A Misfit Remembers Neil Peart

Credit: cygnus-x1.net

Growing up, it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass-production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone

It’s been a year since we lost Neal Peart, the extraordinary drummer, lyricist, and writer, and it’s hard to reconcile those feelings, but I think those lines above have always broken my heart.

They’re from the song “Subdivisions,” from the album of the same name, and to be honest, I wasn’t even a fan of that album at the time. It had made the unforgivable mistake of being played on the radio.

That’s because I was sixteen, and Rush was supposed to be my band, for kids like me who didn’t listen to pop radio, because that music was popular. I was a misfit, an outcast, one of the self-exiled, just as my favorite band was self-exiled, purposefully devoted to musical integrity as they defined it, indifferent to the mass collective. Like the band I admired, I was learning to follow the unwritten code that instinctively spurned the fakery of the mainstream. I didn’t have the words to ground this concept in a tangible way, not yet anyway. Rush — through Neil Peart — gave them to me. They did that by exemplifying an ongoing commitment to integrity, to making the music they loved, and fuck the label — or the radio — if they didn’t get it.

And apparently they didn’t. They used to play Spirit of the Radio on the FM stations too, oblivious to the sharp critique at the heart of the song:

One likes to believe
In the freedom of music
But glittering prizes
And endless compromises
Shatter the illusion
Of integrity

But let me go back a bit. When I discovered Rush in high school, music was about to become my salvation. Before that, I’d been a crazy-shy kid. I had few friends. I wouldn’t start to grow until my sophomore year, and then I almost didn’t stop, but until then, I was always the smallest in class. I was uselessly incapable of performing all the things that seemed to matter so much in the subdivided realm of grammar school. I dropped every ball that had the misfortune of being hit in my direction. I could not do a pull-up if my life depended on it.

Worse yet, I’d been tagged as a loser in sixth grade, the year my family fell apart, and the business crashed, and I got kicked out of advanced English for refusing to read The Chronicles of Narnia — just, because. I can remember, as if it were this morning, the time the prettiest and cruelest girl in school stopped me in the hall, looked me up and down, and said through her gum, “Um, like where do you get your clothes?”

Fast forward to the fall of 1981. High school. And while doing homework, out of the radio came an electrifying guitar riff followed by a rumble of drums that seemed to detonate from the speakers. What was this thing that I’d found? I grabbed the pillows from the living room couch, dug out a pair of sticks I’d gotten as a kid, and I tried to play along to “Limelight” (as if).

It wasn’t long after that I noticed a kid at school with a Rush t-shirt. I asked him about the song I couldn’t stop thinking about.

“Oh yeah?” he said. “You like that, I got an album for you.”

Next day, he reached into his book bag, and it’s just a dream, but in my remembrance, there was a parting of the clouds and a chorus of angels as he handed over a well-thumbed 2112.

“And you’re gonna wanna use headphones.”

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I took that album home, dropped the needle, and with the first notes, it was love.

That’s my story. I bet if you’re reading this, yours is similar. From 2112, I went on to discover all the rest: Hemispheres and Caress of Steel and Permanent Waves and A Farewell to Kings, all the masterpieces of the band’s early ’70s days — and not just Rush, but the creative and, dare I say it, intellectual music of that album-oriented era. And I’d grow my hair, fumble around a drum kit (I still can’t play Limelight), make a bunch of friends, and find a community — an identity. The foundation was always music, our tastes grounded in the subculture, because our music wasn’t sappy and over-saturated with hooks and immediacy. It took effort. It wasn’t for the masses.

It belonged to me. To us. The outsiders. The misfits.

And while I never gave schoolbooks much attention, a Rush album was a literary experience. Yes, the music was spectacular, with performances elevated to super-human capacity — but it was the words that resonated just as much:

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

These were lyrical puzzles, challenging but accessible. I was fifteen and learning to untangle verbal complexity. To think. And to explore, because from the back of the albums, I tracked down the references: Anthem, The Fountainhead and Kubla Khan, which led to Wordsworth, Shelly, Ginsburg, then Kerouac, Coltrane and Bird — a chain of artistic exploration that widened from music to…everything else. I had no idea at the time, but Neil Peart was my initiation into a love of intellectual discovery, without parents or teachers deciding what was appropriate or necessary — two of the ugliest words to describe the pursuit of knowledge — not as a means to an end, but for the pure joy of exercising the mind.

Obviously, I never met the man. And he’d be appalled at all this gushing and I wouldn’t have the guts — or the gall — to show it. You don’t have to read past these lines to understand how this modest and authentic man spurned celebrity:

Living in a fish-eye lens
caught in the camera eye
I have no heart to lie
I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend

But I do have a secret fantasy. It goes like this. I’m out on my own Healing Road, just “following my front wheel” as Neil once wrote, trying to make sense of this brief and bewildering experience we call being. Pulling into a roadside diner, there’s a BMW GS propped under a tree, and beside it, on a bench, face in a book, sits this handsome and rugged dude with a skull cap and a contemplative curiosity across his face. I take in the scene. And leave him alone. Because I know better. Instead, I wait inside until he gets up to pay, and that’s when I sneak out to leave this note across the cylinders of the Ghost Rider’s machine:


Just wanted to say: Thanks.

For everything.

A long-awaited friend

Robert Hunter’s Box of Rain

Thinking about Robert Hunter, who died this week.

Have you ever read the lyrics to “Box of Rain”? I’ve always loved that song. But I only started to understand why after I found a letter excerpt posted online between Robert Hunter and a fan who had asked him to explain the meaning of “box of rain.” Hunter was always reluctant to do this, “because it encourages others to ask about what I had in mind when I wrote a song, and mostly you’d need to have my mind to understand even approximately what I had in it.”

And fair enough. But, in this case at least, he decided to make an exception, and wrote: “By ‘box of rain,’ I meant the world we live on, but “ball” of rain didn’t have the right ring to my ear, so box it became, and I don’t know who put it there.”


So when you read those lyrics now, which were originally written to give Phil Lesh the words to say to his dying father, and help him to move on (“what do you want me to do, to do for you, to see you through?”), they are just heartbreaking, because I don’t know anything that captures the poignancy of living and leaving than the last two lines of that song, which are:

Such a long long time to be gone
And a short time to be there.

It’s such a beautiful thought, and since Robert Hunter is one of the great voices of our time, here’s the full lyric, which reads as well as it sings:

Look out of any window
any morning, any evening, any day
Maybe the sun is shining
birds are winging or
rain is falling from a heavy sky –
What do you want me to do,
to do for you to see you through?
this is all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago

Walk out of any doorway
feel your way, feel your way
like the day before
Maybe you’ll find direction
around some corner
where it’s been waiting to meet you –
What do you want me to do,
to watch for you while you’re sleeping?
Well please don’t be surprised
when you find me dreaming too

Look into any eyes
you find by you, you can see
clear through to another day
I know it’s been seen before
through other eyes on other days
while going home —
What do you want me to do,
to do for you to see you through?
It’s all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago

Walk into splintered sunlight
Inch your way through dead dreams
to another land
Maybe you’re tired and broken
Your tongue is twisted
with words half spoken
and thoughts unclear
What do you want me to do
to do for you to see you through
A box of rain will ease the pain
and love will see you through

Just a box of rain –
wind and water –
Believe it if you need it,
if you don’t just pass it on
Sun and shower –
Wind and rain –
in and out the window
like a moth before a flame

It’s just a box of rain
I don’t know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it’s just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there

Robert Hunter