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Thanks to epic songs, fantastical lyrics and extravagant drum solos, the great nerd band of the Seventies rocks on through the 21st century

Chris Norris Aug 09, 2008
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After the battle of 2112 came the punk revolution, to which the prog giants ably adapted, attuning to certain New Wave frequencies ”“ synths, reggae beats, shorter songs, the Police ”“ deploying them in the wryly titled 1980 record Permanent Waves, their first US Top Five album. Then, in 1981, Rush released Moving Pictures, definitively marking a two-year breach in the space-time continuum: Rush became a pop act.

“Suddenly our audience doubled for that one year,” recalls Peart. “We were suddenly twice as popular, twice as many demands, twice as many strange stalkers and all of that.”

By then, Lee, Lifeson and Peart were nearly as celebrated as individual musicians as they were as Rush members, topping axe-mag polls, gluing legions of youngsters to home-instructional videos, sneaking in some of the most knotty rock music the Top 40 ever heard. Led by an ominous synth hiss and a low, swinging beat, the hit ”˜Tom Sawyer’ works a nearly perverse number of scene changes, time shifts and modulations into a song drafting Mark Twain’s character for Rush’s pantheon of thought rebels ”“ a “modern-day warrior” whose “mind is not for rent” ”“ painting an immersive video-game world for his adventures. After hacking their odd shape into the pop landscape, Rush simply kept on evolving. They leaned on synthesisers in the mid-Eighties, leaned off them in the late Eighties, releasing the ’91 album Roll the Bones ”“ most notorious for the debut of MC Geddy Lee. They even weathered the arrival of a new generation.

Having caught the video for ”˜Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on Canada’s MuchMusic, Peart reached out to Nirvana’s management to offer the band a slot on a Rush tour. His offer was declined with a word that must have sounded quite odd to this author of ”˜Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres.’ “They said, ”˜We’re an alternative band,’ ” Peart recalls with a chuckle. “That was the first time I heard that word.”

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But Rush continued as a band right up until 1997. Then, on August 10, Peart’s 19-year-old daughter and only child, Selena Taylor, was killed in a car accident. Ten months later, his wife of 22 years, Jackie Taylor, died of cancer. In one year, Peart lost his entire family, Rush lost their drummer, and the band lost the will to continue. “I had no interest in it anymore,” says Lifeson. “I couldn’t play guitar. I couldn’t even listen to music for a year.”

Peart told his bandmates to consider him retired. Then he decided to go on a motorcycle ride. One rainy morning, his BMW strapped with supplies, Peart set out on a destinationless journey that would take him 14 months and cover 55,000 miles.

Peart will not discuss this period with journalists, but he did document it in the book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, filling it with travelogues, correspondence and frank, emotionally harrowing accounts of his time riding, stopping at roadside cafes and skirting the abyss. At one moment, he describes watching his own instructional drum video. “It was like the guy talking and playing on the screen wasn’t me,” he writes. Lee says he and Lifeson worried “constantly. We’d get these postcards from God knows where all of a sudden out of the blue. He was running and hoping. I just kept saying, ”˜Keep moving, keep breathing, and hopefully something will happen that will make you feel like yourself again.’ ”

“I think we were both feeling it was unlikely the band would get back together,” says Lifeson.

During his travels, Peart stopped to visit longtime friend and Rush photographer Andrew MacNaughtan, who introduced him to a pretty brunette photographer named Carrie Nuttall. Nuttall had barely heard of Rush. She and Peart married on September 9, 2000.

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“I think that she was key in making him realise that he has a very unique talent and that it would be a pity to just lose that,” says Lifeson. In a few months, Peart put out feelers to his former bandmates. “Some conversation started coming around that he wouldn’t mind getting together with us to have a talk, so we got together and we talked and thought, ”˜Well, it’s not the worst thing in the world to see if we can make some music again,’ ” says Lee.

When Rush reconvened, Peart hadn’t played drums in four years. “This was not Neil Peart the drummer,” says Lifeson. “This was a guy that was a long time away from that.” In incremental steps over the next 14 months, the trio worked on what would be the first Rush record in six years, 2002’s Vapor Trails. “The record was all about him and all about what he had gone through,” Lifeson says. “It has a character and an energy unlike any that we’ve ever done.”

When Rush went on tour to support Vapor Trails, they made their first live appearance in five years. The first date was June 28, 2002, at Meadows Music Center in Hartford, Connecticut ”“ an indelible memory for both the band and fans. Witnesses recall the moment when a tarp was pulled away to reveal Peart’s drum set ”“ prompting sobs from people who never thought they would see such a sight again. “That was such an emotional night,” says Lifeson. “Those fans in the first rows that were crying. I’ll never forget that.”

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