Neil

When I was a kid, I was a fan of pop music, mostly because of the insular community where I grew up. We had one pop FM station out of Notre Dame University, which wasn’t a “college rock” station, but played the standard hits. (There were two stations if you had a really good antenna and could pick up WAOR out of Michigan.) When I got my own stereo and started taping things off the radio and buying 45 records, it was all top 40 music. The early eighties wasn’t a bad time for this, hence the “hey, remember the 80s” nostalgia that has pretty much become a genre. I spent a lot of time listening to bands like Men at Work, The Police, Def Leppard, Van Halen, Journey, and whatever else crossed the airwaves. I didn’t have any specific favorites, but I prided myself in being able to identify whatever songs popped up on this AOR FM station, or this brand new thing called MTV.

When I was about 14, I started hanging out with this guy Derik who lived nearby. He had an older brother who was a drummer, and while he was in the Air Force, Derik had also become an accomplished drummer. We were into a lot of the same music, but he also knew of a lot of other bands from his brother Keith, things that were either slightly older, or weren’t in heavy rotation on WNDU. Derik played along on these albums with his drum set, and I started to get enticed by the weirdness and heaviness of it all.

One of the bands was called Rush, this weird little trio of Canadians that sang about wizards and talking trees and nuclear war and had impossibly complicated songs that sometimes spanned an entire album. They also had like a dozen albums at that point, and wouldn’t stop putting out more. I didn’t really know where to jump in on this, so Derik dubbed up a C-90 for me with two of their albums: Moving Pictures and Grace Under Pressure.

That summer, the one between junior high and high school, was like Rush summer for me. I memorized that tape. I was amazed by the complexity and virtuosity of it all. For a kid who was obsessed with computers and Dungeons and Dragons and was a social outcast, this stuff scratched a serious itch for me, and I scraped together every penny I could to buy more of their tapes, and begged Derik to dub copies of more of their albums. In those pre-employment, pre-social life days of summer, I listened to the stuff constantly.

Rush was also almost like a secret club to me. Other than Derik, I don’t know anyone who was a big fan. They never played the music on the radio. Even though MTV only had like twenty videos in rotation, they did have maybe two Rush videos, but they never, ever played them. Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson were on every hour, but that one Rush video for the song “Countdown” about the Space Shuttle only came on like twice all summer. The people who did know about Rush were the record store cashiers. When I’d go in with my hard-earned ten bucks of lawn-mowing money and approach the register with a copy of Caress of Steel, the long-haired dude at the till would give me a nod, like “yeah, this kid knows what’s up.” Never mind that my mom thought they were Satanic, and everyone else at school was obsessed with Johnny Cougar or whatever. To this narrow audience of people who were the gatekeepers of cool (and who could tolerate Geddy Lee’s singing), I was part of that club.

I don’t know how I pulled this off, but I somehow convinced my parents at that time that it would be a good idea for me to spend an entire summer of babysitting wages to buy Derik’s old drum set. Derik now had a “real” drum set and sold me this mish-mash of various Sears and Ludwig student-level drums with rusty hardware and tarnished cymbals. I quickly learned I have absolutely no rhythm or musical skill whatsoever, and that experiment lasted about a year, until I sold the kit and bought a ten-speed with the proceeds. But trying to learn drums made me listen to the music much more, made me separate the parts and focus on the rhythm and the parts of songs. Before I listened to Rush, music was just something that started when I pressed a play button or turned on a radio. But after examining it, I learned the roles of the drums, could tell the difference between the bass and the guitar, and could appreciate the skill level between something like “My Sharona” and “Tom Sawyer.”

Another thing that Rush did was serve as a gateway to an entirely different foundation of music for me. I read every interview or magazine article I could find about them (there were very few) and I went back to try to find every influence of theirs. So through Rush, I discovered Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream. Then I tried to research all of Rush’s prog-rock peers (although they are peerless) and discovered Yes, Genesis, Saga, and Triumph. Each of those bands led to other bands. There was a strong teenaged urge to chase that high, to find things more and more extreme. There wasn’t much more complicated than Rush at that time (although later, this lead to Dream Theater, and guitar virtuosos like Satriani, Vai, Malmsteen, etc.) So I fell down the wormhole of finding things more heavy, more loud, and more extreme, which led to Metallica, then thrash metal, then death metal, and so on.

And I’ve told the story before on The Koncast so I won’t repeat it, but my first concert was Rush, on the Hold Your Fire tour. Me and Derik went, and it was mind-blowing to see the band a few hundred feet away, but also to be in an arena full of people who geeked out to the same kind of music, the stuff nobody in my small town seemed to appreciate. It was like the first Star Trek convention for a lifelong Trek fan. It showed me there was much more out there in the world of music, and life was much bigger than what was going on in rural Indiana.

Anyway, I got to college, and my relationship with Rush “normalized” a bit. I was into so many other bands, and I guess it just fell out of style a little bit, just like D&D and model airplanes and video games. It was uncool to be into Rush, especially after their late 80s synth-dominated albums, and after “college rock” became “alternative” and Nirvana exploded, and anything related to metal was tragically uncool with the mainstream. The cold war was over, and instead of worrying about Reaganomics and tribalism, Generation X became the me generation, and we were all supposed to worry about ourselves, our Prozac, our go-nowhere futures. (Ugh.)

My interest in Rush waxed and waned, because they still put out an album every year or two. A new one would drop, and I’d buy Roll the Bones or whatever, and think “eh,” but still end up spending a week rolling 2112 and Moving Pictures again, before I moved on to Queensrÿche or Morbid Angel or whatever the hell I was into at that point.

Anyway, as far as my personal relationship to the members, guitarist Alex Lifeson was a non-entity to me. No offense to him, but he wasn’t the spokesman, and he didn’t sing, and on those late 80s albums, he damn near didn’t even play guitar. Geddy Lee was the frontman, and because he sang, in my head, it was he who communicated the lyrics to me. He’s also a hell of a bassist, and does that and keyboards at the same time. But the singing was, well, a bit of an acquired taste, and although he seemed like a cool guy and all, he wasn’t who I really related to.

But, Neil. Like I said, I tried to play the drums, and I had that connection. I knew how hard it was to do something like “YYZ” or his marathon drum solos. (Or the song “Marathon”… Jesus Christ, all that weird off-meter stuff – I had no idea how a human being can remember all of that in order, let alone perform it.) And he was indirectly, through Derik’s playing and obsession, the reason I got pulled into all of this. Neil was also the lyricist, the person who actually wrote the words that Geddy sang. So he was the one reading Tolkein and Jack London books on the tour bus, like I did in study hall, except he distilled them into songs instead of Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. Neil was the quiet, intelligent guy in the band, and that is why I identified with him.

Later, in the Nineties, Peart started writing books. He had a book called The Masked Rider, which was a travel journal of his bicycling adventures in Africa. This was particularly resonant to me, because I spent a long period in high school cycling everywhere, doing every 25K race I could find in northern Indiana, even doing a 100K race once. And every day after school for a year of so, when I first got that ten-speed in exchange for the drum set, I would ride twenty miles in the cornfields of Elkhart county, usually listening to a Rush album. So when I read this book, it felt as if he was speaking directly to me in some way.

Neil had a series of tragedies in his life in the late Nineties. First, his nineteen-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident. Then, ten months later, his wife died of lung cancer. After this, he pretty much called everything quits, and took off on his touring motorcycle, on a crazy multi-year trip that wound across the continent from end to end both ways. After recovering, remarrying, and rejoining the band, he wrote a book about this journey called Ghost Rider. This book is absolutely essential reading for people into travel and road trips.

One of the most striking coincidences as I read this is that he was crossing the US at the same time as I was. In 1999, I went on this two-week ramble from West to East, driving everywhere and seeing everything I could. I very distinctly remember an afternoon in remote Utah, sitting on the bench seat of this giant sedan I’d rented, everything I owned in the back seat and trunk, flipping through disc after disc in my collection, going on a twelve-hour jag of listening to old Rush albums in the middle of nowhere. It’s strange for me to think he was out there at the same time.

Some Rush fans lock into it for life, go to every date on every tour, only listen to Rush, get custom license plates and tattoos and teach their kids and grandkids all the words to Moving Pictures and the whole thing. That wasn’t me; I moved on to other things, I guess. All of the albums, every note and word, were still locked into my head, though. And I would still go back to them, a guilty pleasure, a way to immediately teleport myself back to the summer of 1985. But Rush meant a lot to me. When I met a Rush fan, we’d trade our stories like two people who both came from the same small town, both fought in the same war, both knew the same people. It was and is still a big part of my life.

Anyway, you probably already know where this is going. I heard the news today that Neil Peart died of brain cancer this week. He was 67, far too young. It’s hard to process this, because he was such an icon, yet such a close voice in my head from all those albums. He was the root of my musical tree, and an example of how to strive for perfection. Not only that, but he was the perfect example of doing what you want to do, doing what is you, even if it flies in the face of convention. Nobody was doing full-album conceptual science fiction songs, and he was penning these things in motel rooms while broke, facing a record company about to drop the band for dismal sales, touring the country in a car, and opening for Ted Nugent or whoever the hell would take them. He did what he did, and people learned to appreciate the genius behind it, instead of trying to follow whatever formula for success everyone else said to take.

Anyway. Fuck. I have no good way to end this, except to say I really appreciate everything Neil did in his lifetime. A legend.

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Killed by Death

Hard to believe the news I heard last night: Lemmy is dead. I knew it was coming, but I expected a long, slow decline, and not the sudden shutdown from a cancer just found a few days ago. I knew he had health problems, and I’d heard he was moving a bit slower, using a cane, not able to make some recent tour dates. He also didn’t sound great on Maron’s podcast recently. But shit, it’s easy to think of that medical decline as the same calculated swagger a rode-hard-put-away-wet aging rock start like Keith Richards also sports. It seemed like Lemmy would plow on forever.

Like many, my first memory of Motörhead is seeing them on the show The Young Ones, back when MTV showed the reruns late Sunday night. This must have been like my freshman year of high school, so it was years after the first era of the band, right before Lemmy moved to LA to start the second round. There were a lot of great bands on that show (The Damned were another standout for me) but “Ace of Spades” was the one that hooked me. My metal diet at the time consisted of a lot of Metallica and Iron Maiden, so it made sense that Motörhead would click with me.

I asked my buddy Ray about the band, since he was the only one of my friends into anything cool metal-wise at that point. He immediately loaned me his two-tape copy of No Remorse, and I dubbed them onto a C-90, which I memorized over the course of a few thousand listens. I admit I didn’t do much exploration of their back catalog (not that it would have been easy in that pre-internet era) but I did listen to both sides of that tape constantly. I remember many a time walking across the IU campus with that thing in my walkman, wearing my leather jacket, wishing I had a Harley (even though Lemmy didn’t really ride motorcycles.)

The one album that really burned in for me was 1916. I bought it when it came out in 1991, and listened to it constantly. It was a year I was commuting to the IUSB campus from Elkhart, and would fit in a complete listen each day, for months. I also hung out with Ray a lot in that spring semester, and it was permanently stuck in his tape player, too. I got my VW Rabbit that spring, and I think 1916 was the only tape I listened to for the first six months I had the car.

I was dating someone in Bloomington while I worked in Elkhart in the summer of 1991. Every other weekend or so, I’d finish my second-shift duties at midnight on Friday night, take a quick shower, then hit the road for the four-hour drive down the middle of the state, that tape blaring in the little VW. “Nightmare/The Dreamtime” is the eerie song that still reminds me of driving wide-open-throttle through the darkness on the way down there.

Another big memory of Motörhead was when internet commerce and my collection fetish really geared up in the late 90s. Right around then, Castle reissued all the old Motörhead albums on CD, all remastered with new bonus tracks and b-sides and whatnot. And of course, I immediately had to have all of them. I bought a lot at Silver Platter records in Seattle, but also used to shop online at I think CD Connection, or one of the other early online sites (which have all long since died.) But searching the used bins and scouring all the new CD stores in the greater Seattle area was a constant process I remember well.

I haven’t followed the band as much as of late. It’s no fault of theirs; just that I haven’t been following music as much as I drift into the great Midlife and become much less enthused about anything new coming out. It feels much better to put on No Remorse and think about tooling around in my beat-up Camaro back in high school than it does clicking the Buy button on iTunes and making the somehow unsatisfying purchase — actually “lease” — of some songs out in the cloud I will only listen to twice because, life. I think the last physical purchase I made of theirs was 2004’s Inferno, and I couldn’t name a single song on it. But, I could tell you exactly what points drop out of that original C-90 tape I played a million times in the last 30 years. Funny how that works.

I didn’t know much about Lemmy in the early days of no wikipedia and shitty J-cards with no text inside them in the old releases of tapes. I only knew him from his image, his swagger, and the way he talked in Decline of Western Civilization 2 (which he apparently hated). I found out more about him later, from the internet and his book White Line Fever. It always amazed me that Lemmy seemed like the ultimate persona someone would invent, especially in the era of guys like Alice Cooper or Gwar or King Diamond creating an outward appearance as a representation of their work. No offense to any of those acts, but no “act” could ever keep up the the act 24/7 for decades, especially as times changed over the years. Kiss dropped the makeup; the big hair bands lost the hair and turned to “unplugged” shows and ballads. But Lemmy was always Lemmy. When music was about punk and speed metal in the early 80s, he was Lemmy; it moved to heavy metal, and he was Lemmy. When grunge killed everything, he was still Lemmy. You could never group Lemmy into another category – he was always just Lemmy. A lot has been said in the last day about how much of a badass he was, how much he drank, how loud the music was, and all that is true. But the biggest takeaway for me was that he did what he wanted, even when that was something that the popular trend didn’t want, and he was what he did. That amazes me.

There was some Lemmy quote that I can’t find about not eulogizing the dead, so I won’t. I think he’ll always be alive as long as we still have his music, so that’s where I’ll leave it.

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Death and Facebook

I found out last night that an old friend of mine from college died of a brain aneurysm, right after her 40th birthday.  She’s someone I lost touch with for twenty years, and then just found on Facebook, so there’s this weird temporal distortion around the friendship.  We only exchanged a few messages, compressing two decades into a couple of hundred characters.

Actually, she reminded me of an episode I forgot about, when I recovered all of the files off of one of her dead floppy disks, which now has some strange symbolism to it.  I don’t even remember how to do disk recovery anymore, but I used to do it in my sleep, a thousand times a day, when I was a computer consultant for the university.

I think I first started emailing Allison in 1993, from this stupid online dating program that ran on the VAXes.  We exchanged too much email and never met, which is one of the problems with online dating — you can end up being forever in the friend zone, as email buddies, but that was fine with me.  I was in a horrible depression at the time, and we had no chemistry, but I remember we started hanging out in person, and she made this concerted effort to drag me out and introduce me to her friends and try to get me to act social.  I was just starting as a writer, reading Bukowski and Hemingway obsessively, never leaving the house except to go to the liquor store, staying up all night scribbling in notebooks and feeling sorry for myself.  I remember one time she read me the riot act, telling me to stop being such a shit, and although it pissed me off in the moment, she was right about it, and it was the kick in the ass I needed.

I didn’t keep a lot of email from college, because our accounts had tiny disk quotas, but I did keep all of my emails with her for some reason.  It’s about a semester’s worth of “do you believe in zombies?” small talk and daily routine, and I’m now afraid to open the file, for fear of falling in a very deep and unavoidable k-hole that will bottom out with me googling the names of every college crush and forgotten band and old Bloomington haunt, spending hours and hours trying to find artifacts from Garcia’s Pizza and wanting to scan in every old receipt I still have in boxes and make some kind of giant, depressing photo collage project or write another book set in 1993 that nobody will ever read.

These kind of things make me deeply fear my own mortality.  I’m taking a half-dozen allergy medicines and my back is out and I need to lose weight and I have high blood pressure, and the idea that something in your brain can just explode and kill you really freaks me out.  It’s like when I was in a serious car accident back in 2009 and smashed the entire front end of my car into a pulp, and then had to get back in the driver’s seat the next Monday and spend an hour doing battle on the 101: every other driver on the road wanted to kill me; every lane change was a near-homicide.  It’s easy for me to worry too much about this stuff, and I guess the moral of the story is that I could spend all of my time worrying about it, or I could try to get some shit done.

The facebook angle of the whole thing also fucks with me in several ways.  First, her profile is still posting some asinine daily horoscope thing to her wall every day.  This is absolutely morbid.  Someone from my high school died of cancer a bit ago, someone I wasn’t friends with and didn’t know, but when I heard about it, I looked up her page, and there were tons of daily automated posts from these online games, saying “so and so needs a row of corn for their farm!” or whatever.  And it’s strange to still see her life trapped in amber there, her picture and info and birthday and all of that.  It’s like if when people died, their entire houses were just left as they originally were, the doors open, all of the possessions on the table, food still in the fridge, like one of those museums where they leave Einstein or Macarthur’s office exactly as it was when they died.

There’s also the strangeness that I didn’t really find out about any of this until her wall exploded with posts about praying for her family or whatever, and the only way I could piece together what happened was to crawl through a hundred posts in reverse chronological order.  I guess in the old days, you’d read about this sort of event in these things they used to print called newspapers.

And it also bothers me that facebook has now created this friendship vortex, where you think you’re friends with someone because that bit is flipped in your profile, and you see that daily status update saying they’re in line at the Starbucks, but you don’t really know anything about them.  You don’t talk, and you don’t exchange emails, but you are lulled into this sense that you’re in touch.  Aside from facebook updates, I think there are about five people who consistently email me these days.  Ten years ago, I would write three dozen emails a day to people, long emails talking about everything and nothing.  What happened?

Anyway.  Three day weekend.  Plenty of time for me to lose that twenty pounds and start writing more emails.  Fuck.

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The Death of Death

I was in the allergy clinic last week, waiting for my arm to swell up until it looked like it took a Justin Verlander fastball, and I saw some magazine with a cover story about man reaching immortality. I didn’t read the article, because I know there are exactly two types of articles in magazines: 1) “Everything is fucked and we’re all going to die”, and 2) “You really need to buy this shit, or you’re worthless”. (I guess there is a third type, which is 1+2.)

It’s not an unfamiliar concept, especially if you read a lot of SciFi: eventually, we’ll get to the point where all of the diseases and maladies that currently kill off people will be treatable or curable, and the only way to die will involve motor vehicles with a fast 0-60. That’s not to say all people will live forever; everyone who can afford it will be able to.  Also, maybe there will be some kind of Logan’s Run cutoff date or death lottery or other optional euthanasia scenario which will prevent infinite population growth.  But what I find interesting is that immortality is already available to the ultra-infamous, and we just saw an example of it this week.

So Osama Bin Laden found himself on the wrong side of a SEAL team last Sunday. They installed some additional ventilation to his brain, which had the side effect of stopping his pulse for an indefinite period.  Half the world took the opportunity to get drunk, scream “USA! USA!”, wave flags, and thank the wrong president for a job well done; the other half of the country posted quotes incorrectly attributed to the wrong civil rights leader.  I’m not here to condemn or condone either reaction, except to say that I had a different one, which is to acknowledge that Bin Laden did not die, because at this point in time, nobody of his stature can die.

Before anyone flies off the handle, I don’t mean that OBL was a great guy or anything like that.  What I mean, is that in today’s world, when you get to a level of infamy like he had, there will always be people who insist you are alive, regardless of your body temperature or lack thereof.  Governments are corrupt, and media is worse; we see constant examples of that.  Things get covered up, and conspiracies occur, so any time anything happens in the world, a plurality of people will insist that it didn’t.  People so carefully cherry-pick their news from partisan sources, any time they hear something they don’t want to believe, they move on to another news source until they find the one they agree with.

Case in point: how many people believe Bin Laden really got killed?  I’m not saying the number is down there with the percentage of people who think the Washington Nationals are an awesome baseball team, but it’s not 100%, either.  The government didn’t drop fifty tons of Mk.82 love from 40,000 feet and turn the entire village into jelly, so there was a body, and there was DNA testing done.  But there weren’t rotten.com-style photos released, and the body was quickly buried at sea.  That’s fine by me, but it means that there will forever be doubt in some peoples’ minds about whether or not this really happened.

And there’s a whole list of reasons why people don’t want to believe.  Some think there’s no way that the current president could have pulled off such a coup when the last one spent 7 years burning calories on a quest to do the same thing, but failed.  Some people think the whole thing is an October Surprise situation, a Wag the Dog scheme to bump up poll numbers.  There’s a group who think 9/11 was engineered by the government in the first place, and this dude had little to nothing to do with it, so a scripted end to him brings a false closure to that whole operation.  And who knows what other motives are there for a lack of trust.  But some folks on both sides of the spectrum will insist that OBL did not die on 5/1/11.

This sort of reaction isn’t limited to high-ranking terror suspects.  Did Tupac die?  You’re a google search away from his autopsy photo, but “tupac alive” also gives you four and a half million results.  What about Michael Jackson?  JFK?  Elvis?  People elevate superstars in their mind, making them larger than life.  When that life happens to end, the legend continues, and that dovetails nicely with a media that prints anything for money and a political system that does the same.

So now the White House wrings hands over whether or not to release some death photos.  But peoples’ minds are decided.  They could cart out that corpse during sweeps week on Dancing with the Stars and it would get a twenty share and people still wouldn’t believe it.  The Navy could personally bring his dead body to your doorstep like Ed McMahon with the Publisher’s Clearing House cardboard check, and you’d still say, “I dunno – looks fake / you could put that beard on any homeless dude”.  I know the dude’s probably dead, and to me, that’s not a bad thing, but the speculation will continue forever.

And I can see why they did a burial at sea.  I was in Berlin a few years ago, and I did not seek it out, but I walked past the spot where Hitler’s bunker once existed on my way to Potsdamer Platz.  They’ve since put up a sign, but at that point, the Fuhrerbunker was underneath a Chinese restaurant, and nobody was in a hurry to mention it to anybody, for fear that every skinhead with a passport would show up to turn the place into a Neo-Nazi Graceland.  People get weird about stuff like that.  When I lived in Seattle, people still cruised past Kurt Cobain’s old house, looking to get a glimpse of the garden house where he offed himself.  (It’s gone now, BTW.)  And I just recently wasted too much time on Google Maps, trying to find the spot in my neighborhood where Black Panther Huey Newton got gunned down in 1989.  (The exact spot on the sidewalk where he died now has a sign warning you of the speed bumps on the street.)  I could see the reluctance to having a burial which would become a monument to whatever followers might still be knocking around decades from now.

At any rate, this all shows we’re at a weird time in history.  It used to be you remembered where you were when you heard about things like this. Now, when something monumental goes down, chances are you’ll first get the news on the computer, which will make all of these events blend together.  And when it happens, people will flock to Google Maps to find the death site; they’ll reload their twitter feeds over and over to get the latest distorted quotes and unvetted news.  Back when I was a kid and a space shuttle exploded or a president got capped, even the pre-emption of all three TV channels brought little information.  Now, there’s too much, and we only believe pieces of it.  Not sure which one’s worse.

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