Drummers, much like bassists, were always in the shadow of a band’s frontman or guitarist. However, there comes a time when these figures step out into the light and are recognizable just like their other peers. And then there comes a time where their importance to the band is so significant, that without them, there would be no music at all. Such is the case for famous drummers like Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, and John Bonham. And then, there is Neil Peart.
Sadly, Neil passed away on January 10, 2020, due to Glioblastoma, aka brain cancer. In honor of this icon, I am dedicating this article to him. Before we get started, though, I would like to point out how there are many people suffering from this form of brain cancer. And as Rush’s frontman, Geddy Lee, said, if you want to show your support, then donate to cancer research. Now on to the tribute.
Talent and a Vision
Every Rush fan knows that Peart wasn’t present from the start. At the age of 16, Peart started drumming, with a clear vision in mind, to turn this passion into his career. He would try out multiple gigs across the continent, at the age of 22, before ultimately returning to his hometown, Ontario. It was then he caught the eye of Geddy Lee and was fully integrated into the band. Thought at first saw as a goofball, many would come to realize that this was not the case. In fact, in his younger days, Neil Peart was known to play hard and heavy, inspired by legends such as the famous Led Zeppelin drummer, John Bonham. On top of that, it was during this first year with Rush that he revealed his writing skills. It was not long after, he took the reins as Rush’s chief lyricist.
And then came ‘Fly by Night.’ ‘Fly by Night’ was more than just an album. It was hard rock but with much more emphasis on lyrics. Peart turned the band from a small town gig into a global sensation. The titular song became one of their main concert staples, while songs like ‘By-Tor and the Snow Dog,’ showed off that Peart was a right pick for the band. An 8-minute track that was thematically more about fantasy, something that would continue to appear throughout their other albums. Lee was also keen on the idea of a more progressive and heavy vibe, like their first album’s song ‘Working Man.’ In 1974, Rush was conceived, but its real birth took place in 1975 with this album. In the following years, Peart would continue his role as lyricist and drummer and created some of my personal favorite songs.
The Holy Trinity
Caress of Steel was the band’s first followup and the first in my holy trinity. Where concepts like ‘By-Tor and the Snow Dog’ were touched upon previously, here they went all out exploring it. ‘The Necromancer‘ is thought of as a spiritual successor to the song, while songs like ‘Bastile Day‘ went for a more revolutionary approach. ‘The Fountain of Lamneth‘ went for a more story-like method, chronicling a journey of discovering the titular fountain within a 19-minute track. This sort of segmented song pieces would continue to appear in Peart’s later work.
Their next album would take this story-like approach, with more sci-fi elements. 2112 is an essential album for all Rush fans and is the one that introduced the keyboard as a must-have in their records. This track perfectly demonstrates Lee’s, Peart’s, and Lifeson’s playing skills, each unable to outshine the others. And that’s one of the key reasons why Rush is so dear. Each member is loud and recognizable for their own sound, and you feel that bond, where nobody outshines nobody, but all are equally great.
The last in this holy trinity of mine is the album I started with, and the one that many remember the most, ‘A Farewell to Kings.’ ‘Xanadu,’ was a track Peart wrote inspired by the tales of Kubla Kahn. It was also one of the first Rush songs to utilize the keyboard to its fullest potential. However, the album also featured my favorite song written by Neil, ‘Closer To The Heart.’ The only thing that can beat this song for me is its live counterpart and my god, hearing that on their last tour was mesmerizing. It would only go up from here.
To The Summit of Success
The last years of the ’70s saw the band detach themselves from hard rock, and go full progressive. ‘Hemispheres‘ was the first one to adopt this new change, and with ‘La Villa Strangiato,’ they announced their rebirth. The song was inspired by different dreams that their guitarist, Alex Lifeson, had throughout a tour. It was divided into 12 sections, each giving a different theme while mixing in other musical genres, like jazz fusion. Neil Peart would also revisit the Strangiato theme multiple times with drum filling, one that during live performances usually gives him free rein to improvise.
Their next piece of successe came in the form of ‘Permanent Waves,’ an album that was more radio-friendly than their previous. Songs like ‘Freewill‘ and ‘The Spirit of Radio‘ were a single track that would be simplified. On the other hand, tracks like ‘Natural Science‘ closed off yet again in a sectioned form. By this point, the lyrics for every album were written by Peart, with Lee, and Lifeson, jumping in on occasion, with songs like ‘Different Strings.’ Their next album was, however, the summit, and peak of their success.
‘Moving Pictures‘ is more than just a progressive rock album. Frankly, it’s a masterpiece. ‘Vital Signs,’ ‘Red Barchetta,’ ‘YYZ,’ all astonishing songs. However, Peart’s greatest triumph came in the form of ‘Limelight‘ and ‘Tom Sawyer.’ The first track deals with themes of fame, one that the drummer experienced over the years, and the problem of privacy that came with his popularity. Unlike his bandmates, Neil was having difficulty adjusting to this newfound fame, which was intruding on his personal space. It could be said that this might be the reason things slowed down’ in the ’80s and ’90s.
A Personal Struggle
After 1981, and ‘Moving Pictures,’ Rush continued to innovate in terms of music. While they would never reach the same level of greatness as their previous album, they still had some pretty good ones that held up fine on their own. The followup to 81’s album ‘Signals‘ and its single ‘Subdivisions‘ went for a more synth-rock genre then prog rock. Their next record ‘Grace Under Pressure‘ leaned more towards new wave, a defining style of the decade.
This genre switch would continue into the next decade, where once again Peart and Rush would revisit the hard rock genre with albums: ‘Counterparts,’ ‘Roll the Bones,’ and ‘Test for Echo.’ A need for creative innovation soon crossed Neil’s mind, and he would get his chance to reinvent his drumming style. He would quickly get acquainted with Freddie Gruber, a jazz drummer, and mentor, who would refine his skills. This newfound will for improving oneself put him under the wing of some wondrous drummers. Sharpening his crafts, he would continue playing on massive drum kits. For this absurd equipment and style of playing, he was dubbed ‘The Professor.‘ This would also be the moment Neil faced a personal tragedy.
In 1997 and 98, he lost both his daughter and partner in tragic accidents. He would presumably retire, and Rush was all thought to be over then and there. Neil Peart would take a tour across North and Central America, reflecting on the past, chronicling it in his book ‘Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road.’ In the early 2000s, he would return to the music scene, where he would meet and marry, industry photographer Carrie Nuttall. Officially he was back with Rush and gave three more amazing albums by the end of the decade.
The Professor’s Last Stand
The last three albums could be summed up as darker themed, with the band returning to their hard rock and prog-rock roots. ‘Vapor Trails’ was the first album after a substantial time not to incorporate the keyboard. The structured form that the band was known for was also gone, and both Lee and Peart adopted a more relaxed approach. ‘Snakes and Arrows’ went for an all-out progressive rock vibe, one similar to those albums of the ’70s. Their final album ‘Clockwork Angel’ would finish things off as a conceptualized story. The entire story would be told throughout 12 songs, and they would all link together. This was Peart’s final project, one that he worked on solo. Though he always stayed true to his friends, Peart created the story for the album away from the band members. After Lee saw the idea, it was finally published.
His last years were spent mostly on tour. In 2010, the band had performed on the now infamous tour called ‘Time Machine.’ In 2015 Neil Peart made his last appearance on the ‘R40 Live Tour,’ the 40th anniversary of him joining the band. It was then due to chronic tendinitis and shoulder problems, he would fully retire and commit to his wife and daughter. It was well-considered that Rush was finally over. However, where most bands make a last farewell or depart on some ridiculous terms, Rush members remained close friends well after the band’s retirement. Which brings us to this year, 2020. Their once beloved friend and brother passed away, after a three year battle with cancer. Peart was never a person for publicity, and choose to keep this matter on a private level.
A Final Farewell To Kings
While some might argue that this is more a Rush tribute than a Neil Peart one, to that I say, you are right, it is. Because without Peart, there would be no Rush. He was an important component as much as Lifeson and Lee. Without the three of them, it isn’t Rush. Yet his influence on music culture was far greater than just his Rush contribution. Wherever you list today, the first two names you will see up there with the most famous drummers are Bonham and Peart. And that’s for a good reason.
On top of that, he played a large part in my individual passion for the instrument. Bonham was way gone by the time I was born. Peart, on the other hand, was present, during well most of my life. His texts, music, and style was the one that inspired me to pick up drums and start rolling. There would come a time when I return to Rush songs, and for a couple of months, that’s the only thing you’ll find on my playlist. All thanks to Lee, Lifeson, and Peart. An icon has left us but will never be forgotten. From me, Peart thank you, for all you have taught me about life and music. You will be missed, but not forgotten. And now one final song.
In memory of Neil Peart September 12, 1952 – January 7, 2020.