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Neil Peart: A Farewell to (a) King

Neil Peart performing with Rush at Scottrade Center in 2015. Photo by Sean Derrick/Thyrd Eye Photography.

–by Sean Derrick


When the news came of the death of drumming legend Neil Peart last Friday I, along with much of the music world, was in shock. I had actually taken off early form my day job due to a migraine and had laid down for a dark quiet nap, hoping that when I awoke I would be pain free and ready to go for my busy weekend.

However, the first thing I saw when I woke was a post about Peart’s passing, after a three and a half year long battle with brain cancer (glioblastoma). As I was reading this I thought to my self that I must still be asleep and having a horrible nightmare. My clue to myself: the three and a half year battle with cancer. I had not heard that he was battling that (apparently most of the world didn’t know, either). As I kept reading I thought surely this was a nightmare and I was going to wake up soon and I was never going to eat whatever it was I ate before taking that nap.

Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that this news was not fake, I was not having a dream, and my favorite drummer to one of my favorite bands had just died.

Neil Peart performing with Rush at Scottrade Center in 2015. Photo by Sean Derrick/Thyrd Eye Photography.

He passed away three days prior, but only those in his innermost circle knew what his condition was and they honored his wishes to keep it private, as he never felt comfortable in the limelight (and wrote about it for the song titled, appropriately, “Limelight”). I always greatly respected that.

As a writer and a photographer I wanted to express what he meant to me and to the world and a tribute in some of the pictures I have taken of him live over the years. I struggled over the past several days to find the direction I wanted to take in this piece.

I thought about the obvious (or so it seemed) direction of examining his immensely impressive body of work. How his precision separated himself from the likes of a wild Keith Moon and Ginger Baker (two of his idols) or a maniacal John Bonham (another of his idols) with his own unique blend of precision and passion. Peart didn’t rest on his laurels to stick with one sound that “worked”, he kept evolving, growing, extending his boundaries every year. He grew to incorporate jazz and a big band style into the rock and progressive sound that he had established since the early 1970’s and rustling, booming sound with the odd time signatures and fills he became known for.

Neil Peart performing with Rush at Scottrade Center in 2015. Photo by Sean Derrick/Thyrd Eye Photography.

His techniques were legendary. His influence boundless.

So, I thought about his legacy as an influential drummer. I have known many drummers in my life and nearly all of them were influenced by Peart. In fact, ask any drummer you know, it doesn’t matter if they are rock drummers, or country, or jazz, or pop, garage band, big name artist, etc. Ask them if they know or were influenced by Peart and the overwhelming odds are they will say yes.

So many of today’s drummers and musicians have been influenced by Peart. From Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, to Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, to Mike Portnoy, formerly of Dream Theater, to Jack Black, Danny Carey of Tool, Yonder Mountain String Band, Styx, Nancy Wilson of Heart, Chuck D from Public Enemy, Questlove, etc. The list goes on.

Neil Peart performing with Rush at Scottrade Center in 2012. Photo by Sean Derrick/Thyrd Eye Photography.

But that would only touch just a part of his reach. So, I thought about writing about his amazing work as a lyricist. If you didn’t know, Peart was the main lyricist for his band Rush. Together, the trio of Peart, vocalist and bassist Geddy Lee, and guitarist Alex Lifeson, released some of the most memorable songs in progressive rock history. But it wasn’t just the great hooks and instrumentation from the incredibly talented trio, it was the powerful lyrics that drove those songs home to the devoted fans.

While Lee and Lifeson are fine lyricists in their own rights, Peart just was head and shoulders above what anything they wrote before. More thought provoking, more involved, more interesting, more imaginative.

But while most bands focus on love, sex, drugs, or relationships Peart didn’t confine himself to any of that. Sure, he tackled some of those issues, but he also grappled so much more. Touching subjects like the Cold War, holocaust, isolation, mystical properties, mortality, history, suburban alienation, etc. The latter was what the song “Subdivisions” was about. I first heard this when I was a 12 year old kid and the lyrics resonated with me more so than the drumming at the time. It was what initially peaked my interest in Rush as I was looking for something different to listen to.

Neil Peart performing with Rush at Scottrade Center in 2015. Photo by Sean Derrick/Thyrd Eye Photography.

So, that turned my attention to maybe I should write about what Rush meant to me. Growing up in a small town where you were an outcast if you listened to anything “weird” or “different”. I quickly learned this and the lyrics

“Nowhere is the dreamer

Or the Misfit so alone


In the High school halls

In the shopping malls

Conform or be cast out”

just jumped out at me. Sure, I didn’t live in a subdivision, but in a small midwestern town the actions, and end result, were the same. So, I had to check out more and the very next song I listened to, “The Spirit of Radio” grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

“Begin the day

With a friendly voice

A companion, unobtrusive

Plays that song that’s so elusive

And the magic music makes your morning mood”

The breathtaking imagery he painted with only words was both mesmerizing and exhilarating. I went out and bought 2112 and discovered the beauty of “prog rock” with it’s intricate arrangements and odd time signatures. I wore out my copy of Moving Pictures and Power Windows and loved the combination of subject matter, lyrics, and musicianship.

Neil Peart performing with Rush at Scottrade Center in 2012. Photo by Sean Derrick/Thyrd Eye Photography.

Having grown up in a musical influenced household (my father was a radio DJ and my mother worked in a radio station for a while) I naturally had a high affection for music, but this verse could resonate with just about anyone who likes music, whether on a commute to work or just getting ready for their day.And Rush resonated with me more than just about any other band, save The Beatles.

I love great lyrics. And seeing how I could never produce such thought provoking masterpieces of word art I can only listen in awe and envelope the atmosphere it creates for me, and offer up this jumbled mess of a tribute, hoping the rock gods don’t smite me for it.

My favorite photo of Neil Peart performing with Rush at Scottrade Center in 2012. Photo by Sean Derrick/Thyrd Eye Photography.

My first time seeing the band live was at the old Arena in Saint Louis March 1, 1988. I was up at the top of the arena nosebleed seats and could barely see the band. It was just three guys that looked like ants, but I was there. I finally got to see a Rush concert, and it was magical. I snuck a camera in and took pictures of the stage and three big red balls that hung from the rafters, but from my vantage point were below me, but above most of the crowd. Nothing to really write home about from a photographer’s perspective. But it was my proof I was there, my personal connection to my first experience seeing a band I adored. I still have to find the negatives among the thousands and thousands of photographs I took in the film years, or I would have included one of those awful photos for reference here. Maybe I will add one in an update later.

Over the years Rush returned to Saint Louis 13 more times. I was able to attend nine of those, (the four I missed I either had to work and couldn’t get out of work, or I was travelling out of town, but each one I was resentful for missing) five of which I was fortunate enough to be able to photograph as a professional. The first being in November of 1991 when the band performed on their Roll The Bones Tour.

Neil Peart performing with Rush at The Arena in 1991. Photo by Sean Derrick.

I have photographed thousands of performances over my career, and I take pride in my professionalism. But I have to say that photographing that first Rush show I did pause for amazement that I was in the pit, the only one there, closer to them than anyone else while they were performing. I had to remind my self to shoot some photos, or my newspaper, and their publicist for that matter, wasn’t going to be too happy that I didn’t get any photos.

Neil Peart performing with Rush at The Arena in 1991. Photo by Sean Derrick.

So, I thought about just putting together a montage of my favorite Neil Peart photos that I have taken over the years. Well, ok. See below.

But what I really wanted to say was just thank you, Neil. Thank you for providing me a soundtrack to grow up with, to explore my surroundings with, to hear some of the most spectacular drum rhythms and fills imaginable. Thank you for being the professor. Thank you for not being fake. Thank you for intelligent lyrics.

Rest in Peace, Professor.

Brought to you by the letter “P”




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