Neil Peart, Rush Drummer Who Set a New Standard for Rock Virtuosity, Dead at 67

Written by on January 10, 2020

Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist for Rush, died Tuesday, January 7th, in Santa Monica, California at age 67, according to Elliot Mintz, a family spokesperson. The cause was brain cancer, which he had been quietly battling for three-and-a-half years. A representative for the band confirmed the news to Rolling Stone.

Peart was one of rock’s greatest drummers, with a flamboyant yet utterly precise style that paid homage to his hero, the Who’s Keith Moon, while going well beyond that example. He joined singer-bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson in Rush in 1974, and his virtuosic playing and literate, wildly imaginative lyrics  – which drew on Ayn Rand and science fiction, among other influences – helped make the trio one of the essential bands of the classic-rock era. His drum fills on songs like “Tom Sawyer” were pop hooks in their own right, each one an unforgettable mini-composition. A rigorous autodidact and a gifted writer, Peart was also the author of numerous books.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, Lee and Lifeson called Peart their “friend, soul brother and bandmate over 45 years,” and said he had been “incredibly brave” in his battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. “We ask that friends, fans, and media alike understandably respect the family’s need for privacy and peace at this extremely painful and difficult time,” Lee and Lifeson said. “Those wishing to express their condolences can choose a cancer research group or charity of their choice and make a donation in Neil Peart’s name. Rest in peace, brother.”

Peart never stopped believing in the possibilities of rock (“a gift beyond price,” he called it in Rush’s 1980 track “The Spirit of Radio”) and despising what he saw as over-commercialization of the music industry.  “It’s about being your own hero,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. “I set out to never betray the values that 16-year-old had, to never sell out, to never bow to the man. A compromise is what I can never accept.”

“Neil is the most air-drummed-to drummer of all time,” former Police drummer Stewart Copeland said in 2015. “Neil pushes that band, which has a lot of musicality, a lot of ideas crammed into every eight bars — but he keeps the throb, which is the important thing. And he can do that while doing all kinds of cool shit.”

Rush finished their final tour in 2015; Peart was done with the road and eager to spend more time with his wife, Carrie Nuttal, and daughter Olivia.

On August 10th, 1997, Peart’s 19-year-old daughter, Selena, died in a single-car accident on the long drive to her university in Toronto. Just five months later, Selena’s mother – Peart’s common-law wife of 23 years, Jackie — was diagnosed with terminal cancer, quickly succumbing. Shattered, Peart told his bandmates to consider him retired, and embarked on a solitary motorcycle trip across the United States. He remarried in 2000, and found his way back to Rush by 2001.

Peart grew up in Port Dalhousie, a middle-class suburb 70 miles from Toronto. As a teen, he permed his hair, took to wearing a cape and purple boots on the city bus, and scrawled “God is dead” on his bedroom wall. At one point, he got in trouble for pounding out beats on his desk during class. His teacher’s idea of punishment was to insist that he bang on his desk nonstop for an hour’s worth of detention, time he happily spent re-creating Keith Moon’s parts from Tommy.

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