Role models are a tricky thing. If we’re to make our way through life successfully, it’s immensely helpful to identify people who have figured it all out. But when you reach a certain age, you realize that “figuring it all out” is a chimera, an unachievable desire that only a narcissist or a lunatic would dare claim. And we begin to perceive what it truly means to be human. We realize that the goal shouldn’t be perfection, but rather improvement—of our art, our relationships, our understanding of ourselves. And we come to understand that it’s through well-honed skills, hard-earned wisdom, and strength of character that any of us manages to survive in the face of barriers both internal and external, and do it with our humanity intact.
As I write this, a month after Neil Peart’s passing, it’s strange to say, but his drumming is not at the front of my mind. His humanity is.
Neil was not a magician; he made no effort to mask or hide his rhythmic charms. I agree with those who’ve suggested that one of the reasons he was so popular was that his drumming ideas were complex enough to intrigue us, but not so beyond our comprehension that we could never imagine figuring them out. They were a gift to us, and a true gift is something that a person can use.
Neil was not a show-off; as active as his playing was, it never overwhelmed the music. “Less is more” was a nonsensical concept to him, at least as some sort of general guideline. (How could you grow up loving Keith Moon and buy into that kind of gobbledygook?) No, he understood that a desire to excite, to entertain, to astound was perfectly human. “Look!” he appeared to shout from behind the drums, “look at this amazing thing I discovered!” Not, “Look at me,” but “Look at this.” It’s not a subtle difference.
And Neil was not a guru. It’s a cliché because it’s true: The more we learn, the less we know, and Neil seemed obsessed with learning. Moreover, he was not stingy with what he discovered. Those seven books he wrote are not short. And those eighteen albums’ worth of lyrics? So many ideas, so much imagery…so many questions! These were not the ramblings of someone who’d “figured it all out.” And yet, the confidence with which he shared his ideas—musical, philosophical, interpersonal—was astounding. That confidence, however, was not born from arrogance, but from the knowledge that he put the time and work in to communicate them as clearly and poetically as possible.
Is there a more human activity than to strike an object and marvel at the sound it throws back at us? Is there a more human desire than to tap the shoulder of the person next to us and say, “Hey, listen to this”? Is there a more human pursuit than to keep on hitting that object until you no longer can, because you know that there’s no end to the joy it brings you and your fellow man?
And if we believe these things, and want them for ourselves, is there a greater role model than Neil Peart?