Everyone knows 2020 is going down in history as the single most challenging year humankind has faced in modern history. Between the ravages of a worldwide pandemic threatening our families and livelihoods and the hopeful signs of long-needed change rising from another needless social tragedy, after too many years of looking the other way, our world is aligning to a reckoning of what truly matters—to our families and our shared community—with a new sense of urgency. Leadership and forward thinking are in much needed demand.
In our corner of the world, as percussionists who strive to make a difference in expression through the musical arts, our year began with the toll of a bell that sent shock waves around the entire world with the passing of Neil Peart, on January 7, in Santa Monica, California, at age 67.
We lost a gentle giant of a soul who wielded mightily from behind his massive drum set with the command and authority of a true Rock God, adored by his ardent fans across the globe, but also blessed with the pragmatic sensibility to scoff at such an analogy of himself because he took his work so seriously and was truly humbled by the majesty of his instrument and its history. His loss seems now foreshadowing of dark times to come. His insight and humor are sorely missed at a time when they are needed the most. It is no surprise that the outpouring of grief and love from all corners of the world for this drummer, songwriter, author, and avid motorcyclist, has swelled into his immediate induction in the PAS Hall of Fame, in the very year of his passing.
Consider his qualifications, as outlined here by our PAS Executive Director, Joshua Simonds: “What is a PAS Hall of Famer? 1. Someone who has made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of percussion. 2. Someone who has distinguished themselves from their contemporaries. 3. Someone whose influence has been significant to the profession. 4. Someone whose accomplishments will continue to be valued by percussion professionals of the future. As I think about Neil Peart, I can without a doubt check each of these criteria. Like so many of us, Neil Peart was an inspiration to me—both personally and as a percussionist. As the PAS Executive Director, I can say without any doubt, Neil Peart is 100% deserving of this induction. As a fan, I say, ‘What took so long?’ It is now up to the rest of us to make sure that Neil, like so many other drummers before him, is remembered by future generations of drummers and percussionists, and I am honored to lead an organization that will do just that.”
Neil Peart was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, on September 12, 1952. It would seem he was pretty average at first, as are those among us in beginning our musical development. He studied piano as a child and got into drumming as a teenager. The era he was born into was perhaps foretelling as his childhood timeline parallels that of the birth of rock ’n’ roll music, and, as told in Rick Mattingly’s memoriam of Neil, in our April 2020 Tribute issue of Percussive Notes, by age 15 (which would’ve been in 1967), Neil was already an enthusiastic fan of Keith Moon and The Who, even sporting a necklace with a piece of a cymbal Moon shattered at a Who concert Neil attended in Toronto. Imagine having a piece of Keith Moon’s drum set or Pete Townshend’s guitar from the crazy era where those young men were smashing up their instruments nightly during their shows. A souvenir like that is a powerfully impressionistic piece of history. Neil even moved to London after school for a while to try and “make it” in music before returning to Canada and joining Rush—the band that would become his musical home for the rest of his life—replacing original drummer John Rutsey just two weeks before the band’s first major tour in 1974.
It’s interesting to note that as Neil developed his own voice on the drums, he found he couldn’t be satisfied with the seemingly effortless abandon of his hero on the kit. He preferred a more staccato, detailed approach to Moon’s more open, legato-meets-glissando one. However, there was one important aspect of Keith Moon’s vibe that stayed with Neil.
“The world has lots of favorite drummers, and Neil Peart was most definitely amongst mine, for a variety of reasons,” says Jonathan Mover, editor of Drumhead magazine and a peer of Neil’s on the rock concert circuit. “But the main reason Neil captured, and held, my attention for decades can be summed up in one word: fun!
“His parts were creative, intelligent and methodical,” Mover continues, “each drum track being a composition within a composition, and with Rush, it was a combination of equal parts instrumentation, composition, concept and lyric—a Grand Slam if ever I heard one!”
Neil explained his process in a 2007 Drumhead interview with Mover: “When I first got into cover bands that played Who songs, I discovered I didn’t like playing like Keith Moon. That was the important lesson I learned—I preferred to be more compositional and organized. Just as your playing should be a reflection of your nature, so mine is. Although at its height, what Keith played on Tommy, for example, is just sublime and so beautifully musical on that album in particular that I’m still impressed when I listen to it. I still understand what I saw and heard in those days, and why I so love his approach to playing the drums. The more technique, understanding, and experience I gather, it allows me to better express what I find exciting in drumming, and what I think works well musically and dynamically. Those things, they’re choices that are made, at best, from your heart, your character.”
To that point, “It’s hard to calculate Neil’s enormous influence on so many of us,” offers Grammy-winning drummer and Golden Globe Award nominated composer Antonio Sanchez. “I was touched by his drumming when I first heard Exit Stage Left and the beautifully well-constructed drum solo on “YYZ”—which absolutely blew me away. Many years later, when I was already heavily into jazz, I realized how much storytelling Neil had in his playing and how much it had made an impression on me without me even understanding the depth of it at the time.”
Impact can be defined as the effect or influence of one person, thing, or action, on another, and there is no question that Peart made an impact on the world by sharing his experience through his writing, his contributions through his band, including his lyrical, compositional, and drumming skills, and also sharing his fortitude to both explore and improve himself. He was restless and curious in ways that inspired a legion of devoted fans. Consider his example in regularly changing not just the design of his drum set but also his willingness to routinely change alliances with different companies and brands of drums and cymbals over the years including Slingerland, Tama, Ludwig, Drum Workshop, Zildjian, and Sabian—never for the prestige of endorsements but rather to satisfy his ever-changing tastes and needs. The industry moved to keep up with him and the challenge was healthy for the business as a whole.
Neil plied his wares wondrously in recording studios and stages around the globe with his Rush bandmates—vocalist/bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson—for 41 years, releasing, according to various sources, 41 albums, 38 singles, 10 box sets, 2 Eps, 13 video albums, and 33 music videos. According to the Recording Industry Association of America’s statistics, Rush ranks third, just behind the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for collecting the most consecutive gold or platinum albums by a rock band. As of 2004, several industry resources calculated the band’s overall worldwide album sales at 40 million units. As one of our newest inductees into the PAS Hall of Fame, it is also worth noting that in 1983 Neil Peart was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame and was, then age 33, the youngest drummer to receive that honor.
The band worked hard and steadily throughout their career, recording and touring almost constantly. At the risk of omitting anyone’s favorites, it’s fair to say that their LPs 2112, Hemispheres, All the World’s A Stage, Permanent Waves, and Moving Pictures became iconic classics in the field of progressive popular music and inspired a true legion of fans around the world. They were always a hot ticket. Fortunately, it is not hard to find a few decades worth of in-concert videos where Neil’s fans can enjoy the music and the progression of his playing, and ogle all of the different drum sets he used over the years.
During that time Neil became a family man and also developed a passion for motorcycle riding and classic car collecting. He famously rode his motorcycles from city to city on tour and kept a sort of “man cave” of a storage facility for his cars
Neil occasionally dabbled in musical projects outside of Rush and also constantly studied to expand his vocabulary and abilities behind his drum set. One of Neil’s peers, the multi-talented Steve Smith, reflected on these aspects as seen through his personal friendship with Neil. “I feel fortunate that I met with Neil from time to time, always having meaningful and lively exchanges,” Smith said. “When I met Neil in 1985 at a recording session for bassist Jeff Berlin’s album Champion, we had an easy rapport both personally and musically. We ended up double drumming on one of the songs, ‘Marabi,’ together, which was fun and effortless. The Burning for Buddy recording session was another standout experience where we had a good time musically, and I introduced Neil to my drum guru, Freddie Gruber.”
Peart credited his work with Freddie Gruber—who built a reputation based on his friendship with Buddy Rich and keen understanding of Buddy’s natural approach to stick technique, becoming a guru to drummers including Smith, Peart, Dave Weckl, Bruce Becker, and Daniel Glass)—as essential on opening new doors for his facility, technique, and stamina.
Over the years, being the primary lyricist for Rush’s compositions, Neil made a natural progression towards evolving into a prolific, published author. The lyrics he wrote for Rush were thought provoking and often felt like complete sagas or novellas within themselves. Many of his lyrics resonated with young people, particularly fans who may have felt outcast from their peers. American singer/songwriter Pamela McNeill, who has written songs for artists including Wynonna Judd and Yanni, posted a touching tribute to Neil in the days after his passing, reflecting on the personal impact Neil’s work had on her:
“My nickname in high school was ‘Rush.’ I loved their sound. I loved their rhythm. As a young musician, I was obsessed with learning their songs so I could air drum or air guitar or air bass with all of my musician friends. It was complex and fun. I know people always said they were a band for ‘dudes,’ but as a girl at a sensitive age I welcomed Neil’s thoughtful lyrics. What a story “Red Barchetta” was. I was living ‘Subdivisions’ at that age as someone who felt sort of like I didn’t fit in. I could go on and on. These lyrics weren’t talking down to me—or telling me that I was a woman to be objectified—they were challenging me and making me listen to the stories as well as the music! And I can honestly share that they saved my life.”
It was during a peak period for Rush’s success, while Neil was also in the midst of his studies with Gruber and with a few published books under his belt, that tragedy struck Peart’s family in 1997 with the death of his daughter, Selena, in an auto accident, and, again, in 1998, after the passing of his wife, Jaqueline, from cancer and, in Neil’s words, a broken heart over the loss of their daughter and only child.
That year Neil told his bandmates they should consider him retired and he set out to try to find a way forward after losing his family. He embarked on an epic motorcycle journey across North America that he documented and recounted in the book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. The book is a riveting, autobiographic look at a man, alone, trying to make sense of both loss and purpose. He struggled with the idea of whether or not he would ever play again, and he recounted how the desire to play began to reawaken within him after taking in a concert in a later point of his journey by the popular 1960s band The Lovin’ Spoonful.
Mike Arturi was playing drums with the band that evening and shared an interesting perspective on the reference in Neil’s book: “It was in Nevada, and we were doing a casino show with Jan & Dean for a packed house. Several years later a friend called to tell me this show was mentioned in Ghost Rider. We never knew Neil was in the audience! I am grateful that I didn’t know he was out there, but it would have been phenomenal to meet him. He was on a long motorcycle trip, was staying at the hotel across the street, and I think he possibly came to the show looking for founding member and fellow Canadian Zal Yanovsky, who was replaced during the band’s heyday in the ’60s by one of our main members, Jerry Yester. Neil noticed the joy that the music was providing to the audience. The conviction and spirit of the three original members and the dedication the ‘younger’ players (me and our keyboardist/2nd guitarist) gave to the music inspired him to think about getting back to live performance. He humorously referred to Jerry as ‘some guy who replaced Zal.’ Neil felt the music still was valid, and it started him thinking about the importance of his own band’s music.”
Neil ultimately returned to Rush and also remarried, after being introduced to Carrie Nuttall by the band’s chief photographer. The band released the Vapor Trails album in 2002 and resumed a full-time schedule. Neil and Carrie’s daughter, Olivia, was born in 2009.
Rush recorded their final studio album, Clockwork Angels, in 2012 and celebrated their 40th anniversary with the R40 concert tour, after which Neil announced his retirement from the band, citing health issues based on the physical wear and tear many drummers endure. The news of his passing on January 7, 2020, after privately battling a form of brain cancer, was a startling revelation to his many friends and fans, as only a tight circle of friends and family knew of his struggle. Neil is survived by his wife, Carrie, and daughter, Olivia.
In the days that followed, remembrances appeared worldwide such as this message posted by PAS Hall of Fame member Jack DeJohnette: “I am sad to hear about the passing of Neil Peart. We were friends, and I admired his music and his powerhouse drumming. My sympathies to his family and band members. May he be at peace.”
A thoughtful man, full of wisdom and wit, tenacity and talent, Neil Peart was known by many nicknames: The Professor, Bubba, Pratt, John Ellwood Taylor, Milton Banana, NEP. As we welcome him into the PAS Hall of Fame let us hear the final words from a few of his colleagues who share that distinction with him, honoring him in their own words for the occasion.
Steve Gadd: “The Burning for Buddy project was my only contact with Neil. It was fantastic. I mean, Buddy Rich Big Band? It doesn’t get any better than that. I had a lot of respect for him because of what he’s done, what he’s accomplished, and also how he guerrillaed his way through in life. I don’t know how you come back from what he went through. And he was a soft-spoken, gracious guy. We lost him too soon. I couldn’t believe it. I had no idea he was battling anything, but that sort of lined up with the kind of persona I felt he had when I met him as kind of a private guy. He was very respectful and very passionate about music. That was what I felt during the time I spent with him.”
Evelyn Glennie: “How can one acknowledge the impact Neil has had on the drumming and percussion community in a few words? He was an adventurer of life; he was as artful with the spoken word as he was wielding a pair of drumsticks. All this fed into his extreme curiosity and masterful creativity as a musician who happened to play drums.”
David Garibaldi: “Neil was in Life’s Hall of Fame long ago. A pretty cool guy. His drumming exploits were legendary, as were his work habits and commitment to excellence. I met him during Burning for Buddy sessions at the Power Station in New York City. He was producing the recording and also playing. In the studio, tucked away in a corner, was an iso booth where Neil’s drums were set up. Each day, after recording the ‘who’s who’ in the drumming world, he’d go in there to practice and to prepare for when it was his turn. That was so inspirational to me. He was friendly, respectful, easy to talk to, and focused on making my turn with band the best that it could be. It was an experience I’ll never forget. It’s only fitting that he be enshrined in the PAS Hall of Fame; too bad that it took so long! Thank you, brother Neil, RIP.”