The highly influential musician — who some say was the greatest drummer of all time — passed away on Tuesday, January 7th in Santa Monica, California. He had been privately battling brain cancer for three years, according to a statement from Peart family spokesperson Elliott Mintz, and finally succumbed to the disease.
Born September 12th, 1952 in Hamilton, Ontario, Peart spent much of his younger days trying and failing to have a career in music. After a discouraging stretch attempting to make it in London, he returned home to Canada. He soon was convinced by a friend to audition for Rush, who were looking for a replacement for original drummer, John Rutsey. While Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee were at first unsure what to make of Peart’s erratic yet precise drumming style, they eventually asked him to join the band in 1974.
It turned out to be a fortuitous decision. Peart’s multidisciplinary style of playing and highly cultivated lyricism propelled Rush to international acclaim, starting with the 1976 seven-part epic “2112” off the album of the same name. As a the band’s primary lyricist, he took inspiration from everything from sci-fi to Ayn Rand. As a dummer, his blending of various genres and epically composed fills made him a legend, with Police drummer Stewart Copeland once calling him “the most air-drummed-to drummer of all time.”
Over time, Peart’s already unique style began to shift. His kit seemed to be constantly expanding, eventually becoming so large it entirely surrounded him in a wall of cymbals, drums, and samplers. Well into his career, he continually absorbed different disciplines to take his Keith Moon-inspired pounding to new levels; in the mid-1990s, he took instruction from jazz drummer Freddie Gruber. Peart said working with Gruber helped him “open up this whole new frontier” with his playing.
Following the addition of Peart, Rush would grow to become one of the defining bands of the ’70s and ’80s. They would go on to be nominated for seven Grammys and win 10 Juno Awards, including Breakthrough Group in 1975 and Best Group in both 1978 and 1979. Rush were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1994, with the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame following suit in 2013.
Peart retired from Rush in 1997 after his 19-year-old daughter, Selena Taylor, was killed in a car accident. It was at Selena’s funeral that Peart told Lifeson and Lee he was leaving the band. His common-law wife, Jacqueline Taylor, whom Peart had been with for 23 years and who was Selena’s mother, passed away from cancer 10 months later. Then in 2000, he remarried to photographer Carrie Nuttall, and rejoined Rush one year later.
After 18 albums with the iconic band, Peart officially and finally retired from music in 2015. That summer, Rush had gone out on the “R40 Tour” to celebrate 40 years of Peart being in the band. The grueling trek wore on the drummer, who at 63 was feeling the bodily strain of his frenetic playing style. He also was looking forward to spending more time with his wife and their daughter, Olivia, who was born in 2009.
Said Peart at the time,
“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 then face the predicament described in our song ‘Losing It’ (‘Sadder still to watch it die, than never to have known it’).”
In addition to being Rush’s main lyricist, Peart authored a number of books, including several non-fiction tomes about his various travels (The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, Traveling Music: Playing Back the Soundtrack to My Life and Times). In 2012, he teamed with longtime friend and collaborator Kevin J. Anderson to adapt Rush’s album Clockwork Angels into a novel. The pair later adapted it again into a graphic novel with artist Nick Robles, and wrote a sequel book in 2015 called Clockwork Lives.
Even as he looked down at retirement, Peart never abandoned his core beliefs about the nature and responsibility of being a rock musician. “It’s about being your own hero,” he said in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone. “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.”
Peart’s Rush bandmates issued a statement on Facebook asking fans to “respect the family’s need for privacy and peace as this extremely painful and difficult time.” They suggested those wishing to send their condolences should donate to a cancer research group or charity in Neil Peart’s name.