“It is with broken hearts and the deepest sadness that we must share the terrible news that on Tuesday our friend, soul brother and band mate over 45 years, Neil, has lost his incredibly brave three and a half year battle with brain cancer," the band wrote. “Rest in peace brother.”
Peart placed fourth on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time, just behind Ginger Baker, Keith Moon and John Bonham. Peart’s jaw-dropping percussion skills, though, were matched by his wondrous skill with lyrics as Rush composed song after thought-provoking song that deftly explored the human condition or conjured up mysterious realms beyond the humdrum life of the band’s heyday in the 1970s, ‘80s and ’90s. Peart was precise, deliberate and skilled behind his sprawling drum kit, but his innovative lyrics helped set Rush apart from other prog rock bands.
Rush was a power trio that rock had never quite seen before, with the searing guitar work of Alex Lifeson, the bass, keyboards and vocals of Geddy Lee and the fantastical drumming of Peart, who was no mere backing member of the rhythm section but rather an indispensable leg of the unusual tripod. The band still finds airplay today with anthems like “The Spirit of Radio” and “Tom Sawyer” — perhaps its best-known song — and “Subdivisions,” with its searing assessment of early '80s life in cookie-cutter housing tracts: “Be cool or be cast out.”
The band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, and honored for combining "the signature traits of progressive rock with a proto typical heavy-metal sound.” “We've always said it's not something that meant a lot to us, but we knew our fans cared so much to be validated like that — that their favorite band like their favorite sports team should be celebrated as champions," Peart told The Associated Press at the time. “We always knew that was the case and certainly to see it blossom after this is a testament to the truth of that."
Peart was born on Sept. 12, 1952 in Ontario. Music became an outlet for the self-described introvert who remained a quiet, under-the-radar star his entire career. “I was very academic until I discovered drums,” he explained in a 2017 interview with Classic Rock. “Then I was a monomaniac about drumming. I was physically awkward. My ankles were weak, so I couldn’t play any sports. I couldn’t skate and I couldn’t play hockey, which in Canada is like football is in the U.K. And that makes you a pariah as a boy.”
When Rush formed in 1968, its original lineup included Lifeson, bassist Jeff Jones and drummer John Rutsey. After a few weeks, Lee replaced Jones, and in 1974, Peart replaced Rutsey weeks before Rush’s first U.S. tour. Rush’s first album with Peart — by then the band’s principal songwriter — was 1975’s platinum-seller “Fly by Night.” They released another album that same year, “Caress of Steel,” which reached gold status.
In 1976 the band marked a major breakthrough with the album “2112,” which sold three million units in the U.S. The first side of the album tells the tale of a dystopian world where creativity, individualism and music itself are outlawed — Peart was a reader of Ayn Rand — only to have things unravel when someone discovers an abandoned guitar. It was an extraordinary effort and fans responded in droves.
Lee described working with Peart’s lyrics during a 2018 interview with The Guardian: “Being an interpreter for Neil has been a singular pleasure of mine and a really difficult job at the same time, because I’m not always on the same page as him. As we grew as a band, I became trusted by him to be his sounding board and his editor, and if I couldn’t get into a thing, he would leave it alone. That’s the beauty of a relationship that lasts.”
Rush’s most successful album was 1981’s “Moving Pictures,” which sold four million copies. The album featured “Tom Sawyer” and “YYZ” — a track that served as a showcase for Peart during live shows and secured Rush its first-ever Grammy nomination; the band would earn seven nominations over time. 1990’s “Chronicles” was a double platinum success; 11 of the band’s albums were certified platinum and 10 albums reached gold status.
Peart was also an author and published six books. At one point in the 1990s, he took jazz drumming instruction, explaining to Classic Rock: “After 40, 45 years of playing, I wanted to push myself and open up this whole new frontier. I’ve been able to do that as a lyricist and as a prose writer, and now as a drummer. You have to challenge your own limitations and your own expectations of yourself.”
In 2015, Peart announced he was retiring from touring, saying he was struggling with ailments and concerned he would not be able to play in top form. High-profile musicians were among the fans of Peart and Rush who paid tribute on social media.
“Today the world lost a true giant in the history of rock and roll. An inspiration to millions with an unmistakable sound who spawned generations of musicians (like myself) to pick up two sticks and chase a dream. A kind, thoughtful, brilliant man who ruled our radios and turntables not only with his drumming, but also his beautiful words,” Dave Grohl, who inducted Rush into the Rock Hall, said in a statement Friday. “I still vividly remember my first listen of ‘2112’ when I was young. It was the first time I really listened to a drummer. And since that day, music has never been the same. His power, precision, and composition was incomparable. He was called ‘The Professor’ for a reason: we all learned from him.”
Jack Black tweeted, “The master will be missed — Neil Peart RIP #RushForever.” Gene Simmons called Peart “a kind soul,” while Chuck D of Public Enemy recalled being inducted into the Rock Hall on the same night as Rush, saying backstage he and Peart shared “a unique moment without much word. Rest in Beats my man.”
Slash, Bryan Adams, Paul Stanley and Questlove of The Roots also paid tribute to Peart. “Thank you for inspiring me and for all your help and advice along the way, especially in the early days when you took the time to talk to a young green Danish drummer about recording, gear and the possibilities that lay ahead,” Metallica’s Lars Ulrich wrote on Twitter. “Thank you for what you did for drummers all over the world with your passion, your approach, your principles and your unwavering commitment to the instrument! Rest In Peace.”
Peart is survived by his wife, Carrie, and their daughter, Olivia Louise Peart.
Associated Press writer Dave Zelio contributed to this report.