It’s not often that I’m affected by a celebrity’s death.
I’m not much for emulating gurus, though I did consider Canadian rock group Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart a personal hero for not only his musicianship, but even more so for his lyric- and book-writing.
He died 7 January after a three-and-a-half-year battle with brain cancer. He was a music icon, now passing into a legend.
More than that, he lived life to fullest, more than anyone I’d ever known about – learning, adventuring and just never stopping. That’s always who I wanted to be. And, I think it’s who I’ve been able to become, especially living here in Singapore, where adventures are as close as a hawker centre for local food, a battle to pass Pulau Ubin monkeys or a quick jaunt to an elephant sanctuary in Phuket.
In hindsight, his gusto for life served as a sort of role model for me, what he would likely have considered an “unlikely role”. (For the non-Rush fans out there, that’s a reference to Peart’s famous song “Limelight”.)
Known mostly for his emphatic, precision drumming – previously referred to as the world’s greatest living drummer and the most musical drummer – he took to riding a motorcycle through state parks in America in later years, as a pastime between shows on tour. And, I found his travelogue books fascinating, even though I never was going to the same.
Indeed, when I pondered going trekking in Nepal this past December, with several hours of yoga a day to boot, I wondered, “What would Neil Peart do?” I’m sure he’d say, “GO!” So, I trained for three months up jungle hills in Bukit Timah and across the treetops in MacRitchie Reservoir to be ready.
Andrea hiking in Nepal in 2019
On His Music
Of course, all this influence really started when I was a kid listening to Rush music.
My first taste of Rush was age 10 in 1981, when Rush’s best-selling album, Moving Pictures, came out. Also new was the Sony Walkman. My friend, Rush fan and sister to an amazing drummer Rachel Brensilver had both, and let me try them out on Deans Mill Elementary School’s field trip to New York City.
The initial synthesizer that opens the song “Tom Sawyer” blew me away, literally knocking me back in my bus seat as I heard it through headphones for the very first time.
I had also been playing the drums since age 7, and the drumming – a huge part of every Rush song – was larger than life to me. I asked myself, “How will I ever be that good?” I believe Peart would have said, “Relentless practice.”
But, it was the lyrics that struck me the most:
A modern-day warrior
Mean, mean stride
Today’s Tom Sawyer
Mean, mean pride
(Here’s a link to the full song lyrics.)
As most young people fantasize about themselves living inside a song or later, with MTV, a music video, I definitely believed at that moment that Tom Sawyer was definitely a girl. I envisioned me with my friends striding down the mean streets of Mystic, Connecticut, as prideful warriors passing the arcade with no problems from harassing guys, grabbing French fries and milkshakes from BB Dairy’s and “riding out the day’s events….the (MYSTIC) river”.
We were all tomboys; therefore, Tom Sawyer wasn’t too much of a stretch. I thought maybe it was even a code word for girls like us. And don’t you dare “put us down as arrogant.”
It was a strong feeling and one I never forgot. I still feel like Tom Sawyer sometimes. When I was modeling in the AWA Fashion Show last year here in Singapore, I really wanted them to play the song when I lead the collection for one of the designers, as I was first on the runway. Mean, mean stride, indeed.
Andrea’s “mean stride” at AWA Singapore’s 2019 fashion show
On His Books
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Neil Peart faced immense tragedy in his life. In the late 1990s, he lost his teenage daughter in a car accident and subsequently his wife to cancer – all within the span of about 10 months. He is most known for telling the tale of his very proactive grieving process in perhaps his most famous book, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road.
(image: ECW Press)
One thing I learned from all of his books was of his relentless pursuit of excellence, not only in drumming, but in reading (he was called The Professor by fans) and the writing of several books on his adventures.
He was famously quoted for saying, “Adventures suck when you’re having them.” Clearly, they make for better stories later. One famous trip, chronicled in the 1996 book The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, in which he travelled through relatively treacherous terrain and some towns. I wondered, right up until his flight out of there, if he’d even make it!
I totally thought of this on my own Borneo trip in 2018, where the trail was 8 inches wide and wet, with a sheer drop into a rain forest ravine on one side and a steep, unclimbable wall of earth on the other. Sheesh! I can confirm: Adventures definitely suck when you’re having them.
Andrea in the Iban tribe longhouse in Borneo two Decembers ago
On His Relentless Drive
He always seemed to want to do more and get better. This resonated with me very much, as I continuously seek to challenge myself by doing charity work around Southeast Asia, training to hike the Himalayas last year and reading books on writing better or ones I’ve missed out on like Anthem by Ayn Rand.
Peart also was always filling his time with one project or another. In his everyday life, he seemed to operate like clockwork. When he was at his home in Quebec, he wrote about following a schedule: Cross country ski in the morning, read books in the afternoon, cook dinner, drink scotch, repeat.
He pushed his own limits when, in 1992, he participated in late drumming virtuoso’s Buddy Rich Memorial Scholarship Concert and subsequent tribute shows, which stretched his performances beyond his usual Rush rock music. Ever the student, he was also the teacher, as he did instructional drum videos like 2004’s “Anatomy of a Drum Solo”.
He published books in 2006, 2011, 2014 and 2016 about motorcycle travels and his life in between Rush’s musical work. Most notably, he rode his red BMW motorcycle to and from and in between shows for Rush’s tours, namely the Rush 30th Anniversary Tour for which he wrote the 2006 book, Roadshow: Landscape with Drums, A Concert Tour by Motorcycle. He did it again 10 years later on the Rush 40th Anniversary tour in his final book, Far and Wide: Bring that Horizon to Me.
(image: ECW Press)
After his retirement in 2015, he became one of an elite list of adventurers to be part of the All 8 Club, who have visited all eight of the Channel Islands off the coast of California. Two are closed to the public and have special visitation arrangements, so it was a big deal to get the access. That particular achievement was in 2018, so he was chasing the adventuring long into his illness.
The man didn’t rest! I find that I’m like that, too. I always say, “I’m really busy, but I’m really happy about that.”
I will miss him and his relentless pursuit of adventure. Peart left a proverbial trail for fans like me.
What’s next? For me, Kalari martial arts training in Kerala, India sometime in 2020, and I’ll write another book – this one, fiction. In 2021, I’ll be on a 50th birthday trek to Machu Picchu with Chicago rugby friends.
As I move forward in my life, knowing I won’t be able to read about any new adventures from Neil Peart, I do know that I will always maintain the stride detailed in “Tom Sawyer”, which was, to me, a song about a girl from Mystic.
Rest easy, Ghost Rider. I’ll take it from here.
Even though I gave up the drums long ago for greater pastures in sports, I still like to bust out a little air-drumming when I’m alone with my Bose headphones.
Here’s a clip of one of my Mystic friends, music teacher and guitarist Jamie Barrett, doing a little air drumming himself to my favourite song, “Tom Sawyer”.
About Andrea McKenna Brankin
Andrea McKenna Brankin is a journalist and author from the United States who lives a full life with bipolar disorder. Her book, Bipolar Phoenix, is awaiting a publishing contract. She is also currently a volunteer at the HCSA Dayspring Residential Treatment Centre for teen girls in Singapore, providing befriending-family support, therapeutic writing and rugby coaching.
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