Neil Peart, Rush Drummer Who Set a New Standard for Rock Virtuosity, Dead at 67
Hall of Fame drummer and lyricist succumbs to brain cancer
Neil Peart, the virtuoso drummer and lyricist for Rush, died Tuesday, January 7th, in Santa Monica, California, at age 67, according to Elliot Mintz, a family spokesperson. The cause was brain cancer, which Peart had been quietly battling for three-and-a-half years. A representative for the band confirmed the news to Rolling Stone.
Peart was one of rock’s greatest drummers, with a flamboyant yet precise style that paid homage to his hero, the Who’s Keith Moon, while expanding the technical and imaginative possibilities of his instrument. He joined singer-bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson in Rush in 1974, and his musicianship and literate, philosophical lyrics – which initially drew on Ayn Rand and science fiction, and later became more personal and emotive – helped make the trio one of the classic-rock era’s essential bands. His drum fills on songs like “Tom Sawyer” were pop hooks in their own right, each one an indelible mini-composition; his lengthy drum solos, carefully constructed and packed with drama, were highlights of every Rush concert.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, Lee and Lifeson called Peart their “friend, soul brother and bandmate over 45 years,” and said he had been “incredibly brave” in his battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. “We ask that friends, fans, and media alike understandably respect the family’s need for privacy and peace at this extremely painful and difficult time,” Lee and Lifeson wrote. “Those wishing to express their condolences can choose a cancer research group or charity of their choice and make a donation in Neil Peart’s name. Rest in peace, brother.”
A rigorous autodidact, Peart was also the author of numerous books, beginning with 1996’s The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, which chronicled a 1988 bicycle tour in Cameroon – in that memoir, he recalled an impromptu hand-drum performance that drew an entire village to watch.
Peart never stopped believing in the possibilities of rock (“a gift beyond price,” he called it in Rush’s 1980 track “The Spirit of Radio”) and despised what he saw as over-commercialization of the music industry and dumbed-down artists he saw as “panderers.” “It’s about being your own hero,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. “I set out to never betray the values that 16-year-old had, to never sell out, to never bow to the man. A compromise is what I can never accept.”
Peart was a drummer’s drummer, beloved by his peers; he won prizes in Modern Drummer’s annual readers’ poll 38 times, and was a formative influence on countless young players. “His power, precision, and composition was incomparable,” Dave Grohl said in a statement released Friday. “He was called ‘The Professor’ for a reason: We all learned from him.”
“Neil is the most air-drummed-to drummer of all time,” former Police drummer Stewart Copeland told Rolling Stone in 2015. “Neil 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. And he can do that while doing all kinds of cool shit.”
Rush finished their final tour in August of 2015, after releasing their last album, Clockwork Angels, in 2012. Peart was done with the road. He questioned whether he could stay physically capable of playing his demanding parts, and was eager to spend more time with his wife, Carrie Nuttal, and daughter Olivia.
On August 10th, 1997, Peart’s 19-year-old daughter, Selena, died in a single-car accident on the long drive to her university in Toronto. Five months later, Selena’s mother – Peart’s common-law wife of 23 years, Jackie Taylor – was diagnosed with terminal cancer, quickly succumbing. Shattered, Peart told his bandmates to consider him retired, and embarked on a solitary motorcycle trip across the United States. He remarried in 2000, and found his way back to Rush by 2001.
Peart grew up in Port Dalhousie, a middle-class Canadian suburb 70 miles from Toronto, where he took his first drum lessons at age 13. As a teen, he permed his hair, took to wearing a cape and purple boots on the city bus, and scrawled “God is dead” on his bedroom wall. At one point, he got in trouble for pounding out beats on his desk during class. His teacher’s idea of punishment was to insist that he bang on his desk nonstop for an hour’s worth of detention, time he happily spent re-creating Keith Moon’s parts from Tommy.
Peart joined Rush just after the recording of their first album, replacing original drummer John Rutsey. His breakthrough with the band came with 1976’s 2112 – the first side of the album was a rock opera set in that far-future year, combining Peart’s sci-fi vision and Rand-ian ideology (which he later disavowed, calling himself a “bleeding-heart libertarian”) with explosive prog theatrics. A later milestone came with the 1982 “Subdivisions,” an autobiographical tale of suburban misery (“the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth.”).
“A lot of the early fantasy stuff was just for fun,” Peart told Rolling Stone. “Because I didn’t believe yet that I could put something real into a song. ‘Subdivisions’ happened to be an anthem for a lot of people who grew up under those circumstances, and from then on, I realized what I most wanted to put in a song was human experience.”
Around then, Rush’s music become more concise, without losing its complexity. “When punk and New Wave came,” Peart told Rolling Stone. “we were young enough to gently incorporate it into our music, rather than getting reactionary about it — like other musicians who I heard saying, ‘What are we supposed to do now, forget how to play?’ We were fans enough to go, ‘Oh, we want that too.’ And by [1981’s] Moving Pictures, we nailed it, learning how to be seamlessly complex and to compact a large arrangement into a concise statement.”
Always suspicious of showbiz, Peart spent much of his downtime on the road in Rush’s early days buried in a stack of books. In the final years, he avoided the usual touring routine by traveling from gig to gig via motorcycle, taking off shortly after each show’s conclusion.
In the Nineties, he produced two tribute albums to jazz legend Buddy Rich, and at a moment when many of his fans already considered him the world’s best rock drummer, Peart began taking lessons with Freddie Gruber, a jazz player and noted drum instructor. Peart credited Gruber (and another teacher, Peter Erskine) with helping him recreate his technique and sense of time from scratch, leading him to a more fluid approach and a deeper groove. “What is a master but a master student?” Peart told Rolling Stone in 2012. “There’s a responsibility on you to keep getting better.”