It’s cynically said that death is a great career move for an artist. In a sense, that’s true: posthumous sales go through the roof. But, while it’s easy to raise a sceptical eyebrow at people who flock to mourn pop stars they never met, is there something deeper going on? Something that cuts to the heart of the human condition?

I’m certainly not one to mock. After all, I bought a copy of Double Fantasy within days of John Lennon’s death (although, these days, I tend to rate Yoko Ono’s innovative, avant-garde dance electronica more than I do Lennon’s mid-life “Dad” music). I still recall the shock of finding out about Kurt Cobain‘s suicide, or David McCombe‘s sudden death. Even the recent death of Greedy Smith of Mental As Anything invoked more sadness in me than I would have thought.

Kurt Cobain, David McComb and Greedy Smith. The BFD.

As the Baby Boomer cohort reaches their 70s, the musical deaths are coming thick and fast. The latest is the passing of Neal Peart, drummer with Canadian prog-rockers Rush.

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.

There are some important things to note, here: many musicians are less than exemplary people. Even leaving aside the criminal degenerates, many musical heroes are, not to put too fine a point on it, arseholes. Mick Jagger and the legendarily churlish Lou Reed spring to mind. But, in their music, they transcended their personal shortcomings. Does it really matter that the composer of Sweet Jane was a towering shithead? That the writer of Brown Sugar drives even his bandmates to violence?

I’ve personally known many musicians. Most are just folks, some are extraordinarily nice. Others, though, are arseholes. Yet, even people whose arseholity I’ve personally experienced still make music that moves me, sometimes almost against my will. I know full well that Mark Seymour or Henry Rollins can be rude bullies: but the sheer, heart-pumping force of My War, or the raw expression of Throw Your Arms Around Me are undeniable.

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…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.

…When a favorite musician passes, it feels more real because we actually have been inside his/her head….We become one with them…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.

I’m not a huge Rush fan (with the notable exception of a few songs, like the stunning title track of 2112), so I feel the death of Neal Peart in the way that many of my friends evidently have. But, I get it.

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…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.

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