Remembering Neil Peart: More Than a Drummer

Music Features Neil Peart
Remembering Neil Peart: More Than a Drummer

It would be difficult to overstate how much Neil Peart of Rush meant to multiple generations of teenagers, and not just because he was a superlative drummer. Though he may not have known it, Peart, who died Jan. 7 of a form of brain cancer, was also something of a guide and mentor.

Rush fandom is often played for laughs in pop culture, when it’s not a source of outright cringes—think Jason Segel on Freaks and Geeks bashing along on the drums to “The Spirit of Radio” in his dad’s basement; or Krieger, the weirdo mad-scientist character on the animated series Archer, who has decorated each of his sketchy “rolling probable-cause” vans with airbrushed murals depicting cover art from Rush’s albums.

Even Rolling Stone couldn’t resist a whiff of condescension in 2015 when it put the Canadian trio on the cover of the magazine, 41 years into Rush’s career. Under the headline “Twilight of the Geek Gods,” the one-time countercultural gatekeeper made the plaudit seem like a favor to all the nerds who like sprawling prog-rock songs full of mythology, literature, history and dystopian futures, all set to blazing guitar riffs and complicated time signatures.

But Rush fans weren’t waiting for anyone to tell them it was okayto like the group. For many, liking Rush has been a badge of pride, even if it usually hasn’t been a marker of cool, at least not in a stratified high-school-cafeteria kind of way. And high school was surely the time and place where most Rush fans discovered the band. In many ways, Rush was a ready-made refuge for kids, often boys, who were never going to be part of the popular crowd and knew it, but also realized the futility of mourning that fact, or even dwelling too much on it.

Liking the band came without the superficiality of Top 40, or the orthodoxy of punk rock, or jam bands, or high school itself. Rush was a pathway through all that. With enough fantasy and sci-fi elements for the Tolkien readers, sufficient political philosophy for the would-be free-thinkers and all the musical chops the marching-band kids could ever want, Peart, singer/bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson could seem like kindred spirits. They weren’t “cool,” but they had a sense of humor about it. Also, they were fantastic musicians who were clearly having a blast playing intricate songs, and that was uplifting.

I was more of a budding Pink Floyd fanatic my freshman year of high school, but I knew a guy who never missed an opportunity to needle me about how basic Nick Mason’s drum parts were. The guy was a drummer, so his opinion carried some weight, even if his own band was one of those standard-issue high-school groups that spent a lot of time rehearsing in someone’s basement and never actually performed. He was also a Rush fan, so naturally he worshipped at the throne of Neil Peart, whose parts were never simple.

If the teasing bothered me—c’mon, Nick Mason, just play one flashy fill!—it didn’t stop my buddy’s enthusiasm for Rush from seeping in. And so on a chilly evening in May 1992, my best friend and I found a spot on the lawn at the local amphitheater so Peart could amaze us in person. And he did. They all did. It was my third-ever concert.

For all the band’s impressive musical ability, though, Peart’s lyrics were what drew me in. Some of the stuff he wrote early in Rush’s career bore the direct influence of Ayn Rand, a polemical writer and self-styled philosopher who preached a severe doctrine of self-reliance in the pursuit of one’s own happiness. That feels spot-on when you’re a certain kind of teenager, and looks coldly selfish and mean-spirited in your 20s, when most people grow out of it, including Peart, who described himself as a “bleeding heart libertarian” in a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone.

Yet even his most Randian songs were less about self-interested self-advancement than skepticism regarding any authority that claimed blind allegiance from anyone’s heart or mind, be it government or religion. Peart was self-reliant in the sense that he celebrated resisting the pressure to conform, and the defining characteristic of his lyrics was compassion for the kids who didn’t try to fit in, or couldn’t. That’s the subject of “Tom Sawyer,” the band’s best-known song, and a recurring theme throughout Rush’s discography, from “2112” to “Free Will” to “Subdivisions” to “Mission” to “Nobody’s Hero.” Peart was a deeply empathetic lyricist who understood the loneliness and angst that could accompany kids who marched to a different beat (sorry), and Rush’s catalog is full of songs offering them the encouragement to keep marching: “All of us get lost in the darkness / Dreamers learn to steer by the stars,” he wrote, and Lee sings, on “The Pass,” from the band’s 1989 album Presto.

My fourth concert was Rush, too, a couple years later, when I was nearing graduation from a different high school in a different state. Moving halfway across the country between 10th and 11th grade was disorienting, to say the least, and Rush played a huge role in smoothing the transition. Sure enough, there were kids who listened to Rush, and Pink Floyd, at my new school, too. Rush was in frequent rotation on the stereo of whatever beater car was carrying my friends and I around the dark, twisty backroads of small-town New England as we figured out who we were without being aware that’s what we were doing.

Most teenagers go through a similar process of self-discovery, of course, whether or not they’re cool, or joiners, or whatever. Rush was simply what helped make it more bearable, more comprehensible, for my friends and me, their songs like a series of signposts pointing in a certain direction. Meeting new people in college, and hearing the songs they liked, helped expand my musical palate, and I gradually listened to less Rush as I encountered other sounds and styles. Becoming a music writer pushed the process along: Though I had the very good fortune to interview Lee and Lifeson within a few weeks of starting a job as a newspaper music critic, suddenly there was so much else to hear that I did far more listening for work than for fun. Hearing Rush again every now and then, on the radio or in concert, always felt like bumping into an old friend. Learning that Peart had died felt a lot like losing one.

News of his death sparked the usual torrent of high-profile tributes, from admirers including Jason Segel and Paul Rudd (who gave Rush a cameo in their 2009 movie I Love You, Man), Jon Wurster, Questlove and Dave Grohl. “We all learned from him,” Grohl wrote in a statement, and though he was talking specifically about drummers, the sentiment holds true for Rush fans who have never played a note. They’re the ones who have found solace in the band’s music, and Peart’s lyrics, for 45 years. Peart is gone, but thanks to those songs, he hasn’t gone away. As he wrote in “Bravado,” from Rush’s 1991 album Roll the Bones, “If the dream is won, though everything is lost / We will pay the price, but we will not count the cost.”

Watch a 1976 Rush performance from the Paste archives below.

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