Rush’s Neil Peart: 1952 – 2020

Rush’s Neil Peart: 1952 – 2020

Rush’s Neil Peart has been praised by such titans as Dave Grohl and Tool’s Danny Carey, and he was crowned the fourth greatest drummer of all time by Rolling Stone. But over the years, his technical ability has been unfairly heard as immoderacy — even self-indulgence.

One recent satirical article had him schooling a subway drummer with a 20-bucket kit. Another had Meg White, the deeply untechnical drummer of the White Stripes, replacing him in Rush. But whether you’re on the punk or prog side of the coin, it’s important to understand that Peart was above all a meticulous craftsman.

Peart was an indispensable part of Rush until their final concerts in 2015, when his physical ailments caught up with him. On January 7, 2020, he lost his three-and-a-half-year battle with brain cancer. He was 67.

“My drum parts all through the ’70s and ’80s were very carefully refined,” Peart told Modern Drummer in 2016, describing his process. “I’d put in a little figure or accent and think, ‘This would go with that,’ and, piece by piece, the architecture, the composition, would come together.”

Overcoming childhood physical limitations and channeling his energy into the drums, Peart lent his lyrical and percussive craftsmanship to nearly every album by the Geddy Lee-led prog giants, beginning with 1975’s Fly by Night, peaking with classics like 1976’s 2112 and 1981’s Moving Pictures, and concluding with 2012’s swan song, Clockwork Angels.

Sure, Peart is easily pictured behind his tricked-out 360-degree kit with timbales, chimes and MIDI triggers; he was known for gonzo meters and 8-minute drum solos. But as outsized as his drumming could be, it never overwhelmed Rush’s best songs. In fact, it dictated them.

To honor the late and sometimes misunderstood Peart, here are five essential Rush cuts that display his range.

2112 (1976)

A sorta-concept album inspired by everything from Ayn Rand to the Twilight Zone to weed, Rush’s 2112 is the musical equivalent of a redolent hesher jacket.

“The red star is the evil Red Star of the Federation,” 2112 cover artist Hugh Syme once explained. “One of Neil Peart’s symbols.” (Later in life, Peart adorned his stage setup with clocks, gears and alchemical images.)

On the sidelong title track, a seven-part odyssey complete with an “overture” and a “grand finale,” Peart nails every galloping interlude and zonked transition.

A Farewell to Kings (1977)

“Xanadu” opens with windchimes, birdsongs and a peaceful drone. Then, the opening line, based on the outset of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan: “To seek the sacred river Alph/To walk the caves of ice/To break my fast on honeydew/And drink the milk of paradise.”

“[T]hose four lines just etched like a burning image in my head,” Peart told Georgia Straight magazine in 1977. For the rest of the 11-minute jam, Peart’s lyrics break open the poem, and his ascendant rolls impart the idea of taking a bite out of the apple of life.

“La Villa Strangiato”
Hemispheres (1978)

Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson meant “La Villa Strangiato,” a nine-minute instrumental from Hemispheres subtitled “An Exercise in Self-Indulgence,” to be a “musical transcription of his nightmares.”

“Alex has some of the most bizarre bad dreams,” Peart told Sounds in 1978. “[S]ome of the stories he comes up with can be quite mind-blowing.”

Across the song’s 12 sections, the band pivots from spastic funk to shadowy acoustic passages. Peart’s haunted-house fills suggest a boogeyman out for Lifeson’s blood.

“Jacob’s Ladder”
Permanent Waves (1980)

Named after an atmospheric phenomenon inspired by the Israelite patriarch’s vision of a heavenly staircase, “Jacob’s Ladder” is one of Rush’s most pure, luminous creations.

“We built a whole song around a picture … where the rays break through the clouds,” Peart told Modern Drummer in 1980. “The event itself is a beautiful and inspiring one,” he added elsewhere. (Lee said he picked up on his mother-in-law using the term.)

As “Jacob’s Ladder” climbs and climbs, with Peart’s breathless hi-hat and ride work building in intensity, Rush do the “beautiful event” justice. Few other bands dealt in wonderstruck majesty like this.

“Tom Sawyer”
Moving Pictures (1981)

Despite its oversaturation on classic-rock radio (and on Imus in the Morning), “Tom Sawyer” remains Rush’s signature song for a reason. It shows that underneath all the bells and whistles, the band was pop-savvy.

The lyrics were a collaboration between Peart and Canadian lyricist Pye Dubois. “[They’re] a portrait of a modern-day rebel,” the drummer once explained. “A free-spirited individualist striding through the world wide-eyed and purposeful.” Even as “Tom Sawyer” becomes busier and busier, Peart never drags the song down. He’s the engine.

Image: Peart onstage with Rush in Seattle, 2015. Credit: Mat Hayward/Getty.

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