Rush Drummer Neil Peart: Master Student

Neil Peart (Photo by Clayton Call/Redferns — Getty Images)

The band Rush has a huge fan base at home in Canada and around the world, but despite having a big appreciation for their musicianship, I’ve never counted myself among them. (Please don’t @ me.) In reading Brian Hiatt‘s moving Rolling Stone retrospective in which family, friends, and bandmates remember the late Neil Peart, Rush’s drummer, I learned a lot that deepened my respect for the band, and for Peart in particular. A year ago, Peart died from glioblastoma, the same form of brain cancer that took another important Canadian musician, Gord Downie.

While Peart was a prolific reader who used his tour downtime to “fill the gaps in his education,” what struck me most was the student mindset he brought to the drums, despite being widely recognized as a virtuoso.

Before band rehearsals for Rush tours, he’d practice on his own for weeks to ensure he could replicate his parts. His forearms bulged with muscle; his huge hands were calloused. But he was also the self-educated intellect behind Rush’s singularly cerebral and philosophical lyrics, and the author of numerous books, specializing in memoir intertwined with motorcycle travelogues, all of it rendered in luminous detail.

Peart took constant notes, kept journals, sent emails that were more like Victorian-era correspondence, wrote pieces for drum magazines, and posted essays and book reviews on his website. Despite ending his formal education at age 17, he never stopped working toward a lifelong goal of reading “every great book ever written.” He tended to use friends’ birthdays as an excuse to send “a whole fucking story about his own life,” as Rush singer-bassist Geddy Lee puts it, with a laugh.

In May 1994, at the Power Station recording studio in New York, Peart gathered together great rock and jazz drummers, from Steve Gadd to Matt Sorum to Max Roach, for a tribute album he was producing for the great swing drummer Buddy Rich. Peart noticed one of the players, Steve Smith, had improved strikingly since the last time he had seen him, and learned that he studied with the jazz guru Freddie Gruber. In the year of his 42nd birthday, while he was already widely considered to be the greatest rock drummer alive, Peart sought out Gruber and started taking drum lessons. “What is a master but a master student?” Peart told Rolling Stone in 2012.

He was convinced that years of playing along with sequencers for the more synth-y songs in Rush’s Eighties catalog had stiffened his drumming, and he wanted to loosen back up. (For all of his efforts and mastery, there were some areas even Neil Peart couldn’t conquer: “To be honest, I am not sure that Neil ever fully ‘got’ the jazz high-hat thing,” Peter Erskine, who took over as Peart’s teacher in the 2000s, wrote affectionately.)

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