This is a piece written by Shane, and considering the fact that many of you are drummers reading this, we figured it may find a home here.
“Who is the best drummer in the world?”
I have heard this question countless times over the years. As a younger man, I was quick to name names, however as I matured, I realized there’s no one single “best drummer” as the there are so many different levels of talent in different styles of music. There are tremendous jazz drummers who cannot play rock music, and there are athletic speed metal drummers that cannot shuffle.
The term “best” should be replaced with the term “favorite”.
And when I think of my favorite drummers, that list is long, and it is mighty. I’m rather well versed and incredibly open-minded with drumming, and I have a diverse list of favorite drummers. But the bar was set very early on for me by Neil Peart, and the term “favorite drummer” was soon replaced with “favorite musician” and eventually, “favorite non-religious prophet.”
Neil Peart was more than just a drummer to me. And with his passing I’m warmed to see the outpouring of the same exact emotions I feel about him. It’s as if all of us who were tucked away in the ‘subdivisions’ have emerged, and the unspoken tenet is universal: Neil Peart was more than just a drummer.
It’s Tuesday, January 14. Like most of the rest of the world, I learned of his passing on Friday. I was immediately frozen. It was as if a clock inside of me suddenly stopped ticking. It was inconceivable to me; how could I be walking on the same planet that Neil Peart is no longer on? How is this possible? 67? That’s YOUNG! I woke the following morning with a lump in my throat and was weepy the entire day. Sunday wasn’t very different. I felt better, but as I browsed social media and saw the raw emotion coming from so many people, the flood gates in me were triggered. Since then, I haven’t been able to listen to any Rush, I just cannot bring myself to, though I know that wall will fall eventually. I see people sharing videos and photos and I love to see them despite creating a sincere emotional distress inside of me.
I asked my wife; “How is it possible that I’m this grief stricken over a man I never even met?”
“He was incredibly influential to your life”, she said, which isn’t incorrect, but the term ‘influential’ just doesn’t seem adequate.
‘Architectural’ is more like it.
I cannot emphasize enough how fortunate I feel to have been drawn to the music of Rush at a young age. When I started on this journey, I listened to anything I could get my hands on, and very quickly I gravitated to music that seemed ‘real’ to me, and the two main bands that were circling this sphere in my head were the two bands I still cherish to this day: Rush and Iron Maiden. (Shall I mention that even at a young age I was able to recognize greatness?)
I was also fortunate to be a younger fan, my first exposure to Rush was by getting two cassette tapes: “Fly By Night”, which as many of you know was their second album, and Neil’s debut from 1974, and their current release at the time “Presto.” These two albums could not have sounded any more different from each other but to a rube listener, it made me aware of the diversity that existed in the band. As a result, I don’t have a bias towards any era of the band. Sure, there are records I prefer over others, but I can listen to any Rush album and not be annoyed by what it may be “lacking.” I love guitar-based music, but I’d say that “Signals” is my favorite album from Rush which has little guitar in it. Their music was all over the place.
In listening to these albums, and all the other ones I was able to get, I recognized that there was something incredibly special going on in the lyrics. There was an economy of words to deliver the maximum depth. Behind these words was this drumming that was anything but pedestrian. It was incredibly non-linear, yet driving the music, holding it together like a precise timepiece. The words were also being punctuated expressively by the drumming. I was absolutely amazed by it, and the more time I’d dedicate to consuming it, the more genius I uncovered. And that occurs to this day.
I call this type of drumming “Compositional.” There are many different styles of playing, but largely, drumming is universal; it’s filling spaces inside a bar of time. Sometimes it swings, sometimes it drives, and sometimes it holds back. But in its purest form, it’s emptying voids.
There are players who are incredibly well studied and incorporate their learnings in music and have amazing technical facility. There also are players with little facility that play to serve a song well. Compositional drummers can incorporate fireworks and elevate the music without stepping on it. There are very few of them.
To me, Neil was the perfect combination of Ringo Starr and Keith Moon. He had Ringo’s ability to understand what the task at hand was, and like Keith, he was excited about it. As he evolved as a player, so do these comparisons. His influences and technique changed, but the one constant remained: his ability to elevate a song with punctuation.
I don’t want to marginalize his chops, the guy had unbelievable chops, but what made him special was the way he viewed each bar of music: I can only assume he must have looked at it hard and asked himself “what can I do to make this the best it could possibly be?” And when the music would reach it’s crescendo, he’d ask: “How do I call back to the original emphasis in a way to tie this together?” He would compose these incredibly complex parts and deliver them in a concentrated simple form so that even non musicians could sing his drum fills. These parts were so vital to the music that when performed live, improvisation inside the songs seemed forbidden because it would be robbing the listener of the true experience of the song. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of ANY situation in rock drumming where this occurs.
I love metaphors. I search for them in everything. When I describe Neil’s approach to a bar of music, it’s a metaphor for approaching life. “How can I be the best I can be in this moment?” “How can I be true to myself when calling back to prior moments?” “Where is my magnetic north?”
The point I’m trying to make is that I developed this sincere appreciation for this artist at a young age, and I quickly emulated his practices of approaching music which spilled into how I approached life. It was obvious to me that the guy demanded so much of himself to be the best he could be, to constantly grow and evolve, and I feel fortunate to have observed that, because it was the framework of how I approached music, and many other things in life. His emoting I treated as teachings and they were the artistic parallel to the lessons I was taught by my parents.
I was taught by my parents to work hard, be honest, and to go get what you want in life. Sounds simple because it is. Don’t waiver from that and you will be ok. Neil taught me to be a dreamer, and to dream big, and to look at the world through different lenses at different stages.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Neil vowed he never wanted “to betray the values of his 16-year-old self”, and that he wanted to “be his own hero.” Words like that have a complete resonance with all my available senses. It’s about working hard, mindfully.
I’ve said for a long time how remorseful I feel for people, specifically drummers who never got into Rush for whatever reason. Rush truly didn’t do themselves any favors; one passing listen likely makes people want to just carry on with their day. Their music required you to stop what you were doing and work hard to comprehend what was happening. I feel so lucky that I didn’t pass them over. Their music and words shaped the way I viewed the world we all live in and made me want to a better person for it.
My friend Ronn said something beautifully simple: “Everyone has their version of Neil”
It’s the perfect statement to define what we’re all experiencing. To many, Neil was their favorite drummer. To me, it goes far beyond that. Neil was not only the architect of my artistic ambitions; He was the performer and portrayer of the characters he wrote of all wrapped up in one: The Captain. The Plowman. The Blacksmith. The Philosopher. The Artist. Each another’s audience.
I hate to say, “There will never be another Neil Peart”, because for the sake of the world, I hope there are several more of him. I hope that there are many more vehicles to champion musical expression to help shape the world we live in so that in generations to come, there are people that feel as grateful as I do to have been transported by music and I hope that they approach their craft with a similar passion and intensity that their heroes have.