Rush drummer Neil Peart, whose virtuosity at the drum kit made him one of the most accomplished instrumentalists in rock history, has died after a battle with brain cancer, according to the group’s official Twitter account. He was 67.
The Canadian musician and lyricist, who died Tuesday according to the Twitter post, joined in 1974 with singer-bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson in the progressive rock trio, which was beloved by fans for music that blithely defied the strictures of simple three-chord pop music of the ’50s and ’60s.
Neil Peart September 12, 1952 - January 7, 2020 pic.twitter.com/NivX2RhiB8— Rush (@rushtheband) January 10, 2020
In its place, Rush delivered expansive, often dizzyingly complex pop music compositions that, along with those of English prog-rock heroes Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, had more in common with the barrier-bending music of 20th century composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Karl Stockhausen than with the straightforward blues- and country-rooted sounds of early rock ’n’ roll.
“He was a rare breed: For starters, how many drummers played drums and wrote lyrics?” asked Robert Santelli, founding executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and coauthor, with E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg, of the 2004 book “The Big Beat: Conversations with Rock’s Greatest Drummers.”
“Neil was a very sophisticated, literate drummer whose lyrics were as unique and definitive as his drum style,” Santelli said. “He represented an era in rock ’n’ roll when complexity, sophistication and highly expressive, very mature playing with commitment to detail was what it was all about. The right drummer with the right band is always crucial, and he was exactly the right drummer for what Rush’s music needed.”
Peart often cited swing-era drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich among his primary inspirations, although he also credited the Who’s Keith Moon, Cream’s Ginger Baker and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham as major influences. He eventually would be celebrated, and sometimes derided, for his use of a 360-degree kit that incorporated dozens of drums, cymbals and other percussion instruments and accessories.
With it, however, Peart unleashed sophisticated and rhythmically dazzling accompaniment and provided lyrics to match, often philosophically provocative or illuminating takes on social or political issues.
In “Bastille Day,” from the group’s 1975 album “Caress of Steel,” he talked about that pivotal incident in French history, investing it with meaning that was relevant to the winding down of the Vietnam War:
Lessons taught but never learned
All around us anger burns
Guide the future by the past
Long ago the mold was cast
He also addressed his and his fellow musicians’ struggles in the music business in what became one of Rush’s signature songs, “The Spirit of Radio,” from the 1980 album “Permanent Waves.”
One likes to believe in the freedom of music
But glittering prizes and endless compromises
Shatter the illusion of integrity
As Rolling Stone noted in a 2015 profile of Peart preceding what would be Rush’s final concert tour, “He plays an outsize role in Rush, writing the lyrics, serving as the band’s designated conscience, taking solos so lengthy and structured that they get their own song titles. To a certain breed of rock musician, the drummer is a Clapton-in-’66-level god: [Nirvana/Foo Fighters founding member] Dave Grohl wept after meeting him.”
Peart was born Sept. 12, 1952, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, the eldest of four children of Glenn and Betty Peart. He grew up on the family farm in Hagersville, outside Hamilton.
He spoke of a warm, happy childhood, and of developing an interest in music as an adolescent, listening to radio stations in Canada and the northeast U.S. on a transistor radio he bought. He began to develop his skills as a musician with lessons on piano, his first percussion instrument.
But it was drumming that seemed built into his DNA, as he would use a pair of chopsticks to tap out rhythms on objects around the Peart household. His parents presented him on his 13th birthday with a pair of proper drumsticks, a practice drum and some beginner’s lessons, and the promise that if he kept with it for a year, he’d get a real drum kit.
They delivered, and at 14, he started classes at the Peninsula Conservatory of Music, and in short time joined his first band, the Eternal Triangle, with whom he performed his first drum solo.
After a trip to England in the early 1970s in hopes of expanding his professional horizons, he returned to Canada after 18 mostly unsuccessful months, although he did discover the writing of Ayn Rand, whose ideas found their way into some of his lyrics years later.
Ironically, upon his return home he joined a band named Hush but was urged by a friend to audition for Rush, whose original drummer, John Rutsey, left after the release of the debut album because of illness.
“He was one of the goofiest-looking guys I’d ever seen,” Lee told the Guardian in a 2018 interview. “He was very tall, lanky. He drove up in this little sports car, drums hanging out from every corner. He comes in, this big goofy guy with a small drum kit, and Alex and I thought he was a hick from the country. Then he sat down behind this kit and pummeled the drums — and us. As far as I was concerned, he was hired from the minute he started playing.”
“Rush” was the first in a series of gold and platinum albums that extended into the new millennium. The debut album achieved gold status for sales of 500,000 copies, but its successor, with Peart aboard, did even better, achieving platinum certification for sales topping 1 million copies.
It was that sophomore album, “Fly by Night,” on which Rush asserted its interest in the progressive wing of rock music, and which, for the first time, showcased Peart’s acumen behind the drum kit as well as his lyrics. Peart joined July 29, 1974, just two weeks before the group was slated to begin a new tour.
Some at their record company were perplexed by the fantasy elements and literary bent of Peart’s lyrics for songs such as the eight-part epic “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”: “Tobes of Hades, lit by flickering torchlight / The netherworld is gathered in the glare / Prince By-Tor takes the cavern to the north light / The sign of Eth is rising in the air.”
Peart later explained that he didn’t know what “tobes of Hades” meant but that it was a phrase his father had uttered on occasion.
The combination of such fanciful lyrics with cavorting music composed by Lee and Lifeson clicked with fans and gave Rush an identity.
“Neil Peart wasn’t just the new drummer; he was the spark that pushed them to greatness,” the Ultimate Classic Rock website asserted in naming “Fly by Night” to its list of the top 100 ’70s rock albums.
Rush released several more albums in the ’70s that showed slow but steady sales, the most successful being 1976’s “2112,” which spent 34 weeks on Billboard’s 200 Albums chart and was certified triple platinum by the Recording Industry Assn. of America.
The 1980s were even more rewarding for the band, as “Permanent Waves” in 1980 shot to No. 4 on the Billboard album chart, and nine more studio albums reached the Top 10 up through “Snakes & Arrows” in 2007.
In a 2015 interview with Drumhead Magazine, Peart said: “Lately Olivia [his 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. I would rather set it aside than face the predicament described in our song ‘Losing It.’”
But that was far from the first time he’d referenced the idea of retirement. In his 2002 autobiography, “Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road,” he revealed that he had told his bandmates to “consider me retired” at least as far back as 1997 at the funeral of his daughter Selena Taylor. She was killed at 19 in an automobile accident in Brighton, Ontario.
Peart attributed that loss to the death 10 months later of his wife, Jacqueline Taylor. She had also battled cancer, but Peart said he believed she had died of a broken heart because of their daughter’s death.
In 2013, the band was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Today, Rush is cited as an influence by such diverse bands as Metallica, Foo Fighters, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Primus, Pantera, Tool, Death Cab for Cutie, the Mars Volta, the Smashing Pumpkins, Queensryche and Dream Theatre,” critic Rob Bowman wrote for the threesome’s induction. “Metallica’s Kirk Hammett calls Rush ‘the high priests of conceptual rock.’”
In his induction speech for the group, Nirvana and Foo Fighters founding member Dave Grohl fed the numerous Rush fans on hand in Los Angeles what they wanted to hear after complaining vociferously about its absence from the hall for 13 years since it became eligible in 1999:
“The world is full of mysteries,” Grohl said from the stage. “Robert Johnson and the deal he made with the devil at midnight; Paul McCartney’s death in 1966 and his replacement by an exact double; Elvis sightings, Jim Morrison sightings, Axl Rose sightings. But there’s one mystery that has eclipsed them all,” eliciting a round of cheers from the Rush faithful.
At the ceremony in Los Angeles, Lifeson humorously skewered the whole process with a speech in which he repeated the phrase “Blah, blah, blah” during the group’s turn at the microphone.
News on Friday of Peart’s death quickly sparked a deluge of responses from fellow musicians.
Beach Boys creative leader Brian Wilson credited him as “one of the great drummers” and wrote, “I feel real bad about this — he was way too young” on his Twitter feed.
I just heard about Neil Peart passing. I feel real bad about this - he was way too young. Neil was one of the great drummers and he’ll be missed. Love & mercy to Neil’s family.— Brian Wilson (@BrianWilsonLive) January 10, 2020
– Brian pic.twitter.com/T5qjECWX1W
Black Sabbath founding member Geezer Butler tweeted, “Sad to hear of Neil Peart passing. RIP.”
Sad to hear of Neil Peart passing. RIP. pic.twitter.com/2iMWJq1uoo— Geezer Butler (@geezerbutler) January 10, 2020
Actor-musician Jack Black wrote, “The Master will be missed — Neil Peart RIP #RushForever.”
Peart is survived by his wife, Carrie, and their daughter, Olivia Louise Peart.
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