Neil Peart: A Drummer And Lyricist Who Can Never Be Replaced
Last month, Rolling Stone Senior Writer Brian Hiatt tweeted “The secret, real definition of a rock band is that the drummer has to be as important as the singer, and by that definition there almost certainly will never be an important rock band ever again.”
It was an interesting and provocative statement. And it’s eerie that less than a month later, we’ve learned that Rush drummer Neil Peart has passed away, after quietly fighting brain cancer for three years.
Until fairly recently, Rolling Stone could not be relied on to give fair coverage to Rush: their first and only cover story on the band was in 2015 (written by Hiatt). Trendy bands like the Vines and the Strokes, and paparazzi magnets like Britney Spears, *NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys, Jessica Simpson and Snooki from Jersey Shore all were featured on the cover of the Rolling Stone before the legendary Canadian trio. Rush’s debut album was released in 1974 (Peart joined by their second album, 1975’s Fly By Night).
But by Mr. Hiatt’s definition, Rush certainly was a “real” rock band. The decision to end the band after their 2015 “R40” tour was most likely Peart’s. He was absolutely as important to the group as his bandmates, bassist/singer/keyboardist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, and they’ve never hinted at continuing the band with a new lineup. Lee and Lifeson are certainly respected by their peers as being excellent and unique at their instruments, but with due respect, they aren’t often referenced as the very best bass player or guitarist ever. Peart is always part of the conversation when “the best rock drummer of all time” is being discussed. Yet, in the 2000s, long after his legacy was set in stone, he took time off from Rush to take drum lessons. Even at that late date, he was striving for excellence, still hoping to improve. How do you replace a drummer like that? (Plus, he wrote their lyrics!)
Rush’s fans never needed verification from Rolling Stone or anyone else that they were a “real” rock band. At their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, two other “real” rock and roll drummers of note — Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters — spoke about the Canadian trio. As Grohl said, “The band built its following the right way: no hype, no bulls—, they did it from the ground up, without any help from the mainstream press!”
Taking his own jab at the magazine, he added: “Cough! Rolling Stone!”
He pointed out that, like them or not, they were due massive respect: “Their legacy is that of a band that stayed true to themselves no matter how uncool they may have seemed to anyone.”
“And,” he pointed out, “They’ve always been cool.”
The audience agreed: although other artists were inducted into the Rock Hall that night, by the looks of the crowd, it was a Rush concert, and the fans made their feelings known, both when they cheered for their band, and when they booed Rolling Stone and Rock Hall founder Jann Wenner. (A few months later I mentioned that moment to Alex Lifeson in an interview; he laughed and said, “I guess a lot of people enjoyed that moment.”)
Music critics were often turned off by Peart’s lyrics, which in the early days were influenced by Ayn Rand; Rush would be branded as fascists and right-wingers. Odd labels for a band whose singer is the son of concentration camp survivors. But Peart was a true individual, and even at the height of his Rand influence on 1976’s 2112, which included the Randian title suite and “Something For Nothing” (a song that could easily be claimed by conservatives as their jam) there was also “A Passage To Bangkok,” an ode to marijuana that could have doubled as a theme for High Times.
Without quite spelling things out, Peart was pretty clear about his beliefs in his lyrics, and they didn’t fit into easy categories. In a 2011 essay about a motorcycle trip to the Mexican border on his website, he described himself as a “bleeding-heart libertarian.” He said of Mexicans who attempted to cross the border, “The ‘libertarian’ in me thinks people should be able to go where they want to go, and the ‘bleeding heart’ doesn’t want them to suffer needlessly.” He also had a measured view of authority: “At one of our roadside stops, [his travel parnter] Michael mentioned that a large part of the Border Patrol’s duties was actually saving people like that, and I knew that was true. But I still didn’t like their quasi-military presence everywhere, and I sure didn’t like their omnipotence—stopping our bus and searching it whenever they felt like it, for example.” Not everyone could play drums like Neil Peart. But everyone can think for themselves as he did. You don’t have to decide to be a hippie or a conservative, there just might be good ideas from both sides that you could learn from. Freewill, as it were. You might never pick up a drumstick in your life, but you could still be profoundly influenced by the man.
And by the way, a lack of skill behind the kit has never stopped anyone from loving his distinct playing, and a lack of skill has also never stopped anyone from trying to emulate it. As Police drummer Stewart Copeland told Rolling Stone, “Neil is the most air-drummed-to drummer of all time.” Every Rush concert was an almost comical scene, with tens of thousands of fans air-drumming (roughly) in unison to “YYZ” or “The Big Money” or “2112: Overture” or “2112: The Temples of Syrinx” or “Far Cry” or “Distant Early Warning.” His drums weren’t only the backbeat of the songs, they were also a melodic element.
During his Rock Hall acceptance speech, Peart quoted another lyricist of note, Bob Dylan: “The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?” It’s tough to calculate how many people the man has inspired, through his drumming, and through his lyrics. You didn’t need to be a Rush fan to find inspiration in his 2002 memoir Ghost Rider, which told the tragic story of how he came to terms with his grief over the death of his daughter Selena in a car accident in August 1997, and his wife Jackie whom he lost to cancer in June 1998.
He rarely gave interviews, but fans knew him through his lyrics and his books – Ghost Rider was one of a handful of books that he wrote. He was honest in his lyrics, sometimes brutally: in “Limelight,” he explained why he didn’t hang with fans: “I have no heart to lie,” he wrote. “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend.” In the radio hit “The Spirit Of The Radio,” he criticizes radio and the music industry, calling out “the sounds of salesmen,” saying, “One likes to believe/In the freedom of music/But glittering prizes/And endless compromises/ Shatter the illusion/Of integrity.”
Over the years, nearly every major rock band who has broken up “for good” at some point gets back together. But those rumors never really circulated with Rush and the fans never really believed that they’d see them again. Even before he was diagnosed with the disease that claimed his life, he said in a rare 2015 interview, “Lately [daughter] Olivia 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. I would rather set it aside then face the predicament described in our song ‘Losing It.'” “Losing It,” from Signals, is about a few characters at the ends of their respective lives.
Peart was the rare rock legend who didn’t seem to care about rock stardom. He was guy who — when he did say something — we took him at his word. He was retired, period. Rush’s R40 tour was a triumph: unlike most of their peers, they didn’t need to scale down, or team up with another band from their era to sell out arenas, even on their final tour. Every artist should attempt to take their final bow that way.
Could Lee and Lifeson continue Rush in some other incarnation? They might, but here’s hoping that they don’t. As previously mentioned, Rolling Stone is no authority on Rush, but we have to agree with Mr. Hiatt here: “The secret, real definition of a rock band is that the drummer has to be as important as the singer.” That was certainly the case with Rush, and without Peart it will never be the same. Neither will we, as fans. If you’ve loved Rush for decades, or just a few months, this is a loss that really hurts.
The last word on Rush should go not to Rolling Stone, but a fan: Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who tweeted yesterday, “Rush embodied rock and roll in a way that transcended whether you were a fan or not — they did exactly what they wanted to do — exactly the way they wanted to do it. NO COMPROMISE. Love them – or not. RESPECT is totally due.”
On “Afterimage,” a deep track on Grace Under Pressure, Peart wrote, “Suddenly, you were gone/From all the lives you left your mark upon.” That’s how all of us are feeling today: but there are millions of us whom Neil Peart left his mark upon who will never forget his drums, his lyrics and maybe above all, his integrity. “A gift beyond price,” indeed.