The Life Lessons I Learned from Neil Peart

My interest in playing the drums ignited into an obsession after I was introduced to the band, Rush. Their drummer not only inspired me, the lessons I learned during the process made me a better man.

When people consider the loss of Neil Peart, the drummer who played in Rush, many will associate the word ‘legend’ with his name. His nickname was, “The Maestro,” but his contribution to the drumming world goes well beyond either label.

Neil Peart was the greatest technical rock drummer of the 20th century.

My obsession with him did not start after hearing one of their songs on the radio, nor was I familiar with the band when I entered my teen years. The only person in the world who had the means to ignite my passion for this technical-drumming genius was the boy I had jammed with… side by side… for three years in our grade school jazz band.

It was the other drummer in our jazz band, Andrew, who I considered my arch-rival. I judged my skills against his… week to week… and from concert to concert. A day did not go by in grade school when I did not feel driven to surpass him in skill and talent.

During the three years we played together, Andrew was nothing short of magnificent. He pushed me in a way that no one else ever could. What made this even more unique was my closest friends, who were not musically inclined, couldn’t comprehend the competitive streak in me when it came to drumming.  

During a field trip in 80s, our entire class enjoyed a day at a swimming club in a nearby town. Andrew brought a boombox with him and it was there when I first heard the album, Exit Stage Left. He asked me to listen to the drummer’s solo in a song called YYZ. The song itself sounded completely deranged with time changes, off-beat tempos and then… BOOM! The solo took my breath away. I couldn’t even comprehend what I was listening to. From that day on, I never forgot the name of the drummer, Neil Peart.

Then came the day Andrew, my rival, invited me over to his house to check out his new roto-toms. This three-piece set of drums are higher in pitch and extend the range of a drum kit’s sound.

Then he started to play the song, Tom Sawyer, and I realized why he invited me to his house. This was no kumbaya moment between drummers to share ideas. He wanted to show off his skills and rub my nose in it. When he got to the drum solo in Tom Sawyer, I understood the value of his roto-toms. He played the song extremely well, which surprised me.

I left there with a fire in my belly that burned like hot lava, square in the middle of my torso. In my mind, it was nothing short of ‘game on’ with my drumming rival, Andrew.

I stormed home and asked my mom if there were music classes to take at the high school I was scheduled to attend in September of that same year in Midland Park, New Jersey.

“Yes,” said my Mom, “I’ll double-check, but I believe they have a jazz band, dear.”

“SIGN ME UP! RIGHT NOW!”

She took a step back when I resembled someone like Chevy Chase, in one of his movies when his eyes open wide like a crazy person.

From that point onwards, when I descended down the basement stairs to play drums in my Mom’s house, my goal was to play like Neil Peart. To replicate his drumming, master his techniques, and simply ‘play like Peart’… that was my mission.

Prior to this, I was happy to tool around drumming to songs that came on the radio. Billy Joel, Van Halen, The Pretenders, and a thousand other bands represented the soundtrack that played in my headphones. By this time, I had been playing drums for three years.

The drummers in these bands, however, did not play like Neil Peart. In many cases, they sounded like wusbags compared to what I heard on Rush’s album, Exit Stage Left. I started looking for more inspirational drummers to emulate, the likes of Stewart Copeland of the Police, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix’s drummer, Mitch Mitchell.

When I studied these drummers, I had to pause and repeat certain parts of each song to understand what I was hearing. In some cases, I had to repeat a 5-second segment ten or twenty times to figure out how to replicate it. Songs like Rock N’ Roll by Led Zeppelin are not difficult to play… until you get to the drum solo at the end of the song. When a drummer has only one bass drum to play, and you try to produce the sound of a double-bass drum kit, it makes for interesting experimentation.

One by one, I was able to play more challenging songs. I was also inspired by my new jazz-band cohorts. Two of them, a bassist named Chris Janata (bass) and a fellow drummer named Dan Leahy, went on to form the rock band Janata and signed with Mercury in the late 80s. Their band went on to open for the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Kinks, Eddie Brickell, Eric Clapton, and other legends.

The greatest thing about playing with Dan was he inspired me to be a better drummer. Unlike my grade school rival, Dan encouraged me to push the limits, get innovative, and, “don’t hold back.” He cheered me on when I played a two-minute opening snare fill at a state-wide competition in Glassboro, New Jersey.

I also had the pleasure of buying Dan’s original drum set—a six-piece Tama Imperial Star. I still play it when I teach my six-year-old, Connor, how to play drums in the jam studio I built in my basement. 

I felt empowered after that concert and I often think about those early days of drumming: Figuring out how to transition from chorus to drum fill and then back into the verse… smoothly: When it was appropriate to crash a cymbal or not: learning how to play as a united member in a band, compared to a blowhard who’s trying to show off.

Collectively, this took years and I pissed off most of my bandmates at one point or another and I’m quite certain our high school conductor, Mr. Maxwell, got an ulcer while putting up with my antics.

All the while, after school or during the weekend, I’d sit behind my set and sharpen my skills to approach something… anything… that sounded like Neil Peart. The better part of my high school experience was turning drum sticks into kindling in my mother’s basement. At one point, I was going through so many sticks, I used masking tape to hold them together after they started to split.

The first song I was able to play by Rush was New World Man, which took time but it was easier compared to other songs. I eventually played Tom Sawyer, Limelight, Red Barchetta, YYZ (sans the solo), and Xanadu. The list continued unabated for years. I wore through at least four cassettes of the same album (Exit Stage Left) in order to learn, five seconds at a time, how to master a change in tempo or drum fill.

When I write, “I learned how to play” a particular Rush song, it was nothing like Neil Peart. I’m not that full of myself. I didn’t have the right equipment, which meant I overcomplicated many elements unnecessarily – but I learned enough to not suck.

Neil Peart’s drum set… not mine.

When you try to play Neil Peart on the drums, you will suck… but your level of ‘suckness’ is dependent on how focused you are on the nuances, the off-beats, and your ability to bridge from one part of a song to another.

Then came the biggest challenge of all: La Villa Strangiato. This was the Keyser Soze of drum songs, the pinnacle, the Everest of drumming. Anyone… anyone who could play this song was considered a master of the drums. Even David Grohl himself noted in an interview how this song, in the 80s and 90s, represented the barometer of drumming mastery.

It was the equivalent of the triple dog dare in the movie, A Christmas Story. “Can you play it? Bullshit!”

These words were spoken to me early in my senior year of high school. The guy who asked reminded me of Jeff Anderson’s character in the movie, Clerks: cynical, obnoxious, and gruff, which of course made him quite likable. He challenged me to play La Villa Stangiato one afternoon and I invited him over after school.

When I was done playing, his jaw was hanging ajar… literally. It was a signature moment for me, one I’ll take to my grave. Despite being a child of divorce, estranged from my father, having been bullied for most of my youth, and being a classic under-achiever… I had accomplished something.

People who do not play music do not understand how engraining this process can be in one’s mind. When you listen and play a song one hundred times, it’s like the needle of a turntable, rotating around the center of your brain, etching the beats, stops, tempo changes, cymbal crashes, and fills with permanency. For guitarists, they often say how their fingers, listening to songs they know how to play, will move instinctively from one chord to another in the air when they are not actually playing. For the drummer, each appendage is tasked with a different priority and move in a timed manner to hit a particular drum or cymbal at a particular moment. I’ve experienced times when I move my hands, listening to a song like Limelight, where I smash the cymbal and the other hand grabs it a second later to stop the sound entirely. I’ve been on commutes into New York City where both my arms and legs are playing along to a song… in the air and on the floor of the train.

I do not recommend air drumming while commuting to New York City. It often results in receiving the stink eye, and bankers usually have a conniption when they witness it.

As I started my professional career, my drum set remained in my mother’s basement collecting dust until one day, my fiance’s friend, Liza, mentioned in passing she was looking for a drummer. My wife conveyed this news and I jumped at the idea of restarting a childhood passion and begged to be given the chance to audition. Liza agreed to give me a chance despite some reservations.

With no time to practice and no rehearsal space to set up my kit, I had no other choice other than to wing it.

I showed up and met a guitarist named UB, and a bassist named Brian. Another singer was there named Jesse and he traded off on vocals with Liza who fronted the band. After playing along to some Blondie songs, a Pat Benatar tune and tooling around with the B-52’s, the guitarist looked at me and asked, “Do you know any Rush?”

My eyes opened up like an eight-year-old on Christmas morning. “Yeah! I was raised on Peart!”

Then his eyes grew wide. We looked at the bassist, Brian, and we witnessed a smile stretch from ear to ear. It was, ‘a moment’ to say the least, the equivalent of three teenage boys searching for a box of treasure deep in the woods… and we all discovered it together.

UB kicked it off with the opening riff to Spirit of the Radio, I followed with the brief fills in the beginning and before we knew it, we were a minute into the song with no major f*ck ups.

Here I was, at thirty-three-years-old, being taken straight back to the age of fifteen as I replayed the drum beats to a song that was etched in the back of my mind two decades prior.

When one comes across musicians who know how to play Rush, there’s a brief moment of euphoria. The songs themselves are so unique and complicated, it’s a rarity to find one, let alone all the musicians you audition with, possess the ability to play Rush.

It was love at the first rehearsal and we went on to play together for nearly seven years. We named the band after the infamous New York 80s club, Limelight, and played to crowds at The Red Lion, The Knitting Factory, the A&M Roadhouse and the Ace of Clubs (all in New York City).

It was exciting to play again and once I got behind the drum set at each show, my nerves calmed down. We ended up covering Limelight, Spirit of the Radio, Passage to Bangkok, and of course Tom Sawyer. We packed in dozens of other 80s tunes over the years and I loved every minute of it.

The band took a break sometime around 2008, and during that time I tried to launch a side project: a Rush cover band. I found a guitarist and bassist who agreed to jam one night but the results were quirky, to say the least.

When I entered the studio, the guitarist was five foot nothing, half bald and sporting a ponytail. He was calm and wore a tank top, which outlined his potbelly. That didn’t bother me in the slightest. The bassist was a tall and blond stick of a man who spoke with a thick British accent. I was unable to find a singer on Craig’s List so we jammed without one and the results were… unusual.

The guitarist opened with Spirit of the Radio and we got through the entire song, sans the bassist who struggled to keep pace. A second later, with no pause between songs, came New World Man, then another without any break after the guitarist ripped into Xanadu.

By this time, the bassist’s head was spinning and I was winded. I played two of the three songs based on pure muscle memory from that needle that spun and embedded itself in the center of my brain twenty years prior and I blew a few circuits in the process.

I finally got him to stop playing to speak but he launched into five more songs. He played them well, but he was no bandmate. I left that session thinking how I just played with a guy who seemed to have locked himself in a basement for twenty years and never played with anyone other than himself. When it comes to music, like sex, it’s usually wise to play with others so you know how to conduct yourself like a team player.

I scuttled that project and as luck would have it, my original bandmates from Limelight were introduced to a new guitarist, a guy named Mike from Canada. I gave thought to his home country… and hoped he knew how to play Rush, a band that also hailed from Canada.

Fortunately… he did. Now we had four players and one of our singers, Jesse, dialing into Rush in a new music project we dubbed LemonShade, a spinoff from the original band.

We put on shows for a few more years before one band member had a child and my wife and I moved to the suburbs. Our singer was caring for his mother in Florida around this time and the opportunity to gig was reduced to a handful of times per year, which was a challenge. We went our own ways to play in other bands, but I am indebted to these bandmates as it reignited my passion for Rush, playing drums, and providing the means to play out to a crowd. At one point, we played at the Tribeca Film Festival to a crowd of hundreds, if not a thousand, and it was a blessing to play to such a large crowd and watch children dance beside the stage.

It has been nearly ten years since I wailed behind the drums playing Rush, and it will forever represent a part of me. I’ll never not want to play like Neil Peart, but to be honest, no one ever can.

Rush also inspired me as an author. When I penned a thriller back in 2013, I needed to find a title that illuminated the mystery of a secret Swiss bank vault that played a key role in the plot. I tried a few variations but the vault itself was paramount to the story.

I titled the work, Vault 21-12, and it remains on sale today on Amazon. Late in the story, during the conclusion, the two main characters agree to go on a vacation with one another after their adventures come to an end. One character suggests to the other to join him on an Italian holiday to one of his most favorite destinations in the world: La Villa Stangiato.

It was a fitting way to end a book where the title features one of Rush’s most famous albums. It’s also a wink to any and all Rush fans who read the work itself.

The lessons I learned from Neil Peart, from his interviews and having played his music a thousand times, is the following: humility, generosity, perseverance, and excellence. I learned how valuable it is to execute a creative project with every ounce of passion and energy you can muster and to hold yourself to high standards. I also learned how to funnel my competitiveness in a more respectable manner – let your work speak for itself. Let others appreciate what you have done rather than try to convince someone why your work should be appreciated.

And if you fail, learn from your mistakes. God knows how many mistakes I made trying to master Tom Sawyer, but I adapted and worked hard to improve my skillset. My version will forever be subpar compared to the Maestro.

That’s what Neil Peart meant to me. God bless him and I trust he is now rocking out with other musicians in the next world. We’ll never see anyone like him again in this one.

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