Perhaps some of the young drummers who took exception to Neil Peart’s comments on fame in the April issue misunderstood him. Sometimes we create an imaginary personality for people we admire. When the personality revealed seems different (as it always does) from our mental picture, we tend to be disillusioned. We expect so much from our stars that it is virtually impossible for any human being to satisfy all that is expected by so many.
For example, I was working in New Orleans with Lionel Hampton’s band some years ago. We worked until 2:00 A.M. I had some breakfast and finally got to bed around 4:00 A.M.—not an unusual schedule for a traveling musician. At 7:15 A.M. the phone rang. When I was finally able to pick up the receiver a voice said, “You’ve got to show me how you get so much speed with your left hand.” I replied, “Who is this?” The person volunteered his name. I asked, “Do you know what time it is? I have only been asleep for a few hours!” At any rate, I suggested that the young man stop by the club we were playing at that evening and I would speak with him.
A little recognition is pleasant. We all enjoy being admired. However, I’ve been in Buddy Rich’s dressing room a few times between sets, and I especially remember one time some years ago when he worked Birdland in New York. Buddy was recovering from a heart attack. Ed Shaughnessy and I had stopped in to wish him well. Although Buddy was playing great, he was tired. His energy level was not quite back to 100% after his heart attack. Under conditions such as these, it was a strain to hear someone in the club yell out, “Play a drum solo” just as Buddy walked up for his last set. Buddy’s response was, “I play drum solos when I want to.” This seems like a harsh comment if you were not in the dressing room earlier hearing Buddy talk about his recovery and the rough schedule that he was on. Ed and I looked at each other, and Ed said, “Some people just don’t understand.” Louie Bellson is perhaps the most patient of all the famous drummers. Louie always has a kind word for young drummers. However, he also gets tired of being put upon by over-eager drummers who want to sit in, or have Louie give them a free drum lesson on his break. For the kindest of us, at some point a person may feel that enough is enough.
George Bernard Shaw, the great playwright, once said, “There are two great tragedies in life: not getting what you want, and getting what you want.” I understand this to mean that, when you achieve your heart’s desire, you also have to accept things you never thought of. For example, it must be a drag not to be able to sit in a restaurant because people won’t leave you alone. Eating in a hotel room can get pretty old. It must be a drag not to be able to go to a movie theater and enjoy the show. Michael Jackson, for example, was recently spotted wearing a disguise while shopping. He just wanted to do a little shopping, but was forced to leave immediately and return to the hotel.
Notoriety, or in Neil’s case fame, gives you the opportunity to make more choices in your career and your life. It gives you the chance to work with better musicians, better engineers, better producers and bigger record labels. However, this is also pressure. You have to live up to each situation. Each hit record makes you wonder, “What am I going to do next?” It can get to the point where you say, “I can’t keep topping myself indefinitely,” especially in the commercial part of the business.
Those who have never been in a situation to produce and perform on an album most likely do not understand how much bone-crushing work it actually is. I know, in my own case, it is the hardest work I’ve ever done, and I’ve only done it a few times. To keep going from project to project, interspersed with mind-dulling tours, year after year, can really get to you. It can make you wonder if it is worth it at times. Although Neil’s fame is extraordinary, I know from personal experience how difficult it is to keep your head straight with even moderate success and recognition. I have seen young drummers get their first big job and in two weeks change their personalities. I used to give a very talented young drummer lessons years ago. He got a job with a top jazz group. I went with a friend of mine to see him perform because we were both happy for his success. However, it was disappointing to see this young person on a super ego trip, talking down to everyone, overplaying, and ignoring his former friends. In a few months, he was fired for the attitudes and behavior I’ve just described. He couldn’t handle success. You must, as Neil has, create some distance between what you do for a living and your true self. You must arrive at some balance just to preserve your own psyche. If you don’t, you will begin to believe your own publicity and you will become lost as a person. I think that Neil was trying to let young drummers know that it “ain’t all grand at the top.” He was trying to give an insight into the responsibility, the pressure, and in some ways, the confining nature of fame. It takes an intelligent, candid and unusual person to be so honest about his work.
Those of you who were put off by Neil’s comments should reread the article from a new point of view. No one is superhuman and it isn’t right to expect anyone to be. Reread the article and try to understand the pressure that goes with the position. Try to learn from it. Rethink Neil’s comments and you just might develop some sympathy for a man who has inspired us all. You might also understand that the only thing tougher than getting to the top is staying there, and the only thing tougher than staying there is maintaining some sort of perspective in order to keep your head on straight.