Mystic Rhythms: Rush's Neil Peart On The First Rock Drummer Peart is one of the world's greatest rock drummers, but his earliest influence comes from jazz.

Mystic Rhythms: Rush's Neil Peart On The First Rock Drummer

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This next story begins with a man listening to this song on the radio.


THE WHO: (Singing) People try to put us down. Talkin' about my generation.

INSKEEP: He heard it in a distinct way. When I listen to this song by The Who, I take in the lyrics, the harmony, the whole thing. Neil Peart's mind focused on a single thing, the drums.

NEIL PEART: I was driving down the length of California the other day with classic rock on. And they played "My Generation." And I just kind of tuned in to Keith Moon's snare sound and his figures and all that. And of course I know every beat of it.


INSKEEP: Of course he would. The Who's Keith Moon was one of the great drummers of his generation. And Neil Peart is among the greatest drummers of his.


INSKEEP: He gained a massive following as the drummer and songwriter for Rush. Even people who never bought their albums have '70s and '80s Rush hits stored in their heads.


RUSH: (Singing). I will choose a path that's clear. I will choose free will.

INSKEEP: We reached out to Neil Peart because this is "Beat Week" on MORNING EDITION. We're profiling some of the people at the back of the stage. At age 62, Neil Peart has lived through and listen to a substantial slice of the history of modern drumming.

Do you remember when, as a kid, your ear started being drawn to what was happening with the drums?

PEART: Yeah, I sure do. I saw "The Gene Krupa Story," an old black and white, much fictionalized but still very musical biography of Gene Krupa. And that's what made me really want to be a drummer.


INSKEEP: Why don't you describe for people who don't know who Gene Krupa was?

PEART: He was the first rock drummer in very many ways. Without Gene Krupa, there wouldn't have been a Keith Moon.

INSKEEP: But he was a jazz drummer, right? He was a big band drummer, wasn't he?

PEART: Big band drummer, he was the first drummer to command the spotlight and the first drummer to be celebrated for his solos 'cause they were very flamboyant. He did fundamentally easy things but always made them look spectacular.


PEART: People don't realize how young the drum set is as an instrument. It's barely a hundred years old. When Mr. Ludwig invented the bass drum pedal, that's what made the drum set possible. And then silent movies were a really important part of drum set history because, of course, by definition, silent - so typically in a small movie theater, they might have a piano player and maybe a piano player and a drummer. Well, the drummer had to do all the sound effects. And the drum sets they had were enormous.

INSKEEP: Even bigger than the kind of drum set that Neil Peart plays today. He's commonly surrounded by so many instruments that he has to spin around to reach them.


RUSH: (Singing) A modern day warrior, mean, mean stride. Today's Tom Sawyer, mean, mean pride.

INSKEEP: The drummer who played on this hit started his career in his childhood bedroom, slamming drumsticks on the pillows. It was the early 1960s in Canada. He was a kid who couldn't skate, and his parents signed him up for drum lessons.

PEART: Drumming completely eclipsed my life from age 13, as I started drum lessons. And everything disappeared. I had done well in school up until that time. I was fairly adjusted socially up until that time. And I became completely monomania obsessed all through my teens. And nothing else existed anymore.


INSKEEP: He was growing into the drummer we're hearing on this Rush song. And he had role models in the beginning. Even back then, he was tuned into The Who's Keith Moon and other stars in what's considered a golden age of rock drumming.

PEART: And all of a sudden, the bar for what it took to be a rock drummer kept getting raised higher and higher. So it was challenging and inspiring. And I was fortunate to not be the kind to get discouraged. And I've heard the stories, like Eric Clapton said he wanted to burn his guitar when he heard Jimi Hendrix play. And I never understood that because when I went and saw a great drummer or heard one, all I wanted to do was practice.


INSKEEP: And he practiced obsessively. He says for the first several decades on the drums - decades - he could feel the difference if he took just a few days off. It was that hard. Only recently has he felt that drums are so much a part of him that he could sometimes take a break.

PEART: We've been on sabbatical for a while. And I deliberately stepped away from my normal patterns of life, which consist of riding around on a motorcycle to concert halls and playing drums for three hours a night. So I stepped away from it and then, months later, sat down at the drum set and picked up exactly where I left off. And that wasn't the case in my 20s and 30s at all. But 50 years is a long time to do anything.

INSKEEP: As Rush fans know, he's more than a drummer. He writes lyrics. He writes books. But when he does pick up the sticks today, you can still see the intensity on his face.


INSKEEP: We were watching a documentary about Rush. And of course there are many shots of you. And the benefit of that is seeing you work and seeing your face. To me watching, I thought what I saw was the look of a craftsman. You were not necessarily in your own space. You were in that place. Your eyes are moving around. You're watching what you're doing. You look like a carpenter almost.

PEART: Wow, that's a lovely analogy because - well, I think of my mother's, you know, why don't you smile more when you're playing? Mom, it's hard.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

PEART: And so I tend to define it as grim determination because it is very physical and painful.


RUSH: (Singing) Fly by night away from here. Change my life again. Fly by night; goodbye, my dear. My ship isn't coming and I just can't pretend, whoa.

PEART: The exertion level is very much of an athlete level. So when I see myself, I just see kind of a stone face. But it is that kind of immersion. I'll be looking out in between the immersion. I might pop my head above the water for a second to be alligator, you know, and see people in the audience reacting or holding up a sign or whatever. And that does delight me because in a larger sense, I'm very much an audience kind of person more than a performer.

INSKEEP: You wanted to watch the show that you were performing in. That's what you're...

PEART: Well, ideally - oh, what a fantasy. How I dream of that and often consciously think of it. Man, I wish I was out in the audience right now. And that has two meanings, of course.


INSKEEP: What are the two meanings? Lay them out.

PEART: Oh, yeah. I obviously - well, I'd love to observe what we're a part of because our band has been together for 40 years. So I sense sometimes when magic is happening. And also, if I was in the audience, I wouldn't have to be working so hard.


INSKEEP: That's Rush drummer Neil Peart during "Beat Week" on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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