Musical heroes often loom larger-than-life. And, because of the role music plays in the lives of fans, it is difficult to imagine that the people who make the music that means so much to audiences are exactly that, people. Therefore, when one of them passes away, the loss can be particularly difficult. The loss is nearly palpable, even though, most audiences did not “really” know the person. The recent passing of Rush’s drummer, Neil Peart, has affected fans deeply. Some of those fans are stellar and famous musicians, who have since performed a tribute or two in the late drummer’s honor. Among them are members of Tool, Foo Fighters and Metallica. But for audiences who are not famous, re-familiarizing themselves with Peart’s work is one way to keep the musician’s memory alive.
Rush fans know Peart to have been not only the band’s drummer, but also the band’s lyricist. His at turns cutting, poignant, but always unique lyrics illuminate ideas that listeners were not always sure they were ready for. Peart also put his writing skills to use in a number of books. Most notably perhaps is 2002’s “Ghost Rider” in which he details his road trip West after the deaths of his daughter and wife, in 1997 and 1998, respectively.
Still, it is the drumming that people remember. A reviewer for the New Yorker once remarked about Peart’s playing after witnessing Rush live, that “he must possess phantom limbs.” She further described Peart’s approach as “merciless.”
Neil Peart: A singular drummer
In the world of popular music, there are a number of good drummers. Few drummers garner the attention of people who are not drummers themselves, the way Peart did.
Rush’s catalog is replete with Peart’s various approaches, including the incorporation of electric drums for 1984’s “Grace Under Pressure.” Perhaps the most famous example of Peart’s heartfelt attack is “Tom Sawyer.” Often, it sounds as if the drums are showcased, when the rest of the trio is still playing, which does not disparage the other two members. But, in Peart’s way, the drum sound would go from thumping to cracking in mere seconds. In addition, the punctuation of lyrical phrases with cymbals are a nice touch in “Tom Sawyer.”
“Passage to Bangkok” might seem a study in guitar work, but when Peart’s drumming appears, it is a force of its own, just waiting to pounce after the early measures of the verse completes. Throughout the chorus, audiences are treated to the full blast of Peart’s approach. It is always perfectly rhythmic, but without being stiff.
“Distant Early Warning,” from 1984’s “Grace Under Pressure, is a kind of Rush masterwork, arguably. There is texture and innovation from all instrument groups. And for fans of Peart, it is exciting to hear how he will approach the song. The way the band plays together makes the song feel like a journey, with sprints and slow jogs. Peart’s work is propulsive and working in tandem with the bass and guitar, create the tension necessary for the song whose line “I see the tip of the iceberg/and I worry about you” is perhaps the most memorable. Peart shines again during the guitar showcase, the drums forming a thunderous underpinning to the guitar’s sinewy muscularity.
Another Peart treat not to be missed is “The Trees.” Both lyrically and musically, “The Trees” features drumming that is almost buoyant at times. At the beginning, Peart’s drumming works to transition the song from its light, acoustic guitar and vocal opening to the rock song it will becoming. It does so by way of a menacing pounding that gets audiences’ attention and prepares them for the song’s next development.
Sometimes recalling a person’s best work is an effective way to keep his or her memory alive. Peart’s work was at times breathtakingly brilliant. But, with almost 40 years as Rush’s drummer, he has left fans a stunning catalog of drum lines and lyrics that detail his artistry.
Peart passed away Jan. 7, 2020. According to reports, the cause was brain cancer. He was 67 years old.