Becoming a cyclist forced me to confront how I use my energy and how I recharge myself. I had to reckon that I really had a finite amount of energy to give to my passions, no matter how powerful the pull. It would be some years before I would understand that something recharged me drained another person and what recharged them would surely vampire me. I’ve come to understand that the hallmark of being an introvert isn’t whether you’re outgoing or not, or whether you can do public speaking or laugh out loud at a dinner party. The distinction is defined by a need to recharge in peace and quiet.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an introvert with the death of Neil Peart, the acclaimed (and award-winning) drummer for the band Rush. Some of you may recall from other pieces I’ve written that my original career path (if you can call it that), was to be a rock musician. Not only that, I was a drummer and Peart was one of the stars by which I navigated. You might think that because Peart was a cyclist and even wrote about his adventures on two wheels I’d be writing about that part of his life, but no; I’m interested in looking at his how his perspective, his personality shaped who he was as a musician, and why some of us so thoroughly connected with his art.
I loved Peart’s work for a great many reasons, but it can all be boiled down to a simple truth: Neil Peart had something to say, something he wanted to tell the world. Dear God, do I know that drive. And his drumming was proof that we live in a fascinating world. Look what you can do just by hitting things with a couple of pieces of wood!
In the many appreciations I’ve read about the consummate percussionist, a drummer’s drummer if ever there was one, a common thread has served to illuminate the particular nature of his style as a drummer and lyricist: He was the drummer to whose beat he marched. Peart was known for not giving two burps about fame. He didn’t care what anyone thought of his drumming. Or his lyrics. He went his own way. He defined his craft from his own internal drive for excellence.
Rush was often maligned for being self-absorbed, what happens when a musician gazes at his navel. Self-absorbed is the easy criticism of all introspection, the dismissal to all those who are said to “think too much.” Lighten up; don’t take things so seriously; chill out. The tragedy is that so often, people didn’t look beyond his bombast to see how his parts served the larger composition, be it driving the music like a wagon train or adding a deeper pulse as he did in the opening of “Witch Hunt.”
It’s easy to see why those who liked his drumming dug him. What he did was interesting; he said a great many things through his drums, things that were by turns angry, defiant, delicate, even exuberant. What I understood about his playing was something that only a drummer could know: The parts that Peart wrote for himself were drumming pyrotechnics to an audience, but to a musician? It was like being asked to win a race every night. Many of those parts, such as “Tom Sawyer,” were so difficult that just playing them correctly was a triumph and in that an incredible rush. The very stuff of a flow state. Doing that night after night can seem monotonous, but if you go onstage nervous to make sure you don’t make a mistake, you won’t phone in so much as a pizza delivery.
That distinction—playing for oneself—is a terrific illustration between what I see as two fundamentally different approaches to music, a yin and yang to the urge for creation. There are those who make music to entertain others, birthing works that are meant as a gift to the audience, something to make them groove. Think James Brown, Donna Summer or current Jack Johnson. Philosophically, it’s extroverted, outwardly focused, audience-aimed. What Peart and Rush did was to ask themselves what they were capable of as musicians. That’s a fundamentally introverted urge. Inwardly focused, curious about possibility, and dedicated to using music as a means for self-discovery. It’s no insult to say that that music is composed and played by the player for the player. Self-absorbed at it’s most, uh, absorbing.
In 1998, Peart lost his daughter in a solo car crash; at her funeral, he told his bandmates Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson to consider him retired. And as if that wasn’t tragedy enough, his wife succumbed to cancer just 10 months later. He called her death “a slow suicide by apathy.” He would go on to take a 55,000-mile motorcycle journey of North and Central America and subsequent to the journey to find himself he wrote the book, “Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road.” Someone who travels by two wheels will understand how such a journey could lead him back to love, starting a new family, and returning to his band.
Introspection is decried for its selfishness, and such a criticism misses the way looking within can connect with others. Every time any one of us air-drums to “Tom Sawyer” we are that awkward high school boy desperate to find an outlet for teen angst. The thing I’d most like every woman and every middle-aged guy with a short memory to understand about male puberty is that progressive rock, heavy metal and punk are a public service. A social pressure valve. That music is a chance to connect with something larger than their own lives, an opportunity to find a community of like-minded isolates.
The lessons I learned from Peart are numerous. There’s finding the conviction to fly my freak flag as high as possible. To chase whatever my artist’s heart tells me to. To never stop reading. To be grateful for an audience. To listen to my own ambition and not what others think I’m capable of. And most importantly, to give myself permission to go find myself when I’m lost.
Images: Sabian Cymbals