So, legendary Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart has apparently retired from music at the age of 63. I can’t blame him — the drums are an intensely physical instrument, and forty years of recording and (especially) touring are bound to take their toll. In particular, he has struggled with chronic tendinitis, and he’s entitled to live without pain. Furthermore, having suffered the deaths of his first wife and daughter in a one-year span, he has a second family, including a six-year-old daughter, and he deserves to enjoy his time with them.
Better critics than I will discuss his importance in rock and roll, and will assess Rush’s place in rock history, from critical whipping boys to Rock hall of famers. From the standpoint of drumming, he holds a position as one of the few musicians to redefine the instrument, combining the ferocity and frenzy of Keith Moon with the technique and precision of Bill Bruford. Oddly, the only other rock drummer I can think of as equally influential is Peart’s stylistic opposite, Ringo Starr. In a sense, Peart is rather like Freud or Marx — one can’t remove him from the episteme. Basically, whether one is a fan of his style or not, subsequent drummers have essentially been forced to choose between working with or against Neil’s way of drumming.
Less obvious, but almost as important is his work as a lyricist. He’s not a lyrical gamechanger in the way Dylan has been, but for forty years, he’s cowritten songs that are thoughtful, interesting, and palpably intelligent. This sometimes makes critics uncomfortable, particularly those who prefer their rock lyrics on the Dionysian end of things. Rock music, they might argue, is supposed to be silly, and Peart hasn’t really been interested in that. Furthermore, he has frequently used his lyrics to advocate individual resistance to society and State authority, a position derived in part from his reading of Ayn Rand. This in turn has led some critics to accuse him of fascist tendencies, which simply demonstrates their misunderstanding of what fascism means. Peart has described himself as a “bleeding-heart libertarian,” which seems more accurate.
In any case, if the reports are true, Mr. Peart’s retirement marks the end of a rock and roll era. To cop a phrase from the Life of Johnson:
‘He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. […] Let us go to the next best:—there is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of [Neil Peart].’
Thanks, Mr. Peart — enjoy your family and your retirement.