probably didn’t even let anyone know he had brain cancer until he had to.

He was, too, a stellar person, a man of character, a man of perseverance. After losing his teenage daughter, Selena, to a car crash in 1997 and his common-law wife, Jacqueline, to cancer ten months later, he took a six year break from Rush before returning triumphantly on “Vapor Trails.” Such an incomprehensible tragedy might have stilled most, but Neil bounced back, better than ever. He rebuilt his band and his life.

He married Carrie Nuttal in 2000, and their daughter, Olivia Louise, was born in 2009. And this is the saddest of all realities: They are now without him. For all of our dedication and loyalty to him and his band as fans, this loss pales in comparison to those who were close to him. We must remember that. As a touring musician, the moments with his family were, at times, scarce and always precious. As Neil would say: “… at the speed of love, my heart goes out tothem. “

At the beginning of this blog, I quoted a couple of lines from the song “Afterimage” found on the “Grace Under Pressure” album. An afterimage is an image that continues to appear in the eyes after a period of exposure to the original image. This is how I now like to think of Neil and the music of Rush. Yes, Neil is physically gone, but the sonic afterimage of his music and the voice of his words will forever ring in our ears, like the music of the spheres.

So, while I sit here heartbroken that my hero is gone, I’m supremely grateful. For forty-plus years, we were given a plethora of wonderful music and thousands of concerts. These memories – these afterimages – play continually like movies in my mind’s eye. The soundtracks to those movies resonate endlessly. We all have that – the records, the videos, the stories, the fan groups… and we still have Geddy and Alex. That’s a lot to be grateful for.

One thing that keeps “getting” at me since the news of Neil’s death is the fact that he could have left us years ago. Think about it for a moment. He started to talk about quitting touring as early as 1991. He nearly perished from a parasitic disease he picked up in Cameroon, Africa. He surely must have had hundreds of close calls on the millions of miles he traveled on his motorcycle. Listen to the song “Working Them Angels” and you’ll get it.

“All my life I’ve been workin’ them angels overtime. Riding and driving and living So close to the edge… Workin’ them angels.”

Neil definitely worked those angels overtime. And now he’s jamming with his hero Buddy Rich. Who knows? Maybe Jimi Hendrix is on guitar, John Entwistle on bass, Bon Scott on vocals and Keith Emerson on keys.

So, yes, like many a dedicated Rush fanatic, I’ll be spending my days listening to the music and celebrating the life of Neil Peart. Yes, you may spot me in a crowd of enthusiastic air-drummers, banging those unseen skins into oblivion. The fact is, even today, I magically transform into that eight year old kid who was knocked for a loop the first time he heard “Fly By Night” any time I hear my favorite rock and roll trio. I still wonder if (and secretly suspect that) these guys are actually superior beings from another galaxy. Just a suspicion I have.

Thank you Neil, Geddy and Alex for changing my life and the lives of countless others. Thank you for the gift of your music and words. Thank you for giving a young troubled angry boy from a dysfunctional home hope, happiness and life. Thank you for planting the dream in my soul – a dream I pursue to this day.

No, you’ll probably never find a fan as militant (for the want of a better word) as a Rush fan. And for good reason. It’s all about the music. Need I say more?

We are not alone in our grief. And that’s a comfort.

To all my fellow Rush fans: Keep calm and Rush on. After all, life is to be enjoyed, because in the words of the master: “We are only immortal for a limited time.”

Now if you will excuse me, my guitar is calling.


E Pluribus Ulmus

Bobby Steel

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Bobby Steel

14 Comments

  1. Shelley Stewart on January 11, 2020 at 10:18 pm

    Hi Bobby. I was rushing around yesterday getting ready to go and see a band. I stopped to post about the show and saw the post, I also did not believe then my phone rang confirming the news! As the tears were rolling down my face I thought first of neil and his family. Then my heart immediately went to youas we had just dscussed Lakeside Park and your desire to follow the historic path. Funny I do not claim to have that cosmic vibe with Neil yet for the past month I have been drawn to the park and Port Dalhousie, taking my guide dog on long walks and being a tad introspective. Even though the park is basically out my back door, I have not been compelled to go there for walks but it seemed to be a place to gather my thoughts, at least of late.Strangely as we have never met my heart broke for you and I wanted to reach out but was heading to show. There were a lot of Rush t-shirts at the show but I was surprised that the promoters/band made no mention of this tragedyespecially with him being our hometown boy! 5440 did play a new song(at least for me) called ‘Keep on walking’, I mentally dedicated this song to Neil(luckily I had brought tissues, most were used up on the drive to dinner) I just read an article in our newspaper written by Neil and in his own words he tells us to remember and look for heroes that are right in front of us and not always look to superstars that we read about as they are also ‘only human’ I think if we thank, love and acknowledge those mere mortals around usthen we have enough love and admiration in our hearts to have super heroes. So again, I feel lucky to be able to tell you and Andy that your music, in essence, you bring joy into my heart and home and for meNeil will live on in your music as well as the incredible Rush catalogue. Your post was heartfelt and brought more tears but thank you for sharing this personal tribute!

    • Bobby Steel on January 17, 2020 at 2:30 am

      Shelley:
      Thank you so much for your beautiful, heartfelt and thoughtful comment. We must be kindred spirits. I think there’s that connection with all those who loved Neil and we are all tapping into it. I think it’s giving us strength to get through such a difficult time. It’s amazing that you are steeped in all that Rush history. One day I would love to get out there and experience it for myself. Is your town going to doing anything special for Neil? Erect a statue? Name a street after him? I’m sure St Catherines is proud of the neighborhood boy who became such a success and a legend of music. I’m absolutely thrilled beyond comprehension that you enjoy our music so much. We are so happy and grateful to have you aboard the Treason train.
      We can look at the positives: Neil is no longer suffering and we have over 4 decades of phenomenal music to enjoy (not to mention Geddy and Alex are still very much alive). My thoughts and prayers go out to them, and Neil’s family.
      Again thank you for thinking of me, it’s very much appreciated. And a million thank yous for your loyal support of Elm Treason!

  2. NIcky Capozzi on January 13, 2020 at 6:00 pm

    Hey Bobby ! Immaculate tribute to the professer reminded me of my youthful intro duction into rush. Great the way you segwayed your tribute off of Pearts lyrics. God bless Niel R.I.P. And all the people who loved him. Thanks Nicky Capozzi

    • Elm Treason on January 15, 2020 at 2:20 am

      Nicky, THANKS SO VERY much for taking the time to read Bobby’s heartfelt tribute to Neil. It comes from the deepest part of him, that place where his musical soul gains its strength. Neil was his hero, his influence, his musical role model. That you took the time to read it – and share your love of Neil and his work – means the world to us. Rock on, brother!

    • Bobby Steel on January 17, 2020 at 2:34 am

      Hi NIcky:

      I’m deeply appreciative of your kind and insightful words regarding my tribute to Neil. I’m sure many of us share similar memories of Rush and it’s great that we have a chance to communicate them here and on social media. It makes us all so much more connected and the world so much smaller. I think Neil is one of the most frequently quoted lyricists out there. HIs writing equaled his drumming. Amazing.
      God bless Neil , indeed. And condolences to his friends and family.
      The music will live on! Long live Rush!
      Thanks again, Nicky for your support!

  3. Julie Anne on January 14, 2020 at 12:11 am

    Heart warming tribute and I also identifying as a child with a pair of drumsticks flailing away on my mattress trying my best to (really pretend play lol) y y z and truly listening to Peart’s technical mastery and artistic flare…he truly was an inspiration, along with family musicians, to become a musician myself… his loss also a personal one… he will rock on and never fade away like Buddy Holly and others ‘he is a legend. God bless him.

    • Elm Treason on January 15, 2020 at 2:03 am

      Hi Julie Anne! It’s a strange thing when a musician we admire dies. Because the music they make so touches us so deeply, so profoundly, we feel a connection to the artist. Thus, when he or she dies, it cannot help but feel like a friend has died. And in those instances when the music maker is something of an idol or a major influence, we often feel a piece of us dies. To many, this may sound silly or over-dramatic, but it is perfectly true and thoroughly understandable. Neil was an amazing musician who touched many. But he was also an incredible – if not wholly unique – man of rock and roll. His stories don’t include tales of debauchery or rebellion. His resume doesn’t include hotel trashing, drug-fueled sex romps or “typical” rock-star fare. Rather, he was a family man who happened to be one of the best drummers who ever walked the planet. He was a man of privacy, character, deep intelligence, a man of personal tragedy and triumph and one of the most influential musicians ever to come along.

      • Bobby Steel on January 17, 2020 at 2:42 am

        Amen, brother

    • Bobby Steel on January 17, 2020 at 2:41 am

      Thank you for the kind words Julie. I am truly grateful that my blog resonated with you. Yes, so many of us share similar memories. We remember where we were when Moving Pictures was released. We join the air drummers of the world in pounding those invisible skins, flailing our arms , smashing imaginary cymbals {and perhaps some tree bells, woodblocks, chimes and crotales as well). I remember learning that entire Moving Pictures album with the needle dropping on the record and guitar in my lap (as a tender young middle school kid). Neil as well as Rush was an immense inspiration. How could you not feel that surge of adrenalin while rocking out to Limelight, YYZ or Tom Sawyer?
      Interesting you should mention Buddy Holly. Rush’s first demo on Moon Records was of the song “Not Fade Away” and yes I agree, Rush never will. Rush will be going for a long long time to come.
      Thanks again.

  4. Mike Cudd on January 15, 2020 at 7:36 pm

    Bobby! Simply awesome tribute! Raised the hair on the back of my neck! And AFTERIMAGE ! Yes! I can see that. And I never knew he went through so much, thank you
    Mike

    • Bobby Steel on January 17, 2020 at 2:46 am

      Hey Mike:
      Thanks so much. I’m right there with you brother. Rush is simply a neck hair raising band. Hell, even the hairs on my head stand and i’m almost completely bald! I think I’m going bald! (shameless reference).
      That Afterimage will last through many lifetimes. Rush is timeless. Neil is timeless.
      Thanks for all your support!

  5. Sandra on January 29, 2020 at 5:04 am

    Very well-crafted piece! And, thanks for clarifying what an after-image is; as I said in a recent “RIP Neil Peart” post, I am totally blind, and though some sighted folk might not have known what an after-image is either, your definition will give me even more appreciation for the song. I came late to the Rush party (circa 1991), because it took me, like a lot of others, time to get past Geddy’s very unique voice. I have been making up lost time in the ensuing years. What finally got me intrigued with Rush? Neil’s lyrics–once I finally listened deeply. Thanks for capturing so much of our collective experience.

  6. Stu Pearce from the band"no ordinary fish" on January 30, 2020 at 9:05 pm

    Bobby – you speak for all us Rush fans, and speak well! I’m still a huge fan after hearing Hold Your Fire 32 years ago when I was 16. They have enhanced my life musically and in terms of my worldview. I was in tears the day I heard about Neil…..wife was at work so I got to play a LOT of their albums VERY loud!! Keep rocking fella!

    • Bobby Steel on February 9, 2020 at 1:27 am

      Hi Stu:
      Thanks so much for your kind words. As Rush fans, we are all one in our grief over the loss of Neil. He was a remarkable man and an extraordinary musician (not to mention brilliant lyricist). HYF is a fantastic album. Alex does some killer guitar work on that and Neil’s drumming is spectacular as usual. I remember that tour very well. I always said Rush is the thinking man’s rock band. Always thought provoking musically and lyrically. I’m glad you got to blast the roof off with some Rush. Certainly a kickass way to mourn. I’m not quite ready to listen to full albums yet (without falling apart) but i’m getting there. I can get through a song on the radio without getting too emotional. I’m sure we’re all still attempting to process the loss of Neil. Having all my fellow Rush fans reaching out certainly helps. Thanks again for reading the blog. I’m glad it resonated with you.
      I wish you all the best of success in your musical endeavors. Now get out there and rock n roll the bones!

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