Farewell to a Kingly Person

Man, talk about timing.  Not two weeks ago, in my post “The Book of Men”, I talked about how I had essentially used the wisdom of Neil Pear,t as set to the music of his drums and his friends, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson from the band Rush, as a replacement for whatever Dad-type wisdom I should have gotten growing up, but didn’t, for lots of reasons.  Alas, it was announced yesterday that Mr. Peart had lost a 3 1/2 year battle with brain cancer on January 7.  I was, to put it mildly, devastated, albeit briefly: it’s my tendency to express strong emotions in very intense but short bursts.  My husband didn’t want me to find out on the internet, so he came to tell me while I was sitting on the back porch.  I thought he was kidding for a moment, and then burst into tears.  The Yes song “Changes” was playing on my speaker.  I spent the rest of the day in a daze as I listened to Rush songs on my earbuds, feeling indeed as though my own Dad had died.  Unlike when my own father died in 1974, the same year Rush put out their first album, I have the treasure trove of lyrics, music, books, and videos left behind by Mr. Peart and his friends, plus my own memories.  So while part of me is deeply sad, it’s a brightly lit sort of sad, not a deep, dark pit.

Aside from whatever tunes I might have heard on the radio when my mother played it, my first exposure to Rush was on MTV in 1984 when the video for “Distant Early Warning” played one day, the first track from Grace Under Pressure.  I was 12.  I was captivated by the music, if not by the silly imagery of their notoriously awful videos.  “Absalom?  Is that even a word?”

The song that really caught me, though, was “Red Sector A”, a tune that, to my ears, was plainly about victims of the Holocaust, even though Mr. Peart said himself it could be any sort of situation of oppression one can’t escape from.  As an abused child in an alcoholic, dysfunctional household, the words and striking music rang with me.

all that we can do is just survive
all that we can do to help ourselves is stay alive

I asked Mom if we could go to Sound Warehouse so I could buy the album, one of the few things she would willingly spend money on, being a music lover herself.  She said yes, and it quickly supplanted the more juvenile words and rhythms of Def Leppard and Duran Duran.

A year later, Power Windows came out, which I was late to listen to because the budget was tight at home.  Unlike everyone else, I loved it, especially the last track, “Mystic Rhythms”, which I would listen to so loudly on my headphones that other people in the room thought I actually had it on low-volume on the speakers.  Rush tapes and albums became some of my best friends along with my cats and the books of Stephen King during some very troubled years in my family, trouble that began to peak in 1987, the year Hold Your Fire was released.

That was also the year mine and my family’s life began to crumble apart whether we liked it or not, although 30 years later, I see it as inevitable and necessary.  I was 16, and we’d just been through a horrifying event I’ll detail some other time, plus my cat ran away, Mom was losing her mind, either through circumstance, drugs, or genetics, it doesn’t matter, and The Creep was there to make everything worse by picking fights with Mom or just being generally useless.  Then we had to move because he lost his job since he couldn’t get to work on time.  Christmas that year was a nightmare.  At least there was a new Rush album to listen to, and I wanted to go to the upcoming concert.  Lucky for me, one of Mom’s new friends from the AA meetings she was going to was also a Rush fan and agreed to give me a ride.  My ticket in the nosebleeds was $17.  All these years later, I don’t remember many details about the show, but I had a good time, despite really only being familiar with four of their albums, none of it from their earlier years.  It was January 29, 1988, according to my ticket stub.

Fast forward a year in my life, and I had been kicked out by both parents and was living with my boyfriend, with my best ticket to a decent future being that of everyone my age at that time: go to college and get a degree.  I was (am) smart as hell, with a penchant for the sciences, so I set about taking my SATs and applying to universities I could actually afford to attend.  I got into the University of Houston easily enough, but my application to the Honors Program hit a hitch.  Getting kicked out of my home meant that my grades and SAT scores weren’t as good as my talents and intellect should have garnered, but they were willing to take a writing sample as additional material to consider.  I thought for a while, and decided to analyze the lyrics to the song “Mystic Rhythms”, the song that I listened to at high volume over and over again during my last troubled year at home, when I yearned to be anywhere but there with those people.  I waited for a response, and lo and behold, the Honors Program admitted me on a provisional basis given my first semester’s grades were good.  And they were.

Over the next few years, I collected as many of their other works as I could and went to their shows when they went through my city: Houston at first, then Austin.  I repeatedly listened to their middle years (Permanent Waves through Hold Your Fire), but not their earlier works, nor, as I got older, their more mature works that referred to themes I couldn’t relate to, even if the music was still snappy.  The last tour I went to before Neil’s Ghost Rider years was Counterparts, which wasn’t the best show I’d ever been to: one of the giant, inflatable rabbits leftover from the Presto tour began deflating and collapsed on Geddy Lee halfway through, eliciting laughter from the audience.

After the tragedies that sent Neil on his “travels on the healing road” as detailed in his book Ghost Rider, my friend Brandy and I, along with everyone else who loved Rush, figured that was it for the band, so it was with great excitement that we anticipated the release of Vapor Trails in May 2002, with a tour to follow, not to mention the book itself.  It was another troubled year in my life, yet also a joyous one: while I had had a volatile reunion with my brother, whom I had not seen since I was a child, that ended with him moving to the Pacific Northwest, it was also the year I got pregnant with mine and my husband’s first child.  I was about six weeks pregnant when the Vapor Trails tour made a swing through Houston, and Brandy and I made the four-hour trip to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in early rush hour traffic in eager anticipation of the show.

I had only been to three Rush shows, all of them in the late 80s and early 90s, and this show blew them all away.  The boys, as many fans referred to them, were pushing 50, but played with the energy of men in their 20s.  They opened with a pyrotechnic-laden version of “One Little Victory”, during which the audience loudly cheered with every twirl and toss of Neil’s drumsticks, and treated us to three-plus hours of what they knew were everyone’s favorites from the prior 28 years.  Brandy and I were sitting in the last row near the grass, and they played so late that we were ushered out by the automatic sprinklers kicking on at 11pm during their final encore song.

As with when I was a troubled teenager in a dysfunctional home, Rush’s music, in particular Neil Peart’s words, were helpful to me in a time when I was suffering from a hefty case of postpartum depression, which I was kind of primed for, if what I’ve read about it is true.  Like most women, it didn’t really get treated very well, so I was very unhappy on top of dealing with a baby that couldn’t bear to be put down: my husband and I called him “the velcro baby”.  The child also wouldn’t sleep when he was supposed to, either in the daytime or at night.  Once, while rocking and bobbing around the house holding him in my arms, I thought, “isn’t this when I should sing a lullaby or something?”  Nothing came to mind, but I still kind of wanted to try singing a song to him, so I sang him the song “Territories” from Power Windows.

I see the Middle Kingdom
between Heaven and Earth
like the Chinese call
the country of their birth
we all figure that our homes
our homes are set above
other people than the ones
the ones we know and love

I figured a song about how “better the pride that resides in a citizen of the world / than the pride that divides when a colorful rag is unfurled” wasn’t too bad of a morality lesson to sing to my child, since that what a lot of lullabies seemed to be.  I’m a big believer in a concept called The Great Song, a term I first heard from Chris Robinson on VH1’s “Legends” when it covered the band The Black Crowes.  I was instantly charmed by the notion of a “great song” from which all music flows.  Indeed, more than that, it became a part of my core belief that such a thing was real, particularly since music had been such an important part of my life, and I wanted it to be an important part of my child’s as well.  Singing “Territories” certainly sat better with me than “When the Bough Breaks”, anyway.

Rush toured several more times over the next decade, first on their R30 tour, celebrating their 30th anniversary, and then twice each for Snakes and Arrows, Time Machine, and Clockwork Angels, plus R40, their 40th anniversary tour (an event that may be unprecedented in the music world).  Brandy and I went to most of these shows together, and the best of these was definitely Time Machine, for which she procured the best set of tickets ever: around 30 feet diagonally away from Alex Lifeson’s usual side, about level with the stage.

Best of all, by 2011, my child was old enough and interested enough in their music to want to come.  So I joined the ranks of multigenerational Rush fans and brought my son to his first big concert for the second round of the Time Machine tour in 2011, where I was happy I had seen it the first time around, because I was able to clap my hands over his tender ears just as the memory of the very loud BANG! that was about to happen popped into my head during “Far Cry”.  Such are the (relatively minor, imo) risks of a fully-lived life.  He was only passingly familiar with their work, but he had a fantastic time nonetheless.  I was pleased that the album he had fallen in love with, Clockwork Angels, was a bit more uplifting than my first one, Grace Under Pressure, though he listens to all of them now, just as I do.

By the time Rush came through Austin for their final tour, R40, I had been incorrectly diagnosed with the wrong mental health issue and put on medication that made it very difficult for me to enjoy things.  I remember going through the motions of tapping my feet and bobbing my head at the show, but my typically uncontrollable urge to sing at the top of my lungs and play air drums with the rest of the dude-bros was gone.  For the first time in 13 Rush shows, I did the unthinkable: I left during the encore before they were done playing, because I just wasn’t digging it and was thinking I wanted to beat the traffic.  It was one of many indicators of yet another difficult time in my life during which Mr. Peart’s lyrics rang in my head often, those of “The Anarchist” from Clockwork Angels:

the lenses inside of me that paint the world black
the pools of poison, the scarlet mists
that spill over into rage
the things I’ve always been denied
an early promise that somehow died
a missing part of me that grows around me like a cage

Life is very different for me now, which you already know if you’ve been keeping up with my blog.  The first stirrings of my “awakening” began about two years ago, and while the ride has been bumpy and windy since then, I am in a better and higher place than I was then, even with my breakdowns, which I don’t fear happening again now that I have proper management of what’s really wrong with me underway.  Again and again and again, the lyrics and rhythms of Neil Peart along with his friends have buoyed me through some very turbulent waters indeed.  I rely on their music for more than I could possibly convey, just as all hardcore Rush fans do.  There’s a song for every situation in life, it seems.  We are probably the most annoying people in musical fandom, because once you get us going, we truly will not shut up until you listen to at least one song.  I’ve even inflicted them on my therapist, although since I know he’s one of those who doesn’t care for their singer, I tend to send him the lyrics, because that is the core of their music.  I used to wonder how they made their songs, and it occurred to me that Neil probably wrote the words first, then Alex and Geddy wove the harmonies and melodies together, then Neil set it all to the beat that only he seemed to be able to hear, let alone reproduce.  There’s probably a reason there are no Rush covers: their music is indescribably complex.  It would be like rewriting a Mozart opera set to the words of Shakespeare.

Neil Peart was a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, just like so many of us are, whether through the books or the movies (hopefully both).  One of the things I’ve done over the last year and a half or so in my inner exploration of my psyche has been to cast the important people in my life in the stories that are also important to me.  As the song “Limelight” goes, all the world’s indeed a stage and we are merely players, performers and portrayers, each another’s audience outside the gilded cage“.  I knew better than to deify Mr. Peart: as important as he was to me, he was still a human being, and everyone dies.  I know that lesson too well already.  So I find it somewhat ironic, though appropriate, that quite often over the last year and a half, I’ve rehearsed the day of his death in my mind, assuming that I would just be scrolling on Facebook one day and come across a news announcement.  As if part of me knew he’d be going soon.  The day I and the world found out about his death, a storm was forecast to move through the area, and my life’s significant events are often marked by storms.  I’m not sure why, but on this particular day, as the thunder rumbled and the sky flashed, I could only think of Ulmo, the Vala of Water from Tolkien’s storyworld, as I like to call the universes of words that authors create.  Neil made a universe of words as well, and this one is set to music I never get tired of hearing, though I’m quite sure my husband does, particularly on the days I’m playing Rush downstairs and our son is playing Rush upstairs, infecting his little brother with the beautiful musical viruses of The Great Song.

I’m trying to be a writer like Neil was, and a variation of the lyrics from the Rush song “Nobody’s Hero” floated through my head:

I knew he was different in his musicality
I heard his rhythms as a lonely minority
He never seemed a threat to my intellectuality
He only introduced me to a wider reality

While, indeed, a “shadow crossed my heart” when I heard he’d died, as I said at the beginning, it passed, about as quickly as the Lunar Eclipse that occurred mere hours before my husband delivered the news.  I’m an astrologer, and was wondering what portents the day would bring.  “Mystic Rhythms” is about astrology and the mysterious “rhythms” that seem to govern the skies above our heads and below our feet, and I can’t elucidate how quite yet, but there’s a connection and a closure and a continuance between that essay 17 year-old me wrote to get into the University Honors Program, and the once-fearsome-now-fascinating event of the Sun and Moon playing hide and seek with each other on the same day I heard my biggest hero died.  I will undoubtedly quietly weep unexpectedly for a time whenever I hear Rush’s music, in particular the songs that have rung the truest for me, but “I would never trade tomorrow for today” and am immensely grateful for the last 36 years Neil’s words and rhythms carried me and the rest of their fans through life along with his friends.

As for me, I live by the words of my favorite Rush song, one they never played live: “Available Light”, the last song from Presto, the last tour of theirs I saw in Houston before moving :

All four winds together
Can’t bring the world to me
Shadows hide the play of light
So much I want to see
Chase the light around the world
I want to look at life
In the available light
I’ll go with the wind
I’ll stand in the light

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