He was closer to our hearts than we even realized.
Make no mistake, the depth of anguish with which the music world — especially Canadians — regards the unexpected passing of Neil Peart, who died from brain cancer at age 67 on Tuesday, is immeasurable.
Arguably the greatest and most influential drummer of his generation, the Hamilton-born icon — one third of progressive power trio Rush (affectionately known as The Holy Triumvirate Of Rock) — is a cultural loss on par to that of a Jimi Hendrix or a Kurt Cobain.
Through 41 years, 18 studio albums, 11 live albums and thousands of concerts, “The Professor” — as he was known for his almost-scientific time-keeping precision and meticulous fluidity of performance, not to mention the intellectual heft of his philosophical and socially observant lyrics — created his own niche with impeccable technique, uncompromising integrity and an inexhaustible drive for perfection, coupled with insatiable curiosity.
When he joined Rush before 1975’s “Fly By Night, ” Peart’s impact alongside the shrieking vocals and immaculate bass playing of Geddy Lee and the dexterous proficiency of guitarist Alex Lifeson, was immediately transformative, with the well-read drummer and lyricist introducing the objectivism of Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand in the song “Anthem” and mythological and science-fiction influence in “By-Tor and the Snowdog.”
With each subsequent album, Peart’s literary exploration would thrust Rush to new creative heights, fuelled by the meticulous polyrhythms and almost impossible time signatures he crafted in tandem with melodies created by Lee and Lifeson.
Peart’s contributions weren’t strictly rhythmic: by the time of “A Farewell To Kings” in 1977, the percussionist had added orchestral bells, tubular bells, temple blocks, cowbells, wind chimes, bell tree, triangle and vibra-slap to his arsenal, the impact of which was immediately felt in little melodic segues on the album’s title track.
Even his drum solos like “The Rhythm Method” evolved into miniature, immaculately structured compositions that stretched beyond the definition of rhythm.
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These were uncharted, sophisticated waters that only grew Peart’s reputation for innovation and invigorated the imaginations of a new generation of aspiring musicians.
As Rush continued to embrace new technology and ideas with albums such as “Moving Pictures” and “Power Windows,” Peart’s jaw-dropping technique consistently forced young players to elevate and re-evaluate their game as they listened, learned and attempted to decipher each new note they heard.
But Peart was a student as much as a teacher, and he relentlessly practised to improve even as others felt he was the master.
Peart discussed some of his own influences in a 1996 Hamilton Spectator interview for “Burning For Buddy,” his star-studded tribute album to legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve heard Buddy Rich, he’s influenced your playing,” Peart explained at the time, tracing the lineage of generations of percussionists. “The first drummer I was amazed by was (jazz fusion legend) Billy Cobham, who was taught by Tony Williams, who was taught by Elvin Jones before him. You don’t have to know that torch of genius that Billy Cobham was carrying, and the sparks of genius in those previous incarnations were forged by Buddy.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find any rock drummer of note today — Foo Fighters Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith, Tool’s Danny Carey, Smashing Pumpkins’ Jimmy Chamberlin — that don’t consider Neil Peart to be their Buddy Rich; a person who played an integral role in their desire to pick up a pair of drumsticks and inspire them to be the absolute best they could be.
And Peart’s stuff even inspired those who couldn’t play the instrument to save their lives, but enjoyed them in concert, to faithfully and enthusiastically pound the air with imaginary drumsticks, aping whatever triplets or ornate fills Peart threw their way.
On the literary front, Peart stirred the intellect with inspiration and snippets from Tolkien, Rand, Hemingway, Coleridge and John Dos Passos, among others.
During an interview for Grammy.com to promote the band’s final masterpiece, 2012’s steampunk- and Voltaire-infused “Clockwork Angels,” I asked Lee if he had to identify with Peart’s lyrics in order to compose music for it.
“Some of his lyrics I respond to right away, and really don’t require a lot of discussion,” he said, describing the process. “And sometimes it’s very hard for me. Sometimes I just cannot get into the same headspace, and that’s when either I just can’t make that happen or it requires a lot of conversation and a lot of editing back and forth until we get on the same page.
“It’s a wonderful relationship because Neil is completely open. When I get into it with him, we can talk quite openly about where it needs to go.”
Throughout his career, Peart made it a point to stay out of the realm of the expected, and Lee felt that the drummer’s lyrics often appealed to discerning music lovers who wanted more substance with their sound.
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“There’s an audience of people who has always been interested in rock that’s not simplistic,” Lee once told me.
“A kid told me once that we are some kind of rite of passage, because he has all these friends that go to school, discover Rush, and then move onto other things. I like that.”
I can relate. After all, I was attending high school in St. Catharines when I discovered Rush. Like so many other of my classmates, music was my life, a consuming passion that provided the energy to endure another humdrum day of history and French lessons.
We all knew Neil was local, and there was a burst of civic pride when we discovered our slice of Lake Ontario frontage – “Lakeside Park” — had been immortalized on the album “Caress of Steel,” and by a Toronto band that was making international headway.
This suddenly opened a realm possibility: The fact Rush could share the stage with untouchables like KISS, Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath gave us the chance of escape from a sleepy suburban town.
Rush succeeded on their own terms, proving with hard work and discipline that dreams were within reach.
For me, that belief was galvanized when I heard “A Farewell To Kings,” a leapfrog in creativity from “2112,” released a year earlier in 1976.
I had to see them in concert — and a Dec. 30, 1977, appearance at Maple Leaf Gardens provided the opportunity to organize a bus trip with fellow Laura Secord students that would pay for my seat in the golds and get me to Toronto and back.
Witnessing the trio in person was exhilarating: stunning musicianship, amazing visuals — the band left quite an impression on me, spurring my desire to become more involved in the music industry in some way, shape or form.
That was my first of 12 Rush concert encounters that included an intimate Molson Blind Date club show at the Phoenix on December 18, 1996; their Oct. 16, 2012 “Clockwork Angels” recital at the Air Canada Centre, replete with a string section, and on June 17, 2015, at the first of their final two Toronto performances, an ingenious three-hour display that celebrated their 40th anniversary by recreating their stage sets of the past, including my big arena attendance debut.
Little did we know that during that tour Neil soldiered on despite chronic tendinitis and shoulder issues.
Little did we know that not only would this be the band’s final series of concerts, but “Clockwork Angels” would be the final studio expression of a stellar career. Still, we collectively held out hope the trio had more creativity to give in the future — even after Peart declared his retirement.
Here’s what I do know: Rush gave me great satisfaction and joy with their musical gifts. They played an integral role in my own life, whether it was via soundtrack or their actions, and there are millions more like me out there who were similarly — and uniquely – impacted.
Neil Peart was a crucial part of the Rush equation.
His tragic passing will sting for a while.