There is an entire generation of people who know exactly where they were when they learned John F. Kennedy died on November 22, 1963. And now there is an entire generation of drummers who know exactly where they were when they learned that Neil Peart passed away on January 7, 2020.
Headlines everywhere referred to him as Rush's "drummer and lyricist." But describing Neil Peart as simply a "drummer and lyricist" is like saying Joe Di Maggio was merely a "ballplayer and coffee machine salesman." There was much more to the man, and the story. Neil may have left us at only 67, but he epitomized the maxim, "It's not the amount of years in your life, it's the amount of life in your years."
Neil Peart was the most influential drummer of his generation, and arguably one of the greatest of all time. Debates about technical minutiae will always persist, but quite simply, no other drummer had as much influence, and for as long. Neil was an integral part of the band Rush from his debut with them in 1974, until his passing in 2020. They sold over 40 million albums, packed arenas for decades, released numerous music videos, earned prestigious awards, and enabled Neil to create his own infotainment documentaries about the art of drumming. On top of all that, Neil was also an author, birdwatcher, bicyclist and motorcyclist, an eternal student, a true individual, and a husband and father.
The talented, adventurous, driven autodidact who is probably the most "air-drummed-to-drummer" of all time ignited a spark in countless kids to play real drums, and defined what a progressive rock drummer could be. The high personal standards he set for himself raised the bar for everyone else. His playing became the proving grounds for rhythm seekers. If you could play his parts correctly, you were deemed serious.
Neil Peart played with power, passion and precision. He flowed seamlessly in and out of odd time signatures. He understood composition, and enhanced Rush's music with his creativity and execution. He utilized the snare drum for more than just two and four; he played lengthy phrases on it that harkened back to the big band era that he loved so much. His snare drum forays typically led to tom toms, and Neil was a master of shifting gears during fills. He created a rush of excitement like no other drummer with his exhilarating rolls around the kit, which always had an incendiary drum sound.
Some drummers think "less is more." Neil believed "more is more." He expanded the boundaries of the drum set. His large double bass configurations caused drum fever among novices and professionals. But refreshingly, his immense instrument was not for show; he used every item on his drum riser, from the tiniest splash to the gong bass drum. He also incorporated discoveries from his far-ranging travels: exotic instruments, world rhythms, the spirit of adventure, and the warmth of humanity he encountered all over the world.
His "more is more" ethos also permeated his drumming. Neil often played more notes in one song than some drummers played on an entire album. And he played more notes on an album than some drummers played during their entire recorded careers. That does not mean the man played recklessly though, like his first drum idol, Keith Moon. Neil developed his own style, and pulled off a magic trick in the process. No matter how complex his playing became, it hit you right in the chest, and it felt great.
Neil had a strong work ethic and gave his all onstage, and in the studio. Lest anyone think those signature parts simply flowed from him on "take one," here are his own words about the process. "My method is to try everything I can think of, everything that might possibly work, then gradually eliminate the ideas that are less satisfying: wrong, bad or just plain dumb. Over a period of several months, I work(ed) through each song, playing them again and again, refining the structure, the rhythmic and the textural elements, and smoothing the transitions between them."
That kind of dedication led to his studying with Freddie Gruber nearly thirty years into his drumming journey, when Neil was widely considered among the best of the best. Many did not understand this move, but Neil was basically self-taught, and had reached a point where he felt stiff, and restless. He wanted to push himself, open up a new frontier, and challenge his limitations and self-expectations. He did all of that, and more.
Unlike other pros who revamped their styles privately in mid-career, Neil documented his progress and created instructional media so other drummers could learn from his endeavors with Freddie. He took notes during his epic bicycle journeys and turned them into "The Masked Rider," an enjoyable travelogue. Amazingly, his openness flourished even after he experienced the incredible dual tragedies of his daughter Selena passing away in 1997, and his wife Jackie following shortly after, in 1998.
Neil needed to retire from Rush for a while after those two life-changing events. Fortunately, his bandmates, best friends, and soul brothers Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee, understood. They stepped back as Neil swung a leg over his BMW motorcycle, and then rode across vast parts of planet earth. Neil's extensive note taking and reflections on life led to another successful book, "Ghost Rider."
But he was still a drummer at heart. And when he was ready, he came roaring back. Sonically, his return was recorded via the Vapor Trails album. Visually, it was documented via "Rhythm & Light," a collection of beautiful black and white photography that was a collaboration between Neil, and his wife Carrie, who he married in 2000. The images and words revealed a side of Neil never seen before, and launched him into a second chance at life with his new wife, and eventually, their daughter Olivia.
The once aloof and ultra-reclusive drum star who still believed wholeheartedly in the lyrics he wrote for "Limelight" revealed even more of himself to the world through his playing, writing, interviews and more instructional videos. He was self-aware, yet self-effacing and extremely intelligent. When facing a challenging situation, he'd ask himself, "What would a smart person do?"
As a teen, Neil was a fan of Ayn Rand's objectivist ideology. It was his raison d'etre, and inspired him to become his own (super)hero, riding the public buses of Toronto wearing a purple outfit, complete with a cape and permed hair. This deep level of conviction also fueled his early sci-fi based lyric writing. However, with maturity came wisdom, and empathy. He eventually disavowed Rand, identifying himself as a "bleeding heart libertarian" who practiced enlightened self-interest. This evolution was also reflected in his lyrics.
Neil once commented that he wished Rush's career had begun with the Moving Pictures album, because all of their previous musical and lyrical output was a matter of experimentation, fantasy and fun. However, everything came together on Moving Pictures. The band wrote concise, catchy songs that retained their complexity, and said more in five minutes than they previously did in twenty-five.
That winning combination continued into the Signals album, and produced the song "Subdivisions," which perfectly described growing up as an outcast in suburbia, and resonated on a deep level with massive amounts of listeners. Every legendary band has a career defining moment, and for Rush, this was it.
According to Neil, "‘Subdivisions' happened to be an anthem for a lot of people who grew up under those circumstances, and from then on, I realized what I most wanted to put in a song was human experience." He did just that, and never looked back as he continued onward and upward until he retired while still at the top of his game in 2015, in order to spend more time with his family.
Now, it is our turn to look back on the life and times of an individual who showed us what is possible on the drum riser, and in life. He left a vast legacy of words and music that will be cherished for generations. After he passed away, following a valiant three-year battle with glioblastoma, many "lost" interviews have surfaced, providing new insight into his mastery.
Neil truly believed that the absolute highest goal of an artist was to inspire others, and that the highest possible compliment was if someone that you admire respects your work. Based on the outpouring of affection, reverence and tributes to him in the Drumhead community and beyond, he certainly attained those lofty heights.
A Man with Many Voices
"Beautiful, shiny, circles and lines - magical!"
I'd only known Neil a couple of hours when he asked to borrow my hi-hat pedal. It was 1979. My band, FM, was opening for Rush at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. We were new kids on the block Rush had taken a shine to. Neil's hi-hat collapsed during sound check. You always needed - ‘two for the show'. Could they borrow my backup? A Slingerland, as it happened.
I got it back three months later. Bronzed. He laughed when I told him. And was, of course, in my debt forever.
The gold plate era came later. Beautiful kits. And then drum and cymbal design with DW and Sabian. You could recognize Neil in all those little details, he was always looking for something – always moving...
It was the Moving Pictures tour that really cemented our friendship. They were a great band to tour with. Rush treated you like equals on the road at a time when most didn't. They wanted the whole show to be great. One night, in the middle of our set, during a hard stop in one of our tunes, we heard this clatter behind us. It took a moment to realize that Neil was playing along behind us! He would go under the shroud covering his show kit and warm up! Too funny. But oh, so practical. Wasn't long before he had all the breaks down.
We had some memorable sound checks on that tour; the six of us wailing away. A lot of fun. There is a tape. I bet they have a ton of them. Could make for some very cool, ‘official' bootlegs.
Rush toured constantly. Often with a ‘6 in 7' schedule. Exhausting after eight to 10 months. Many of the musicians they hung out with were those on tour with them. Neil was like a sponge, soaking up ideas from everyone – forget playing along to records – here's the band, live, in front of you! Ha! They grew up in arenas and concert halls. Imagine how that shapes your playing.
And Neil did play to records - his own! He would famously rehearse to rehearse. After the Moving Pictures tour, I visited Neil at his home outside of St. Catherines, ostensibly to interview him for "Canadian Musician". It was an evening of shared enthusiasm for music, drumming, and automobiles. Some of our wide-ranging discussion on influences, style and composition did eventually make into to that article.
Neil had just finished renovating a space above the garage into a practice studio. He explained that before a tour he would sit down and play along to his own records. We laughed. It was how we started – playing to records! The irony was not lost, but it was smart. "At least someone knows how the song goes!" Rush rehearsals often started out sounding like a band trying to play Rush. It also meant he remembered all the parts everyone in the audience knew so well.
His was a classical music approach to performance. I grew up on rock and roll but was schooled in jazz. I took a more improvisational approach using the song as a framework to build upon. He said the studio was where he improvised, the stage was where he tried to get it right. Every night. And more often than not, he did.
He surprised me by knowing the origin of much of what he played, where a lot of his shit came from. We shared influences and insights and learned a great deal from each other. He would call me up to review transcripts of his playing that someone had done. "Tell me if this is what I'm playing!" (I'd had a more formal education) Then I had the fun of analyzing what he was actually playing. He was very generous with what he was up to and interested in what you were doing. Lots of back and forth - where something came from, how it developed - playing, composition, lyrics, philosophy, books. He had this ridiculous memory for things.
Both of us embraced the new tech, drum machines, electronic drums and samplers. They were just another voice.
After the Moving Pictures tour, our friendship grew more personal. We both had young families and Neil's daughter, Selena and my son, Shane were the same age. "Perfect," said his wife, Jackie, "You must come up to the Laurentians!" She and my wife, Melanie hit it off and we spent many a summer and winter vacation up at their cottage.
His cottage in the Laurentians fronted onto a classic, northern lake. Deep, clear, and fresh. Neil had fallen in love with the Laurentians while recording at Le Studio. It was a magical place. Deep in the Boreal forests north of Montreal, dotted with beautiful lakes he bought a modest cottage on one of the small lakes.
Neil was competitive. That first summer there, I decided to swim across the lake, a bay, to a rock, a piece of the Canadian Shield, that was not far, eight or nine hundred yards maybe. As I turned to swim back, I see Neil and Jackie in their little paddle boat, madly paddling across the bay towards me. Turns out for Neil, flying wasn't the only thing he didn't like. As a child, he had almost drowned and was really nervous in water away from shore. I let myself be rescued amid admonishments to not be so foolhardy again.
However, Neil was never one to shy away from a challenge, and with Jackie riding shotgun in the paddle boat, wasn't he was swimming the length of the bloody lake by the next summer! We would swim for about an hour at a fairly determined pace and then for the last one hundred yards or so we would sprint! Killer. "Drum solo" he called it.
Neil was very disciplined, even on holiday up at the cottage, he would a set routine for the day and follow through on his plans, not just letting the days flow by. Up early - for rockers and way ahead of everyone else - he would prepare a Spartan breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice and two boiled eggs with toast for the two of us. If it was winter, we were off on a 25 km cross-country ski jaunt packing water with a chocolate bar for lunch.
I loved it. I would curse and respect his regimen. We shared a lot that way, one initiating, the other happy to engage. We had totally different styles. I was much more verbal when the going got tough, swearing like a sailor. He silently simmered at adversity, but one time, the climb got the better of him and he thrashed an unsuspecting tree with his ski pole, only to realize too late that he would need it to ski home! We always laughed at our misfortunes - later. The crisp air, dry snow, -10 degrees C – ‘green wax days', we called them.
When we were able to, we would hang out at each other's shows. I met Brutus, in fact, when Neil and Jackie brought an old school friend of Jackie's and her husband to a summer jazz gig I had at the Bellair Café in Yorkville, a supper club in Toronto. He wasn't Brutus quite then. Jackie would often come out to FM shows when Neil was on the road. She was a very dear friend.
Neil was a big kid. One afternoon, years later, Neil and Jackie invited us to their new place in Toronto for a Christmas get together. Behind their house sat the St. Clair reservoir and with a good snow it created a wonderful hill to toboggan on. But this was the time of the GT Snow Racer! Neil, ever the kid, suggested to Keeley, my daughter, who was about five at the time, that we should go try the racers out. It was too funny to see him, all 6'4" of him, hunched over the little GT Racer.
Off the two of them went, down the hill, fast. Neil was ahead and knew about a turn at the bottom to avoid a five foot drop off at the end. He turned successfully but poor Keeley didn't see him turn and she went flying. Man, we scrambled to find her, both of us yelling - our wives are going to kill us! Keeley was a little shook up but otherwise okay. Another of those experiences that are fun in the telling but not so much as they happen.
Rush's support for my band, FM, continued after the Moving Pictures tour. I won't go into details here, but FM was at a crossroads following the tour and Rush wanted to help. After a lot of discussion, Neil suggested that maybe FM should sign with Anthem Records and Ray Danniels, their manager. Throughout the transition Neil was supportive but stayed out of things directly. It turned out to not be a good fit and Ray and FM parted ways amicably. It was unfortunate but my friendship with Neil continued unabated.
"It would be so much easier if we were perfect."
When the invite from Cathy Rich came asking Neil to sit in with the Buddy Rich Big Band, he asked me to come down to the studio where he was rehearsing and critique his prep for the show. When Neil played that show in '92, it's an understatement to say he hadn't played much jazz. Maybe a handful of "sessions" outside of Rush.
Watching it and talking to him later about it, I recognized all the classic jobbing nightmares – unfamiliar surroundings, the kit too far away from the band, no time for a good monitor check, if at all, and the worst if you're not reading, a different arrangement from the one you had rehearsed. He said he couldn't hear the band. Yikes. But he hung in there. The guy had balls.
Shortly thereafter he introduced me to Freddie Gruber. Neil invited me out to a dinner with Jackie and Freddie, while Freddie was in Toronto to teach Neil a series of lessons. He wanted me to meet his new teacher. Freddie and I, we hit it off. What a character – the stories! "If half them are true!" Neil laughed. They would become very close.
Neil showed me what Freddie was teaching him. "Look Ma, I'm dancing!" I could hear the change in Neil's playing – it was rounder. After a year or so of studying with Freddie, Rush recorded Test For Echo and I was in invited to the studio for the final mix. They weren't often in Toronto recording so it was a treat to visit and hang. On commenting on how good he sounded, Neil turned to me and said, "Yeah, Ged asked me if I had new cymbals!" We were in tears.
"Hyena says - I am not lucky, but I am always on the move." (Kikuyu proverb)
Words cannot express the absolute, excruciating grief and pain of Selena's death. When Jackie died ten months later, we were just so numb. Time stood still. It is hard for me to say anything about that time. Neil, said he had to write "Ghost Rider", but wondered aloud, "How anyone would want to read it."
We stayed in touch - notes from Freddie's back yard, from a hammock in the southern Baja - but there were long stretches...
As time passed, he reached out more and more and I could feel his spirit returning. Friends in L.A. helped with the difficult task of re-entry into whatever the rest of his life was going to be. It is hard to imagine how vulnerable he was. Then he met Carrie and allowed himself to fall in love.
We didn't know if he would play again. I asked him. He wasn't sure. Some time later, he wrote back saying Carrie had looked at him one day and said, "You're a drummer, you should drum." With baby steps he got back on the kit and pounded away, pounded his grief, wailing at his story.
Rush didn't disappear when Neil needed time to grieve and get sorted. Their absence made their fans grow fonder. They came back. They doubled down. Neil had a publisher in ECW, he was making more videos, and created a web page full of humor and with "News, Weather, and Sports", a blog that was a personal memoir. He really was A Man with Many Voices.
When Rush played Toronto in support of Vapor Trails, there was not a dry eye in the place.
The thing about Rush was their integrity. They didn't sell out to the man. After the success of 2112 - the album where they resisted all pressure to conform or be cast out - they now had ‘f*ck you' money. They never took sponsorship. Discussions about photos, caricatures on lunch boxes? Not a chance. Started their own record company. Owned their masters. Again and again they showed us, evidenced by their choices, that they were coming from the heart, and we loved and respected them for it.
Objectivism had appealed to Neil when he was younger and Ayn Rand's writing had influenced his early thinking. Neil did "live by his own effort," but as to Rand's idea that one "does not give or receive the undeserved," well, if he had ever agreed with that philosophy, he certainly didn't after Selena's death. "Who deserves that?" he remarked.
And then. After he had hung up his skates, after his amazing career, after everything, his annual birthday greeting contained the news of his "brain salad surgery" - I was devastated.
I got out to Santa Monica the following spring. At dinner he reconciled. "I had a good run," he said. And it had been.
An enviable career, an extraordinary 45 years, doing what he loved at the ultimate level, the way he wanted. What a life. And now he was fighting the good fight - for his daughter Olivia, I think. It broke my heart.
I'm thankful we had a chance to say our goodbyes, the only sliver of silver in an otherwise dark lining of a life well lived.
Neil never lost the fascination, the real relation, the underlying dream. I've never met a man who was truer to his word.
You will be missed, my friend, but you are not gone.
Neil Peart was a Renaissance man. Most of us know him as the iconic drummer and lyricist of Rush, but beyond his exceptional talents in the world of music, Neil's zest for life, thirst for knowledge, and quest for adventure led him down many divergent paths.
I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Neil in 1985, when The Steve Morse Band toured with Rush as their opening act on the band's 85/86 Power Windows Tour. Most touring musicians will attest to the absolute joy and excitement of bringing their music to audiences around the globe. Most of these same musicians will also agree on the physical and emotional toll that endless touring can take on a human being.
That said, a typical show day often consists of travel, sound checks, meet and greets, interviews, the performance, followed by more meet and greets. Well, as if this is not enough, a typical show day for Neil Peart on tour would usually begin in the wee hours of morning, as Neil would journey on his bicycle from the previous city (assuming said previous city was within 150 miles of the next gig). Neil would often be on his bike for hours, arriving in time for Rush's sound check. Directly after sound check, he would have dinner, which was immediately followed by a one-hour conversational French language lesson with a local French-speaking tutor. Upon completing his French lesson, Neil would proceed to a private practice room and warm-up on a small drum kit prior to the band's two-hour concert. After the concert, Neil would usually hang for a short time before excusing himself to go to the band's tour bus, to work on one of his future literary creations.
At some point during this same time period, when he had some time off from touring, Neil flew to China, where he met up with a handful of bicycling enthusiasts for a 3-week journey through remote parts of the country. With pad and pen in hand (at the time, Neil felt that a camera interfered with the creative process) he would jot down highlights of the day's experiences, which eventually culminated in one of his first literary works entitled, "Riding The Golden Lion". In addition to the writing portion of this 39-page journal/book, Neil was involved in every step of the process in putting the book together, including choosing the cover art, font, page color and thickness, etc. I believe it was the first outing in what would become a passion of his, eventually authoring several critically acclaimed books.
On the very last day off of The Steve Morse Band's final leg of the Rush Power Windows Tour, Neil, Alex, and Geddy took our band to an exotic restaurant for a memorable band dinner. Sitting cross-legged on pillows on the floor, in our very own private room, sans silverware, we dined on an incredible feast of delicacies using only our fingers. Alex, a wine expert and connoisseur, made sure the nectar of the gods was flowing. So, there I am sitting next to Neil, chit-chatting while trying to think of something interesting and stimulating to say to this sophisticated, worldly, well-traveled man. Neil beat me to the punch, turning to me and posing the question, "So Rod, have you ever considered the effects of climate on the development of Western Civilization?"
That, in a nutshell, sums up the ever-inquisitive Neil Peart, always seeking knowledge and new experiences, never happy with the status quo. He is the textbook definition of ‘Carpe Diem', seizing every moment of life to engage in something of importance, be it music, reading, writing, philosophizing, bicycling, motorcycling, sailing, cross-country skiing, trekking through foreign lands, climbing the highest peaks, and devoting himself to family. He is a truly inspiring human being, whose breath of humanity has touched millions around the world.
I am forever grateful to have known this unique and special man. RIP Neil
It's a common enough thing to do...when time or circumstance brings a friend or loved one to mind, we search for a tangible element of memory. This was always in the form of a scrapbook, a photo album or even a shoebox filled with letters. Of course, nowadays, it's the searchable database of an email program that can bring past digital conversations to life. That "life" word is very important.
And so, it was after I received the news of Neil Peart's passing, I needed to touch something of him. I could watch some YouTube videos, but any of those performances were not at the core of our relationship (even though some of our work together did manifest itself in his later playing, at least, according to Neil). Tributes galore from all manner of drummers, but, again, that was not the basis for our friendship or ensuing correspondences. Reading the back and forth of our letters, I'm surprised now by how collegial and even intimate our written talks turned out to be. This was due to a couple of factors...
First, Neil was an incredible writer of words. Each letter is as carefully constructed as one of his drum solos, and he enjoyed an ability to be as prolific as he was varied in his voice on paper. To put it more simply: his letters are an incredible if bittersweet pleasure to read again. The comparison that comes to mind is a warm and inviting bath. The man knew how to turn a phrase. And he was always a perfect gentleman in his prose, spontaneous or otherwise.
As tempting as it is to share some of his missives with the world at large, that would betray his confidence in me. I'll just leave it at: the man could write.
Second, he surrendered much more of himself than I expected him to. I've taught other rock drummers who were coming to me with the vague reason or expectation that learning a wee bit of jazz would somehow automatically "up" their game in no time. They were usually disappointed to discover that these things TAKE time. Neil had no such illusions. An instructive allegory can be found in his love of motorcycle riding and his appreciation for the journey. He found meaning and joy in the process and in the work. And this guy wasn't just a rock star. He was THE drumming rock star.
Meanwhile, I had never even listened yet to a single song by Rush when we met for the first of several lessons at my home. (Since Neil spoke openly about our work together, I can follow suit.) He was an ideal student of the instrument. And, in that sense alone, he was very much like his idol Gene Krupa, who sought out instruction from other drummers and percussionists while at the height of his own fame and glory. Neil paid attention and did his homework. He seemed to delight in keeping me apprised and abreast of his steady stream of improvement and epiphanies. One of his goals was to improvise more. My first job as his teacher was to provide some practical mechanical and musical advice. My second job was to encourage the fire that was already lit under his motorcycle seat. Teacher's delight: he ran far and wide with the ball, to mix metaphors. To be honest, I only showed him a couple of things. But I suspect that the dynamic of the mentor/student relationship was something he intuited that he needed at that moment. He was ready to get to his next level, I just helped him to find the button on that elevator.
Of course, because I was not a fanboy, he could trust me completely. I know he took delight in giving me my first Rush album and was quite happy when I told him how much I liked it. His drumming really impressed me. Duh. I just got done saying that he was the Gene Krupa of our time. Allow me to explain...
It was only with time that I was able to fully appreciate what Gene Krupa did for drumming and for jazz. Gene was no Chick Webb, no Baby Dodds, no Sid Catlett, no Papa Jo Jones and no Buddy Rich. I mean, he was no Art Blakey either (when I was real young, I was crazy about Art Blakey and Max Roach). But Gene Krupa was, in some respect, greater than the sum of all of their parts. Gene Krupa made the drums so popular that it was as if he had INVENTED drumming. For most folks, Gene Krupa WAS the drums. Yet, Gene Krupa was innately modest despite his abilities as a drummer and performer. His persona at the kit, while it scored a bullseye with most non-drummers, belied how seriously-well he played. Neil may have enjoyed or suffered that same misconception on the part of some drummers. Several million Neil Peart fans can't be wrong, however. I never got it until I got it.
As far as I could tell, Neil never considered himself anything other than a student of the instrument, plus a guy who went on the road to do his job even if that meant leaving his wife and daughter at home for extended periods of time. But I am fully-prepared to join the chorus of fans who love Neil Peart...I just came to love him ultimately for different reasons.
Two key words: his humility and his humanity.
Like his original idol Gene Krupa, Neil Peart changed the world of drumming forever, and we should all mourn this loss as well as celebrate all of the joy that his percussive journeys brought us. I think he would prefer the "joy" part. He reveled on the road less traveled, and he delivered wherever he went. I'm grateful that we kept in touch for some of this time and that I have his letters to hold and cherish. I'll be printing them out later today to read by the fire.
Neil Peart and I met in 1985 during the recording session for bassist Jeff Berlin's first solo album Champion. The album was produced by Ronnie Montrose and featured Scott Henderson on guitar, T Lavitz, Clare Fisher and Walter Afanasieff on keyboards, with Neal Schon sitting in on guitar for one song. Jeff had me play drums on most of the album and asked Neil to guest drum on two songs. We all knew for Neil to accept that offer was unusual and we were excited to have him perform on the record. When Neil arrived at the session, he was gracious to us all, a true gentleman and humble. He was also extremely prepared. Neil played on the title track, "Champion (of the world)," and as I recall, he played a perfect drum part in one take. He also played on the Cannonball Adderly tune, "Marabi." Jeff had devised an incredible arrangement for this up-tempo swinger. Neil played a grooving shuffle throughout. It was my job to come in on the rock bridges, and the outro, playing a double-bass Billy Cobham-style shuffle, double-drumming with Neil. The song came out great and we all had a fantastic time. Everyone was impressed with Neil's musicianship and creativity. After the session Neil broke out his bottle of scotch and we had a lovely time trading stories and laughing into the evening.
I knew Neil as a man of great humility, intelligence and humor. His drumming has inspired generations and I'm sure, will continue to inspire and inform drummers of the future. He left us far too soon with scarce time to enjoy his new family and his retirement. I am grateful to have known Neil Peart. He is already missed.
I actually got to play Neil's kit in 1979. The Good Rats were doing a Northeast run with Rush on their Hemispheres tour in 1979 and the first show was at Nassau Coliseum, our home turf. Neil was watching our sound check from side stage and afterwards came up to me, introduced himself (needed no introduction) and asked if he could check out my kit AND if I'd like to check out his. We did a short drum-off and it was awesome. Since his passing, I'm totally obsessed with all things Neil and Rush. I didn't grow up a Rush fan as Neil and I were the same age and started making records around the same time. For me, the 70's was about Tony, Billy, Alphonse, Lenny and the whole fusion movement. That's where I went for inspiration, so I wasn't listening to Rush, Sabbath and a lot of the bands that rockers were into. I liked what Rush was doing and respected the hell out of Neil but never listened in detail... until recently. I was so moved by the amazing tributes that were posted on social media and have since gone back and revisited their body of work. I can't get enough of YouTubing his interviews and playing. I've also picked up a few of his books and am in the middle of reading "Ghost Rider." What an amazing man. Unequalled in his passion for life. A great loss to us all. RIP Neil Peart.
One of the things I admired most about Neil was his discipline. He worked at his many crafts. Not to be the best-ever, but the best he could be. He looked for fresh inspiration through experiences. When he had ridden all the paved roads, he went off road. When he ran out of road, he took to the sea. Literally and figuratively. He read thousands of books to inform his own writing.
When he reached a point in his drumming that he thought he could benefit from new techniques, he took lessons. He understood that a good student needs empathy and humility in addition to talent and discipline. This made him a master. He was all in- dedicated, devoted and we should all be as bold as Neil Peart.
During the last three and a half years, Neil faced this brutal, aggressive brain cancer bravely, philosophically and with his customary humor, sometimes light and occasionally dark - all very characteristic of him, even given the serious situation and the odds handed to him at the time of the diagnosis and subsequent surgery. But he fought it. By his own request for privacy, few people knew, but his understandable response to this news in no way excludes or diminishes ALL of those who also knew him, worked with him or loved and admired him from up close, or at a distance. His tenacious approach to life served him well during these last years and although he primarily kept his own counsel, he retained his dignity, compassion, understanding and his deeply inquisitive nature, which never deserted him. Remarkably, considering the severity of his condition (glioblastoma) and through the resulting aftermath, he really had no pain. This was always my first question when I saw him.
"Any pain?" I asked.
"No pain", came the reply.
What a blessing that was. We were all grateful for that. For every one of us who loved him, near and far, this is a loss that is difficult and impossible to summarize in a few short paragraphs. The outpouring of love, respect and appreciation from every imaginable quarter for this extraordinary, singular talent and beautiful man with a mind like no one I have ever met, is touching beyond words. To those that had to guard and hold on to this information closely for three and a half years, for obvious and protective reasons; his wife Carrie, daughter Olivia, his loving family, band, colleagues and friends, they have my undying admiration. You know who you are.
Apart from his deeply gifted, genius talent and prolific output, which he brilliantly displayed through music, lyric and prose writing and that staggering storehouse of knowledge across an array of subjects in multiple fields, he remained a kind, gentle, considerate and modest soul and a consummate gentleman... as well as an extraordinary friend. If you were his friend, you knew it and he understood how to be the best friend that you could ever hope to have. I think I speak for all, known and unknown to him, to say he will be deeply missed, eternally loved, appreciated and remembered for his many invaluable contributions to music, art and the written word. That will be forever celebrated.
Despite what he knew and we knew which was inevitable, I believe there is some sense of relief that this long, difficult odyssey has finally ended.
Thank you, my dear friend, for passing this way. We are all richer for your presence and light in our lives.
To describe just what Neil Peart means to me would take an entire issue so I will attempt to keep this brief.
I first met Neil in June of 2007 through my friends Rob Wallis, Paul Siegel, and Joe Bergamini from Hudson Music, along with the help of my then-new, NAMM 2007 buddy, Lorne Wheaton. I had just finished up my Hudson DVD and asked Paul if he may be in town for my local RUSH show and, "Would there be ANY WAY POSSIBLE to meet The Professor?" Yes, I know, he doesn't really do the meet-and-greet thing, but I figured I had an "in" of sorts. He said, "All I can do is ask," and that was good enough for me. Meanwhile, I had already met and hung with Lorne at a Promark party at NAMM 2007 where he repeatedly told me, "Just text me and I'll get you in," along with, "Oh, don't worry, Neil knows who you are." Are you kidding me?! I really just thought Lorne was being nice to me and there was no way that I was on Neil's radar, even though I had heard the same from Nick Raskulinecz who was working on the Vapor Trails demos with the band, while he was also working on one of my records. Anyway, I still didn't believe them.
At around 3:00 the day of the show, Paul calls me and goes, "How soon can you get up here?" I said, "Forty minutes. Why?" He then says, "Neil has agreed to meet with you!" My wife then hung up the phone, since I had had a heart attack by that point, and we raced up to Saratoga.
The next 40 minutes was complete "Holy shit, this is happening" mode. My good friend Mike Portnoy texted me with one very important piece of info, that I already knew from years of knowing about NP: Do NOT talk about drums unless HE brings it up. A wise thought indeed... And yes, he did start talking about drums. As I waited backstage with my wife for his arrival, I finally saw the man walk by, and it literally took my breath away–I indeed just saw God. Of course, I would never tell him that, and never, in all the times I talked with him, did I say, "OMG you're my favorite drummer." I didn't have to.
As we entered the room, Michael, Bubba's right-hand man, said to my wife, who was holding my camera, "No pictures." I thought, "Uhhhh, I don't think so. If I'm finally going to meet him, I will ask him and chance getting shot down, but I'm at least asking, especially if I never have another chance to talk to or see him." He then took the next 20 minutes of his warm-up time–you drummers know how important that is–and chatted about our shared producer "Boosh;" he also showed me what he had been working on in his lessons with Peter Erskine– I'm realizing right now as I type this with a wet keyboard, not only did he talk about drums with me, but he gave me a five-minute lesson too...priceless...I need a second here...
Okay, so before we left, he signed my Slingerland Artist Snare. "I had one just like this," he says, "Yes sir, I know." I then asked, "Neil, would it be okay to take a picture?" and he said in that bellowing Bubba voice, "Suuurrreee." I think I may have casually smirked at Michael as I handed Paul the camera...ha ha, told ya! It's all jokes–Michael is my buddy now, and he was just doing his job, but there was no way I was leaving without proof this actually happened! At this point, he took a pic with my wife and I together, so my wife says, "Neil, would you mind just taking one more with only him, because he's been waiting his whole life to meet you!" And he looks at her and goes, "Of course, we wouldn't want that first one to end up in a settlement one day!" The whole room, us included, broke out in hysterical laughter, it was so quick and so perfect for my first-ever meeting with him– signing my/his drum, giving me a lesson, and cracking jokes...I still can't believe it, it was amazing. And that's exactly what I told Mike, when I texted him after I left the dressing room, "Holy shit bro, it was amazing!"
For the next tour and every single one thereafter, I was on his guest list every time I could make a show, and even when I was on tour myself and missed a few, he would still put my wife or my other family members on and give them great seats. Then on the farewell tour, when I said "I think I'm coming to more than one show, but I don't expect entrance to all of them" I got, "No problem, just let us know when." That's the kind of guy he was. I was lucky enough to meet with him a few more times over the years, with more great stories, and even when he didn't have time to get to see me backstage, I always got the email, "Sorry I won't be able to meet today, but your tickets and passes will be there, all the best, and I hope you enjoy the show!"
Until the day I can finally tell you, "You're my favorite drummer!"
RIP Neil, Bubba, The Professor
Every one of us has a few favorite drummers and some of us can boil it down to just one. It's a common dialogue here in our drumming community and I've proudly offered, "I'm a Neil guy" since day one of my journey. For me, Neil Peart was nothing short of a superhero. He harnessed everything I aspired to be as a drummer, as a bandmate, as a writer, and as an individual. In 1991, I was an eighteen year old college freshman in my very first night away from home after my parents dropped me off at my dorm. As a percussion scholarship student, I had to report a week early for band camp so the residence hall was mostly empty. I started to set up my half of the room and I began to cry because I was all alone. I was scared and instantly homesick. Self-doubt crept in and I wondered what I was doing at this university two hours from home. In an attempt to shake it off, I did what any music fan would do: I hooked up my stereo, popped in a CD, and cranked it up so I could start hanging my favorite band posters. The CD was Rush Hold Your Fire and the first poster–which I still have–was an all red Hold Your Fire tour poster with an individual photo of each member beside each of the three red spheres.
I stared at the poster, wiping tears from my cheeks as the fifth track played. "The point of the journey is not to arrive. Anything can happen." In that moment Neil's lyrics blossomed in my mind, made me believe I was in the right place, and enabled me to continue on my path–one that I'm still on nearly thirty years later. His musicality, creativity, passion, technical prowess, skill, and attention to detail have always, and will always, inspire me as a drummer. Each of those attributes is important to me, but there is one more which tops them all: an endless dedication to honing his craft. Using his vast drumming vocabulary, with each record Neil always had something new to say and I will forever be grateful that he said so much to me.
Going back many years... Rush used to come and watch Bill Bruford's band play, because for that brief period in music history, we were a very big thing. The Bruford band was a "player's group" and in that particular time in history, players were admired just for playing well. I was very fortunate, as was Neil, to have been recognized for that; we appeared in a window of time where the mere demonstration of skills at a high level was appreciated by a lot of people. It was through that, that Neil and I met. I don't remember exactly how, where or when, I just recall meeting this very nice man who played in a Canadian rock band that everybody loved. Eventually I heard the records and thought, "Yeah, these guys are great" and became a fan.
When I did my record Champion, it was 1985 and an early part in my life where my involvement with Neil could have been at a higher level. Meaning, that if I had collaborated with him recently, I'm certain that I would have worked with Neil in an entirely different level of musical interaction. Back at that time, I was transcribing a lot of great solos from artists that weren't bassists. Neil was such a powerful rock drummer, and I had this heavy, hard-hitting arrangement of Cannonball Adderley's "Marabi," so I invited Steve Smith, who was playing with Journey at the time, and Neil to double drum on it. It came out fantastic. It was so powerful that when I heard it back in the studio, I wish I had done four more choruses, just to have more of them playing. Again, I was a young guy and wasn't thinking about arrangements in the way that I would be today.
With regard to working with him, I simply asked if he wanted to come and play and he said, "Sure, I'd love to be a part of the record." He was totally open to anything that I wanted to do with him. To prepare for the recording, I recall sending him demos, and then we rehearsed somewhat before we recorded. I wish I had taken pictures back then, but I didn't. Neil's drum set was a double bass, with a snare, two toms, two floors and a few cymbals. Even though Neil was known for playing this monstrous kit, it was the music that came first, so his usual setup wasn't necessary. For the recording, Neil was facing Steve and they played together for what I called The G Section, because it was in G. But what I discovered was, when they played that section together, their bass drums were playing triplets that were just unrelenting–it was too much. I had to decide to simplify it a bit between the two of them and what ended up working was Neil played his triplet figure with a cymbal downbeat, then one bass drum and then the other bass drum, then a snare downbeat and one bass drum and then the other bass drum. So, for the triplet figure, Neil was playing cymbal-bass drum-bass drum, snare-bass drum-bass drum. Steve then played a shuffle with the two bass drums and between the two of them, we got a full triplet double-bass drum pattern playing every note.
For the other song Neil played on, "Champion (Of The World)." I'm tempted to go back in and do it again– isolate the original drums, but this time, record and mix it to today's standards, with the rock vibe that I had originally had in mind.
Neil and I had a quarter note together; we could play together and didn't have to think about anything else– that's why I did the Buddy Rich Big Band with him. We instantly found a musical kismet between us, as well a socially understandable manner of life–we were the same age and amongst other things, had a common admiration for Cream, with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. We were a couple of knuckleheads and just clicked. He would send me the books that he'd written, or send me emails with stories about life, and he'd also send me demos to listen to as well. We clicked as people and clicked as musicians; you can only click with someone musically if you have an agreed upon attitude about the music. If we agree on the quarter note, I'm going to play great with them and they're going to play great with me– we had that. Our musical collaboration, ironically, wasn't the outstanding feature of our relationship, it was our friendship. We hung more than we played. We talked a lot, sent emails, had pet names for each other...not to be revealed here, but for 35 years, the guys in Rush never called me Jeff and I never called them Neil, Alex or Geddy. So, my relationship with Neil was really more a friendship than anything.
He was a natural in what Ginger Baker called, "Time". And it wasn't about the astonishing drum set; I could have and would have loved to have played with Neil on a four- or five-piece kit. Music was very important to Neil and what I mean is, it counted equal to or even more so than his status. He was always evolving and forever in flux, playing different setups and eventually, even taking drum lessons later on in his career. The number one rock drummer on the planet, at the height of his fame and he chose to continue studying, first with Freddie Gruber and then with Peter Erskine. That's such an admirable quality, and something we shared, because I still study myself. We had so many things that we shared as people, but it was a friendship above and beyond music.
I remember one time, he invited me up to his house, which was out in the Canadian woods. It was winter time, with lots of snow, and he went up on a ladder to hang Christmas lights. I snuck up behind him, grabbed him and we both went flying into the snow, laughing–that's what I miss the most.
Neil and I had a great relationship because we both admired each other and the things that we did. And to be absolutely honest, I couldn't say that I was a big Rush fan, but I can honestly say that I was a big Neil Peart fan. Neil came to me and said, "I really dig what you do. I've seen a few things online..."–he had done a bit of homework–and he actually helped me take a lot of the things that I was talking about trying to accomplish and trying to put out to the rest of the world; things that I felt were important for drummers to understand–how to tune their drums and where I was going with making drums.
We had many discussions about making drums, and eventually he started calling me The Wood Whisperer. As time went by, year after year, we got closer and closer to being like family–he felt very close to DW and spent a lot of time with myself and Don [Lombardi], and especially Don due to Neil using the Drum Channel facility as a rehearsal place. We spent really good quality time together, talking about the philosophy of drums– he was a great philosopher–and from that, I asked him one day, if he would write the forward for my book, "The Book Of Plies," to which he informed me that he was in the midst of writing another book, but he would see what he could do. I thought, "Okay, I better just leave him alone." Twenty minutes later, he sent this forward, that would have taken any mortal man a year to write, let alone even imagine those thoughts.
One of the really great things about our relationship was that I could actually bounce things off him and he was totally game for most everything I wanted to do. For example, he was the first guy who wanted to try my idea of a 23-inch bass drum. So, I made one and sent it to Toronto, and Lorne Wheaton, Neil's drum tech, slid it underneath him. He played it and said, "Now I can't live without this." He then started playing only 23-inch bass drums and for a lot of the followers of him and his work, they started to play 23-inch bass drums too, which was gratifying for me because that's my favorite size bass drum–they're just beautiful.
We often would discuss sonically, the sound(s) that he was looking for and what he wanted to achieve. After we would speak, he would then go over to see Louis Garcia and they would discuss the fantastic visual designs, that I must say, I'm so proud of my crew for being able to pull off. And each new tour became more epic than the previous one, so it was one of those situations where all of us here wanted to be a part of what Neil wanted the world to know and realize–and not just for himself, but also for my company and for what Neil was really all about in the world of drumming.
Anyway, time goes by, we do some things together video-wise and we're now feeling really comfortable with each other. He would always come and rehearse at DW for about three weeks before every rush tour. Lorne would show up and they'd work together on the whole blown-out kit, the riser, everything. Then an eighteen-wheeler would arrive, and they'd pack up the whole thing and off it would go to Toronto, where they'd rehearse as a band for their next tour. Seeing that, I admired the fact that he loved the routine. He'd drive his Aston Martin in from Santa Monica, and we'd wind up at the Drum Channel, and then go off to lunch when he'd say, "Let's go have a ‘three Arnold Palmer lunch' at the Olive Garden"–he loved the simplicity of life. As much as I would love to say he was not a complicated man–because he really was– he really appreciated the simple, wholesome and good things of every day.
As time went by, I found that after the last couple of tours, which weren't really that long-lasting, he said he really didn't want to do that anymore; he wanted to be around for his family–he'd given forty years of his life to the road. He had a great way of putting it by saying, "I think I gave at the office." But for this last tour, he agreed to thirty-five shows, and of course, for a production of that size, it takes probably thirty shows to even start to earn money back, but they did it, and it came off great. There's a DVD of it, which I haven't had the guts to watch yet, but as that all ended, he just wanted to retire. He had a place that he called his Man Cave, which was this room full of cars, where we would go every now and then to hang out.
I knew for the last two and half years, what was going on–that he had some serious health issues–and we all agreed to keep it very close to the vest, because that would have been a media frenzy that no one wanted to bear. And it was tough to shoulder that, through some dark times, because you really cared about this man– all you wanted was for it to get better, and it didn't get better; it just got worse.
It was just before last Thanksgiving that I wrote him an email. He had been responding less and less, but he wrote me back and asked if I wanted to come visit. So, Don and I went together and met Neil at the Man Cave. Neil was moving slow, shuffling around a bit, not really walking around too much. Words were coming slow and he couldn't really write much anymore. We sat down and talked for a while and he said, "I'm not in pain guys, I'm okay." When it was lunch time, Don offered to go across the street to get us some food, so I was there alone with Neil and asked, "Is there anything you want? Anything at all." He said, "No, nothing at all." So, I said, "Well, I want to do something. I want to take your R40 kit and put it in our showroom, behind plexiglass, where people can come in and check it out." He just smiled and said, "That's what I want." He then said, "I have my driver that takes me from my house to the Man Cave every day, and on the way to, I listen to three songs. Then when he picks me up to go home, I listen to three more." I said, "Really? What songs?" Neil said, "Rush songs!" Then he said, "I spent a life time concentrating on my parts. All I could think about was my parts, rehearsing my parts, and trying to be the best possible drummer that I could be for that music. But I never really listened to the embodiment of the music as a whole." He took a minute as I was taking that in, and then he said, "You know John, we were pretty good."
As we finished our lunch, we got up to leave and give him a hug–and when you hug Neil Peart, you're hugging a man of great stature–I said, "I hope I see you again soon," and as I turned to walk away, he grabbed my hand, and just gave me a long stare, and a smile.