Farewell to a King
It’s a memory I’ll never forget. It was one of the most dreaded and consequential days in the life of any American youth: the morning of the ACT. Now, I struggled with insomnia through much of high school and sporadically throughout my life; anyone who knows me knows that it’s not unusual to see me awake at all unholy hours of the night. So of course, with the weight of an all-important standardized test hanging over my 16-year old head, and despite my best efforts to get to bed at a reasonable hour, my body decided not to cooperate, and I found myself wide awake after a few restless hours staring at the distressingly small numbers on my bedside clock.
After a few more hours of anxious rumination and the certain knowledge that my entire future had been destroyed by my inability to get some shut-eye, I came to the realization that sleep wasn’t coming and decided to get out of bed. Bleary-eyed, exhausted, and distraught, I sat up and reached over to my trusty nightstand radio (tuned to 97.1 FM, WDRV The Drive, Chicago’s Classic Rock) and turned it on.
What came next is seared into my mind as though it were yesterday. With the clock reading 4 AM and the sun not yet even peeking over the horizon, the voice of stalwart overnight DJ Greg Easterling came drifting out as he finished his preamble for the next set of tunes with three simple words: “…and now, Rush.” The iconic shredding guitar and cascading drum fills of the intro to “The Spirit of Radio” filled my room, and I felt myself overcome with an indescribable motivation and energy as Neil Peart’s poetic lyrics filtered through my ears and into my beleaguered brain:
“Begin the day with a friendly voice / a companion unobtrusive
Plays that song that’s so elusive / and the magic music makes your morning mood
Off on your way, hit the open road / there was magic at your fingers
For the spirit ever lingers / undemanding contact in your happy solitude”
It was the perfect song at the perfect time, the direct shot of confidence and adrenaline that I sorely needed, and I knew right then that everything would be ok, that I would crush my ACT and be on to the next challenge before I knew it. In some ways, “The Spirit of Radio” is the quintessential Neil Peart song. His performance on the kit is simply monstrous, effortlessly jumping between styles, moods, tempos, and time signatures as he provides not only the song’s rhythm, but also its background color, its bombast, its very pulse. The song’s lyrics are among Peart’s best, striking a delicate balance between reveling in the power of music and excoriating the industry that profits off of it.
His words are both celebratory (“Emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength / bearing a gift beyond price, almost free”) and damning (“But glittering prizes and endless compromises / shatter the illusion of integrity”), all capped off by an incredibly deft repurposing of a classic Simon and Garfunkel lyric (“For the words of the profits were written on the studio wall”). “The Spirit of Radio” is an absolutely titanic track, the ideal opener to one of the band’s best records, accessible and radio-friendly without sacrificing its technical complexity, a song that almost feels undersold being played in any place other than a massive sold out arena.
It’s a song, as all the great Rush songs are, that manages to capture and showcase the greatness of all three of its members in equal measure. But the heart and soul of the song lies at its center: the center of rhythm, the center of concept, and in many ways the polar center of the band, Neil Peart.
I can count on one hand the number of musical acts that have been more important to me in my lifetime than Rush; for fuck’s sake, I’m literally named after one of their songs (“Jacob’s Ladder”). The news of Neil Peart’s passing has devastated me more than I can communicate, but as I’ve spent my day in mourning, listening to Rush records on repeat and writing this very piece, the feeling that has most shone through the sadness has been one of immense gratitude. There is no Rush without Neil Peart, so even though Neil will never read this (nor Geddy or Alex, probably), there’s just one thing I’d like to say to all three members.
For over 40 years and 20 albums of some of the best rock music ever made; for 3 stunning live shows, each one of which left me exhilarated, hoarse and wanting more; for the countless hours spent laboring over bass charts like “YYZ” and “Freewill” until my fingers bled; for pushing and inspiring thousands of others to push music in new, exciting directions; thank you. Ride on, ghost rider.