Love remains, though everything is lost

Love remains, though everything is lost

 

Memories fall towards you sometimes, like brown leaves out of the blue of the sky. The thunder of drums coming through the wall backstage at a long defunct outdoor arena on the outskirts of Nashville. The eve of the R30 tour, myself, Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee mid-interview, I’d already spoken to Neil in his dressing room across the hall, seated next to a drum-kit the size of which can best be described as ominous. He was giving that same set of drums merry hell as I attempted to chat to his band mates in the next room. “Neil”, said Geddy, arching an eyebrow, “Practices to practice”. Alex nodding with a thin smile, “He’s disgusting”. Neil, oblivious, unflinching, not twenty feet away, drumming for an hour before he went on stage to best prepare to drum for another three. As he rolled around the kit and the bass pedals made a tattoo that I could feel through my chest I thought, god, he’s superhuman.

 

He was all too human though, I’d been to Toronto to talk to Alex and Ged for Vapor Trails, the comeback record made after Neil’s years of hurt; the loss of his daughter  and then his wife. It would take a few more years before he’d speak to me or anyone come to that. But we sat that afternoon talking about everything from TS Eliot to how he had driven his favourite BMW motorbike from home in California to that first show in Nashville (much to the chagrin of the band’s management), how he had made the transition from bicycle to motorbike on tour even though he was initially, “Afraid of motorbikes”, but only because he was a klutz, put him behind a set of drums and he’d float around those pale drumheads like they were an extension of his body, his very being, but watch him walk up the ramp to the stage and he was more than capable of going over his own shoes. It wasn’t the motorbike he didn’t trust, just his inability to stay on one.

 

 

Another year and another rehearsal room in Toronto, another leaf from another sky. Picture this: a dusky room, and one of Neil’s old tour kits set on a riser in the middle of the room. Between us is a classic Rush flight case, a huge oblong of scratched blue paint used to house part of his drums, the band’s logo from their debut album stencilled on the side. We’re using it as a table for my tape recorder and and our coffee. I don’t remember the interview, I don’t know what album or tour we might have talked about, we usually went quickly off topic, books, politics, and writing, always writing. The drums, almost blocking out the light, seemed to consume everything. He caught me staring and motioned to the drums. “How”, I asked, “Do you even get in there?” It was truly a 360 of drums, bells, and probably some whistles too. He stood quickly up, reached out for one of the toms and, like a minor miracle, pulled it back on a hinge, making space to step in to the drum stool. If I told you I didn’t gasp, then I’d be a liar.

 

Though that wasn’t the full extent of the miracle, perhaps, and I’m surmising, because it was the practice kit for the tour and not the one he’d playing live each night, he asked me to sit behind it and get a feel for what he saw every night. I’m guessing, but I’d say there were as many drums as there are stars in the Canadian sky, they seemed to go on forever, to be almost out of reach. My mind actually boggled. And then, because life is sometimes a gift and we’re lucky to live it, he handed me a set of sticks and bade me have a go. I’m not a drummer, my fountain pen sometimes gets away from me and makes my cats scatter, but I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to show Neil Peart how it was done. I went all in, attempting something that I’d air drummed a thousand times; the infamous roll across the toms from the intro to The Temples of Syrinx. This might come as something of a surprise, but I’m here to tell you it’s not as easy as Neil made it look. Not even on the third attempt, Neil gave me a look that was either concern or consternation and opened the gate up for me with a look that suggested I’d best get down now.

 

 

Two more if I might. Birmingham NEC, the tour where Ged had invested in a chicken rotisserie as a backline. During the set a roadie would be sent on stage to baste Geddy’s chickens (sounds like a filthy euphemism, it’s not.) It came as a complete surprise to me when I was forced on stage in a pinny and chef’s hat (no, really) armed with a basting bowl and brush and pushed up the surprisingly steep stairs to the stage. To compound my fear and confusion, Rush had just broken into The Spirit of Radio, a single I remember buying as a teenage one Saturday morning back home in Wales. Christ, I thought, no pressure, all of this as Alex pealed that extraordinary riff out into the dark and cavernous NEC hall. The stage was huge, it looked like a grey and white football field. To my right, Peg, a dear friend and one of the Rush family since the very beginning, could be heard laughing out loud from the shadows, screaming my name in a way that I’d like to think was done with some affection.

 

I basted Ged’s chickens with due diligence, opening up the smokey glass rotisserie doors, adjusting the heating knob and moving along the stage. It was only the out of the corner of my eye, I was staring straight ahead trying not to think of the 15,000 people behind me, that I caught sight of the furious, pumping machine that is Neil Peart up close. His legs were like pistons, arms a familiar blur, his face stony with concentration, he looked like a steam train that was locked in place, desperate to pull away. And then, just as I reached the last rotisserie, he turned his head towards me, burst out laughing and exclaimed, ‘Phil!’. His metre didn’t shift, not a fill missed, there, just for a moment, in that swirling darkness punctuated by pulsing stage lights, he grinned and looked at me like he’d just caught me stealing apples in his yard. It was a moment of such beauty and stillness that it still makes me pause now. I was scared to write any of this down as I’ve been gulping tears back all morning, but until this point, these memories have only made me smile, happy to have stood briefly in his light, but the memory of that laughing face, his dizzying skill now gone forever makes my heart break over and over.

 

 

One final leaf, the last of autumn, winter following on in its wake. Henson Studios in Hollywood, Rush recording and mixing the last pieces of Clockwork Angels. I’d literally flown in that afternoon, dumped my bags at the hotel and headed to studio, idling in LA traffic, the Californian sky a burnt out blue white. One of the first people to greet me was Neil, courteous, warm, holding a bottle of 12 year old Macallan as a welcoming gift, he sourced tumblers and ice too (and then Al drank half of it, but that’s another story for another time) and we sat, me and Rush, and listened to fades and mixes of what would be their last album. Neil and Geddy eyes closed to fully feel the music as it disappeared to a whisper. Later, as we stood in the studio car park waiting to head for dinner (Neil was planning on staying there a little longer to go over the record) he showed me his silver Aston Martin, the model that James Bond drove in Goldfinger. It practically glowed in the sunshine, low, sleek, an omnipresent feat of engineering and hubris. I wanted to embrace it.

 

And then, while I was still in my Aston Martin reverie, he started talking about my first novel, Cross Country Murder Song. I knew he’d read it and I knew he’d enjoyed (there had been an email that had almost made me faint with delirium and made the teenage Rush fan in me hyperventilate), but this: “I read it again, it’s better again the second time”. I looked at him like he’d just grown wings and had begun to levitate. “I took it on my last trip on my motorbike, it’s a road trip, so it was perfect to read while I was on the road”. I think he might have clapped me on the back as we made plans to do a formal interview over the next few days, Ged was calling me to our car to go eat and Neil walked away with a cheery wave as jet-lag and joy collided somewhere inside my head.

 

 

Neil Peart never knew he touched my life, he probably would have shrank back from the idea. He was a goof, supremely talented, kind, open and could catch a drumstick even if it had been dropped from a helicopter. His words spurred me on to be a writer, his music to go on even when I didn’t want to (and I have never wanted to stop more than I have at this moment in time, but I’m playing Rush and still moving slowly forward) and along with his two incredible friends reminded me that not all rock stars are idiot pricks. So, I’ll hold this moment in time and think of that NEC stage, the Hollywood parking lot, the last time I saw him backstage at the LA Forum, his face a mask of sadness as Rush rode the circus out of town one last time. And there he is now, the ghost rider on his beloved BMW moving in and out of the traffic, slowly lost to the fading light, a figure getting smaller and smaller until eventually you can’t seem him at all, out on a highway somewhere and lost to the sky.

54 Comments
  • Dave Roberts
    Reply

    Thank you Phil.
    A lovely tribute to the best of the very best.

    January 11, 2020 at 3:45 pm
    • Julian Birkby
      Reply

      Well said sir

      January 11, 2020 at 5:38 pm
      • Beautiful. Thank you Phil 💔

        January 13, 2020 at 1:36 am
      • Karen Wilson
        Reply

        Thank you so much for that, you made me laugh and cry . You have some beautiful memories to hold on to and cherish .

        January 13, 2020 at 9:14 am
        • John Green
          Reply

          I’ve been sad since hearing the news of his passing. Thank you so much for sharing your memories with us. It has made me feel a bit better. 🙂 Thank you!

          January 13, 2020 at 9:10 pm
      • Beautifully written… Thanks Phil.

        January 14, 2020 at 12:57 am
    • David Lombardo
      Reply

      Thank you for writing such a poetic reflection of a man of patterns so grand and complex. Beautifully moving tribute.

      January 12, 2020 at 4:32 pm
  • Bob Atchison
    Reply

    Thank you for this beautiful remembrance. I’m crying now too.

    January 11, 2020 at 4:00 pm
  • Dante Stivano
    Reply

    That’s a fantastic tribute Phil, thank you so much.

    January 11, 2020 at 4:18 pm
  • A wonderful piece of writing, that captures aspects of the man that are less well known. Thank you.

    January 11, 2020 at 4:27 pm
    • Tim Batcup
      Reply

      This is a wonderful piece of writing, Phil. Raw and heart-rendering. Thank you. Stay strong. ✌️

      January 12, 2020 at 2:16 pm
  • Phil, that is a very touching tribute. Thank you.

    January 11, 2020 at 4:31 pm
  • Adam Perry
    Reply

    Great piece Phil. Rush has been my life, Neil is why I took up drums, why I had a career in music and why all my friends are all connected. Like yours and everyone who has read this my Facebook and Instagram feeds were dominated by the news Last night and by tributes the like of which if never experienced. This is our David Bowie, our Elvis and it hurts. What a man, what a band, what a legacy. I met Alex and Geddy 3 times and never met Neil. I just wish I could tell him what he’s down for me. RIP

    January 11, 2020 at 4:31 pm
  • Thanks so much for sharing this. It helps with the grieving process.

    January 11, 2020 at 4:36 pm
  • Andy Slater
    Reply

    Phil Wonderful words I’m choked

    January 11, 2020 at 4:39 pm
  • Matt James
    Reply

    Great and heartfelt words.

    We were all lucky to benefit from his talent. Neil overcame so much to continue to serve his craft and his adoring fans.

    It must have been so amazing to meet Neil. As a Welsh teen fan myself from the early 80’s I know that star struck feeling you describe. I had it when Geddy did a Q&A session in London that I was at.

    Thanks again for so eloquently showing the world what a fine man Neil was.

    January 11, 2020 at 4:57 pm
      • Steven Chapman
        Reply

        Phil this is beautifully-crafted and heartwarming stuff. Thank you. For a geeky Free school meal kid growing up in rural Leicestershire Rush were A source of comfort and inspiration. Neil made me want to take up the drums and make me write . Their music was there for me during some dark times and I will always be grateful . In 2011 I was lucky enough to stand on Neil’s
        Kit at the O2 – Neil’s roadie said I was actually the “Professor on the drum kit” – I was a lecturer at UCL – I nearly died .

        Thank you for the lovely words

        January 11, 2020 at 6:14 pm
    • Allen McLaughlin
      Reply

      Great tribute to your friend. He was all our friends too I guess, despite him never knowing us, but we understood why through his writing and as Neil once explained, it really was all about the music, doing him self a disservice in the process. Farewell Ghost Rider in the sky…

      January 12, 2020 at 11:13 pm
  • That was just a lovely tribute. Thank you for sharing it.

    January 11, 2020 at 5:05 pm
  • Alison Reijman
    Reply

    Beautiful, Phil. Thank you for revealing even more facets of the great man. To all of us he seemed invincible. But through his whole attitude to life and loss, his constant striving to be the best he could be contrasted with his modesty that made him shy away from the limelight, he was a singularly great human being. We shall not see his like again.

    January 11, 2020 at 5:08 pm
  • Todd Swift
    Reply

    Thanks for sharing. Wonderful way to speak for so many of us. Through his words we know him though not personally. I have been crying off and on and will continue as the hurt is real. Thanks again for your sharing of personal memories.

    January 11, 2020 at 5:30 pm
    • Marcus Edwards
      Reply

      Thank you Mr Wilding.
      That was beautifully written and a fantastic tribute. Tidy!

      January 11, 2020 at 5:46 pm
  • Gregg Marshall
    Reply

    Neil , my son Tucker Marshall is a great drummer because he was so inspired by Neil!
    Thanks for your wonderful arrival!

    January 11, 2020 at 6:02 pm
  • Andy Cassar
    Reply

    That was beautiful…like his drumming. RIP Professor.

    January 11, 2020 at 7:07 pm
  • PA TANIS
    Reply

    Beautifully said. Thank you for sharing something so precious, when it is yet so difficult.

    January 11, 2020 at 7:11 pm
    • Gerhard Hoogers
      Reply

      I, too, have been crying and laughing and crying some more since the news hit me like a steamhammer saturday morning. Your words have made me do some more crying – and some more laughing. There is no way that Neil Peart or that band hè was in are ever going to fade away. Not ever. One of the strongest memories I cherish right now is struggling to get my bicycle and myself over de Waal bridge in Nijmegen, during a fierce, fierce winter storm in 1992, when I was studying law. The wind howled and through all of this I was singing, at the top of my voice, the opening lyrics to Force Ten. We need them now. These are tough times. They demand tough hearts, demand tough talk, demand tough songs. Thank God Rush gave them to us, and Neil gave us the words to them. Smooth riding, Professor.

      January 12, 2020 at 4:52 pm
  • Paul Chapman
    Reply

    Fantastic words Phil. You made me weep like a fool again you bugger.

    January 11, 2020 at 7:27 pm
  • Ian Davies
    Reply

    That was beautiful Phil, I remember speaking to you on Twitter on the eve of that final LA gig and asking if you really thought it was the end. You replied ‘yes’. I was gutted… I attended the Q&A you hosted on the Haymarket and somehow fortuitously bumped into Geddy outside and said ‘thanks for coming’ like a tongue tied idiot. Anyway I’m rambling…this has hit me hard. RIP Professor.

    January 11, 2020 at 7:43 pm
  • Jack Dunn
    Reply

    A lovely remembrance. It was hard enough to grapple with the end of Rush as a touring act, but the finality of this is so difficult to bear for us lifetime fans. There was always a little glimmer of hope that, however small, a little bit more music might yet come from the boys. Much like the vain hope that The Beatles would reunite until John was taken, we will have to set aside our thirst for more, and be satisfied with the vast, masterful catalog we were left. Rush were an integral part of my musical development and direction, and even as a guitarist, Neil’s playing and lyrics left an indelible impression on me as to what music should sound and feel like. It took practice and dedication to attain the level of proficiency required to play Rush music to my satisfaction. More importantly, their music created a lasting bond with my musician friends that endures to this day, nearly 50 years after I heard Rush for the first time. No, we weren’t ever going to attract girls by playing that music at parties, but there was a brotherhood found in pulling off La Villa Strangiato, or Xanadu note-for-note, enjoying laughs as the final notes faded away, knowing we had accomplished what our peers could not. We were next-level. We were playing Rush music. Thank you, Neil, for the words and music that have been a soundtrack for many lives.

    January 11, 2020 at 8:31 pm
  • Nicholas Graff
    Reply

    Hard to say anything more or better than what’s been said already. I’ll just say thanks. RIP Professor

    January 11, 2020 at 8:36 pm
  • Stephen Cunningham
    Reply

    Words are failing me quite often just now. I’ll leave it at: Thanks Phil, and thank you Neil, beyond price.

    January 11, 2020 at 9:48 pm
  • Jo K
    Reply

    Wonderful insight to a very special band, and man. I hope there is footage of you at the rotisserie, what a moment captured!

    January 12, 2020 at 12:14 am
  • Thanks for sharing Phil, lovely words for a lovely man.

    January 12, 2020 at 12:42 am
  • Susan Henry
    Reply

    Thank you for sharing a part of your journey with those that are on our minds and in our hearts as well. So many emotions at this time, it’s all so fresh. I find myself wishing to go back, to a simpler time, when there were three. Me in the audience and them on stage. Then I realize how fortunate I am for having those memories. Thankful for the Boyz and their incredible talent. And so it is.

    January 12, 2020 at 2:34 am
  • JP Patterson
    Reply

    Beautiful word, beautiful memories, beautiful man.

    January 12, 2020 at 4:03 am
  • Jodeo
    Reply

    May 26, 2004…

    A few weeks prior, my wife, young daughter, sheltie and I had just moved to the Nashville area from Bangor, Maine (a suburb of Canada). Nestled in to my workspace downtown, I was well aware Rush was going to be touring. But that fateful day it hit me: They’re OPENING their tour here, in Music City USA!

    Whoa…
    What are the odds?

    My last Rush concert was Counterparts, caught at the Palace outside Detroit. Given that Rush had ended as a band in ’98, it was amazing that I found myself realizing a profound opportunity – to witness opening night of a tour (a first for me) of a band that was long-gone. Except they weren’t: They were back.

    After securing permission from my lovely wife, I secured a ticket and went on my own. With lawn “seats” at Starwood, I didn’t mind. In fact, I ended up sitting with a local performer (you know, that one guy who performs here in Nashville) and we traded Rush stories for a solid hour before the show. He was regaled in a red, white and blue leather cowboy outfit (leather hat, long leather coat, leather pants, leather boots), dark shades securing is flowing locks atop his head, with bright eyes and a grin wider than the Cumberland River itself. Who knew a long-awaited stranger could become a friend?

    Like me, he was here for Rush (not self-promotion, despite appearances). A celebration of three decades, sure, but also a celebration of life itself. For Rush were now on their second “post-Rush” tour (so to speak). We know that Neil put his sticks down for good after he lost his family. That he picked them up again – at the urging of his new bride no less – was indeed a sweet miracle for all of us.

    Later, I paired up with coworkers who were still new to me. They retained their calm demeanor as I danced in the aisles. (Yes, danced. To Rush songs. The kind that can easily break one’s ankles, given the time signatures…) I didn’t care, and they still get along with me nearly 16 years on.

    It was a breathtaking show, full of energy and stunning surprises. That opening R30 Overture! My dream of hearing “Between The Wheels” live was realized. Bytor and The Snowdog showed up! Being opening night, there were no spoilers yet on the youngish internet. Thus, I was able to post a few later that evening on Ed Stenger’s site – and squealed with glee as I did so.

    But before I did, there was the drive home – a mere 15 minutes away. I had the radio off, windows down, and enjoyed the sound of wind, traffic, and even the solitude. (Granted, my Aztek was more of the ‘two-lanes wide’ variety of vehicles, but, I could dream otherwise.) For me it was an evening of self-indulgence, spontaneous and rewarding in several ways.

    For all the themes of alienation, of being the outcast, the misfit, the loners foraging on the fringes of cities along lighted streets on quiet nights for connection, I was able to reflect on all the connections made through the “#RushFamily’ that night and before. People like cool and remote Rush-loving coworkers, eccentric urban cowboys aspiring unapologetically for a ‘nth’ of the musicianship on display that night and all the eager fellow fans waiting for message from across the cyber-sea. And yes, even star-struck journalists from across the pond, finding themselves surreally at home with a collage of Canadians in stomping grounds of country music’s greatest legends.

    Thank you for sharing this vantage point, Mr. Wilding.
    I’m so glad we got to enjoy the show together.

    January 12, 2020 at 4:46 am
  • Bob Larsen
    Reply

    Thank you for this poignant tribute to a life so very well-lived. I’m also comforted by the privileged memories of attending so many shows, seeing a true master at work. I never met the man, but for decades now his hard-won talent has served as inspiration to excel in my own work; his prose as a spark to fill my own life with adventure. A signed copy of Far and Away is a personal treasure, now more than ever.

    Tomorrow I’ll be building another playlist for my grandson, who has been a fan (smart lad!) since I first shared their music with him several years ago. Love remains, indeed.

    January 12, 2020 at 6:26 am
  • Thanks Phil, beautifully written. What a privilege to share those amazing moments with Neil. He was a total one-off. It’s quite remarkable to think that someone so wary of the limelight should influence so many millions of people around the world, all air drumming to Xanadu. Thanks for sharing.

    January 12, 2020 at 7:47 am
  • David Machin
    Reply

    Such a lovely tribute to a man who clearly touched your life, you have made me laugh whilst reading this. Thankyou.

    January 12, 2020 at 9:36 am
  • Gillian Machin
    Reply

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories – and, apparently, for being a part of our NEC experience that night in Birmingham!

    My memory of that gig (also my husband’s first Rush gig, and I take ALL the credit foe introducing him to their greatness) will be all the sweeter for knowing about that shared moment…

    Ride on, Neil…

    January 12, 2020 at 10:00 am
  • Lynwen Birch
    Reply

    My feels as if it is in the palm of a hand being squeezed. Gently.

    January 12, 2020 at 11:29 am
  • Gary Jones
    Reply

    So well written, a personal view well worth sharing.
    A band of such talent
    Individuals of such talent.
    The sum was SO much greater than the parts.
    Yet all of them giants.
    The Music, The Lyrics, The People.
    Mean so much to so many.
    RIP Neil Peart. The best.

    January 12, 2020 at 2:21 pm
  • Marco Da Silva
    Reply

    Beautiful words, tear nestled in the corner of my eye. Thank you Phil

    January 12, 2020 at 6:22 pm
  • Stick to the chicken basting. (Just kidding)

    January 12, 2020 at 8:05 pm
  • michael a hyland
    Reply

    I’ve never cried when someone I don’t know passed away. Ever. But I have shed a lot of tears for NP. Thanks for the recollections. Allows those of us unlucky to never have met him to feel even closer.

    January 12, 2020 at 9:33 pm
  • Mark Joyce
    Reply

    Nicely done. Thanks for doing this.

    January 13, 2020 at 7:34 am
  • Mark Malcolmson
    Reply

    I did not believe that someone I had never met could effect me so strongly when they aren’t here.
    As a fan since 1978, I have read many, many interviews from cut/paste to quality insights and I always looked out for your name on the copy.
    You are a serious fanboy but that’s to your advantage as the band saw you as a friend not some treadmill reporter blowing smoke up them.
    Your comments above are as a fanboy and a friend and not as an uninformed music journalist whose been given 500 words to write an obituary for someone whose still alive.

    Thank you Phil, for a touching, articulate and eloquent tribute
    If only NP could be here to read it I’m sure he’d appreciate it!

    January 13, 2020 at 3:54 pm
  • Glen Di Giovanni
    Reply

    A very nice and touching tribute to such an awesome man. Neil so talented and a virtuoso in the music world will be sadly missed by myself and millions of others! The Legend will NEVER EVER be forgotten! RIP Neil.

    January 14, 2020 at 10:02 pm
  • pscreed
    Reply

    What a beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing this.

    January 14, 2020 at 11:10 pm
  • Tim McMillan
    Reply

    I’m no Rush fan, I’ll get there one day, but know enough to appreciate the greatness of Neil Peart. This does him as much justice as the piece on Pepsi / Justin did him. I keep coming back, though, to that opening line, leaves, memories, blue skies. I lost my Dad at the end of last year and those words sum up the feeling of this cold winter better than any others. Thank you.

    February 8, 2020 at 5:55 pm
  • Chip Hines
    Reply

    Thanks so much for this, I needed to read this today during this twisted time. Rush and Neil’s prose have helped me through my own life and they continue to do so during this pandemic. I’m sorry for your loss and the collective loss we all feel.

    March 27, 2020 at 8:08 pm

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