He’s known as the Professor.
But that’s not all they call Neil Peart. Stick the phrase “Neil Peart is…” in Google, step back and watch the accolades fly. As far as the Web is concerned, the Rush drummer is unreal, the greatest, a legend, the man. He is, some breathlessly proclaim, a rock god.
At his concerts, they stare and study, their arms busy in the air, miming his every move across his colossal kit. He doesn’t stare back: Focused, intense, deeply invested, Peart is all business as he steers Rush through its marathon live show.
The enduring phenomenon of Neil Peart is one of rock music’s rarely highlighted realities. In a rock world where musical prowess is often discounted, where his peers are often stereotyped with an amiable joke (“What do you call a drummer without a girlfriend?” “Homeless”), Peart is a rare sort indeed: a drummer beloved foremost for his virtuoso chops—and a personal image directly opposed to rock flash.
On the Canadian band’s latest concert tour, the 54-year-old drummer, lyricist and author is in his familiar spot behind bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, once again the magnetic focus for many in the Rush audience.
If you want to start an argument, walk into a room full of rock fans and declare that so-and-so is the best whatever. But the conventional wisdom on Peart—that he is one of rock history’s very best—is about as close to consensus as it gets. It’s a reputation built on a lengthy, rarely flagging career, even as Rush has flown under the mainstream radar since Peart joined in 1974.
The stoic Peart is a drummer’s drummer, a player whose high-end work has made him a legend among fellow musicians. He dominated Modern Drummer magazine’s annual best-of polls so comprehensively during the 1980s that the publication eventually took him off the ballot and placed him on a special honor roll.
“He perhaps doesn’t loom as large in the overall music world, or even in rock,” says senior editor Rick Van Horn. “But within the drumming community, his stature is beyond iconic. No one has had this much impact for so long. He’s influenced so many people and remained at the pinnacle of popularity for 30 years.”
But even for casual listeners who wouldn’t know a paradiddle from a pedal, Peart’s skills are easy to discern. Muscular but fluid, geometric but colorful, his drumming can be akin to aural fireworks, and remains the perennial attraction even on such well-worn staples as the hit “Tom Sawyer.”
Peart fan Bill Plegue of Chesterfield Township, Mich., recounts the night in 2004 that his wife attended her first Rush show.
“She’s a classically trained piano player. She sings Broadway songs. Billy Joel is what she would consider rock `n’ roll,” says Plegue, 50. “And she walked out of there amazed—`That guy plays so fast, I can’t keep up with the beats in my head. How does someone do that?’ Whether you like Rush or not, the musicianship alone is worth the price of a ticket.”
Charlie Grover, former drummer for the Detroit band Sponge, is now with the Paper Street Saints.
“He’s a human metronome, just rock solid. I think he kind of looks at it mathematically, and that’s the thing about his playing—it’s so precise,” says Grover. “He’s not a 4/4 cat. He’s the guy whose playing is studied. Neil Peart is the true innovator, the one who pushed drumming to the forefront.”
There are faster drummers. More intricate drummers. More powerful drummers.
But there is perhaps no other rock player who brings all three qualities to the kit in such abundance—and who has reaped such prestige for it.
On the Internet, long a prime gathering spot for Rush’s self-professed geek audience, extensive fan tributes sit alongside heady discussions of Peart’s lyrics. The video site YouTube teems with homemade homages, amateur drummers filming themselves playing Peart’s challenging parts.
Still, you don’t hear a lot about Peart outside musicians’ circles and Rush audiences. Instrumental chops aren’t always the most valued asset in rock, where style and attitude are often the coin of the realm. It’s the reason Keith Richards, no virtuoso player, can be heralded as one of rock’s guitar greats. Indeed, technical skill can be a rock `n’ roll liability, as evidenced by the long critical disdain for progressive rock. In a sense, the entire punk genre sprung up to scorn the concept of trying too hard.
Top it off with the fact that Rush just might be the biggest rock band that’s never been treated like a big rock band: no Rolling Stone covers, no Grammy Awards, no paparazzi chases. The group’s mainstream profile has been so low-key, in fact, that Peart’s name is commonly mispronounced, even by avid fans. (It’s peert, not purt.)
“There’s a bit of a club aspect to it, like a secret society,” says fan Bobby Standridge of Springfield, Va. “It’s one of those things where it’s people in the know who derive the greatest pleasures from this band.”
Standridge has analyzed Peart as much as anyone: He logged nearly 18 months creating a digitally animated film featuring Peart performing the Rush chestnut “YYZ.” It became an Internet sensation in rock circles, ultimately tallying more than 1 million views after its 2005 release. The attention propelled him into a career as a full-time animator, working for ESPN, among others.
With its meticulous scrutiny of his moves at the kit, the clip—which can be viewed at www.BobbysBrane.com—symbolizes the Rush drummer’s distinct following: When you’re into Peart, you’re really into Peart. On recent Rush DVDs, viewers are offered the option of viewing footage from multiple angles trained solely on the drummer.
“What I like about Neil’s playing, and the way he approaches life, is that he’s very deliberate. When he constructs his parts, he’ll have a pattern he alludes to and shadows throughout a piece,” says Standridge, 40. “He’s not busy for busyness’ sake. He always seems to play what’s appropriate to the song, but within that it’s fresh and innovative. And he always has total control of what he’s doing.”
Peart has his critics, and their complaints are easy to spot amid the dizzying, knotty discussions that fill certain corners of the Web: His technique is showy, indulgent, too cleanly precise for rock `n’ roll. Jazz-savvy listeners say he’s overrated at the expense of technically superior players. Much of the criticism is directed at the lyrics he writes for vocalist Geddy Lee, which some read more as highbrow prose than rock poetry.
During the late `70s, Peart’s expressed affection for political philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand—culminating in the “Anthem”-inspired album “2112”—prompted sniping from rock’s left-leaning establishment.
Over time, though, the vitriol has tailed off, much as it has for Rush itself. If only through attrition, the kudos have crowded out the criticism, as new generations of rock fans and critics have grown up with the band. Today, the threesome’s status as elder rock statesmen has granted them a kind of collegial respect not always apparent in the past.
Peart, a mysterious personality even in Rush fan circles, became a sympathetic figure in the late `90s when he was struck by a pair of personal tragedies. The deaths of his wife and a daughter, just 10 months apart, became the stepping stone for his well-reviewed 2002 memoir, “Ghost Rider,” which chronicled his therapeutic motorcycle journey across North America.
For fans, it was a familiar picture of intense self-determination—one they’d come to know well from Peart’s lyrics.
“The lyrics have been such a big influence on how I look at the world,” says Standridge.
“What I take from them is that it’s your life, it’s in your hands, you make of it what you want ... So much of rock ` n’ roll is about whining and complaining. Those lyrics say get up and do something about it.”
But it’s still that drumming—the sublime skills, the exacting standards, the cool bravado—where the personal inspiration starts.
Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy, the drummer most commonly pitted against Peart in fan debates about today’s best player, says his style has diverged since his teen years as a Rush fanatic. But he knows where credit belongs.
“He was my first real drum hero,” says Portnoy, 40. “Neil as a drummer, and Rush as a band, were the blueprints for this band’s foundation. Without him I wouldn’t be playing the way I play today. There’s no doubt about that.”
// Notes from the Road
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