Neil Peart, Rush Drummer Who Set a New Standard for Rock Virtuosity, Dead at 67

Rolling Stone – by Brian Hiatt

Neil Peart, the virtuoso drummer and lyricist for Rush, died Tuesday, January 7th, in Santa Monica, California, at age 67, according to Elliot Mintz, a family spokesperson. The cause was brain cancer, which Peart had been quietly battling for three-and-a-half years. A representative for the band confirmed the news to Rolling Stone

Peart was one of rock’s greatest drummers, with a flamboyant yet precise style that paid homage to his hero, the Who’s Keith Moon, while expanding the technical and imaginative possibilities of his instrument. He joined singer-bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson in Rush in 1974, and his musicianship and literate, philosophical lyrics  – which initially drew on Ayn Rand and science fiction, and later became more personal and emotive – helped make the trio one of the classic-rock era’s essential bands. His drum fills on songs like “Tom Sawyer” were pop hooks in their own right, each one an indelible mini-composition; his lengthy drum solos, carefully constructed and packed with drama, were highlights of every Rush concert.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, Lee and Lifeson called Peart their “friend, soul brother and bandmate over 45 years,” and said he had been “incredibly brave” in his battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. “We ask that friends, fans, and media alike understandably respect the family’s need for privacy and peace at this extremely painful and difficult time,” Lee and Lifeson wrote. “Those wishing to express their condolences can choose a cancer research group or charity of their choice and make a donation in Neil Peart’s name. Rest in peace, brother.”

A rigorous autodidact, Peart was also the author of numerous books, beginning with 1996’s The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, which chronicled a 1988 bicycle tour in Cameroon – in that memoir, he recalled an impromptu hand-drum performance that drew an entire village to watch.

Peart never stopped believing in the possibilities of rock (“a gift beyond price,” he called it in Rush’s 1980 track “The Spirit of Radio”) and despised what he saw as over-commercialization of the music industry and dumbed-down artists he saw as “panderers.” “It’s about being your own hero,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. “I set out to never betray the values that 16-year-old had, to never sell out, to never bow to the man. A compromise is what I can never accept.”

Peart was a drummer’s drummer, beloved by his peers; he won prizes in Modern Drummer’s annual readers’ poll 38 times, and was a formative influence on countless young players. “His power, precision, and composition was incomparable,” Dave Grohl said in a statement released Friday. “He was called ‘The Professor’ for a reason: We all learned from him.”

“Neil is the most air-drummed-to drummer of all time,” former Police drummer Stewart Copeland told Rolling Stone in 2015. “Neil pushes that band, which has a lot of musicality, a lot of ideas crammed into every eight bars — but he keeps the throb, which is the important thing. And he can do that while doing all kinds of cool shit.”

Rush finished their final tour in August of 2015, after releasing their last album, Clockwork Angels, in 2012. Peart was done with the road. He questioned whether he could stay physically capable of playing his demanding parts, and was eager to spend more time with his wife, Carrie Nuttal, and daughter Olivia.

On August 10th, 1997, Peart’s 19-year-old daughter, Selena, died in a single-car accident on the long drive to her university in Toronto. Five months later, Selena’s mother – Peart’s common-law wife of 23 years, Jackie Taylor – was diagnosed with terminal cancer, quickly succumbing. Shattered, Peart told his bandmates to consider him retired, and embarked on a solitary motorcycle trip across the United States. He remarried in 2000, and found his way back to Rush by 2001.

Peart grew up in Port Dalhousie, a middle-class Canadian suburb 70 miles from Toronto, where he took his first drum lessons at age 13. As a teen, he permed his hair, took to wearing a cape and purple boots on the city bus, and scrawled “God is dead” on his bedroom wall. At one point, he got in trouble for pounding out beats on his desk during class. His teacher’s idea of punishment was to insist that he bang on his desk nonstop for an hour’s worth of detention, time he happily spent re-creating Keith Moon’s parts from Tommy.

Peart joined Rush just after the recording of their first album, replacing original drummer John Rutsey. His breakthrough with the band came with 1976’s 2112 – the first side of the album was a rock opera set in that far-future year, combining Peart’s sci-fi vision and Rand-ian ideology (which he later disavowed, calling himself a “bleeding-heart libertarian”) with explosive prog theatrics. A later milestone came with the 1982 “Subdivisions,” an autobiographical tale of suburban misery (“the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth.”).

“A lot of the early fantasy stuff was just for fun,” Peart told Rolling Stone. “Because I didn’t believe yet that I could put something real into a song. ‘Subdivisions’ happened to be an anthem for a lot of people who grew up under those circumstances, and from then on, I realized what I most wanted to put in a song was human experience.”

Around then, Rush’s music become more concise, without losing its complexity. “When punk and New Wave came,” Peart told Rolling Stone. “we were young enough to gently incorporate it into our music, rather than getting reactionary about it — like other musicians who I heard saying, ‘What are we supposed to do now, forget how to play?’ We were fans enough to go, ‘Oh, we want that too.’ And by [1981’s] Moving Pictures, we nailed it, learning how to be seamlessly complex and to compact a large arrangement into a concise statement.”

Always suspicious of showbiz, Peart spent much of his downtime on the road in Rush’s early days buried in a stack of books. In the final years, he avoided the usual touring routine by traveling from gig to gig via motorcycle, taking off shortly after each show’s conclusion.

In the Nineties, he produced two tribute albums to jazz legend Buddy Rich, and at a moment when many of his fans already considered him the world’s best rock drummer, Peart began taking lessons with Freddie Gruber, a jazz player and noted drum instructor.  Peart credited Gruber (and another teacher, Peter Erskine) with helping him recreate his technique and sense of time from scratch, leading him to a more fluid approach and a deeper groove. “What is a master but a master student?” Peart told Rolling Stone in 2012.  “There’s a responsibility on you to keep getting better.”

Rolling Stone

23 thoughts on “Neil Peart, Rush Drummer Who Set a New Standard for Rock Virtuosity, Dead at 67

    1. Disagree, Henry…IMHO the greatest drummer ever was Gene Krupa of Benny Goodman’s Orchestra. Magnum opus was “Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing)”

      1. The art of the percussionist has been a progression through the ages.
        Neil Peart could play drums like Joe Satriani plays lead guitar. He was amazing.
        I played drums for a couple of bands over a 20 year span. I taught myself drums. Once I became proficient, I studied the drummer that in my mind made the greatest leap in the transformation of the art. My all time favorite drummer was John Bonham. His incredible aptitude for working the off beat transformed the meaning of rock and roll, from hard rock clear through and into heavy metal. His off beat licks were the hardest to learn, but Mr. Peart could literally play every beat of a song as he picked and chose but he had more of a jazz tilt than the off beat of the blues, but Bonham used more of the off beat of the blues that put the drive into Led Zeppelin and pushed the music into the future. John Bonham’s beats were hard to learn, he should never be forgotten.

        1. True story: I was a huge Zeppelin/Bonham fan. I was so excited they were coming to Chicago. I was not a big concert goer but I told myself I had to see these guys live. After getting off work that day ( day John died) I headed straight to my bank where I purchased a money order for two tickets to their concert. I had already had the envelope addressed and stamped. I filled out the money order placed it in the envelope and was actually a bit giddy with excitement as I dropped it into the mailbox. I got in my car, turned the key and (as I always had the radio on) before I could put the car in gear there it was. John Bonham dead. Tour cancelled. I just sat there for a few minutes frozen in sadness and disbelief. Before I drove off I turned my head and stared at the mailbox in which I had just dropped the envelope. Bummer.

          1. Definite bummer. I had a ticket to see AC/DC with Bon Scott in Charleston, West Virginia the day before my grandfather died. Of course I never made the concert. One of those little interesting facets of life.

          2. That is a Bummer!

            Had a ticket to John Lee Hooker mid 90’s. The concert was canceled because he was in the hospital. Never did get to see him before he left.

            Worked parking at the HHH Metro Dome in Minneapolis for The Rolling Stones Steel Wheels Tour. That was wild!
            There was a lot of waaay too wasted, walking dead there.

        2. one of the comments at you tube: ‘No human can ever reach light speed
          John Henry Bonham: Hold my beer’ 🙂

  1. He had incredible timing, damn fine drummer. He wrote many songs as well. Inspired many drummers who copied his set, have them in their homes, identical.

    Damn cancer!…

  2. aw man what a sad morning having to read this, the World’s best drummer imo you will be sorely missed Niel may you R.I.P.

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