R.I.P., Neil Peart of Rush
Q: How many drummers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Five. One to screw the bulb in, and four to talk about how much better Neil Peart could’ve done it.
We begin this post with a joke because a) it’s funny, b) it’s true, and c) it’s a way to ease into the news that we’ve just received here at Rhino HQ: Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for Rush, has died at the age of 67 from brain cancer.
Born Cornelius Ellwood Peart on September 12, 1952 in Hamilton, Ontario, our man Neil actually started his musical training on piano, but plunking the keys didn’t do much for him. On the other hand, he had a distinct tendency to utilize a pair of chopsticks as makeshift drumsticks, beating on various items around the Peart house, which his parents upgraded to actual drumsticks for his 13th birthday while also providing him with a practice drum, a series of drum lessons, and a promise that they’d buy him a proper kit if he stuck with it for a year.
You’ll never guess what he got for his 14th birthday...
After taking additional lessons from Don George, an instructor at the Peninsula Conservatory of Music, Peart soon found himself playing drums for a series of various Ontario bands – among them The Eternal Triangle, JR Flood, The Majority, and Mumblin’ Sumpthin’ – before deciding to see if he could make his way as a musician in London instead.
“I went to England with musical motivations and goals,” Peart told Modern Drummer. “But when you go out into the big world, as any adult knows, you’re in for a lot of disillusionment. So while I was there I did a lot of other things to get bread into my mouth. When I came back from there, I was disillusioned, basically, about the music business. I decided I would be a semi-pro musician for my own entertainment, would play music that I liked to play, and wouldn’t count on it to make my living. I did other jobs and worked at other things, so I wouldn’t have to compromise what I have to do a drummer.”
Strangely enough, Peart’s return to Canada initially found him playing in a band called Hush, but after hearing from a friend that Rush was looking to audition drummers to replace their original percussionist, John Rutsey, Peart decided to give it a shot, and although he walked away from his audition convinced that he’d blown it, Geddy Lee liked the guy, and Alex Lifeson... Well, let’s just say that he came around to Geddy’s way of thinking.
From 1975’s FLY BY NIGHT through 2012’s CLOCKWORK ANGELS, the band’s final studio album, Peart remained with Rush, and he kept it going straight on through their final tour, which concluded on August 1, 2015 at the Forum in Los Angeles. On December 7 of the same year, however, Peart said in an interview with Drumhead Magazine that he was retired.
“Lately Olivia has been introducing me to new friends at school as, 'My dad—He's a retired drummer.' True to say—funny to hear. And it does not pain me to realize that, like all athletes, there comes a time to ... take yourself out of the game.”
This was clearly news to his bandmates, as Lee said almost immediately thereafter that Peart was, in fact, “simply taking a break,” but the fact of the matter is that Peart made good on what he’d said, as well he probably should have, given that he was suffering from chronic tendonitis and shoulder problems, little realizing that he would soon be stricken by a far worse malady.
In his time, Peart endured more than most men could bear, and we’re not just talking about his medical conditions. On August 10, 1997, not long after Rush had wrapped up their tour behind the TEST FOR ECHO album, Peart’s first daughter, Selena, was killed in a car accident. Only 10 months after that, his common-law wife, Jacqueline, died of cancer, although Peart wrote later that the cause of death was actually a “broken heart,” one which led to “a slow suicide by apathy.” In fact, Peart wasn’t doing so well himself, even going so far at one point as to tell Lee and Lifeson that they should consider him retired, but that retirement turned into a sabbatical, one Peart spent most of which on a motorcycle, traveling 55,000 miles throughout North and Central America, during which time he mourned, reflected, and wrote the book that would become Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road.
Thankfully, Peart returned to Rush, and he also found new love with Carrie Nuttall, a coupling which ultimately led to the aforementioned Olivia Louise Peart and helped to heal a heart that he likely thought it would never recover.
Neil Peart was inarguably one of the greatest drummers of all time, and his contributions to music will not soon be forgotten, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be missed.
"Neil Peart was a musician and songwriter of immeasurable talent who will surely be remembered as one of the greatest and most influential drummers in the history of rock and roll. His ingenious lyrics painted incredible pictures that made Rush’s songs jump off their musical canvases. Across the band’s classic studio and live albums with Atlantic and Roadrunner, Neil has been a part of the Warner Music Group family for over three decades. We are all deeply saddened to hear of his passing today but we are proud to have been a part of the vast footprint he has left on the world. Warner will continue to honor Neil’s legacy as his music is celebrated for generations to come. Rest In Peace, Neil."
- Kevin Gore, President of Global Catalog, Recorded Music for Warner Music Group