Remembering Neil Peart: The genius mind who brought lyrical depth and drumming dexterity to Rush
People can joke how Neil Peart’s full drum kit would cost more than a house, but it was only fair considering the wizardry that would be on display at every Rush concert right up to 2015
For over 45 years, Canadian band Rush championed the intellectual, mind-bending sound known as progressive rock. Rush was formed in 1968, but it was only by the mid-1970s – when drummer Neil Peart had joined guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist-vocalist Geddy Lee – that the band began gaining fame and accolades for their eccentric, shimmering brand of rock.
It would be a disservice of sorts to Rush, to call them classic rock, because the technicality, ambitiousness and power of just three instrumentalists was enough to put them in a new tier starting from 1976’s seminal album 2112. Widely regarded as one of the most essential rock releases of all time, the 20-minute title track bears not just jaw-dropping drumming but also sonic storytelling that drew from Ayn Rand’s novel Anthem, incorporating sci-fi concepts and their own way of telling the world why music was important.
It was in 1981 that the band cemented their place in rock history with “Tom Sawyer” off their album Moving Pictures. While every member shone on the hit song, Peart had collaborated with lyricist Pye Dubois to capture the idea of individualism and his drumming remained standout. Peart’s drumming – which he considered “still challenging and satisfying to play” – is one of the most memorable works of our time. On any given play, you’re likely to find yourself air-drumming along to this one.
Throughout their career, Rush remained true to their prog roots but always found support from radio stations and songs like “New World Man” (1982), “Time Stand Still” (1987), “Dreamline” (1991) and “Stick It Out” (1993). On many songs, Peart wrote about aging and mortality, but also about libertarian values, perhaps informed by Ayn Rand. While Rand and her work was no longer in Peart’s mind as he grew older, there was still a vulnerability and melancholy in it, which made Rush’s lyrical explorations more diverse than ever.
Even then, rock history took them down a different path, with songs like the fully instrumental and super-dexterous “YYZ” (1981) becoming one of their most famous tracks to date, its bet-you-can’t-play-this style of jamming emulated by prog bands even today. It earned them a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Instrumental Performance and it’s best enjoyed with any live video you can find, Peart surrounded his drums and other percussive aids. People can joke how Peart’s full drum kit would cost more than a house, but it was only fair considering the wizardry that would be on display at every Rush concert right up to 2015, when the drummer said he would retire from performing and touring, due to its physical exertions.
Off stage, Peart had written seven non-fiction books and also frequently posted on his personal website as well, apart from contributing to fiction works. They often chronicled his travels, not just on tour with Rush but also on his own. In 1997, following the tragic death of Peart’s daughter Selena in a car accident, the drummer took off from the band and told them he retired. In 2002, his book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road was published. What was probably essential reading for diehard fans of Rush would now offer much more insight on how he came to terms with his daughter’s passing and finding reason to live. He said in an article in Classic Rock about how he sat down to play drums one day in 1999 after an “enforced absence” of two years. “…That day I sat behind the drums and just started playing… my story. The sad part, the travelling part, the “little victories,” the angry part, the lost and bewildered part – it was all in there.”
In 2012, to coincide with the release of their 19th (and now final) studio album Clockwork Angels, Peart co-authored a novel version of the album, along with long-time friend and sci-fi novelist Kevin J. Anderson.
Throughout his career, Peart is often said to have been a reluctant rockstar, choosy with his interviews and even more plain in his dealings with celebrity. He completely retreated from public life after his announcement, even as Lee and Lifeson were trying to keep things together. He said in a 2015 article for Drumhead, in which he spoke about completing 50 years behind the drum kit, “Forty-one years with one band - three young guys who grew up together in music and in life, going through everything music and life can throw at you. All the while, we were doing what we wanted, the way we wanted to do it.”
The tributes for Peart are still pouring in from all corners, whether it’s veteran rapper Chuck D (of Public Enemy) recounting his peaceful sit-down with the drummer in 2013 or rock frontrunners like Dave Grohl and Mike Portnoy. “He was one of those people that was just so inspirational because he lived life to the fullest,” Portnoy told Billboard.
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