Playing Through Pain: Remembering Neil Peart, 1952–2020
by Jude Joseph Lovell
“Changes aren’t permanent,” wrote Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist of the legendary Canadian rock trio Rush, “but change is.” Here in this new year, Rush fans around the globe now face one change that unfortunately is permanent: Peart’s untimely death from brain cancer on January 7.
Neil Peart joined Rush in mid-1974, in time to record the band’s second album. He then became a permanent fixture in what fans jokingly call “the holy triumvirate”—with bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson—until the band retired in 2015, following a triumphant 40th anniversary tour.
Thus, in a sense, Rush’s devoted fans have been “grieving” for the last four-and-a-half years. The retirement decision was driven by Peart, who had determined his body could no longer handle the exertion of performing three-hour shows each night. Also well-known was Peart’s discomfort with the trappings of fame and his reticence to interact with fans and media.
In part because he was so averse to the spotlight, virtually no one in the general public knew of his illness. Even the announcement of his death arrived a full three days after it occurred. Consequently, the shock Rush fans experienced was so immense you could practically hear the collective moan of anguish echoing both far and near.
Because they played a perpetually uncool style of progressive rock, Rush wasnt’t embraced by critics until very late in their career. The band produced 19 studio albums, selling more than 40 million, and was elected to the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. They were also honored in their home country when the whole band was named to the Order of Canada in 1997. All three members were considered virtuosos in their instruments, and many people considered Peart the greatest rock drummer of all time.
I started listening to Rush around age 12 or 13 and have never stopped (I’m now 49). If a huge festival were assembled of all the rock bands that have been important in my life, Rush would be the headliner.
But they’ve always had detractors. Countless have harangued against Geddy Lee’s high singing voice, their long compositions with shifting time signatures rankled many popular music fans, and they were frequently accused of “overplaying.” Rush was a band that continuously pushed themselves in new directions, and they always marched to the beat of their own drummer.
And what a drummer he was. Peart was an inventive, disciplined, and extraordinarily precise player. His style was as distinctive as it was aggressive. Seeing him perform live was jaw-dropping for anyone who ever witnessed it, if only for his sheer physicality and power. Peart drove himself extremely hard to deliver note-perfect performances of Rush’s complicated music.
Peart’s dedication to his craft persisted all along in spite of numerous hardships. He was an extreme introvert who had to overcome his phobias by immersing himself fully in his work. Onstage, he was known for wearing a mask of concentration on his face rather than of exultation. His exit from the spotlight every night consisted of a brief wave from behind the kit.
Then, in the late 1990s, Peart lost his entire family in less than one year. He and his first wife, Jacquelyn, experienced every parent’s ultimate nightmare when their 19-year-old daughter was killed in an automobile accident. Shortly thereafter, Jacquelyn herself was diagnosed with cancer, succumbing in 1998. Peart subsequently took a long hiatus from Rush and engaged in a 55,000-mile solo cycling expedition across North America, a journey that he would describe later as “the healing road.”
Towards the end of his career, Peart also suffered from acute tendonitis and shoulder pain. On the band’s final tour, these ailments made Rush’s long performances a grueling ordeal for him. But having witnessed one of those shows myself, I can testify that he somehow managed to play through this pain to magnificent effect.
Rush’s final performance took place on August 1, 2015, in Los Angeles, California. The following December, Peart reiterated his plans to stay retired. By this time he had remarried and had a young, second daughter. “It does not pain me to realize that, like all athletes, there comes a time to . . . take yourself out of the game,” Peart told Drumhead magazine.
Many Rush fans were upset by this decision. Some even lobbied for the band to carry on in some kind of limited capacity. I never understood this point of view. Peart had been clear about his choice. Anyone with even the smallest knowledge of his personal circumstances could not criticize his motives. I always felt that if you were fortunate enough to see him play (I managed to five times), you were witnessing one of the greatest musicians in the world.
For me, the only response after that tour, and to this day, is “Thank you.” I don’t typically bemoan the passing of a celebrity I didn’t know, but Peart’s death feels like a crushing blow. The reason for this isn’t complicated: I enjoyed Rush’s music so much and for so long that their music colored my life at almost every stage. From my adolescence all the way to my fatherhood and family life, Neal Peart’s rapid-fire drumming was always a kind of steady, if constantly shifting, pulse beneath it all. And as a creative artist myself, Peart’s unflagging commitment to his craft has been consistently inspirational to me.
It’s the rare artist indeed whose work travels with you along every step of your journey, regularly infusing your heart with fresh hopes, joys, and dreams. Neil Peart was such an artist for me. I can only hope those who loved him take consolation from the fact that he lived to his full potential and left this world with his honor intact.
Photography by: Patryk Pigeon (Canada) and Colin Spencer/edited (US)
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.