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Dreamers, misfits related to late musician

I came home from playing another exciting five-hour session of Dungeons & Dragons at my brother Gareth’s house this past Friday, Jan. 10, to discover that one of the most influential rock’n’ roll drummers of all time had passed away at the age of 67. To me, Neil Peart was more than a drummer, more than the lyricist of one of progressive rock’s most pioneering, long-lasting bands we all know as Rush. He was, believe it or not, one of the gods of D&D nerds everywhere.

I highly doubt I am the only Gen-Xer who feels this way, and I write these words with no hyperbole intended: Neil Peart, along with Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax, represented two of the most important figures of my adolescence. From the ages of 11 through 20, the majority of my waking life was devoted to listening to Rush and playing D&D.

D&D offered my friends and me countless hours of stimulating, imaginative, fun. Within its boundless confines we could escape the mundane world and become heroes questing for the one artifact that could save the world for humans, halflings, elves and dwarves alike. For those times when escaping the real world wasn’t an option, I had the lyrics of Neil Peart to provide vital insight into the human condition and help me to navigate through a world I otherwise felt alienated from.

I, like so many of my contemporary nerds were misfits and dreamers. We were the kids that got bullied by “jocks” and “druggies” and dismissed by most of the representatives of the opposite sex. Neil helped me realize I wasn’t alone. His lyrics seemed to speak directly to me. When I had a bad day at school — like the time someone spit a loogie into my sandwich when I wasn’t looking and laughed at me while I started eating it — I would come home, change into my “play clothes”, slap a Rush tape into my Walkman, and listen to the entire tape while delivering Dunkirk Evening Observer newspapers to all my customers off of West Second Street (ah, those were the days?)

Only Neil Peart could understand my pain and write about it in such a poetically relatable manner.

“Growing up, it all seems so one-sided/opinions all provided/the future pre-decided/detached and subdivided/in the mass-production zone/Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone.” (“Subdivisions”)

During the 1980s walking wasn’t only my primary mode of travel, it was the thing I did when I wanted to be myself and sort out the crazy, scattered thoughts that assaulted me with threats of depression and anxiety. The music of Rush, especially the lyrics of Neil Peart, acted as the salve to my alienation, always accompanying me as a soundtrack to my literal and figurative walks.

I listened to “2112” so many times, I wore out the tape and nearly went crazy in its week-long absence from my life. Thankfully, my mother bought me the album and I recorded it on a blank tape and stuck it in the Walkman where it remained for the rest of my Walkman’s life.

The story narrated within “2112” composed everything a teenage boy could want. A sensitive young man living in a dystopian world where everything is provided by the mighty “Priests of the Temples of Syrinx,” discovers a guitar. He learns to play it and takes it to the Priests for there approval to build more guitars so people around the world can express themselves as creative, unique individuals. Our hero, naturally, is denied by the Priests who view the guitar and music in general as “just a waste of time … another toy that helped destroy the elder race of man.” They admonish the young man and demand that he “forget about your silly whim, it doesn’t fit the plan.”

That was me! I was that sensitive young man who discovered D&D and wished more than anything to be a half-elf ranger whose life path was to protect the forest animals and beautiful elven princesses from the chaotic forces of gnolls and orcs! And while it was true, I could never actually become a half-elf Ranger, why couldn’t we bring D&D to the schools and to the homes of teenagers everywhere? Why couldn’t we live in a world where imagination was more valued than empty, boring, materialism?

“I would do my homework if it were fun, like D&D,” I would argue to my parents. But my parents and their grim contemporaries, like the Priests of Syrinx, insisted that knowing algebra and the date that Napoleon was exiled to Elba was far more important than childish flights of fancy. If I wanted to truly adapt to this cold, calculated world of “geometric order” with “insulated border(s)”, I would have to “conform” or be “cast out.” In short, I had to grow up.

College came, and I abandoned both Rush and D&D, and I stayed away from them for a very long time. I was a grown up now. I needed to peruse careers and women and music that wasn’t directed towards adolescent boys. My tastes changed and one-by-one, I got rid of all my Rush albums, tapes and CDs (I know, shame on me!) along with all my Advanced D&D books and modules.

Then, something happened. Rush was (finally!) inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, and my two daughters became interested in this game that was regaining popularity around the country. A game called Dungeons & Dragons. While I never could get my daughters into listening to Rush (they were more “Imagine Dragons” and “Twenty One Pilots” types), they absolutely loved D&D.

I found it ironic and at the same time, colored with a touch of synchronicity that I should hear about Neil Peart’s death right after coming home from a game of D&D. I’m almost 50 and I’ve come full circle in a way I never could have imagined back when I was 15 and singing along with “Xanadu” while delivering newspapers and looking forward to delving into a dungeon with my best friends, a paladin, a thief and a fighter/mage.

Maybe only a few of you will get this, but it has to be said and it most definitely will be done: my next D&D character I’m calling Ghost Rider.

Damian Sebouhian, a former OBSERVER staff writer, is a Dunkirk resident.

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