Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart died this past Tuesday at age 67. Tributes have poured in from bands like Tool, Foo Fighters, and Superchunk and appeared in the pages of The New Yorker, a testament to Peart’s status as both a musician and writer. Drummers of all genres revere him, even if they don’t quite get the breadth of literary, mythological, and philosophical references in the band’s dense, epic song cycles.
Nor have Peart’s literary admirers always understood his technical virtuosity behind the kit. But it was never necessary to fully grok his brilliant contributions to Rush’s output to appreciate them—from his first album with the band, 1975’s Fly by Night, to his last, 2012’s Clockwork Angels. Certainly not all Rush fans shared Peart’s onetime fondness for the work of Ayn Rand, which influenced the band’s 1976 breakout album, 2112. Peart later claimed her work “no longer resonated with him,” as Annie Zaleski writes at NPR, and called himself a “bleeding heart libertarian.”
Yet even fans who loathe Atlas Shrugged don’t seem to feel the influence unduly compromised Peart’s creativity. His influences were vast and his “love of literature and reverence for history deeply informed his songwriting… he became known for his philosophical musings on road life and restless souls; critiques of power and greed; fantasy-tinged vignettes; and incisive political and social commentary, cloaked in metaphor.” For all their self-seriousness, Rush wasn’t immune to humor either.
2012 was all of these things, with a sprawling, epic fantasy/sci-fi, 20-minute opening title track, followed by an ode to pot called “A Passage to Bangkok,” in which Peart names “various cities and countries around the world where it is cultivated,” The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich writes, and proclaims “We only stop for the best!” Rush could wink at their goofiness while also fully embracing it without reservation, in “a kind of fuck-it abandon.”
Rush assembled an audience not by “extensive radio play or critical adulation or corporate positioning” but good old word of mouth from dumbstruck fans. They did secure their first U.S. record deal through radio play, however, right after Peart joined the band in 1974. Donna Halper—then a DJ at Cleveland radio station WMMS, now an associate professor of media studies at Lesley University—played their single “Working Man,” which “promptly took off,” notes Zaleski.
Halper explains why Peart earned the nickname “The Professor,” saying that “above all, his lyrics made people think—Rush fans were liberal, conservative, religious, non-religious—but they all united around their respect for the band and their admiration for how Neil could articulate their experiences, or give them a new way to look at an issue.”
As a musician, Peart made thousands of drummers feel the same way. “I still vividly remember my first listen of 2112, when I was young,” Dave Grohl wrote on the Foo Fighters Instagram page. “It was the first time I really listened to a drummer. And since that day, music has never been the same.” Foo Fighters’ drummer Taylor Hawkins had a more succinct statement: “Neil Peart had the hands of God. End of story.”
Peart’s own story may have ended but his musical and lyrical legacy will outlive us all. See clips of his incredible performances over the years above—on stages around the world and the set of David Letterman, in tours de force that show off not only his technical mastery, but also show how his drumming drew on as broad a range of influences as his songwriting.