SCHAEFFER: Why It Hurts When Great Musicians Pass Away
Photo of Neil PEART and RUSH; Neil Peart performing live onstage on All The World's A Stage tour,
Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns/GettyImages

Why do we feel the death of a musician like Neil Peart, even though we have never met him?  I hearken back to Ludwig Von Beethoven’s funeral for the answer.  When he died in 1827, it’s estimated that anywhere from 10,000 to as many as 30,000 attended his funeral.  Of course, most of these mourners had never met the man personally, or if they did they merely tipped their hats to him on the street (and perhaps got a grumbling insult from him in reply!).  But they knew his music.  They were so affected by it that they felt compelled to come and mourn his passing.  In a way, they felt they did know him.  Because they knew his mind and his heart as expressed in those beautiful sounds he left the world as his passing gift.

Music is unique in the arts in that it above all others has the eerie power to alter one’s mood and force them to actually feel what the composer is feeling — not through the words of a sonnet or the brushstrokes of a painting, however frenzied and passionate they may be, but rather in an almost primal way.  One cannot avoid it.  Who can listen to “Ode To Joy” and not feel exalted, a smile forming without even knowing it?  Who can listen to a hard-driving rock song from, take your pick, Led Zeppelin, The Who, AC/DC, Nirvana, and a thousand others and not suddenly feel the urge, whatever your mood was before hitting ‘play’, to hurl heavy objects, run faster, jump higher, or play air guitar?  After all, we don’t work out while reading Milton or staring at a photo of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  Instead, we don our headphones and amp up the music.  Why?  Because it actually changes us physiologically.  The way love does.

Those who don’t have an ear, or even those with a mere passing interest in music, must look at those Rush fans sincerely mourning the death of Neil Peart and think them a tad “off.”  But when a favorite musician passes, it feels more real because we actually have been inside his/her head.  Unlike a poet who tells us, or a painter who shows us, the musician demands we jump into their most intimate self to experience his/her thoughts, emotions, and pain in an eerie mind-melding way.  We become one with them.  And so the musical experience feels more personal to us than standing at arm’s length admiring a static sculpture, inspiring as it may be.  Losing a musician is to lose someone who was not just “out there” entertaining us, but who invited us, even forced us, into their world as they understood it and felt it.  It is an intimate, wonderful, painful, relationship … and one that can impact the musician’s fans very much as might the death of an old friend.

So when you see people who seem in mourning over the loss of Neil Peart (or any artist they value and who has enriched their lives in a way only music can) fight off the impulse to shake your head and say: “Snap out of it.  You never even met the guy.”  Because that’s wrong.  Every time they played his music they met him all over again, and got to know him a little better.  He became a part of their world, and they his.  How often do we hear the term “the soundtrack of my life.”  For those Rush fans who followed this outstanding trio for the past five decades, this tragedy was more than just a news bulletin.  To those whose lives Neil Peart touched, to whom he bequeathed the soundtrack of their lives, even if from afar, it’s very personal indeed. I respect that.  I am sorry for your loss, Rush fans.

Brad Schaeffer is the author of the WW2 Novel Of Another Time And Place [Post Hill/Simon & Schuster, 2018]