Neil Peart Dies: One Year Later
"I can learn to get along / With all the things I don't know," Neil Peart wrote in Rush's 1996 song "Resist," a power ballad partly about finding beauty in unsolvable mysteries.
That lyric may have offered some small solace on Jan. 7, 2020, when news broke that Peart — the band's virtuoso drummer and lyricist since 1974 — had died following a three-and-a-half-year battle with brain cancer. Given that he'd kept the illness private, his death landed with more horrifying force — a prizefighter punch to the gut.
Fans hoped that Peart, prog-rock's wisest philosopher, had made peace with his fate. Details have remained scarce over the past year, but we've heard from other voices within the Rush camp.
Donna Halper, the radio DJ widely credited with discovering the band during her stint at Cleveland station WMMS, tweeted 11 days after Peart's death to deny then-recent rumors about his condition. "It ended the way he wanted," she wrote, "surrounded by his family and best friends. (By the way, he was able to speak, almost till the very end, I am told.)"
We've also consulted the trio's catalog — on a massive scale. On Jan. 16, Billboard reported that Rush streams had increased by 776 percent in the U.S., while album and song sales rose by 1,820 percent and 2,304 percent, respectively.
Other musicians have helped us grieve: On Sept. 12, what would have been Peart's 68th birthday, the Modern Drummer Festival staged a tribute featuring percussive giants like Foo Fighters' Taylor Hawkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Chad Smith, Dream Theater's Mike Portnoy and Def Leppard's Rick Allen.
But we've mostly looked to Peart's surviving bandmates, singer and bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson. It's clear that Rush, more than five years after their final show, have no interest in carrying on with a new drummer. The lingering question is whether or not they'll regroup at some point under a different name.
Given the recency of Peart's death, and with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, the idea of new music seems like a long shot. In June, Lifeson told the Talkin' Golf show that he'd "played very little guitar" since the loss of his bandmate. "I just don't feel inspired and motivated," he said. “I don’t know if the motivation is there for us to really do anything now. We’re certainly proud of our track record, and we still love music. But it’s different now.
“I just don’t feel it in my heart right now," he added. "Every time I pick up a guitar, I just aimlessly mess around with it and put it down after 10 minutes. … Normally, I would pick up a guitar and I would play for a couple of hours without even being aware that I’m spending that much time. So I know it’ll come back.”
For Lee, digging into the reissue of his lone solo LP, 2000's My Favorite Headache, sparked the idea of playing the songs live. “I’m very proud of it – it’s a very intricate record, a deep record, and a lot of love and passion went into it,” he told the National Post. “It did get me thinking that one day I’d like to take that on the road, so you never know. But I have no firm plans to do anything right now. It’s not a time when one can plan much." In the same interview, the bassist noted that he regularly plays his instrument to "keep [his] fingers juiced" but hasn't plotted out another album.
He also emphasized that Rush — who recently released a deluxe edition of 1980's Permanent Waves — don't have much unheard material in the vault.
“We were a band that used what we wrote and if we didn’t like what we were writing, we stopped writing it," he said. "So there are really no unreleased Rush songs that were worth a damn. Recording our songs was so difficult and ambitious that we didn’t do extra stuff and pick the best.”
The somewhat tragic irony of an artist's death is that their work often feels more alive after they're gone. And throughout the universally awful year of 2020, Peart's rhythms and words — even his face — have brought extra comfort.
"I like to look at pictures of Neil smiling," Lee wrote on Instagram on Peart's birthday, posting a backstage photo of the beaming drummer. "His smile was magnetic and lit up the room."