Air Drumming

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“When you are attempting to learn implicit knowledge that by definition you don’t understand, it is important to have a bunch of examples in front of you to feed your brain’s pattern recognition system.” – autotranslucence.wordpress.com

1983. I’m drumming along to music. The headphones are attached to a small boombox playing the latest Rush cassette. New Rush albums are always Events on my radar: I’ll pour over the tape’s fold-out cardboard card, looking for clues in the credits, and carefully handle the ten dollar plastic object like a talisman. I know all of the band’s songs, I’ve read books about them, listened to interviews, and since I’m an aspiring drummer, cut out drum gear ads from magazines to put up on the wall. The headphones funnel the music into me and make it possible to imagine that I’m not playing along to, but actually playing Rush’s drummer Neil Peart’s gargantuan, mythically expansive kit. I drum along on my kit, which is a pillow on a piano bench for my left hand snare hits. My right hand plays air ride cymbal, joined by the left whenever there’s a tumbling-over-the-bar, epic drum fill that needs a 180 degree turn around the imaginary instruments. I’m just air drumming, but it’s the best way to get inside the feel of the music, figure it out, and live its sounds again and again and again. The music creates an immersive world that hits hard and I join it in my imagination, syncing to its time through my moving hands. Before long it’s dinner time.

Neil Peart (1952-2020) innovated many qualities of rock drumming, foremost among which was a disciplined re-imagining and expanding of 2 & 4 backbeat ways of marking time and here comes the drum fill! conventions into more rhythmically enchanting designs. Peart’s drumming was grand, loud, reasoned and precise, tinged with a touch of flamboyance (influence traces of Cream’s Ginger Baker and the Who’s Keith Moon), packing intricate patterns into intricate songs so that they sounded majestic, and sometimes heroic–as if the drum patterns themselves were chasing after something, especially at those liminal moments when the verse kicks into the chorus via a pummeled tom tom fill and stereo cymbal crashes. Peart played what seemed like a hundred toms (or was it ten?), a music store’s worth of cymbals, and not one, but two bass drums for fast foot rolls. He played ambidextrously, his hands exploring equally both sides of the kit, he added touches of orchestral crotales, glockenspiel, and wind chimes, used electronic percussion, and wove the feels of rudimental drumming into songs. In a trio of soloists in a band with a global fan following, Peart was a one-man percussion ensemble, a sombre figure carrying Rush along on heavy waves of pulsations for a music that was perfectly calibrated for hockey arena listening.

Though it was often referred to as the “heavy metal” kind rock, much of Rush’s music fit squarely into, and helped develop, what was known as “progressive” rock. Beginning in the late 1960s with somewhat nerdy and cross-polinating English bands like King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis, prog rock did new, and often complicated things with popular music’s materials. Some of these things were overblown and driven by a striving after classical music-esque instrumental virtuosity, but still, the best songs by the best bands pulled off some sublime sounds that cast a wide net of influence. By the late 1970s, prog rock songs could be long and intricate, their chord progressions complex, and the bands who played it were pursuing ever more dextrous musicianship. Throughout their career, Rush embraced all of these progressive ends. Even as their songs became more succinct in the late 1980s, 90s, and beyond, they always devised ways to make them unconventional, full of interestingness, and distinctly Rushian.

Rush was a cultural oddity in that they were, and remain, a band at once famous and obscure. While they were eventually accepted as mainstream Canadian as hockey or Tim Horton’s, and many people of a certain age recognize the song “Tom Sawyer”, the band’s currency was built upon the respect and admiration they earned from musicians. Aspiring drummers, bass players, and guitarists wanted to be like them, and fellow professionals admired them. Unusual figures in popular music, Rush were “musicians’ musicians” who refused—or maybe didn’t know how—to sell out by chasing hits or the sound of the moment. Fans loved the band for their skin in their musical game, and also because, in the prog rock spirit, they kept doing difficult and odd things. An example of this is their 1978 recording “La Villa Strangiato”, an instrumental whose complexities almost broke the band when they were trying to record it. (On YouTube you can watch the band’s performances of it, as well as crazy covers of the song’s drum part by very talented children.) Over forty years later, the music still sounds tight and strange, mostly in a good way.

In the years around 1983 I adored Rush and Peart’s drumming, and, as I reflect on it now, loved the band because they were showing a way to be a serious musician and how serious musicians might be. The band checked all of the boxes: they liked what they did, they practiced, paid their dues, stubbornly stuck to their tastes, evolved a singular sound and a huge body of work, stayed together, respected and challenged their fans, and kept changing up and refining their craft. When I got older, I moved away from rock (and from music with backbeats), but periodically I would keep an ear on what Rush were up to. Even now, when I get amped up about a music, I’ll start air drumming along to figure out its patterns, imagining how it would feel if I were the one playing them.

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