Music

RIP Neil Peart, 1952–2020

Drummer Neil Peart during a Rush concert at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, September 21, 2002 (Ethan Miller/Reuters)
The Rush drummer, who died on Tuesday after a long, quiet battle with brain cancer, was a one-of-a-kind musician and lyricist.

Neil Ellwood Peart, a musician and writer, died on Tuesday after a years-long, private struggle with brain cancer.

Born in Port Dalhousie, Ontario in 1952, Peart was best known as the lyricist and drummer for the Canadian hard-rock power trio Rush, which he joined in 1974, just before the band’s first American tour.

Peart’s virtuoso drumming style transformed Rush from a straight-ahead rock group into one of the most successful and enduring bands of the 1970s progressive-rock movement. Upon joining the band, he also assumed the role of writing almost all of its lyrics. A high-school dropout who was rarely seen without his nose in a book, he brought an autodidact’s wide-ranging interests to his work, beginning with post-teen forays into science fiction and later progressing to examinations of history and philosophy rarely seen elsewhere in the hard-rock idiom.

A youthful interest in Ayn Rand’s fiction led to the lyrics for “Anthem,” the lead track on Rush’s second album and Peart’s first collaboration with his new band mates. The young man who’d been picked on in high school for being a cape-wearing oddball — his own parents admitted in the wonderful 2010 documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage, “We thought he was weird” — called out to others finding their own individualism:

Know your place in life is where you want to be
Don’t let them tell you that you owe it all to me
Keep on looking forward, no use in looking ’round
Hold your head above the crowd and they won’t bring you down

While Peart always denied being a full-fledged Randian — “I am no one’s disciple,” he said in later years — Rand’s work would directly influence Rush’s breakthrough album 2112: The first side consists of a seven-part rock epic derived in part from Rand’s novella “Anthem,” replacing the light bulb discovered by Rand’s nameless, oppressed hero with a long-forgotten electric guitar.

2112 was, to the surprise of almost everyone involved, a huge success. The science-fiction showcase of the title suite married to Rush’s kinetic and complex hard rock won the band the first of its ten platinum albums and vaulted them from opening act to headliner status for the remainder of their long career.

Peart often described himself as a libertarian, and his further explorations of individuality and standing against conformity in later songs such as 1978’s “The Trees,” 1981’s “Red Barchetta” and 1982’s “Subdivisions” contributed to Rush’s popularity in conservative and libertarian circles, which continues to this day.

While Peart maintained an intense interest in current events, he rarely brought contemporary politics into his lyrics until taking a left turn very late in his career. As a member of Rush, he lyrically addressed topics ranging from the Cold War nuclear standoff to environmental issues, often with an appreciation for nuance rarely seen in the simplistic protest songs that were the norm among “socially engaged” rock acts such as Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine.

Peart surprised an interviewer in 1984 by answering firmly in the negative when asked whether, as a Canadian, he felt “more nervous” living next to the United States than he had before the Reagan administration:

I have a real love for this country, like I said, not a blinkered love, by any means, and I have no problems seeing the defects, of course. But I know that a lot of those are historical imperatives and the position that America occupies in the world today is not altogether by choice. I mean, it’s not people’s fault that it became the most successful country and the richest country and the most powerful country, it just happened, you know, because people worked and people were into it, and they did it. So, you can’t fault them for being the most powerful and having that incredible responsibility. I mean, it’s easy to point fingers at figures in government and so on and blame the government for a lot of things, and of course, there’s a tremendous amount of Reaganitis about, but really, it’s a bit facile to do that. Anyone who thinks about it a little more and learns a little more about the history of the country and why things are the way they are knows that America didn’t go out and buy a bunch of nuclear bombs just so they could be the big guys on the block, you know? It was strictly a historical imperative. . . . They had to, you know. There was no choice and there is no choice.

Peart was one of very few rock lyricists to directly address the grim realities of Soviet rule during the Cold War, a notable departure from the trite moral equivalence of Sting (“I hope the Russians love their children too”) and other contemporaries. In 1991’s “Heresy,” he looked at the revolutions of 1989–90 not just with wonder at what was achieved, but also with revulsion at what had been lost:

All around that dull gray world
From Moscow to Berlin
People storm the barricades
Walls go tumbling in

The counter-revolution
People smiling through their tears
Who can give them back their lives
And all those wasted years?
All those precious wasted years
Who will pay?

Along with wealth from millions of album sales and countless concert tickets, Peart earned something that he never wanted: fame. Introverted and intensely private, Peart had a life-long aversion to interacting with his own fans, often noting to his friends that the word itself was derived from “fanatic.”

That distaste for the “star” portion of being a rock star was most famously expressed in his 1981 song “Limelight”:

Living in a fisheye lens
Caught in the camera eye
I have no heart to lie
I can’t pretend this stranger
Is a long-awaited friend

The last decades of Peart’s life were marred by terrible personal tragedy and a long rebuilding process. His tranquil family man’s life was shattered when his daughter Selena was killed in a 1997 auto accident and his wife Jackie succumbed to cancer less than a year later. Those devastating losses drove Peart into self-imposed moving exile as he traveled alone across North and Central America by motorcycle for over a year.

After finding the will to go on over that long journey —recounted in his 2002 memoir Ghost Rider — Peart rebuilt his personal life with a new marriage in 2000, and later reunited with band mates Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson for three more Rush albums and several hugely successful concert tours from 2002 to 2015.

Upon returning to the limelight, Rush discovered that a sea change had occurred during the hiatus imposed by Peart’s loss and recovery. Long dismissed by the “cool kids” of rock criticism as a nerd-embraced heavy-metal oddity, Rush now found itself a beloved elder statesmen of the art form. Platinum-selling peers such as Metallica and Living Colour paid homage to the band’s influence, and Rush fans who’d identified with Peart’s self-reliant philosophy as harassed teenagers were now influential players in popular culture. The band was featured in the movie I Love You, Man, a documentary about its career was a surprise hit on the festival circuit and home video, and the trio was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a raucous 2013 ceremony.

Rush’s popular appeal in terms of album sales peaked with the 1981 watershed Moving Pictures, but the vast and dedicated fanbase Peart and company built through relentless touring — it was the norm for them to play over 250 live dates a year in the late 1970s and early ’80s — stayed with the group through a 41-year run that concluded with a de facto farewell tour in 2015. Peart, determining that he could no longer maintain his personal level of performance on stage — Rush played three-hour sets, the high points of which were often his eight-minute-plus drum solos — declared that he was “retired” after the final show of that tour. Rush never played again as a unit, and now never will.

Peart’s band mates announced Friday that he had died earlier this week from a previously undisclosed case of Glioblastoma, a cancer of the brain. True to his need to avoid the limelight to the end, Peart had battled the disease for over three years without any mention of his affliction reaching the public.

He leaves behind a widow, a young daughter, seven non-fiction books, a novel, 20 studio albums, and a musical legacy that will endure for as long as young (and not-so-young) people seek brains, heart, and hard-won skill to go along with the primal call of bass, guitar, and drums. RIP.

Will Collier is an aerospace engineer and a writer. He lives in metro Atlanta.

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