Neil Peart RIP: Remembering a breathtaking and iconoclastic talent

Photo Credit: Matt Becker, via Wikipedia Commons

When news hit on Friday that rock legend Neil Peart had died — of a brain cancer that he had essentially retired from music three-and-a-half years prior to deal with — the reaction amongst those familiar with his work and the impact of his band’s music tended to center on the loss of a massively talented musician, someone with endless chops, a drummer among drummers, one of the finest instrumentalists of his time.

This is, of course, true: Peart was, technically speaking, a breathtaking talent, one of those drummers that the closer you listen to his technique, the more you are awed by not just the precision but the intricacy, the ever-shifting center, the way that even the most seemingly straightforward rock song was, from a drumming perspective, through-written with variations and changes. Every song was like a sculpture where you move in close and notice that there are little imperceptible figures carved into every nook and cranny. So yes, it is true: He never took the easy way out, and for that, his instrumental work will stand for the ages as a testament to an indomitable will and spirit.

But viewing Peart merely as a badass tub-thumper gives short shrift to his massive cultural legacy, which goes far beyond drum solos and rock songs in odd time signatures. Peart was an iconoclast, and at heart, a cynic, puncturing through the veneer of what he felt he was supposed to pretend to be in order to make it as an enthusiastic musician in the hard rock races. This made him a grump, of course, and it made everything he did, whether lyrically or musically, seem weighted and portentous — but fundamentally, he thought about rock musically differently than his peers and many of his fans, and he forged a new way for rock music, a way that often didn’t make sense to anyone. Doing all of this didn’t make him better, or smarter than the rock hordes he surrounded himself with — he was just different, and in the end he couldn’t be what he wasn’t, so he tormented himself and his bandmates to find out what exactly he was. His struggle went on for 40 years and if you could look at it through the right lens, it was a pleasure to behold.

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Neil Peart was the drummer for the Canadian rock band Rush for four decades, beginning in 1974 when he replaced original drummer John Rutsey. Rush in 1974 presented themselves as many rock bands had before them: A power trio, bass, guitar, drums. The singer sang in a high register, something that was unremarkable in 1974 when the band’s self-titled debut album with Rutsey came out. Rush were determined, hard-working, and had enough Zep-like friction in their sound to start to make waves in the mid-’70s hard rock world. Had guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist Geddy Lee chosen a more conventional drummer to replace Rutsey that summer of 1974, they would have probably been the kind of band that continued to share stages with Uriah Heep, Montrose, and the like throughout the 1970s; people in their ’60s and ’70s today would probably roll joints on the insides of their gatefold-sleeve double albums and talk about how sad it is that nobody remembers Canada’s answer to Led Zeppelin and how much they totally blew eardrums in hockey arenas all across North America 45 years ago.

Lifeson and Lee made, in retrospect, a momentous choice when they let this super-square farm kid, who at that point was selling tractor parts with his old man, essentially take the reigns of their band, which had management, a major label deal, and a massive US tour only a few weeks away. Peart was a monster behind the kit but he was also more of a rock and roll iconoclast than anyone could have possibly known in 1974; the Rush that subsequently blew up worldwide during the 1970s and ’80s was the result of Peart’s decision to completely re-write how a band could be, and what a big stadium-filling band was allowed to present itself as. He put the brakes on the Zep attack, and led Lifeson, Lee, and many a dorky teenager into a world of existential dread and philosophical conflict, with an ever-evolving sound that never sat with whatever the prevailing aural mood was of any given year of the band’s existence.

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The thing about rock and roll is that, should you choose to pursue it, it really is your own choice. You can pursue rock and roll for a variety of reasons or rationales, and you can tell yourself that you are in it for this reason or that reason; but in the end, for the vast majority of those who throw in their hat in the rock races, no one sheds a tear if you decide to duck out, because it’s too hard, because you aren’t getting anywhere, because it isn’t what you thought that it would be when you were air-instrumenting in your bedroom in your youth to an imaginary crowd, tennis racket in hand. To make it, to really make it, to make it your life, takes a kind of tenacity, a single-minded determination, an unhealthy obsession with perfecting technique and merging airy themes with musical heft, that very few in this world possess.

Neil Peart ran a tight ship, but he also continually challenged Rush’s legacy and fandom.

Some, many, perhaps most, success stories in the annals of rock ultimately boil down to coolness: Trying hard, yes; playing well, sure; but being what people wanted at that time and place that you are there to provide that rock and roll fantasy — that’s everything, really. Most rock and roll is that, then: Being cool, letting others feel cool, creating a sound and a mood and a feeling that is either exciting or refreshing or relaxing or… really whatever it takes to make an audience feel like they are part of something. This is the story of rock, this is the utility of rock, this is the way that the culture has propagated through the modern era, for the vast majority of the genre’s proponents.

Every so often, however, there is a growth upon the tree of rock that mutates into something that wasn’t supposed to be; it can be a group, or a whole movement, that gathers popularity like a spreading flu, one cough at a time, passed around amongst huddled acolytes, that dares to be uncool, to play by new rules. The music, to most, will sound ridiculous, just not what music was meant for. The players, the sound, the lyrics, the feel, the overall attitude, it just isn’t what your average person wants out of popular music. And yet, there is something, a mysterious pull, that causes this musical force to snowball, until legions of the faithful fill large concert venues and call in to radio stations and suddenly it’s the late-’70s and the world of popular music is forced to deal with Rush.

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The shift between 1974’s Rush and 1975’s Fly By Night is, in retrospect, earth-shattering, in the sense that Peart took the happening mid-’70s hard rock riff machine that was Rush and blunted it into a new protean form of rock music, especially on the seven-part fantasy song-suite “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”. It was followed up in the fall of 1975 by Caress of Steel, an even more convoluted work with two elongated song cycles, including the side-length “Fountain of Lamneth” and the gothically-tinged “Necromancer”. The initial 1974 enthusiasm for Canada’s Zeppelin began to speedily tank; the band’s next tour, a sparsely attended jaunt around the States dubbed the “Down the Tubes Tour” by the band, resulted in Mercury Records reading them the riot act — their next album would be make or break.

It is important to understand properly the place and significance of 1976’s 2112 in the history of progressive rock, the ostensible genre that Rush was about to completely hijack. Prior to 1975, there were five undisputed pillars of the genre, all British and all gargantuan global success stories: Genesis, a theatrical five-piece fronted by Peter Gabriel on vocals and flute; King Crimson, a dark and metallic team led by the iron fist of guitarist Robert Fripp; supergroup Emerson, Lake and Palmer; surprise pop sensation Yes; and psychedelic pioneers Pink Floyd. Between 1974 and 1975, however, all of the five, with the exception of Pink Floyd, found themselves faltering, for a variety of reasons. By mid-1975, Gabriel had left Genesis, on the heels of their magnum opus The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Fripp had unceremoniously disbanded King Crimson at the height of their powers, Yes had fumbled through a few lineup changes in the wake of the disappointing reception of their 1973 head-scratcher Tales From Topographic Oceans, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer were essentially inactive from 1974 until 1976, when they would debut their Works albums and fall victim to a classical excess of ambition that almost completely ruined the band (Pink Floyd were the outliers, following up their 1973 worldwide smash Dark Side of the Moon in late ‘75 with another global chart-topper, Wish You Were Here).

In short, hard rock was king, progressive music was on the ropes, and punk and new wave and disco and a million other more happening musical movements were breathing down everyone’s necks — which makes Rush’s decision to say “fuck it” and go full prog on 2112 all the more momentous. The fact that it was the album that made them, that cemented their reputation and forever wed rock riffage with outsized thematic pretension in the hearts of prog’s faithful, is nothing if not a musical miracle. This was Peart’s determination, a head-down exercise in sheer bloody willfulness that paid off at the most crucial moment; subsequent work by Peart and Co. would continue in this vein until he could drum no more, as the band studiously avoided any stylistic repetition while perennially challenging both themselves and their audience to reconsider what it was, exactly, that the band did.

Rush’s music with Peart, then, was a kind of rock music form of the Ship of Theseus thought experiment: If one begins a band’s journey with a certain bedrock of sounds, tricks, timbres and lyrical preoccupations, and then slowly, with each subsequent album, replaces some beloved element with something jarringly new, is it, at some point, actually a new band, even if they personnel never change? By the time Rush were bombarding MTV in 1987 with the video for “Time Stands Still”, a plangent and anthemic tune featuring ghostly percolating synth washes and backing vocals from ‘Til Tuesday’s Aimee Mann, there was precious little left of the crunching riffola that they had plied audiences with when they toured with the likes of Ted Nugent in the mid-’70s.

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2112 got Peart and the band in a small bit of hot water, owing to the record dedicating the title track to “the genius of Ayn Rand”; this anti-collectivist hat-tipping went against the prevailing sentiment of rock and roll in the 1970s, or at least that was the allegation made against the Canadian trio when 2112 began to sell records and put butts in seats for Peart and Co. The band would spend much of the rest of their career attempting to make amends for this Randian faux pas, as Peart took the controversy in stride and used the pushback to find a more accurate way to express his feelings on how an individual should fit into a society; Peart really began to crystallize his philosophies in song by the end of the decade, when radio hits like “Tom Sawyer”, “Freewill” and “The Spirit of Radio” fit some of Peart’s knottiest lyrical conceits with moments of sheer anthemic transport, resulting in some of the best popular rock music of any era.

What was Peart trying so hard to say, exactly? It’s tricky, because one has to extricate Rush’s work from the general gist of most rock music of the 1970s; during that time, rock was an unbridled force of sheer individualism, powermad and lusting for kicks. Pretty much any rock act of any repute was on the prowl for action and excitement, begging to be left alone to their own devices, petulantly drooling for any kind of instant gratification. Rock musicians wanted to hog the spotlight, rock musicians wanted the world and they wanted it now, rock musicians wanted to feel a turbocharged explosion of adenoidal release. It was a decade after The Beatles explosion and people wanted to feel that communal high again, that sense of being alone and feeling excitement and knowing that everyone was also feeling this feeling.

Neil Peart obviously understood all of this by the mid-’70s, because if he didn’t he would have still been selling tractor parts instead of pummeling a drum kit every night in a different city wearing a silk kimono. But his genius lay in his ability to think past the studdering thud of his floor toms and consider the philosophical effect of his trade on the average working joe pumping a fist during his set every night. The Rutsey-drummed version of Rush had a minor radio hit in 1974 in the States with a song titled “Working Man”, a trudging bludgeoning ode to the pointlessness of modern existence; Peart took that general premise, which was lifted from Zeppelin tunes like “Since I’ve Been Loving You” which was itself lifted wholesale from the blues, and gave the whole thing a thoughtful twist. If life is so hard and pointless, why is that? And is there anything I can do to better myself while still remaining an ethical entity in this utterly corrupt and debased wasteland that I see around me?

Set it to a beat that still feels like Nerf-strapped sneakers bounding over skyscrapers, and sprinkle some American mythological fairy dust and some sweeping ARP synthesizer menace, and you have “Tom Sawyer”. Don’t put Peart down as arrogant, though, because what you say about his company is what you say about society; these changes that he was laying down to the hard rock firmament weren’t permanent — but change was.

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Rush was presented as a democracy, a three-piece that were friends, that never argued, that all pitched in and never experienced any lineup changes in 40 years; but if Geddy Lee was the mouthpiece, the bird of prey squawking the tongue-twisting riddles that made Rush the “thinking man’s” hard rock band of choice, Peart was the ruler, steering the direction through his obstinate desire for refinement in both the sound and the message that was Rush. He was tortured, and so thus was the audience, which explains why, decade after decade, it was difficult for so many to understand what the band was all about, and what the appeal was.

Peart ran a tight ship, but he also continually challenged the band’s legacy and fandom. This meant, for some, that the band was a puzzle to be solved, a world unto itself that one could endlessly burrow in; if you are reading this and thinking that you are a pretty big Rush fan, know that somewhere there is a bigger Rush fan than you, and that there is somewhere a bigger Rush fan than that fan, and then a bigger Rush fan than that fan, and on and on and on, like an endless Russian nesting doll of dorkitude. It’s instructive to note that even Peart felt the need to continually step back from Rush and get perspective; he constantly endeavored to shed the excesses of whatever Rush had been through in the past. In the mid-nineties, Peart went so far as to go back to the grindstone on drumming fundamentals, taking lessons from a jazz mentor and even switching his stick grip — an unheard-of reproach for such a legendary figure. He seemed compelled to re-think his entire approach everyone once in a while, as if his lyrical preoccupations with change were not just empty bromides but more the lyrical expression of his most deeply felt attitudes.

Neil Peart, in the end, should be remembered for being driven, far more than most rock instrumentalists, to create and mutate and evolve and discover… something, anything, as long as it felt true. As he wrote in his wrenching ode to his own reticence with fame and fortune, 1981’s “Limelight”:

Those who wish to be

Must put aside the alienation

Get on with the fascination

The real relation

The underlying theme

Follow Daniel Brockman on Twitter @thebizhaslanded.