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Rush Drummer Neil Peart Death Tribute
In middle school the two things I was most passionate about—fantasy/sci-fi and rock music—never seemed to fit together. Sure there was Led Zeppelin—with that mixture of high fantasy Lord of the Rings magic and heavy rock—but they were too cool, too popular to really feel like I could be one of them. At some point in middle school I came across Rush. It was a band I’d never really grown up with (my parents, from whom I inherited my music taste, were into much cooler music). But there I was drumming in a rock band with my friends and quietly reading sci-fi novels on the side when I came across this band, specifically this drummer, who played as if he was some four armed, four legged alien from another planet. That man is Neil Peart, the drummer for Rush, who died on Jan. 7 at age 67. According to his spokesperson, Peart died of complications with brain cancer, which he had been battling for three years.
He’s considered one of the greatest drummers of all time. And he’s a musician who fundamentally changed what was physically possible behind a drum set. Not just his drumming—crisp and lightning fast—but literally what and where a drum set could exist. His live performances were legendary, known for performing on some massive mechanical rig that would flip him upside down in the air during his whirlwind solos. His complex, warp-speed signature riffs somehow meshed and provided a basis for equally complex bass from Geddy Lee and guitar from Alex Lifeson.
But for me, and many other Rush fans, Peart brought something else unique to the band that you couldn’t really find anywhere else. He was the band’s chief lyricist, writing songs of space battles, near-future technologies, intergalactic totalitarian regimes. Critics often made fun of these themes, but fans—including myself—absolutely adored hearing such stories over searing prog rock. Yes, the music was long, it was pretentious, it was overblown—but no one could really pull this off quite like Rush. Their virtuoso musical chops made it okay for them to be complete dorks.
And no member of the band exemplified that more than Peart. He was two things at once: A total nerd and a musician of whom the legends were in awe. He made it okay to be both, he made it cool to be both. And he never stopped striving to be better. In 2012 he talked to Rolling Stone about how he was still taking drum lessons:
What is a master but a master student? And if that’s true, then there’s a responsibility on you to keep getting better and to explore avenues of your profession. I’ve been put in this position, and I certainly don’t underrate that. I get to be a professional drummer. Consequently, I feel a responsibility that I really do dedicate myself to that all the time, even though when we’re off tour I’m in my exercise routine. I have to keep my instrument fit for next month when I have to start rehearsing for the tour. So it’s a full-time responsibility. It’s a joyous one and one I’m very grateful for.
It’s that type of unassuming confidence, that type of regular guy-ness that really made Peart feel not of another planet. That’s what fans connected with. I was lucky enough to see Rush in 2012 when the band was touring Clockwork Angels. And the cliche is true: Their crowds are a bunch of dorks air drumming and air guitaring along with the three dudes on stage. I’ll never forget the woman in front of me with a Rush lower back tattoo who cried during the show even though she’d seen them dozens of times. But that adoration is so pure, and comes from a band unafraid to be themselves, confident in their abilities, and comfortable being famous nerds.
Matt is the Culture Editor at Esquire where he covers music, movies, books, and TV—with an emphasis on all things Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones.