On Friday the news was all over social media: Neil Peart, the legendary drummer for the equally legendary Canadian power trio Rush, had died. He had been fighting with brain cancer for over three years. Peart wasn’t the original drummer for Rush. That would be John Rutsey, who passed away in 2008. Neil joined the band in time to record their second album, Fly By Night and play their first U.S. tour.
Rutsey played drums for the first album, simply titled Rush, then it was Neil Peart. Fly by Night, Caress of Steal and then their epic breakthrough album, 2112. Everybody remembers where they were when they first laid ears on that one. I was in the Marines at the time and this guy I roomed with came in with some new vinyl, one being 2112. He asked if I had ever heard of the band (“No.”) and he put the album on the turntable.
We smoked a bowl (in the barracks) and by the second part of the song “2112” we were blown away. I would later pick up all their previous albums and then started collecting: All the World’s a Stage, A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, Permanent Waves, the album that showed the band shifting away from concept albums with long anthems, Moving Pictures, with the song Peart said was the toughest to perform, “Tom Sawyer,” and then their best live album, Exit … Stage Left.
Those albums alone would wrap up a great run as a band, but they kept going, from Signals in 1982 to Clockwork Angels in 2013. Over 40 years of creating new music, from hard guitar power trio to more electronica and then a drift back to guitar-centered music, the constant was the percussive engine of Neil Peart. Brian Hyatt of Rolling Stone called his style “flamboyant yet precise.” That, along with his technical dexterity and unbelievably imaginative virtuosity made him one of the greatest drummers — not just rock, but any genre — of all time. The drummers he has inspired over his long career includes many who have gone on to great success themselves. Taylor Hawkins and Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters. They actually do a cover of “Tom Sawyer.”
There’s a documentary about Rush on Netflix, Amazon Prime and iTunes called Beyond the Lighted Stage and the Neil fanatics are featured, telling their special moments with the man; not actually face-to-face interactions, but moments when the grandeur of the band and Neil’s power changed them forever as fans and budding musicians. Like Trent Reznor, Tim Commerford from Rage Against the Machine, Jack Black, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, Danny Carey of Tool, Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Vinnie Paul of Pantera — the list can go on and on. The theme of their praise is common: the precise musicianship. All three members of Rush. But Neil Peart was a metronome, keeping perfect time while (seemingly) flailing away at an ever-expanding collection of drums, cymbals, cowbells, wood blocks, tubular bells, gongs and other assorted percussion instruments.
He was never actually flailing though. Every note, every beat of his stick or foot pedals were precisely placed in that song for a purpose. His solos might have some improvisation, but even that was never random. Everything had its place.
I remember in the last years David Letterman was the host of the Late Show on CBS they would have guest drummer week and one night it was Neil Peart. He played this incredible solo, switching from his “standard” kit to his synthesized and back. Then the Late Show Orchestra (led by Paul Shaeffer) joined in to a big band song by the Buddy Rich Orchestra.
Some years before, maybe even a couple decades, but well after Rush made themselves perennial arena rock masters, Neil decided to get some lessons from jazz drummer Freddie Gruber. Peart went from holding the sticks in the two-fisted rock grip to the more gentile standard, grip, like we would see with jazz drummers. Neil would use both grips afterwards, often in the same song. Maybe he was using the standard grip before, I don’t recall, but Freddie Gruber taught Neil about movement, that playing the drums is dancing.
Now, for the fan, Neil Peart sounded the same, which for all of us meant his parts were difficult to play. Ask any drummer, “Is ‘Tom Sawyer’ hard to play?” “Yes,” they would reply, “But every Rush song is hard to play on the drums.”
Even in their techno years when the synthesizers became a major musical focus of the music the technical dexterity of Neil remained. A lot of Rush fans were glad that techno era ended by the way. We know Rush as a power trio that sometimes uses keyboards.
In 1992 Neil’s daughter died in a car accident and then his wife fell ill and died. For the next five years we heard nothing from or about the band. I had stopped going to concerts for the most part anyway, but not having Rush around was disheartening. Frank Zappa died in December, 1993 and then Jerry Garcia followed 20 months later. The “sound” of music left my life for a bit, replaced by other interests. Sure, there were a few 90s bands I liked, but I wasn’t about to plunk down $75 or more to see them, plus I had seen the Rolling Stones often enough that I wasn’t interested in paying hundreds of dollars to see them.
But then Rush came back and Neil was as good as when the band went on hiatus.
This deep into this it should be noted that playing the percussion instruments was just half of Neil Peart’s contribution to the music. From his start in the band until the end, Neil was the chief lyricist. He liked to read, everything from science fiction to mythology and Ayn Rand. They even dedicated the album 2112 to The Fountainhead.
After becoming a little more sophisticated about literature I had to re-evaluate my appreciation for that album and the band — yeah, it’s still a great album, I’m still a Rush fan and Neil Peart is still the greatest drummer — in any genre — and he’s a great lyricist. What makes him great is that his lyrics connect with their fans. Fans will say they often felt certain songs were written for and about them.
They actually did a song on 2112 about smoking pot and its derivatives called “A Passage to Bangkok.” Who couldn’t relate to that as a teenager, or young adult … or older?
“Our first stop is in Bogotà
To check Columbian fields
The natives smile and pass along
A sample of their yield
“Sweet Jamaican pipe dreams
Golden Acapulco nights
Then Morocco, and the East
Fly by morning light
“We’re on the train to Bangkok
Aboard the Thailand Express
We’ll hit the stops along the way
We only stop for the best”
There’s more, but goddam! In 1976 Neil Peart wrote a song that talks to me about one of my interests (at the time). Later I was surprised to find out that there were new fans in the 80’s who were identifying with the music and lyrics, like “Subdivisions” from the album Signals. Or “Middletown Dreams” from Power Windows. Or “Marathon,” from that same album.
Neil didn’t learn about writing lyrics from listening to music, he wrote from what inspired him, which were the books he was reading, and then later, about his life. His lyrics are as much about who he is as his drumming. Very unique, very precise and easily accessible to the average Rush fan.
Rush isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The critics hated them and boy were they anathema in the punk/new wave world. “They play too many notes!” Yeah, whatever. The more accurate description is: They play all the right notes and their fans love every one of those notes. They have millions of fans around the world. They played sold out stadiums and outdoor venues; 60,000 in Sao Paolo, Brazil. So, the critics can do their thing, the fans won’t stop buying the albums. The fans are the only critics that really matter anyway. Let me note at this point they were not inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame until 2013.
Apparently when the Rolling Stone magazine crowd found out all the cool people they like are influenced by Neil Peart and Rush, they had to put the band in the hall.
If you watch that documentary you will hear Billy Corgan talk about how excited he was when he could finally play the entirety of the “2112 Suite” (side 1 of the album) and when his mother sat down to listen to the song “Entre Nous” from Permanent Waves. The song is Neil’s homage to the fans.
Now he’s gone. There are a select few people in this world who remember their 1981 tour (They played at Alpine Valley, the venue where I saw them), even fewer still who remember their earlier tours. Neil Peart was the tower of power in a trio of powerful musicians. He stood out because his virtuosity eclipsed that of his bandmates — and they were some very technical and precise players themselves.
Who writes lyrics (“Xanadu”) based on a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“Kubla Khan”)? It is one of my favorite songs by the band, for all of its elements, including the lyrics. That is part of who Neil Peart was and is. Because of his musical contribution to our culture, he will never be lost. Neil lives on in his art.
Jeff Haden wrote in Inc about a chance encounter he had with Peart in West Virginia. They were both touring on their motorcycles and happened to stop at the same store/café at the same time. Haden said Neil gave him some great advice: “Never follow anyone. Be your own hero.”
That’s how Neil Peart lived and he probably hoped you do too.
Rest In Peace Neil. 1952-2020.
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UPDATE: SiriusXM has turned their Deep Tracks channel (27) into a Rush Tribute to honor Neil Peart.
Top photo is a YouTube screenshot of Neil Peart on The Late Show With David Letterman
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Tim Forkes started as a writer on a small alternative newspaper in Milwaukee called the Crazy Shepherd. Writing about entertainment, he had the opportunity to speak with many people in show business, from the very famous to the people struggling to find an audience. In 1992 Tim moved to San Diego, CA and pursued other interests, but remained a freelance writer. Upon arrival in Southern California he was struck by how the elected government officials and business were so intertwined, far more so than he had witnessed in Wisconsin. His interest in entertainment began to wane and the business of politics took its place. He had always been interested in politics, his mother had been a Democratic Party official in Milwaukee, WI, so he sat down to dinner with many of Wisconsin’s greatest political names of the 20th Century: William Proxmire and Clem Zablocki chief among them. As a Marine Corps veteran, Tim has a great interest in veteran affairs, primarily as they relate to the men and women serving and their families. As far as Tim is concerned, the military-industrial complex has enough support. How the men and women who serve are treated is reprehensible, while in the military and especially once they become veterans. Tim would like to help change that.