By Jason M. Rubin
Neil Peart was a thinking man’s octopus behind a massive drum and percussion kit that he played with blazing speed and peerless precision.
With most drummers, one marvels primarily at the strength and coordination of the limbs—arms and legs, hands and feet, all moving together to create a consistent, discernible pulse that provides a rhythmic platform on which the other players can do their thing. With Neil Peart, drummer for the Canadian progressive rock band Rush, the most notable body part that he engaged in his music was his brain. For he was not only an astoundingly technically skilled drummer but also the band’s lyricist, weaving his curiosity about Ayn Rand, science fiction, and Greek mythology into the Rush songbook. In addition, he was the author of seven nonfiction books and every interview he gave revealed a thoughtful person who lived and played with intention, integrity, and grace. Ironic, then, that the man nicknamed “The Professor” should die from brain cancer on January 7 at the age of 67. The news was made public on January 10, with an announcement from his former band members Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson that he had bravely fought glioblastoma for the past three-and-a-half years.
Peart was a thinking man’s octopus behind a massive drum and percussion kit that he played with blazing speed and peerless precision. He was not, in fact, Rush’s original drummer, having taken over for John Rutsey in 1974 and first appearing on the band’s second album, Fly By Night, in 1975. His ascension was akin to Ringo Starr taking over for Pete Best, as Peart was not only accepted by fans as an improvement but also became an iconic figure in a band that was generally reviled by critics for its busy, bombastic arrangements and Lee’s shrieking vocals.
They were, however, commercially successful—especially for the progressive rock genre—launching into superstardom with 1976’s 2112. The title track, a 20-minute epic suite in seven parts, raised Peart’s profile as a lyricist. The song depicts a dystopian future of technological dependence and enforced conformity in a world ruled by the Solar Federation. The protagonist find an ancient guitar and is amazed by its beautiful sounds but the governing Priests denounce his discovery as something that “doesn’t fit the plan.” The resulting episodes of reflection and conflict come to a noisy conclusion with a mechanical voice announcing “We have assumed control.”
His lyrical ambitions took on even larger canvasses on the next two albums. Inspired by an article he had read about black holes, Peart wrote the 10-minute, four-part “Cygnus X-1, Book I: The Voyage” for 1977’s A Farewell to Kings, then continued the story on 1978’s Hemispheres with the side-long “Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres.” Over the course of six sections, the latter composition tells of a battle between Apollo and Dionysus (the “hemispheres” referring to man’s left brain/right brain dichotomy), which is resolved by the intervention of Cygnus. There is much rejoicing at the end with the acknowledgement that we need both reason and creativity: “Let the truth of love be lighted/Let the love of truth shine clear/Sensibility, armed with sense and liberty/With the heart and mind united in a single perfect sphere.”
Despite his literary ability, Peart was clearly most revered for his incredible chops on drums. He was highly influential though no one could play quite like him, combining power and dexterity in what always seemed to be a flawless performance. Still, his parts on hit songs like “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight” from 1981’s Moving Pictures are iconic and frequently practiced by both amateur and professional drummers. Peart began to learn the instrument at age 13, getting his first kit a year later. He then labored in obscurity in a succession of local bands until his audition for Rush. He was two months shy of his 22nd birthday when he landed the job. In 1983, Peart became the youngest person ever inducted into Modern Drummer magazine’s Hall of Fame.
His hit-everything-in-sight style was the result of combined influences: the sheer power of Keith Moon and John Bonham in the rock world, and the swing and speed of jazz drummers Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. Over the years, his kit grew larger and larger and it never was just for show: Peart made use of every drum, every cymbal, and every piece of percussion, including orchestra bells, tubular bells, wind chimes, crotales, timbales, timpani, gong, temple blocks, and a bell tree, later incorporating MIDI pads. His drum solos were the highlight of Rush’s concerts and in 2011 he was featured on Drum Solo Week on The Late Show with David Letterman.
In his personal life, Peart was wracked by multiple tragedies, which caused him to take a break from the band and retreat into solitude. On August 10, 1997, his 19-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident. Less than a year later, his common-law wife of 23 years died of cancer. Peart responded to these brutal losses by taking a journey of 55,000 miles alone on his motorcycle; he documented the experience in his first book, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. He remarried in 2000 and rejoined the band in 2001, Lee and Lifeson having allowed him all the time he needed to heal.
In 2015, Peart became a U.S. citizen and the group embarked on what would be its final tour, running from May until August. In December, he announced his retirement. Like many powerful drummers of that era, he had been suffering from chronic tendinitis and shoulder problems. The band’s final studio album, Clockwork Angels, had been released three years before.
Upon news of Peart’s death, drummers and other musicians across the musical spectrum—from Brian Wilson, Slash, Jack Black, and Gene Simmons to Max Weinberg, Dave Grohl, Lars Ulrich, and Bill Bruford paid tribute to his lasting legacy. His fans are in tears, but the recordings remain, and his will always be a unique talent. If there’s one lesson he’s left us, it comes from the song “Vital Signs” from Moving Pictures: “Everybody got to deviate from the norm.”
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for more than 33 years, the last 18 of which as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for The Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, combines in a single volume an updated version of his first novel with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, depicting the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.