Friday, January 17, 2020

Remembering Neil Peart: Musician, Adventurer, Truth-Seeker

Forty years ago, I was a seventeen year old kid who spent almost all his free time playing the guitar or listening to music. The Canadian rock band Rush pounded through my headphones a lot in those days.

Though I hadn't forgotten my classical roots and continued to play cello in the school orchestra and other ensembles, this was certainly the biggest rocker phase of my life. My friends and I would jam together often and loud. We played what was within reach of our collaborative capacities, and then we admired the music we couldn't play, and tried to learn from it. We certainly admired Rush. Many people couldn't (and still can't) get past the sheer volume and sonic complexity of what these guys put out.

But we loved it. It was terrific music.

When you perceive (aesthetically) the organizing principles of any craft, and appreciate the corresponding skills required to fashion something according to those principles, you "see" the beauty of the work. There is order, proportion, and a level of nobility (analogically speaking) in any successful craft, any work that human beings — who are themselves made in the image of God — achieve as an skillful expression of a concretely "intelligible," creative intuition.

Or, to put it more simple terms, "those dudes could play!"

In fact, those dudes — Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee, and Neil Peart — "played" together for four decades, and had generations of loyal followers. My son and his friends like Rush a lot. My daughters can't stand them! (This seems to reflect a more general pattern with Rush fans, but... that's another story.)

Right now the musical world is mourning the loss of Rush's drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, who died last week at the (still-too-young) age of 67. This came as a total shock to me and many others: his long battle with brain cancer after his 2015 retirement was not publicly known.

In retrospect, this is not surprising. For a man who makes virtually everyone's short list of greatest-rock-drummers-of-all-time, Peart succeeded in keeping his "private life" out of the spotlight. It helped that he lived without the peculiar drama of celebrity-dom, and therefore failed to draw the attention of those who cater to worshiping outsized celebrity fame and gawking at the human wreckage it all too often brings.

That doesn't mean his life was not interesting. Indeed, he shared many facets of his talent, his observations, and the reflections of his restless, searching mind.

Peart was a brilliant musician who redefined the scope of the rhythmic art of the "drummer" (really, he was a percussionist dedicated to continually improving his art). He was one of those players who was constantly surprising us with new sounds, nuances, and techniques in his performance.

He was also an accomplished author whose travel books are vivid chronicles of back roads, small towns, and vast spaces of natural beauty all over North America and other parts of the world. He was an avid motorcyclist who was bold in exploration while also being careful in how he actually handled his bike. He was perceptive, thoughtful, and had much feeling for "local things" — those things that are more and more difficult to find in the now largely homogenized U.S.A. and Canada. He knew how to find those places and appreciate them.

He also searched the cosmos and his own soul in a poignant and sincere way. There is an unusual level of thoughtfulness in Rush's lyrics, but Peart's extensive reading and philosophical turn of mind are even more accessible in his books. Here too he reveals his struggles and vulnerability in processing personal tragedies and suffering, as well as the simple joys and beauties of life.

Peart said that he "believed in the exchange of love." He also had a passion for the dignity of the individual. He did not see how these matters could have a place in a "religious" framework, and he sometimes expressed the Libertarian's distaste for conventional religions and ideas about God. He didn't seem to have much familiarity with the real profundity of religion that can be discovered in some of its specific expressions. Though it must also be admitted that there is a "cheap" side to the way we often talk about religion and God that can be alienating for people who are searching for deeper answers to the provoking questions arising from the mystery of reality and the experiences of joy and pain.

People who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics have an understandable aversion to any notions that seem to them to suggest either a "cosmic Santa Claus" or a "cosmic bully" as the Ultimate Being. Of course, these are distorted images of God, but they still have an all-too-wide circulation. Unfortunately, religious people (myself included) can easily appear to be "conjuring divinity" to escape the challenges of living or to shield ourselves from the awful implacable pain of suffering. Even the articulation of great religious experiences — the powerful testimonies to the truth about God — can pass by, unwittingly making a "bad impression" on someone who (for whatever reason) does not perceive therein the vital proximity of the transcendent mystery of God. We hardly clarify things when we act as if we have God in our pockets, or use Him to justify our prejudices, our partisanship, our own grasping for power.

On the occasion of his death, the sincerity of Neil Peart makes me want to examine my conscience on such things, and resolve to accompany the people entrusted to me with greater love.

Even with our best efforts, however, our witness to our faith is imperfect. And though the existence of the Mystery of God can be known by human reason, the practical articulation of this is a bumpy road for actual human beings trying to understand their particular and perplexing lives. Philosophy is worth studying and pursuing, but our actual understanding of even the best philosophy is imperfect, and certainly our particular ways of proposing arguments using complex and potentially confusing terms are imperfect.

Of course, we can only do our best. We speak what we know, as best as we can in circumstances, with passion and vigor certainly — but with the affection of brothers and sisters, not the pride and hostility of ideological partisan combat. We want to remember that each person is on a journey, the depths of which we do not know. We must not judge or condemn anyone, nor should we slavishly endorse what we know is wrong in order to be fashionable or agreeable.

Let's be human instead. The dialogue that will ensue is sure to be fruitful. I wish I could have had that dialogue with Neil Peart. He was a great musician, and in this respect there are few like him. But he was also like many people because he was a sincere man, a thoughtful man, a suffering man. Before such a person I can only stand with respect, appreciation, and humility. And now that his journey is at an end, I pray for him with hope that he will pass into that "exchange of love" that is greater than any of us can imagine.