Neil Peart, the longtime drummer for rock band Rush, has died. Widely considered to be one of the best and most technically proficient rock drummers of all time, the musician passed away on Tuesday morning in Santa Monica, California, from brain cancer, according to Rolling Stone. A representative for his family confirmed Peart had been struggling with the illness for the past three years. He was 67.
Born in Ontario, Canada, Neil Peart began drumming in earnest when his parents bought him a pair of drumsticks and got him lessons at the age of 13. After struggling to find steady work as a drummer in his teenage years following graduation from high school, Peart was invited to join Rush after the departure of the group’s original drummer, John Rutsey. Demonstrating a flair for language, Peart quickly became the group’s lyricist on top of his duties behind the drum kit, and Rush soon became as well known for their thoughtful, literary-infused lyrics as for the virtuosity of the band’s playing. He played with Rush from the group’s second album on through to its final releases, culminating with the R40 Live Tour in 2015, after which Peart announced his retirement from performing to focus on spending more time with his family.
After the first three Rush albums failed to make much of a mark commercially, the band’s label pressured them to change their sound to be more accessible. Instead, the bandmates decided that if they were going to be dropped, they wanted to go out on their own terms. The resulting album, 2112, was a smash hit in the United States, with the entire first side a sci-fi concept record dreamt up by Peart. As described in the Rush documentary Beyond The Lighted Stage, the band considered this to be the moment when it became liberated from the usual commercial pressures forced on major-label bands, and the trio was able to follow its own muse free from corporate meddling.
While all three members of Rush are acclaimed for their technical prowess, Peart’s playing has come to be known as the gold standard for technical virtuosity in the genre. Initially leaning into more traditional hard rock elements, Peart—along with guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist Geddy Lee—soon embraced more progressive rock structures, still the style with which Rush is most associated. However, they continually incorporated new and diverse influences, from reggae and new wave to jazz. Peart, in particular, began penning more introspective and humanistic lyrics, often dealing with heady emotional and philosophical themes. The band’s biggest hit, “Tom Sawyer,” featuring vocals interrogating the idea of rebellion and reconciling different parts of the self, from youth to adulthood.
Despite being at the height of his powers, in the 1990s Peart began a complete reeducation of his craft, studying with the drummer Freddie Gruber and learning a new swing-style method of playing that changed the sound and rhythm of his drumming. Peart has commented that he was initially disappointed when people said it still just sounded like him, before realizing, “Of course it does!” The first album to feature his new method was 1996's Test For Echo.
Peart endured enormous tragedy in 1997, following the conclusion of the tour supporting Test For Echo, when his 19-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident, and his wife of 23 years died of cancer within months of the accident. Rush went on hiatus, and Peart—initially thinking he was done with drumming for good—took an extended road trip, a lengthy motorcycle journey throughout North and Central America, which he later recounted in his memoir Ghost Rider: Travels On The Healing Road. By trip’s end, Peart had traveled almost 55,000 miles, and made a kind of peace with what had happened. As he described it in the book:
Without knowing it, I had identified a subtle but important part of the healing process. There would be no peace for me, no life for me, until I learned to forgive life for what it had done to me, forgive others for still being alive, and eventually, forgive myself for being alive.
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Peart remarried in 2000 to the photographer Carrie Nuttall, and by 2001 he had rejoined his bandmates to begin making music again. The group released Vapor Trails in 2002, the first Rush album since 1975's Caress Of Steel to not feature any keyboards or synthesizer. Always a private person to begin with, Peart subsequently dropped out of nearly all press interviews or fan meet-and-greets, his already withholding manner made more so by the tragedies suffered. However, one of his rare group interview appearances came in 2008, when the group appeared on TV for the first time in almost 30 years—on Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Due to rights issues, the actual interview is unavailable, but here’s some delightful footage of Rush playing “Tom Sawyer” in the video game Rock Band.
Peart’s fascination with the written word continued throughout his life. The drummer authored seven non-fiction books, beginning with 1996's The Masked Rider: Cycling In West Africa, about his month-long bicycling tour through Cameroon, and concluding with 2016's Far And Wide: Bring That Horizon To Me!, about his travels in between stops on Rush’s R40 Live Tour. Peart also co-wrote two fiction books, collaborating with science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson to pen a novelization of the band’s 2012 concept album Clockwork Angels, as well as a sequel, Clockwork Lives, in 2015. He also released several side projects over the years, including a pair of tribute albums to Buddy Rich and several instructional drum videos.
In 2015, Neil Peart announced his retirement, with Rush R40 Live Tour being the last time he played with the band. “Like all athletes, there comes a time to... take yourself out of the game,” he stated, expressing the desire to stop before his performances lessened in quality, as well as evincing a wish to spend more time with his wife and daughter Olivia, who was born in 2009. It seems fitting to end our tribute to the musician with a video of one of his greatest drum solos, concluding the great Rush instrumental, “YYZ.”