Drummer Neil Peart’s body is finely tuned instrument
Cue Simpsons-Comic-Book-Store-Guy voice: Best. Band. Ever!
If you’re a good drummer, it’s a physically demanding job. To be the greatest, you must follow a training regimen that goes beyond the lighted stage.
A recent reader’s poll in Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed my fellow Canadian Neil Peart of Rush to be the greatest living drummer, and I, many drum magazines and TV’s “Family Guy” agree. Accordingly, I endeavored to snag an interview with a man who rarely gives interviews. I wanted to discover how a rocker — a career not known for promoting health or longevity — can keep his body a skin-smashing machine after 37 years in the same rock trio giving calorie-combusting concert performances that would blow the lumbar discs and ventricles of lesser men.
Getting to meet Peart might be cool too.
The stars, planets and concert tickets aligned. According to Rush publicist Meghan Symsyk, I hit the “trifecta” needed to qualify for 15 minutes of Peart’s time before the June 30 concert in Vancouver, Canada: I’m writing for his current hometown paper, I am Canadian and I wanted to talk fitness.
Leaving at an hour so ungodly it would make Linda Blair’s head spin around, my best friend, Craig McArthur, and I commenced a 600-mile, middle-aged-men-in-minivan voyage fueled by weapon-grade coffee and an all-Rush soundtrack. Arriving in Vancouver, we checked into a Ramada of dubious quality in an area where I worried about the safety of my 2009 Toyota Sienna.
After freshening up and working out the kinks of the road with a stroll about the city and “the best lasagna in town,” I walked to Rogers Arena for the interview, fretting over the possibility that Peart might not actually have a fitness regimen.
But he did not disappoint. The man, it turns out, is a workout warrior, and he credits this with giving him the endurance to drum the way he does.
I arrived early and was brought to a waiting area backstage where the door was left open and busy people walked by doing their jobs like it was no big deal. Promptly on schedule, I was escorted to Peart’s dressing room, and as he stood to greet me, offering a large right hand for me to shake, I noticed he dwarfed my 6-foot frame.
Knowing time was tight, we commenced the interview quickly, with a momentary detour to talk about shoes. I have my preferred runners, and it turns out Peart has his favorite drumming shoes: light, comfortable and with little bumps on the soles that act as suction cups to give just the right amount of grip. We’re both believers in having the right tools for the job.
I started by asking him if he was active as a child.
“I had spindly little ankles, and growing up in Canada, I couldn’t skate,” he said. Just FYI, being able to ice skate is kind of a big deal in this country. “I was no good at any sports so was very much a pariah through those adolescent years.”
I identified with this: I’d been a teenage spaz who was always picked last for teams and so am painfully aware of the subdivisions in the high school halls between the cool kids and the misfits.
I found exercise later in life — and so, it turns out, did Peart. What’s more, he said, “It was actually drumming that gave me the stamina to get into sports later. I started playing drums at 13, and when I got to the international touring level … I got interested in cross-country skiing, long-distance swimming, bicycling … things that require stamina, not finesse. I’m still no good at ball-and-stick games. If I go play golf with the guys, it’s intended to be a joke.”
The depth of his interest in fitness became apparent when he started to talk about the difference between slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers. Fast-twitch fibers are the ones that generate massive power and are used in feats of strength. Even though Peart beats his drums like they’re a rented Hyundai, the force he generates is not to a degree that activates fast-twitch fibers; it is almost exclusively the work of the smaller, fatigue-resistant slow-twitch muscle fibers. Unless he decides to bench press his drum kit.
“Stamina is the force that drives the drumming; it’s not really a sprint,” said Peart, who is 46 years older to the day than my 12-year-old son (see what I did there? I made you do math). “The stamina aspect is great because you don’t lose that with age so quickly. I know there will be a day when I just can’t do it, but at 58 years of age it hasn’t come yet. I can still play as fast and as powerful and as long as I ever could.”
To keep up his stamina, he said, he has to pretty much never get out of shape. More of us need to think this way. So often people want to lose weight for a high school reunion or a beach vacation — and then commence gaining it all back as soon as they hit the buffet line or start ordering poolside margaritas. Such short-term motivation is a far cry from the superior approach of keeping a fit lifestyle close to your heart all year round.
“If it’s cross-country ski season, I’ll be out doing that, or snowshoeing up in Quebec,” he told me. “In my California home, I go to the local Y and I like doing yoga. It’s been hugely beneficial to me in injury avoidance.” I know some yoga fans who are going to love reading that.
He’s also an avid cyclist and swimmer. He lifts weights as well but keeps it light because, again, he’s focused on training those slow-twitch fibers.
Even though he’s consistently active, that doesn’t mean he’s always road ready. Touring requires an additional level of sport-specific training, a.k.a. endless drumming.
I get that: I run long distances and lift weights throughout the winter, but when the snow melts and I break out my bicycle, it still takes a few weeks before things come together on the bike.
Then Peart showed me his “radical calluses” that he needs to build up for touring, which are significantly bigger than the ones on my feet from running. I experienced an attack of callus envy.
“Playing a three-hour Rush show is like running a marathon while solving equations,” he said. “My mind is as busy as it can be, and so is my body; full output all the time.”
Even while he’s on tour and working hard on stage in the evenings, Peart still fits in exercise. Last summer in Colorado, he took a day off between shows and hiked up one of the fourteeners — a mountain peak that exceeds 14,000 feet. And I thought I was special when I used to go for a run after a day of trade show booth duty.
Peart thinks, with apologies to their parents, that drumming is a good physical activity for kids.
“Years ago I got involved in a charity trying to help troubled kids and came up with a slogan: ‘If you’ve got a problem, take it out on a drum.’ I can’t do it professionally because it’s so disciplined — I’ve got to control the band and tempos — but there is such a thing as getting a kid’s aggression out on a drum set.”
Plus, he said, drumming is a way for young kids to build up stamina without risking injury from contact sports. And it’s a good choice for kids who hate sports but like music.
For parents dreaming of a golden child with a Johnny Unitas flattop who captains the football team, a pierced and purple-haired teen pounding out his version of Excedrin Headache No. 17 on a drum kit may seem like a bad trade. But drumming is physically active and creative, and it beats having a kid whose passions are Doritos, weed and Mario Kart.
Just how physically active is it? Peart told of a study done on Clem Burke, the drummer for Blondie, on the metabolic effects of drumming. The research, conducted by Marcus Smith of the University of Chichester in England, found that Burke’s heart rate averaged 140 to 150 beats per minute and at times would spike as high as 190 — well beyond the recommended “maximum” for his age (he’s now 57). Smith concluded that being a top drummer required the same stamina as being an elite-level soccer player.
No wonder Peart trains hard. He’s also aware of the need to eat “sensibly and nutritiously” to fuel his endeavors, extolling the virtues of a healthful breakfast (balanced with a single-malt whiskey after each show).
It was thrilling to hear he takes exercise seriously enough to keep his body a high-performance machine. Peart is the epitome of fighting a valiant delaying action against age and refusing to slow down; I see him as a musical Jack LaLanne (hey, it’s not like I used Rush lyrics for my high school graduation quote or anything).
Later that evening, I got to see Peart’s athletic performance up close. Acting as an embedded reporter on the front lines of the Rush concert, I witnessed the drumming version of LaLanne swimming Long Beach Harbor while towing a string of 70 rowboats.
The band played for 80 minutes, then took a 40-minute break because members were considerate of their fan base’s urgent need to use the bathroom and get more beer. Then they powered through another 90 minutes. The second set contained an astounding 71/2 -minute drum solo.
For almost three hours, Peart pounded on his kit with a combination of disciplined vigor and finesse that mesmerized the crowd of 13,000 fans. One of the songs the band played was “Marathon” from its 1985 “Power Windows” album. Peart is also the band’s lyricist, and the closing lines he penned for the song are, “You can do a lot in a lifetime, if you don’t burn out too fast/You can make the most of the distance/First you need endurance/First you’ve got to last.”
Peart understands that when it comes to making things last, humans are the exact opposite of mechanical systems. If you own a classic vehicle (say, an Italian Barchetta-style sports car), to preserve this old machine you need to keep it in storage most of time, perhaps taking it out only for Sunday drives. Biological entities are different because we have self-repair built in. And for a rock drummer to keep his engine responding with a roar for 50-odd years, he needs to rack up the mileage.
Physically pushing the body makes it better, makes it stronger, makes it last. Sitting on the couch is what causes it to burn out too fast.
Though he’s an aficionado of many endurance activities, Peart admitted he doesn’t like running. But since I do, forgive me this metaphor-o-rama to describe his penultimate performance for the band’s Time Machine tour: He completed a marathon and wasn’t gasping toward the end. His rigorous training regimen gave him the endurance to sprint across the finish line. Yeah, I’ll proudly wear my concert T-shirt to the gym.
And to my fellow road warrior who put up with my neuroses for that crazy 48 hours: I love you, man.
Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, Canada.