Neil Peart, the drummer for Rush -- and the drummer most rock drummers consider the greatest of their generation -- passed away on Tuesday at age sixty-seven after a long battle with brain cancer.
I met Neil by accident about twenty years ago. I was riding my motorcycle through the mountains in West Virginia and stopped at a small country store for a sandwich. It was a warm fall day, so I decided to eat outside.
"Mind if I sit here?" I said to a man at a weathered picnic table.
He gestured, palm up. "Please," he said.
I said thanks, then stared. (Gracelessly, I might add.) "Are you...?"
"Yes," he said. He looked at my bike, a souped-up GSX-R 1100. "Don't you think that's a little overkill?" he asked, clearly trying to change the subject.
I thought for a second, still a little stunned. (Neil Peart? In the middle of nowhere?) Then I said the first thing that came to my smart-ass mind.
"Don't you think burying yourself behind a hundred or so drums was a little overkill?"
He laughed. "Touche," he said. "Have a seat."
We talked about motorcycles. We talked about our favorite roads. Neil liked scenery and speed: He was a touring enthusiast -- later riding motorcycles and bicycles across the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa -- as well as an auto racing enthusiast.
We didn't talk about music. I know little about music, other than what I like. We didn't talk about him. Later, I realized Neil had an admirable trait few possess. He already knew what he knew. He wanted to know what you knew.
So while I never got past the fact I was talking to Neil (freaking) Peart, he made me feel a little less starstruck and a lot more at ease.
We both finished eating at the same time and stood to go. "Which way are you headed?" he asked.
I nodded towards the east. "Back to Virginia. That's where I live. Why?"
"I just wondered," he said. "Sometimes I meet people and they end up following me."
I laughed. "I guess that kinda sucks," I said.
"Comes with the territory, I suppose." Then he paused. "Can I give you some advice?" he asked.
"Sure," I said.
"Never follow anyone," he said. "Be your own hero."
Years later, I realized those were words he lived by.
In a 2015 interview he shared two questions he liked to ask himself: "What is the most excellent thing I can do today?" and "What would my 16-year-old self do?"
That's why he traveled between shows on a motorcycle. That's why he wrote books. That's why he was a constant learner.
That's why he said this:
It's about being your own hero.
I set out to never betray the values that 16-year-old had, to never sell out, to never bow to the man.
The best way to stand out is to do things differently. Unashamedly, unreservedly, unapologetically.
That, in a nutshell, was Rush.
The best way to live the life you want to live is to stop worrying about what other people think.
That, in a nutshell, was Neil Peart.
Both are attitudes we should all try a little harder to embrace.