This may seem like a crazy statement because I didn’t know Neil personally, I never even met him, and I’m sure he had never heard of Musicians Unite during his lifetime. But this statement is indeed true. His drumming, his lyrics and writings, and Rush’s music has had such an impact on my life that I’m sure without it I wouldn’t have made the choices I did which eventually lead me to creating the Musicians Unite community.
I’ll never forget my first time hearing Neil’s drumming. I become obsessed with drumming when I was quite young and finally started taking lessons while in 3rd grade at school. One day while in 6th grade I was hanging around my school’s band room and some of the older drummer kids walked in and put on a song that was about to change my life. The band was Rush. The song was Tom Sawyer. And as they were listening they were writing Neil’s legendary drum break part out on the blackboard. The drumming and the music notation were so complex to me, but I knew I had to learn more about what I was hearing.
I had to get a copy of this album, but I was too intimidated to ask the older kids to let me borrow it. Given this was the early ‘90’s, before the internet and Amazon, and considering I didn’t live anywhere near a record store, it took me quite a while to get my hands on the Moving Pictures CD. But eventually I did and was mesmerized by what I was hearing. However it was so complex that my 12 year old mind thought there was just no way these three guys actually played this stuff live. This must be a studio band who just threw this one album together. Again, without the internet I couldn’t do any real research on them so though I loved the album, I didn’t know anything else about Rush and I kind of wrote them off.
Fast forward a couple of years later when I was at a summer music camp held by a local college. My roommate for the week long camp was another young drummer and he put on an album that to this day still is the biggest life-changing album for me. The CD he dropped into the player and cranked up was Exit, Stage Left.
The first notes to The Spirit of Radio kicked in and I immediately asked him, “Who is this??!” He said this is Rush, live in concert, back in the early 1980’s. I grabbed the booklet that came with the CD and saw that it was indeed the same band I had heard a couple of years ago. I couldn’t believe the picture of Neil behind his kit, a huge drum set in the front with a complete orchestral sized percussion section behind him. I was fascinated by this because I was taking lessons from a classical percussionist at the time and to see this combination of a full blown drum set with a wide array of percussion instruments took me into a whole other world.
Song after song on the album was proving that I was totally wrong before about Rush. They indeed could pull off every song live, note for note, just the three of them. I listened to the entire album and was in awe of Neil’s solo during YYZ and epic Rush cuts I had yet to ever hear before like Xanadu, Jacob’s Ladder, and La Villa Strangiato. In talking with my roommate I found out Rush had a massive catalog of albums that spanned from the mid 1970’s to that present moment in the mid 90’s. This started a span of several years of me going out and buying every single Rush album and studying and playing along to every single song.
As I had stated before my drum lessons at that time were primarily classical lessons, but my true passion was and still is drum set. So my drum set teacher for those next few years was Neil himself. In my parents’ basement with my drum kit set up next to their stereo I learned his highly detailed and orchestrated drum parts one by one, which taught me composition, musicality, and gave me very challenging coordination exercises around the kit. He also helped introduce me into the world of other drummers like Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl, Steve Smith, and Simon Phillips through his Burning for Buddy project, which continued to greatly expand my music education.
But Neil also taught me a lot through his lyrics. I’d read interviews he gave and was amazed at his eloquent style of speaking and his vast vocabulary. I would hear about the number of books he read. He made me want to be a better drummer and musician, but he also made me want to apply myself more in school, read more, and become a more well-spoken and intelligent individual. I saw how hard Neil worked to become the best drummer he could be and I wanted to dedicate my life to becoming the best I could be as well. It was then I decided I wanted to go into music professionally, study it at college, and see where it would take me in life.
Several years later when tragedy struck his life and he wrote about it in his book Ghost Rider, reading that book and seeing his strength and courage helped me get through a number of hard times in my own life. It also gave me the courage to come back to music after I took a few years away to start Musicians Unite when I felt deeply passionate about creating a community for musicians to come together in to more easily network with, learn from, support and inspire each other.
Of course there are a lot of people in my life who led me into following my music dreams and starting Musicians Unite – my incredibly supportive parents and brother, friends, teachers, and fellow musicians I’ve been blessed to know and share a stage with. But Neil certainly also played a role in shaping my life’s decisions, and for the better. And luckily when Rush came back to touring in 2002 I finally got to witness Rush live and was blessed to see Neil and the boys six times in concert.
So thank you Neil for your lifetime of passion and hard work. I know I’m not alone in saying that the world is better off because you were a part of it, and you will be sorely missed. But thankfully your music and writings will live on forever.
Founder, Musicians Unite