Neil Ellwood Peart, OC (t/; September 12, 1952 – January 7, 2020) was a Canadian musician and writer best known as the drummer and primary lyricist of the rock band Rush. Peart received numerous awards for his musical performances, including an induction into the Modern DrummerReaders Poll Hall of Fame in 1983, making him the youngest person ever so honoured. His drumming was renowned for its technical proficiency and his live performances for their exacting nature and stamina.
Peart was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and grew up in Port Dalhousie (now part of St. Catharines). During adolescence, he floated between regional bands in pursuit of a career as a full-time drummer. After a discouraging stint in England to concentrate on his music, Peart returned home, where he joined Rush, a Toronto band, in mid-1974, six years after its formation. They released nineteen studio albums, with ten exceeding a million copies sold in the United States. Billboard ranks the band third for the "most consecutive gold or platinum albums by a rock band".[A]Early in his career, Peart's performance style was deeply rooted in hard rock. He drew most of his inspiration from drummers such as Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and John Bonham, players who were at the forefront of the British hard rock scene. As time passed, he began to emulate jazz and big band musicians Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. In 1994, Peart became a friend and pupil of jazz instructor Freddie Gruber. It was during this time that Peart decided to revamp his playing style by incorporating jazz and swing components.
In addition to serving as Rush's primary lyricist, Peart published several memoirs about his travels. His lyrics for Rush addressed universal themes and diverse subjects including science fiction, fantasy, and philosophy, as well as secular, humanitarian, and libertarian themes. Peart wrote a total of seven nonfiction books focused on his travels and personal stories.
On December 7, 2015, Peart announced his retirement from music in an interview with Drumhead Magazine, though bandmate Geddy Lee insisted Peart was quoted out of context, and suggested Peart was "simply taking a break". However, in January 2018, bandmate Alex Lifeson confirmed that Rush was retiring due to Peart's health issues. During his last years Peart lived in Santa Monica, California with his wife, Carrie Nuttall, and daughter. After a three-year illness, Peart died of glioblastoma on January 7, 2020, at age 67.
Peart was born on September 12, 1952 to Glen and Betty Peart and lived his early years on his family's farm in Hagersville, on the outskirts of Hamilton. The first child of four, his brother Danny and sisters Judy and Nancy were born after the family moved to St. Catharines when Peart was two years old. At this time his father became parts manager for Dalziel Equipment, an International Harvester farm machinery dealer. In 1956 the family moved to the Port Dalhousie area of the town. Peart attended Gracefield School and later Lakeport Secondary School, and described his childhood as happy and says he experienced a warm family life. By early adolescence he became interested in music and acquired a transistor radio, which he would use to tune into pop music stations broadcasting from Toronto, Hamilton, Welland, Ontario and Buffalo, New York.
His first exposure to musical training came in the form of piano lessons, which he later said in his instructional video A Work in Progress did not have much impact on him. He had a penchant for drumming on various objects around the house with a pair of chopsticks, so for his thirteenth birthday his parents bought him a pair of drum sticks, a practice drum and some lessons, with the promise that if he stuck with it for a year they would buy him a kit.
His parents bought him a drum kit for his fourteenth birthday and he began taking lessons from Don George at the Peninsula Conservatory of Music. His stage debut took place that year at the school's Christmas pageant in St. Johns Anglican Church Hall in Port Dalhousie. His next appearance was at Lakeport High School with his first group, The Eternal Triangle. This performance contained an original number titled "LSD Forever". At this show he performed his first solo.
Peart got a job in Lakeside Park, in Port Dalhousie on the shores of Lake Ontario, which later inspired a song of the same name on the Rush album Caress of Steel. He worked on the Bubble Game and Ball Toss, but his tendency to take it easy when business was slack resulted in his termination. By his late teens, Peart had played in local bands such as Mumblin' Sumpthin', the Majority, and JR Flood. These bands practiced in basement recreation rooms and garages and played church halls, high schools and skating rinks in towns across Southern Ontario such as Mitchell, Seaforth, and Elmira. They also played in the northern Ontario city of Timmins. Tuesday nights were filled with jam sessions at the Niagara Theatre Centre.
At eighteen years old after struggling to achieve success as a drummer in Canada, Peart travelled to London, England, hoping to further his career as a professional musician. Despite playing in several bands and picking up occasional session work, he was forced to support himself by selling jewelry at a shop called The Great Frog on Carnaby Street.
While in London, he came across the writings of novelist and ObjectivistAyn Rand. Rand's writings became a significant early philosophical influence on Peart, as he found many of her writings on individualism and Objectivism inspiring. References to Rand's philosophy can be found in his early lyrics, most notably "Anthem" from 1975's Fly by Night and "2112" from 1976's 2112.
After eighteen months Peart became disillusioned by his lack of progress in the music business; he placed his aspiration of becoming a professional musician on hold and returned to Canada. Upon returning to St. Catharines, he worked for his father selling tractor parts at Dalziel Equipment.
After returning to Canada, Peart was recruited to play drums for a St. Catharines band known as Hush, who played on the Southern Ontario bar circuit. Soon after, a mutual acquaintance convinced Peart to audition for the Toronto-based band Rush, which needed a replacement for its original drummer John Rutsey. Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson oversaw the audition. His future bandmates describe his arrival that day as somewhat humorous, as he arrived in shorts, driving a battered old Ford Pinto with his drums stored in trashcans. Peart felt the entire audition was a complete disaster. While Lee and Peart hit it off on a personal level (both sharing similar tastes in books and music), Lifeson had a less favourable impression of Peart.
After some discussion between Lee and Lifeson, Peart officially joined the band on July 29, 1974, two weeks before the group's first US tour. Peart procured a silver Slingerland kit which he played at his first gig with the band, opening for Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann's Earth Band in front of over 11,000 people at the Civic Arena, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on August 14, 1974.
Peart soon settled into his new position, also becoming the band's primary lyricist. Before joining Rush he had written few songs, but, with the other members largely uninterested in writing lyrics, Peart's previously underutilized writing became as noticed as his musicianship. The band was working hard to establish themselves as a recording act, and Peart, along with the rest of the band, began to undertake extensive touring.
His first recording with the band, 1975's Fly by Night, was fairly successful, winning the Juno Award for most promising new act, but the follow-up, Caress of Steel, for which the band had high hopes, was greeted with hostility by both fans and critics. In response to this negative reception, most of which was aimed at the B side-spanning epic "The Fountain of Lamneth", Peart responded by penning "2112" on their next album of the same name in 1976. The album, despite record company indifference, became their breakthrough and gained a following in the United States. The supporting tour culminated in a three-night stand at Massey Hall in Toronto, a venue Peart had dreamed of playing in his days on the Southern Ontario bar circuit and where he was introduced as "The Professor on the drum kit" by Lee.
Peart returned to England for Rush's Northern European Tour and the band stayed in the United Kingdom to record the next album, 1977's A Farewell to Kings in Rockfield Studios in Wales. They returned to Rockfield to record the follow-up, Hemispheres, in 1978, which they wrote entirely in the studio. The recording of five studio albums in four years, coupled with as many as 300 gigs a year, convinced the band to take a different approach thereafter. Peart has described his time in the band up to this point as "a dark tunnel".
Playing style reinvention
In 1992, Peart was invited by Buddy Rich's daughter, Cathy Rich, to play at the Buddy Rich Memorial Scholarship Concert in New York City. Peart accepted and performed for the first time with the Buddy Rich Big Band. Peart remarked that he had little time to rehearse, and noted that he was embarrassed to find the band played a different arrangement of the song than the one he had learned. Feeling that his performance left much to be desired, Peart decided to produce and play on two Buddy Rich tribute albums titled Burning for Buddy: A Tribute to the Music of Buddy Rich in 1994 and 1997 in order to regain his aplomb.
While producing the first Buddy Rich tribute album, Peart was struck by the tremendous improvement in ex-Journey drummer Steve Smith's playing, and asked him his "secret". Smith responded he had been studying with drum teacher Freddie Gruber.
In early 2007, Peart and Cathy Rich again began discussing yet another Buddy tribute concert. At the recommendation of bassist Jeff Berlin, Peart decided to once again augment his swing style with formal drum lessons, this time under the tutelage of another pupil of Freddie Gruber, Peter Erskine, himself an instructor of Steve Smith. On October 18, 2008, Peart once again performed at the Buddy Rich Memorial Concert at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom. The concert has since been released on DVD.
Family tragedy and recovery
On August 10, 1997, soon after the conclusion of Rush's Test for Echo Tour, Peart's first daughter (and, at the time, his only child) Selena Taylor, 19, was killed in a single-car accident on Highway 401 near the town of Brighton, Ontario. His common-law wife of 23 years, Jacqueline Taylor, succumbed to cancer 10 months later on June 20, 1998. Peart attributes her death to the result of a "broken heart" and called it "a slow suicide by apathy. She just didn't care."
In his book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, Peart writes that he told his bandmates at Selena's funeral, "consider me retired". Peart took a long sabbatical to mourn and reflect, and travelled extensively throughout North and Central America on his motorcycle, covering 88,000 km (55,000 mi). After his journey, Peart decided to return to the band. Peart wrote the book as a chronicle of his geographical and emotional journey.
Peart was introduced to photographer Carrie Nuttall in Los Angeles by long-time Rush photographer Andrew MacNaughtan. They married on September 9, 2000. In early 2001, Peart announced to his bandmates that he was ready to return to recording and performing. The product of the band's return was the 2002 album Vapor Trails. At the start of the ensuing tour in support of the album, it was decided amongst the band members that Peart would not take part in the daily grind of press interviews and "meet and greet" sessions upon their arrival in a new city that typically monopolize a touring band's daily schedule. Peart has always shied away from these types of in-person encounters, and it was decided that exposing him to a lengthy stream of questions about the tragic events of his life was not necessary.
After the release of Vapor Trails and his reunion with bandmates, Peart returned to work as a full-time musician. In the June 2009 edition of Peart's website's News, Weather, and Sports, titled "Under the Marine Layer", he announced that he and Nuttall were expecting their first child. Olivia Louise Peart was born later that year.
In the mid-2010s, Peart acquired U.S. citizenship.
Peart announced his retirement in an interview in December 2015:
Lately Olivia has been introducing me to new friends at school as 'My dad—He's a retired drummer.' True to say—funny to hear. And it does not pain me to realize that, like all athletes, there comes a time to ... take yourself out of the game. I would rather set it aside than face the predicament described in our song "Losing It" ...
Peart had been suffering from chronic tendinitis and shoulder problems. In January 2018, Alex Lifeson confirmed that Rush is "basically done". Peart remained friends with his former bandmates.
Peart died from glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, on January 7, 2020, in Santa Monica, California. He had been diagnosed three and a half years earlier, and the illness was a closely guarded secret in Peart's inner circle until his death. His family made the announcement on January 10.
From the official Rush website:
It is with broken hearts and the deepest sadness that we must share the terrible news that on Tuesday our friend, soul brother and band mate of over 45 years, Neil, has lost his incredibly brave three and a half year battle with brain cancer (Glioblastoma). 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. Those wishing to express their condolences can choose a cancer research group or charity of their choice and make a donation in Neil's name.
Peart's death was widely lamented by fans and fellow musicians alike, who considered it a substantial loss for popular music.