When you are a musician (or aspiring to be one), you never forget the first player whose work flipped your lid. For me, it was Neil Peart, of Rush.
I'll never forget sitting in the back of a camper-topped pickup truck, with drum line buddies from the old high school. I was an impressionable sophomore, and the senior section leader, Steve Thompson was driving the thing. He popped Rush's "Hemispheres" into the cassette deck, and for good or ill, that was it for me for a few years. Here were original, inventive and explosive drum parts, pretty idiosyncratic to my brain, meshing with this nerdy but badass prog rock that was just whipping me. Crazy odd times patterns, deeply colored guitar chords and stratospheric vocals singing about sci-fi shit swirled around that truck while we rode around.
At the base of it all was Peart's powerhouse drumming, locked in with bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, each having clearly figured out how they could all shine like platinum without stepping on each other. And I had to hear all of it. I had to have it all in my headphones while I tried to play along to it. Oh man, did I suck at it.
Like I said, for good or ill — there was no sense in trying to copy that guy's style, despite the hours I put in for a couple of years. Even as my tastes would change multiple times (particularly where those stratospheric vocals were concerned, not to mention Peart's Ayn Rand-inspired lyrics), Peart's drumming remains deeply embedded. I only got to see Rush live once, and it was an amazing experience, mostly because the band just flat nailed these incredibly difficult parts on stage, no problem.
And now, credible news outlets are reporting that Peart has died, after suffering brain cancer. BRAIN CANCER! This guy, who probably had the best brain in rock music, and the damned thing was eaten by cancer. Peart, the incredibly shy guy who couldn't deal with meet and greets or any kind of schmoozing, never indicated that he was so ill, though he had retired, citing physical fatigue including tendinitis.
Thanks, Neil, for making me chase something I couldn't get and love it anyway, while figuring out ultimately that I needed to sound like me. I still haven't reached that stage yet, but Peart sure did, young, and he kept building on it, even as a battery of drums and cymbals ultimately surrounded him, practically hiding him. He couldn't hide that wonderful drum style, though.