What can songwriters and musicians learn from Neil Peart?
On January 10th, news broke that Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart had passed away three days earlier after a three-and-a-half year battle with brain cancer. Rush had announced they would stop touring in 2015, and in early 2018 they officially disbanded. They were the rare major rock band who maintained the same lineup throughout nearly the entirety of their career. After Peart joined in 1974 following the band’s self-titled debut, Rush remained the same Canadian Holy Trinity until their break up: Alex Lifeson on guitar, Geddy Lee on vocals, bass and keyboards and Peart behind his iconic, ever-expanding drum kit.
Over a career spanning five decades, Rush accomplished as much as any songwriter and musician could ever hope for: countless world tours; several multi-platinum albums; a rabid, cult-like fanbase breathlessly preaching the good word of “Tom Sawyer,” “Spirit of Radio” and “2112” to anyone who would listen. For his part, Peart has landed highly on every publication’s ranking of rock drummers, and has been named as an influence by drummers ranging from Dave Grohl to Questlove. But what lessons can today’s songwriters and musicians learn from Peart’s decades-long career? Even after his passing, the Professor continues to teach.
1. Break traditional roles
While casual listeners know Peart for his legendary performance behind the kit, diehard rock fans also knew him as the penman of Rush’s always eclectic, often poignant lyrics. The band’s first album featured a collaborative lyrical effort from Lifeson and Lee, with then-drummer John Rutsey writing some words but never turning them in to the other two members. When Peart joined before sophomore album Fly by Night, he bucked the trend of the beatmaker-only role drummers normally played in rock bands, becoming Rush’s primary lyricist for the rest of their career.
How many other classic rock bands had the drummer writing the words? Not many! Ringo Starr wrote exactly two Beatles songs: “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Octopus’s Garden.” Most other drummers of the era were similarly confined to their kit, but Peart had something to say, and he said plenty over his 18 albums with Rush.
Since then, a number of drummers — from Phil Collins to Meshuggah’s Tomas Haake and Mastodon’s Brann Dailor — have taken Peart’s cue and picked up the pen along with the sticks for their respective bands. So, if you have an idea, don’t be afraid to bring it to your bandmates. Don’t confine yourself to one role if you have ambitions to try something else. Who knows? You could write a song like “Subdivisions” that defines a era.
2. Reading is fun and fundamental
Are you a songwriter looking for new ideas? Read a book! Along with the many photos of Peart playing his drums live, there are several iconic, candid pictures of him backstage, his nose in a book. From Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan to Ayn Rand (whose views he distanced himself from in later years), the erudite Peart was a voracious reader whose thirst for new subjects consistently led to song ideas.
Even when a book didn’t directly lead to an idea, Peart still read plenty on a subject when he was writing to make sure he was on the right path. Before penning Power Windows‘ “Manhattan Project,” Peart read several books on the World War II research endeavor that led to the atomic bomb, just to get his facts straight. Whether you’re looking for new ideas or to reinforce a song in progress, hit the books!
3. Ignore the critics
While Rush cultivated a massive cult following, they were not acclaimed by most contemporary music critics at the time. As British progressive rock like Pink Floyd and King Crimson garnered accolades in the 1970s, Rush were the odd group out: too progressive and pretentious to be a normal rock band, yet too catchy and straightforward to be considered true prog. In his review for 1977’s A Farewell to Kings, the Village Voice‘s self-ascribed “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau dismissed Rush as “the most obnoxious band currently making a killing on the zonked teen circuit.” When Rush began heavily incorporating synths on 1982’s Signals, Rolling Stone called the attempt “mostly a wasted effort.”
But Peart paid no attention. When critics labeled 2112‘s side-long title track as overly ambitious, Peart doubled down and wrote the two-part “Cygnus X-1” suite, spanning the end of A Farewell to Kings and the beginning of follow-up Hemispheres. When his super-sized drum kit became the archetype of ’80s arena rock excess, he simply added more pieces. As Rush’s music evolved from hard rock to prog to eventually experimenting with genres as far-flung as synthpop, reggae and funk, they lost followers and gained others. Peart was never afraid to tinker with his lyrical themes or his playing. It’s a critic’s job to find things wrong with music. It’s a musician’s job to write and play what they want. Never let a bad review deter you from making the music you want to hear.
4. You can be successful and keep your privacy
Peart was a noted introvert. While he would appear at the occasional drum workshop, the notoriously reserved Peart mostly stayed out of the public light, allowing his bandmates to handle the publicity obligations and staged fan interactions that came with touring. He preferred to be the man behind the pen and the kit. Peart proved that a musician could achieve success and even fame without forfeiting privacy.
So, if you’re not an outgoing extrovert hungry for attention, you can still not only be a musician, but you can thrive. Peart literally wrote the blueprint for it on “Limelight,” from 1981’s classic Moving Pictures. The song is an anthem for any famous introvert; an instruction manual on how to handle the spotlight:
Cast in this unlikely role
Well equipped to act
With insufficient tact
One must put up barriers
To keep oneself intact
5. Never stop learning
This is Neil Peart’s greatest lesson. Throughout his career, Peart was never idle in his songwriting or musicianship. As a lyricist, Peart evolved from early literary references to Tolkien and other authors, to original sci-fi concepts in “2112” and the “Cygnus X-1” songs at the height of Rush’s prog period. By the band’s breakthrough in the early ’80s, Peart was writing on a wide array of subjects, from a paean to FM’s ’70s glory days on “Spirit of Radio,” to an account of the Space Shuttle Columbia‘s first launch on “Countdown,” to a simple drive through the country with a futuristic twist on the peppy “Red Barchetta.”
Peart grew as much as a drummer as he did a wordsmith. He seemingly added a new piece to his kit with each album and subsequent tour. In the ’90s — when most already considered him a master of his craft — Peart befriended jazz drummer Freddie Gruber and learned an entirely new style of drumming, changing from match grip (both sticks held with the tops of the hands facing up) to traditional grip (holding the left stick with the hand facing down). This opened new avenues in his playing style, and he soon displayed his newly learned technique on tour, seamlessly switching between the two styles during his drum solos. He also became fascinated with African drumming on a bicycle tour of the continent, and incorporated the rhythms in Rush’s late ’80s albums. Peart’s constant expansion of his sonic palette made him a better musician. So, explore a new genre, study a new technique and never stop learning.