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In memoriam: Neil Peart was freethinking drummer/lyricist for Rush

Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist of the rock band Rush, died Jan. 7. (Photo by Shutterstock)

By PJ Slinger

My heart sank when I heard the news that Neil Peart, the drummer for the rock band Rush, had died.

Yes, I knew he had been in poor health the last few years, but you mostly put that out of your mind as you go about your day-to-day living. Then, my son, a 19-year-old who is a drummer in a rock band, texted me the news. Peart had died Jan. 7 at age 67 of brain cancer.

Peart was/is my favorite drummer (aside from my son, of course), with his technical mastery of the kit and odd time signatures that made his playing so hard to duplicate.

A college roommate had a drum kit that I banged on when no one else was around, often trying to keep time to such Rush classics as “Tom Sawyer” or “Red Barchetta.” Sure, it sounded good to me, but to a bystander I’m sure it would have been laughable. Even my air drumming couldn’t keep up with Peart’s speed and precision.

“Peart was one of rock’s greatest drummers, with a flamboyant yet precise style that paid homage to his hero, The Who’s Keith Moon, while expanding the technical and imaginative possibilities of his instrument,” Brian Hiatt wrote in Rolling Stone.

Peart was also the main lyricist for Rush, a “power trio” consisting of Peart, guitarist Alex Lifeson and singer and bassist Geddy Lee. Rush was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

But his drumming virtuosity is not central to my point.

Peart was known for his lyrical themes of sci-fantasy, philosophy and Ayn Rand libertarianism. (I even wrote an end-of-the-semester paper in my college literature class comparing the lyrics and storyline from the dystopian-themed Rush album “2112” to the story of Adam and Eve.)

But what I really appreciated were Peart’s songs that touched on freethinking. Foremost, it was the song “Free Will,” off the band’s 1980 album “Permanent Waves,” that really hooked me. At that time, I was a sophomore in high school and was already pretty certain that I was an atheist. Hearing that song helped cement my disbelief. It made me realize that I wasn’t so “out there” to be skeptical of religion and the idea of God. To have a great drummer and lyricist like Neil Peart share my (non)belief, well, that immediately endeared him to me even more.

Here’s a portion of the “Free Will” lyrics:

You can choose a ready guide

In some celestial voice

If you choose not to decide

You still have made a choice

You can choose from phantom fears

And kindness that can kill

I will choose a path that’s clear

I will choose free will

Each of us

A cell of awareness

Imperfect and incomplete

Genetic blends

With uncertain ends

On a fortune hunt

That’s far too fleet

People assumed Peart was an atheist by his words and actions, although he never called himself that. He once said in an interview that he was “a linear agnostic,” whatever that means.

In an interview with journalist Jim Ladd in 2015, Peart said: “I always say, too, if I’m going to go up to heaven and meet St. Peter and Jesus and God and Allah and Buddah, whichever one you wanna pick, I’m gonna be OK because . . . I believe in generosity and charity and kindness and courtesy. Those are things that just seem good to me anyway. I don’t need a threat to make me behave that way and I don’t need a reward.”

Here are a few other samples of his lyrics that show his freethinking attitude.

“Tom Sawyer” (1981)

No, his mind is not for rent

To any god or government

Always hopeful, yet discontent

He knows changes aren’t permanent

But change is

“Roll the Bones” (1991)

Faith is cold as ice

Why are little ones born only to suffer

For the want of immunity

Or a bowl of rice?

Well, who would hold a price

On the heads of the innocent children

If there’s some immortal power

To control the dice?

We come into the world and take our chances

Fate is just the weight of circumstances

That’s the way that lady luck dances

Roll the bones

“Ghost of a Chance” (1991)

I don’t believe in destiny

Or the guiding hand of fate

I don’t believe in forever

Or love as a mystical state

“Faithless” (2007)

I’ve got my own moral compass to steer by

A guiding star beats a spirit in the sky

And all the preaching voices

Empty vessels of dreams so loud

As they move among the crowd

Fools and thieves are well disguised

In the temple and marketplace

I don’t have faith in faith

I don’t believe in belief

You can call me faithless

I still cling to hope

And I believe in love

And that’s faith enough for me

Peart’s lyrics and songs have been an indelible part of my life. As he writes in the song “The Spirit of Radio,” his music gives me “emotional feedback, on a timeless wavelength, bearing a gift beyond price, almost free.”

Thank you, Neil.

PJ Slinger is editor of Freethought Today.