In Memoriam: Neil Peart (1952-2020)

Jake May on January 11, 2020
In Memoriam: Neil Peart (1952-2020)

Photo via the Rush Facebook page.

Neil Peart, legendary drummer and lyricist for prog-rock pioneers Rush, passed away earlier this week in Santa Monica, Calif. after a three-and-a-half year battle with brain cancer. He was 67 years old. The news was originally reported by CBC News and Rolling Stone.

“It is with broken hearts and the deepest sadness that we must share the terrible news that on Tuesday our friend, soul brother and band mate of over 45 years, Neil, has lost his incredibly brave three and a half year battle with brain cancer,” said his Rush bandmates Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson in a statement. “Rest in peace brother.”

A true virtuoso, Peart’s precise and inventive playing led to him being thought of by many as one of the greatest rock and roll drummers to ever live. His powerful yet profoundly musical drum fills that permeated Rush’s songs are the stuff of legend, influencing countless young drummers that followed him.

“Neil is the most air-drummed-to drummer of all time,” said drummer Stewart Copeland (The Police, Oysterhead) to Rolling Stone in 2015. “[He] 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.”

In addition to his remarkable drumming, Peart was also Rush’s primary lyricist. A voracious reader, he initially drew on sci-fi and fantastical influences and Ayn Rand-ian philosophy, which were hallmarks of Rush’s sprawling prog-rock masterpiece albums 2112 (1976) and A Farewell to Kings (1977) and others. Later in his (and the band’s) career, Peart’s lyrics began drawing on more personal influences, such as those on Rush’s 1982 suburban angst anthem “Subdivisions.” (“Subdivisions/ In the high school halls/ In the shopping malls/ Conform or be cast out”)

Peart was born in 1952 in Hagersville, Ontario, Canada. He began drumming at the age of 13, using just a pair of sticks and a practice drum (though he was given a full kit a year later). Influenced heavily by Keith Moon’s frenetic style, Peart began the difficult endeavor of pursuing a career as a professional drummer.

In the early 1974, Peart auditioned for Rush, who were looking to replace original drummer John Rutsey. “My first impression was that he was kind of goofy,” said bassist Geddy Lee in the film Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage (2010). Alex Lifeson was initially skeptical as well. “I remember thinking: ‘Ah, he’s not nearly cool enough to be in this band,'” the guitarist noted in the same film. “And then he started playing – I mean, he pounded the crap out of those drums… He played like Keith Moon and John Bonham at the same time.”

“I was blown away,” continued Lee. “He’s playing these triplets – he was so good.” Of course, Peart got the gig, and the rest, as they say, is history. (Interestingly, the drummer himself – at least at the time – believed that the audition had not gone well. As he remembers in the film: “I think it’s very common for musicians, especially in your early years, to feel that you totally blew it, and I had that feeling. But, they picked me.”)

Later in Peart’s life, he suffered a great deal of tragedy. In 1997, his daughter Selena Taylor perished in a car accident; a mere ten months later, Peart’s common-law wife of over twenty years, Jacqueline Taylor, lost her own battle with cancer. These events led to Peart stepping away from Rush for a while. During that time, he travelled around North America by himself on his motorcycle, using the solitary voyage as a chance to reflect on his life and come to terms with his grief. He chronicled his journey in his 2002 book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road.

After marrying photographer Carrie Nuttall in 2000, Peart rejoined Rush in 2001. A year later, the band released a new studio record, Vapor Trails, and resumed touring. Their final tour was 2015’s “R40 Tour,” which commemorated the fortieth anniversary of Peart joining the band. These would become the band’s final performances ever, as a combination of Peart’s chronic tendinitis and Lifeson’s arthritis were taking a toll on the musicians.

In October of 2015, Peart announced his retirement from drumming in an interview with Drumhead Magazine. “Lately Olivia [Peart and Nuttall’s daughter] has been introducing me to new friends at school as ‘My dad– He’s a retired drummer.’ True to say–funny to hear. And it does not pain me to realize that, like all athletes, there comes a time to… take yourself out of the game,” Peart said. While Lee initially maintained that the drummer’s words had been taken out of context and he was simply taking a break, Peart’s announcement held true as the band never performed again.

Through his retirement from Rush and from drumming in general, Peart remained dear friends with his bandmates.

Read Rush’s full statement below.