Neil Peart Dies: Longtime Rush Drummer & Lyricist Was 67

Neil Peart dead
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Neil Peart, whose drum theatrics and iconoclastic lyrics fueled the Canadian rock trio Rush to international fame, died Tuesday in Santa Monica after a long battle with brain cancer. He was 67. His longtime bandmates Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson confirmed the news today on social media.

Ontario native Peart wrote the lyrics to most of Rush’s songs and is widely considered among the greatest drummers in rock ‘n’ roll history. Known for his wild fills, massive drum kit and precision timekeeping. “The Professor” joined bassist Lee and guitarist Lifeson in Rush after its first album in 1974, and the band would go one to sell tens of millions of records worldwide. He retired from the group weeks after it played its final show on August 1, 2015, at the Forum near Los Angeles, capping its 40th anniversary tour.

Rush is a staple of classic rock radio with such enduring songs as “Tom Sawyer,” “The Spirit of Radio,” “Limelight,” “Subdivisions,” “Closer to the Heart” and “New World Man” — all fueled by Peart’s drumming and lyrics. The group’s popularity was galvanized during the 1980s, when it released six consecutive albums that reached the top 10 on the Billboard 200, from 1980’s Permanent Waves through 1989’s Presto and including the 1981 double live set Exit … Stage Left. After two late-’80s albums peaked in the teens, all of its half-dozen studios sets from 1991’s Roll the Bones through 2012 swan song Clockwork Angels hit the top 10.

Neil Peart dead
Peart onstage with Rush in 1980 Shutterstock

The group’s 1970s albums all would go on to attain gold or platinum status stateside as its popularity grew. In all, Rush released 19 studio records and 10-plus live albums. Seven would make the U.S. Top 5, but none hit No. 1. Its biggest pop single in the U.S. was 1982’s “New World Man,” which peaked at No. 21 — a song that was basically an afterthought after producer Terry “Broon” Brown suggested they write a track to even out the lengths of the two sides of the then-popular cassette format.

But it was on the concert stage that Rush and Peart flourished. Seated amid and surrounded by a sprawling kit that held dozens of drums, cymbals, chimes, bells, a gong and more, he would stop every show with a solo that incorporated them all. He’d get up off his stool as the riser rotated and turn around to use different instruments, including electronic drums. In a post-’70s era when long solos often were frowned upon, Rush was among the few live acts whose audience ate them up — basically demanded it. And Peart never let them down. His solos were accompanied by video that was synched to his performance.

A devotee of drum legend Gene Krupa and later the Who’s Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, Peart was known for stick tosses that seemed to scrape the rafters of the arenas Rush played routinely. When the band would play “Freewill,” for example, he would take advantage of the drum rest during its intro to hurl a stick skyward, always catching it just in time to pick up the beat.

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His seemingly impossible speed and flawless rhythms spurred countless air drummers — at his shows, listening to his records and in their cars. His hypersonic fills resonate through such classics as “Tom Sawyer” and U.S. breakout single “The Spirit of Radio” but also punctuate lesser-known album cuts such as “The Camera Eye,” “The Temples of Syrinx” “The Fountain of Lamneth” and “Digital Man.”

Then there were what basically are drum hooks or sometimes nearly song-spanning solos in tracks including “The Body Electric,” “Mystic Rhythms” “Witch Hunt” and “Manhattan Project.”

But Peart also was known for his iconoclastic lyrics, touching on mythology, self-determination and general outside-the-rock-box themes. Side 1 of Rush’s 1976 album 2112 is a 17-minute song suite inspired by the works of novelist Ayn Rand, whose writing had a significant influence on his lyrics. The seven-song 2112 side tells the story of a man is a dystopian society where music has been banned. He finds an ancient guitar in his cave and learns how to play it, much to his delight. A dream oracle shows him how the world used to be. But when he takes his discovery to the ruling “priests,” they rebuff and rebuke him: “We have no need for ancient ways, our world is doing fine.” Distraught, the man returns to his cave and sings: “Just think of what my life might be in a world like I have seen. … My spirits are low in the depths of despair. my lifeblood spills over.”

Although many rock critics dismissed Rush — and often Peart’s lyrics and even the band’s fervent, disproportionally male fans — for decades, the trio eventually gained more favor. Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the 2013 ceremony in Los Angeles, where they were met with by the far the biggest ovation of the night. It wasn’t even close.

Born on September 12, 1952, in Hamilton, Ontario, Peart played in local bands and worked in his father’s farm-equipment story before replacing John Rutsey in Rush after the band’s debut album for Mercury Records. His influence on the trio was immediate, as his lyrics and insane drumming peppered such pre-fame albums as Fly by Night, Caress of Steel — check out the “Didacts and Narpets” portion of that album’s “The Fountain of Lamneth” — 2112 and A Farewell to Kings.” 

While 2112 became Rush’s top-selling disc to date in the Great White North, mainstream was radio was resistant to the band’s long, often hard-rocking songs until “Closer to the Heart” became a minor hit in Canada. Fans ate up the song, which featured a bells break from Peart along with Lee’s Chipmunk-high vocals. The song would peak at No. 69 on the Billboard 100 but go on to become a radio and concert staple.

After its next album — 1978’s Hemispheres — also failed to click stateside, peaking outside the top 30, the group would careen into the spotlight with its next release. Permanent Waves contained the rollicking single “The Spirit of Radio,” which exploded onto America’s FM stations, despite its bite-the-hand-that-feeds lyrics. Fueled by Lifeson’s soaring guitar and, of course, Peart’s atomic fills, the song became a rock radio smash and drove the album into the Top 5.

But that was just the beginning.

In February 1981, Rush released Moving Pictures, an out-of-the-box smash that featured “Tom Sawyer,” “Limelight,” “Red Barchetta” and other future classics. It also went Top 5 in the U.S. — No. 1 in Canada — and cemented the group as the platinum selling, arena-filling act it would be for the rest of its career. It was followed by such platinum-selling records as Signals (1982), Grace Under Pressure (1985) and Power Windows (1985).

Peart always was known for his stoic demeanor onstage — “grim-faced and forbidding,” as he wrote in “The Camera Eye.” After Rush’s Test for Echo tour in 1997, with the group ensconced as one of rock’s biggest acts, Peart lost his only child, Selena Taylor, 19, in a car crash. His longtime common-law wife, Jacqueline Taylor, died of cancer less than a year later. Their deaths led Peart to a brief “retirement” from music, but after marrying photographer Carrie Nuttall in 2000, he resumed his career with the band a couple of years later.

He officially would retire for good in December 2015, having authored a book — the 2002 motorcycle travelogue Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road — and multiple instructional videos on drumming and drummers. Peart’s solos also were featured and celebrated in an episode of Cartoon Network’s Regular Show and the film Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, the latter showing a miniature animated Peart doing “the Drum Solo of Life” to reanimate Meatwad and adding a couple of spoken lines.

Rush’s music is featured in dozens of movies and TV shows and is the subject of the feature-length 2010 documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, along with releasing numerous concert and compilation videos. The band has sold more than 25 million albums in the U.S. alone, according to the RIAA.

Forty years ago this week, the Ottawa government gave the band the official title of “Ambassadors of Music” for Canada.

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