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In Memoriam: Neil Peart by Rick Mattingly

Jan 13, 2020, 08:52 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

Back in the 1980s, before email, Neil Peart preferred writing letters to talking on the phone. Being that he was the one who wrote the lyrics to Rush’s songs, it made sense that he valued the written word. I received some of his letters when I was an editor at Modern Drummermagazine, during a time when we were coordinating a contest in which the winner would receive one of Neil’s old drum sets. I especially remember the first letter; at the top, where one would typically put something along the lines of “October 28, 198_,” he wrote, “A rainy, leafy night in Toronto.” His letters, like his lyrics, were filled with poetic imagery.

In my dealings with Neil, which, in addition to his letters did, in fact, include a couple of phone calls and meeting him backstage after a Rush concert at Madison Square Garden, he always reminded me of jazz and classical musicians I knew. He seemed to have little interest in being a “rock star,” even though his drumming put him among the highest echelon of rock royalty. He was in it for the music, not the lifestyle. “Even as a kid, I never wanted to be famous,” Peart told the Toronto Star. “I wanted to be good.” His lyrics to “The Spirit of Radio” reflected that attitude: “One likes to believe / In the freedom of music / But glittering prizes / And endless compromises / Shatter the illusion / Of integrity.”

When the Steve Morse Band toured with Rush during the 1985/’86Power Windowstour,drummer Rod Morgenstein got to know Neil. Rod recalled that Neil didn’t engage in the typical small talk that usually goes on before and after shows. As an example, one night when Rod sat next to Peart at dinner, Neil turned to him and said, “Have you ever considered how different languages affect the world dynamic?” Rod admitted that he hadn’t. But Neil had.

Rod described a typical day for Peart on the road: “A typical show day often consists of travel, sound checks, meet and greets, interviews, the performance, followed by more meet and greets,” Rod explained.” A typical show day for Neil Peart on the Power Windowstour would usually begin in the wee hours of morning, as Neil would journey on his bicycle from the previous city (assuming said previous city was within 150 miles of the next gig). Neil would often be on his bike for hours, arriving in time for Rush’s sound check. Directly after sound check, he would have dinner, immediately followed by a one-hour conversational French language lesson with a local French-speaking tutor. Neil would then proceed to a private practice room and warm up on a small drum kit prior to the band’s two-hour concert.”

Neil Ellwood Peart was born on September 12, 1952,in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. After taking piano lessons, he started drumming at age 15, greatly inspired by The Who’s drummer, Keith Moon. For years, Neil wore around his neck a chain with a piece of a cymbal Moon shattered at a Toronto concert. At age 18 Peart moved to England to pursue a music career, but after 18 months he returned to Canada where he worked for his father selling tractor parts and playing in local bands.

He joined rock trio Rush in 1974. The group started as a blues-rock band in 1968, but evolved into a progressive group that incorporated elements of heavy metal and punk. Peart used an extensive drum set that completely surrounded him and included melodic and synthesized percussion instruments along with the usual drums and cymbals, and his intricate solos were highlights of Rush concerts.

Many considered Neil to be the world’s best rock drummer, and he was honored in the Modern DrummerReaders Poll 38 times. Nevertheless, in the ’90s Peart took lessons from Freddie Gruber and Peter Erskine, and he credited them with helping him develop 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.”

In addition to his drumming, Peart wrote the lyrics to Rush songs, inspired by science fiction, classical mythology, philosophy, and literary works. The title of Rush’s 1984 album, Grace Under Pressure, was taken from Ernest Hemingway. Peart was also the author of several books, including 1996’s The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, which chronicled a 1988 bicycle tour in Cameroon. After Peart’s 19-year-old daughter, Selena, was killed in a car crash in 1997, followed a year later by the death of Peart’s wife from cancer, Neil took a 14-month motorcycle trip from Canada to Central America, after which he documented his travels and sense of loss in the book Ghost Rider.

In the 1990s, Peart produced two tribute albums to jazz legend Buddy Rich, titled Burning for Buddy, which featured such drummers as Bill Bruford, Billy Cobham, Kenny Aronoff, Rod Morgenstein, Simon Phillips, Steve Smith, Max Roach, Joe Morello, Ed Shaughnessy, Steve Gadd, and Peart, among others, playing tunes associated with Rich and backed by a big band made up of Rich alumni.

During Peart’s time with Rush, the band released over 20 albums, 14 of which went platinum. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Rush’s album sales put them third behind the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for the most consecutive gold or platinum certifications by a rock band. The group’s best-known album was 1981’s Moving Pictures, which reached No. 3 on the Billboardalbum chart and sold nearly 5 million copies. That album included some of Rush’s best-known songs, including “Tom Sawyer,” “YYZ,” and “Limelight.” Rush disbanded in 2015.

When Rush was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, Peart said, “The highest purpose of art is to inspire; what else can you do for anyone but inspire them? It’s gratifying to think of us having inspired these youngsters to pick up a pair of drumsticks, a guitar, and a rhyming dictionary and torment their parents as we tormented ours.”

Peart died in Santa Monica, California on January 7, 2020, of brain cancer.

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