I first saw Rush at the Odeon in Birmingham, England, on 11 May 1979. The first thing that struck me was how many people had come to see this band that I had only just heard about. The show was sold-out, and everyone who attended was a fully paid up, card-carrying, diehard fan. The second thing that struck me was how much music was coming off the stage. Just three people were performing, but each one seemed to be doing three things at once, apart from the bassist who was doing four. Possibly five.
At the back of the stage, behind a massive drumkit that impressed the hell out of this 15-year-old fanboy, was Neil Peart. He pushed that band forward with a mixture of grace, violence, restraint, and abandon, underpinned with endless musicality. He could rock like John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), swing like Gene Krupa, and play compound rhythms that only a mathematician could follow – all while looking like one of the Three Musketeers. A few years later, I found myself playing drums in a rock band. I never once attempted to play a Neil Peart lick. What was the point?
And now, he’s gone, a victim of the brain cancer that only a handful of people knew he had. Peart was a man who guarded his privacy intensely, but often this desire to keep his public and private lives entirely separate was mistaken as rudeness. He wasn’t rude; he just didn’t want to play the game. At meet-and-greets at Rush concerts, Peart was conspicuous by his absence, preferring to practice drum rudiments or read one of an endless library of books he always traveled with.
When Rush retired from the rigors of live performance in 2015, one of the main reasons was Peart’s failing health. He had had psoriatic arthritis and chronic tendonitis for some time, which he had to overcome every night to perform the bands demanding and intricate repertoire. Peart had no intention of playing anything less than his best, so he simply stopped. He didn’t just walk away from the band; he walked away from drumming. He only ever wanted to be the best version of a musician he could be – nothing less.
Peart was Rush’s drummer from July 1974, when they were only slightly more than unknown. His first album with the band was Fly By Night – Rush’s second – and not only did he lift the band with his already virtuosic playing, but he also wrote almost all the lyrics for the record, too. Neither bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee or guitarist Alex Lifeson had much enthusiasm for writing lyrics and gladly stepped aside to allow Peart to let his sword and sorcery, sci-fi, fantasy mind run wild. In less than a year, the band went from “Well, I see you standing there / With your finger in the air“ to “Tobes of Hades, lit by flickering torchlight / The netherworld is gathered in the glare.”
The band slowly gathered momentum, and while all three members of the band were complimented on their skills, it was Peart (lovingly dubbed “The Professor” by his bandmates) who was singled out for the most praise. As the band grew in popularity, so did his drumkit, expanding from an already pretty hefty setup to a drum arsenal that revolved around 180 degrees, fully loaded with every type of percussion instrument currently in existence. He was an early adopter of electronic percussion, belying the popularly held belief that rock musicians – especially drummers – were resistant to change.
Peart was always looking beyond what he thought he was capable of and shocked the musical world when seemingly at the peak of his skills and routinely referred to as the definitive rock drummer, he took time out to study jazz drumming technique with Freddie Gruber. Peart didn’t want to be the best rock drummer in the world for the kudos and adulation. He just wanted to be as good as he could be.
While Peart was doing this, he was writing books, traveling incognito across the US on a motorcycle, and dealing with the loss of his daughter Selena and common-law wife of 23 years, Jacqueline Taylor. In 1997, Peart stepped away from music, telling his bandmates “consider me retired” only to return in 2002 for Rush’s Vapor Trails album. The band recorded and toured consistently until 2015 when Rush played their final show at the Forum in Los Angeles. With the final chords of Peart’s former drum showcase “Working Man” still ringing around the arena, the normally non-showbizzy drummer ran from behind his kit to take a bow with Lee and Lifeson. “I’ve never crossed what I call the back-line meridian,” he said. “I stay behind my drums and cymbals for 40 years and never go out front, never. It’s not my territory. Eventually, I talked myself into it. It was totally the right thing to do.” He knew that was the end.
Peart became the template for rock drummers. All over the world, drumkits swelled to obscene proportions, and percussionists flailed wildly in an attempt to hit at least some of the vast array of drum related things they had surrounded themselves with. Very few – if any – came close to his level of mastery. He spawned a generation of admirers from Darius Minwalla of the Posies to Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater, and social media will soon be jammed with tributes from musicians of all and every genre of music. Serenely, calmly and with the utmost dignity, Neil Peart added to the vocabulary of rock and roll.
It’s been 40 years since I first saw Rush. When I wrote the date of that show at the start of this piece, I didn’t need to look it up. I’ll never forget it. As for Neil Ellwood Peart of Ontario, Canada – well, he’s kind of unforgettable, too.