Jan 2020 10

I wanted to get my feelings and thoughts down about the passing of Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist of Rush, while they were still raw. For me, calling him a Drummer was an afterthought. Writer, explorer, thinker, champion feeler. This was a life mentor. Not ‘cool’, but love is love, man. 

So, I take you back to Andrew – Grade 10. 

“Well everyone,” announced my teacher, Ms. Soares, to the class. “Let’s see what Mr. Bradley is listening to.”

She had taken the cassette tape case off my desk and was now holding it up for her inspection.

Looking back, I suppose I shouldn’t have had headphones on and been listening to music in class. It was a bit disrespectful, and maybe showing off. But it was Grade 10 Typing Class. And frankly, after just a few weeks when everyone was still pecking out home row shit like ‘A-A-A L-L-L J-J-J’, I was already experimenting with sentences involving Qs, Ns, and (gasp) Zs.

Maybe I was just fulfilling some future destiny of being a writer. Maybe it was in my blood as in my mother’s things, I have found medals and pins for typing accuracy and speed. Back then, I was embarrassed to admit that autoshop and welding class didn’t do it for me. The keyboard did. So yes, I would listen to music while typing. It was fun. Even then, I suppose I was building a private universe of words that I now live in.

Ms. Soares held up the tape case and prepared to read the tracklist out loud.

I can still see her like she is standing right in front of my desk. A sexy Jamaican lady who wore form-caressing but respectful pantsuits to her classes. She could’ve walked into any office on Bay Street dressed like she did. But here she was instead, in a high school in Rexdale, and teaching me how to type. Her hair was pulled tight in a bun. And she wore big, sexy librarian, owl-sized glasses on her face. Makeup impeccable.

As she got ready to recite, the cries of tortured typewriters stopped. There was some snickering in anticipation. But my Universe was a private one and I really didn’t want her telling everyone what I was listening to. I wished it was my Iron Maiden tape.

She cleared her throat.

“Ahem… Grace Under Pressure…”

Rush. I was listening to Rush. Not cool stuff.

She looked at me curiously and then back to the case, glancing through the tracklist looking for something juicy to call out.

“The Body Electric?”

Yes. There was a track leading off Side 2 of Rush’s Grace Under Pressure called ‘The Body Electric’.

“Well, well, well… Mr. Bradley…”

The class went wild. She looked at me, impressed, like I was listening to slow jams that I was banging the cheerleaders to.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I was banging nothing but those typewriter keys in class, and the ones at home on my Commodore 64 computer. There were no cheerleaders in my life, except the ones I imagined when I looked through the lone glossy Penthouse mag I had stolen from the mall and was now hidden under my mattress. And I listened to a lot of Rush.

I tried other bands. I really did. Zeppelin. Van Halen. New Order. The Cult. The Clash. The Jam. Even Depeche Mode. But nothing kept me coming back to the well like Rush.

Why?

It’s hard to explain. And those that get it, just do. I will never convince you to like Rush if you don’t. And I’m not sure I can explain how Neil Peart, their lyricist, opened the world for me.

When KISS was singing things like “Don’t want to wait til you know me better. Lick it up. Lick it up. Ahhhhh!” (fine lyrics for a certain mood for sure, btw), I heard the words of ‘Subdivisions’ by Neil Peart. An exploration of alienation, peer pressure, longing, and feeling like your tribe was still out there and waiting to be found. And I marvelled at the dreamy landscape of ‘The Analog Kid’ exploring youthful longing and sexual and self-awakening.

Somehow, like many geeks from that time, my life seemed to fall into lockstep with the lyrics of Neil Peart.

I grew into my teens and explored other music. I lectured people on the merits of REM and New Order and Echo and the Bunnymen. But I secretly devoured every Rush album’s lyric sheet every two years when they’d release a record. Peart expanded Rush’s concepts and explored geo-politics, the future, being your own prime mover of your destiny, the oppressed, the emerging world, and even failure and rebirth of the spirit, I found my life events and thoughts mirrored his outlook as I grew into my late teens.

And when I had abandoned them in my early 20s as a foolish folly, Peart came back with the album ‘Counterparts’ which explored the heart, and relationships, including non-heterosexual ones. Not your average rock power trio stuff of the mid 1990s.

When it comes to Rush, for me, the main dish was his words. The music was just the gravy.

As for the person behind the poet, he cycled across Africa. He lost a wife and child to tragedy. He motorcycled across North and South America, disappearing from the limelight for years. Not satisfied with being called the greatest rock drummer, at the height of his influence he learned jazz/swing style drumming and incorporated a whole new style in his performances. And always, he explored his feelings in his writing.

This was a life mentor.

Even today, decades after that typing class, I can pull up a piece of poetry (song, if you want) that Neil wrote that reflects any mood I’m in. I have favourites when dealing with success, failure, love, loss, grief, and especially hope and picking myself up off the mat and trying again. Today, I will pluck the bass along to the words of ‘Bravado’ and because there are no words sometimes, the soothing staccato of ‘La Villa Strangiato’.

Horribly uncool. Today, and especially back in high school typing class.

Oh, and ‘The Body Electric’? A favourite of Ms. Soares apparently, and truthfully not one of mine of Neil’s, but a good example. It’s a song about an A.I. Robot in the future who wants to become more than its programming. It wants to live. To feel. To love. To escape. All with a chorus of ‘One Zero Zero One Zero Zero One – S.O.S!!!’.

So not slow jam banging cheerleaders stuff.

Neil Peart showed me that it was okay to be the outcast. It was okay to be off the beat. It was okay to be a thinker and introspective and a recluse. It was okay to be good at typing. In the rooms of Rexdale back then, bedrooms and classrooms, I dreamed of the life I have now. And it was all concocted while listening to his words that opened my mind to a bigger world, and to a bigger version of myself.

I suppose I not only mourn a person, I mourn a time long past in my life. Although this geek typists world is darker today, I can still feel the beat that The Timekeeper set for me.

I will march on to it. And explore.

 

Each of us 
A cell of awareness 
Imperfect and incomplete 
Genetic blends 
With uncertain ends 
On a fortune hunt 
That’s far too fleet

– Neil Peart