A Farewell To King

Neal Peart, drummer for prog-rock and high school sci-fi-nerd-rock mainstays Rush, died of brain cancer last week. He was 67.

He’s iconic for his technical prowess on the skins, of course – and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

And along with those immense technical chops came a taste for really, really big drum kits.

How big?

Big enough to serve as a cultural punchline for people from a certain generation – in this case, one of the kids in Freaks and Geeks, perhaps the only retrospective sit-com my generation is ever going to get. It sure got this right:

Over the years, when looking for drummers in bands, when I hear from people claiming to be influenced by Peart’s style, I can feel the back-ache setting in from a long, kit-heavy load-in and load-out even on the phone.

But for me, the most important thing about Peart – who replaced John Rutsey, who died even longer before his time – had little to do with drum technique.

My favorite drummers have tended to be either the human metronomes (Charlie Watts, Max Weinberg) or power-driving madmen (Keith Moon, Johnny Badanjak, Kenny Aronoff). Technical virtuosi like Peart, and Stuart Copeland of the Police, interested me less for their drum chops than for their place in the chemistry of theit various bands. Copeland took the edge off of some of Sting’s interminal pretension and self-importance…

…and in a genre where bloated pretense was the coin of the realm (Yes, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, King Krimson), Peart was part of an ensemble that simultaneously wrote some great prog-rock (admittedly a genre I care very little about) and had a rollicking sense of humor on the subject, about the genre, and about themselves:

RIP Neal Peart

13 thoughts on “A Farewell To King

  1. in a genre where bloated pretense was the coin of the realm

    I personally think this is an unfair description, but never mind that, here’s a different question.

    Prog rock had its day, becoming more of cult thing, but what was it about that period of time that has since disappeared? I mean, rock music reinvents itself constantly by re-interpreting old genres, but prog rock remains stuck in that era (late 60s to early 80s) as a relic.

  2. Mitch- he was also their (brilliant) lyricist and a major Randian libertarian.

    Or were you too busy looking down your nose at progressive rock to know that?

  3. Rush was always kind of personal for me. Forcibly transported in November, ’74 (if I wanted to eat and live indoors) from the big city to a rural mud-bog in the middle of the Baptist-belt 21 miles from the nearest McDonalds, I needed more than just the “I’m So Happy Here I Could Just Sh*t” poster on my wall to articulate my teen angst. When Fly By Night came out the following spring, I was so ready. Being 90 miles from St. Louis meant FM reception was pretty iffy, but I heard the title song and was banging my head to the tune when the lyrics started to seep in. “Wait – what?” Having just started a new life not of my choosing, I could hardly wait to get on to the next one: “it’s time I was king and not just one more pawn.” I’m sure the whole town got tired of hearing that 8-track blaring from my car that summer. (FWIW, I have never been able to enjoy the movie “Footloose”, because for me it was too much like a documentary.)

    Neil Peart didn’t just drive the band from his drums (a 3-man band isn’t a limitation if you have a 40-piece drum kit), he drove the lyrics and the libertarian mindset taking root. By the time Moving Pictures came out in ’81, I was already the new Tom Sawyer who’s mind was not for rent by any god or government. I still had a lot more growing up to do, and I’ve had at least three iterations of a “new life” since then, but the drums – and those words – still echo to me from that past.

  4. “Neil is the most air-drummed-to drummer of all time.” ~ Stewart Copeland

    We can — and should — talk about what an amazing drummer he was, but do yourself a favor and read his books sometime. That is where his true genius lie. He got more out of 67 years of life than I could ever hope to get out of two lifetimes.

  5. Rush was the first band I ever saw in concert. Starcastle (a Yes-like prog-rock band) opened for them, and they were one of the main reasons I went. My buddies were more hard rock, and since this was when 2112 was new, they dragged me along. I have to say I liked Starcastle, but Rush just blew them out of the water. And much of it was watching Peart and marveling at his mastery — I’ve never been a fan of drum solos, but his were just beyond belief. I never knew why they were playing in what I kind of viewed as a dump rather than the bigger and more modern auditorium they used the year before and the year after, but the Agora was locally famous and had great acoustics. I believe at least one of the recordings was used on their live album.

    I’ve been a fan of Rush ever since then. They’ve changed many times, but their songs have always been pretty unique and I’ve enjoyed them. And Peart was the backbone as lyricist and incredibly talented drummer. I’ll disagree with our host here: metronomes are boring, and madmen tend to be hit and miss. I’d rank Peart as the YoYo Ma of drummers, with both heart and massive technical skill, and at the top of the heap.

  6. I was never really a Rush fan. I knew the songs, but I never really “got into them”, if you will. Thanks to Night Writer and nerdbert, I found a video of Tom Sawyer and another with the lyrics. Lyrics are very nice – I can see the effect they would have on someone being held “90 miles away from St Louis”. I’m more of a metronome guy myself, but I can certainly appreciate Peart’s talent.

    PS, NW, did you know about Beaker Street? Was it still going on then during your exile? This is before (Midwestern) FM radio and many of us all the way up in MN got to hear music we never would’ve heard otherwise. On an AM radio station from Little Rock – think the Arkansas equivalent of WCCO during the day.

  7. I was able to tune into Beaker Street late nights once I moved up to the main University of Missouri campus. Plus the campus radio station was great exposure to a lot of new music and styles. Then when I was able to spend a semester in England I began to pick up NME – New Music Express.

    Now, of course, my kids want to know if we can listen to something recorded THIS century.

  8. Very saddened to hear of Mr. Peart’s passing – I am/was a huge fan of Rush from time my friend bought their 3rd album “Caress of Steel” off the New Release display at Sears (!) onward through their 40th anniversary tour live album/CD. Their lyrics are still my faviorite of any rock n roll band’s – and Neil’s drumming was beyond amazing to this non-musician. My first time seeing them was also w/Starcastle (Cincinnati in early 1976) but both groups were warming for Boston on tour for their first album! I always had a chuckle with the fact that I went from listening to Rush as a teenager to listening to Rush (Limbaugh) as a young adult ………..

  9. I never “got into” Rush myself, either. I fully recognize their musicianship and the influence/importance/gravitas of their discography. It’s fine to listen to, but to me personally, it didn’t “grab” me in the way Bruce Springsteen “grabbed” Mitch. (As a side note, I have the exact same mindset about J.S. Bach)

    I discovered what a God amongst mortals Peart was during my “I would like to get an electronic drumset and play drum karaoke” phase that I fell into and out of about 7 years ago, which resulted in a short deep dive of watching all sorts YouTube drumming videos.

    As a testament to his technical chops, I once read an interview where he mentioned he taught himself to play a 21/32 offset. That is, one hand plays 21 beats while the other hand plays 32 beats.

    2/3 would be:

    : . ‘ . :

    3/4 would be
    : . ‘ . ‘ . :

    How he managed to figure out 21/32 is beyond my computational and bio-mechanical abilities.

  10. I remember watching Mahavishnu Orchestra (in Hallenbeck Hall at St Cloud State, no less*) when the drummer was also Bill(y) C(obham). He had a clear drum set with two bass drums so it appeared as if he was beating out four different rhythms (feet/hands). I will admit that (mild) drugs were involved such that my ability to actually fact check what I thought I saw was inhibited.

    * One of the best concerts I ever saw. The fraternity, the TEKs as I recall, that booked MO were hugely embarrassed by this booking which I discovered when I thanked some of the frat boys I knew. This was not SCSC music. They later made up for it with a double billing of Bachman Turner Overdrive and Thin Lizzy.

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