“The most important collaboration in my life has been with Geddy,” Neil Peart wrote in 2014. As Rush’s drummer and lyricist, Peart had a profound link with Geddy Lee, the band’s bassist, singer, and keyboardist — though he also emphasized the importance of guitarist Alex Lifeson. “Certainly I don’t want to diminish Alex’s role,” Peart continued. “After all, he is our Musical Scientist, the Funniest Man Alive, and a shamefully underrated and thoroughly wonderful guitar player. But the musical relationship between bass player and drummer, the rhythm section, is famously tight (or ought to be!). And of course the bond of trust necessary between lyricist and singer is even more intimate.”
Lee felt the same way about Peart, who died on January 7th, 2020. In an interview for our recent digital cover story on the drummer’s life and music, Lee looked back on 40 years of close collaboration.
Neil once described your bass playing as passionate and methodical. Of course, that very much applies to his approach on the drums as well.
Yeah. The two of us really gravitated to each other. We really were like-minded almost from the beginning. When he first came into the band, we were just getting to know each other, not only as people but rhythmically. He was ambitious and I was ambitious. He loved to be hyperactive. I loved to be hyperactive. So in a sense, it was a marriage made in heaven. We looked at each other very much as equal parts of a whole.
We really strove to create an individual style of rhythm section that suited the kind of music we were playing. Of course, having a three-piece, in a way, is heaven-sent because every time Alex broke into a solo, you have to get busy, so it doesn’t sound like the bottom of the earth just fell away. So that really suited us quite well, and we got to a point onstage where we could really intuitively feel where each other wanted to go, even when we were improvising. One of the great joys of my life was playing in a rhythm section that consisted of only two people with that fellow, because we really jibed. We really were in sync.
Neil said two things about the guitar-solo sections. He said he always was very respectful of the vocal during verses, but there was no such rule with the guitar during the guitar solos. And he also said that you saw the guitar solos more like full-band solos.
Yeah, I think that’s true. And we had the benefit of laying down our tracks first so Al had to work around us. So we would go mental and do our thing and then poor Al would have to come in and go, “Shit, do I work around that part? Do I go with that part?” So we constantly made life more difficult for our blond-haired fellow.
I’ve been listening a lot to Fly by Night, since it marks Neil’s arrival into the band. What do you remember about the birth of this version of Rush, and starting to form those arrangements on that album, especially stuff like “Anthem”?
First of all, we didn’t have a whole lot of time. Neil joined the band, and two weeks later we were doing our first gig, opening for Uriah Heep, so we had to learn as many songs as we could and head out. So it was through that whole first tour that we were getting to know each other musically. We had a lot of dead time but not dead time where we actually had our instruments in our hands. So we couldn’t jam really. Our whole day was leading up to 26 minutes onstage, and then you’re off.
We got very few soundchecks until we started playing with Kiss on a regular basis. That meant we didn’t have a lot of opportunity to investigate certain things, so that all had to be done on the fly and it had to be done during the playing of the songs. Subtle things would start to change night to night as Neil got to know the songs better and as we got to understand each other better as players. That kind of chemistry started to develop. By the time we hit Fly by Night, we were just so amped to do something new. And the “Anthem” riff that we had jammed on during Neil’s first audition with us was a direction that Alex and I had already started going down the road. We were listening to Yes more. We were listening to Genesis. We were influenced by the more proggy English bands that were coming out.
So in a sense, Neil just kind of fit in like a glove. And when we started writing, even in our hotel rooms, in the back of our minds we had an idea of where that could go. But it really wasn’t until we got into the recording session, and started doing stuff like “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” — which really developed in the studio — that a whole other side of our nature was formed. That was a real getting-to-know-each-other album, but at the same time it was surprising how quickly it all came together. I mean, we recorded that album in 10 days.
You also were singing Neil’s lyrics for the first time, obviously. You always mention that “Beneath, Between and Behind” was almost impossible to sing at the pace that was required for the song.
Yeah, and it’s funny, I listened to that song the other day and I was surprised how, aside from its hyperactive nature, how unhurried the lyrics sounded to me now. But back then, I felt like I was racing with the rhythm section to get all the lyrics spit out, but it’s funny how hindsight gives you a different perspective on it.
Not to belabor the Ayn Rand of it all, but you were presented with some pretty out-there lyrics at that point. “I know they’ve always told you selfishness was wrong. … Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more.” Even beyond the ideology, which we all know that Neil moved beyond, I’m curious what you made of that at first. On any level, those were not typical rock lyrics.
Exactly, and at first it was a huge leap of faith for us to just accept that. It wasn’t his idea to write the lyrics. Alex and I sort of said, “Make him do it. He reads a lot of books. Let him do it.” When they first started coming along, I think the first one he wrote was “Beneath, Between and Behind.” And then when he wrote the lyrics for “Anthem,” they were a little more intense, and a little more about things that I would say were not second-nature to our thinking, at least expressed in that way, like some of the lyrics you just quoted, “begging hands and bleeding hearts.”
That whole thing was not something Alex and I thought of or talked about. Once we got on the road and got to know each other more and started sharing reading material, I think we got a better understanding of Neil and he got a better understanding of us. A lot of times he would inspire us to read something that was a little out of our comfort zone and so through all that we kind of developed that acceptance of that style of lyric, but it was definitely night and day when that album came out. As much as some people loved it, other people were disturbed by it, because that was not the Rush they had invested in from the previous record. It was definitely a new band.
“Xanadu” is one of the greatest Rush songs, and at the same time, you had Pete Way from UFO teasing you on the road for singing about dining on honeydew. Again, you must have had a reaction when you were first handed those lyrics.
Well, yeah. Sometimes you weren’t into it and you didn’t want to do it and you had to talk about it. If I didn’t write them, I had to put myself in the writer’s perspective. I had to be sort of an actor playing a role and so all those things had to feel comfortable on some level, and that required discussion, of course. As our relationship developed over the years, you got bolder about what you would accept and what you wouldn’t accept, and there’s a bigger trust that was formed between us as singer and lyricist.
I marvel at the relationship that we developed because in the early days we were just happy to get lyrics. So yeah, “These sound OK. We’ll do this kind of music with it.” We didn’t think too much about it, and our biggest concern was, can we make a powerful song out of it? How is this going to work? We were making two records a year back then, so we didn’t have a whole lot of time to sit back and go, “Well, I think we should try six different versions of this.”
But as time went on, we developed a rapport and a feel for each other and a consideration for each other. Neil, in terms of writing, became more and more considerate of what I had to do, of my job not just as a singer of words but as a shaper of melody, and someone who also had to express emotions. He was very sensitive to that, and always for many years, sat beside me in the control room when we listened back to vocals. If we talked about something that could be improved, he would rewrite it on the spot.
In later years, while we were writing the material, he pretty much gave me license to choose the bits of his lyric that moved me the most, that I felt I could write a melody to or arrange a song around. Even if it was four lines out of six stanzas, he would go back and he would rewrite the song around those four lines. Neil was a perfect example of a guy who checked his ego at the door.
He was a proud guy, but at the same time he was a team guy in terms of Alex and me, and he really trusted, in the end, my opinion and my take on what I felt worked best for a Rush song and what didn’t. Which is not to say we never had an argument. Certainly we would argue about a concept or if I had changed the meaning of a line or something that was really important to him, of course, we would work something out. But he turned into an incredible collaborator and a very considerate song partner as time went on.
Matt Scannell from Vertical Horizon told me that when he collaborated with Neil on a song, he was handed almost like a beautifully handwritten medieval manuscript of lyrics. Was that your experience as well?
Yeah. They were all handwritten and he had little drawings at the top of all of them and he loved cartoons that described the song, and the titles were always a little on the ornate side. That’s how it would start, and even if he had to rewrite the thing four or five times they always came properly presented. He almost never just banged them out on a typewriter or something. Later on, when it was a computer age, he still managed to find a way to make his presentations to us as artful as possible. It was a big source of pride for him, and in the early days when we were writing on the road, he used to add in the top corner which towns we were in when he worked on that song, so it also served as a little travelogue.
It seems like you loved it when his lyrics started to turn to the more earth-bound in the Eighties.
Oh, of course, yeah. His lyrics became more about the human condition to a large degree. You could say that he was always talking about one part of the human condition or another even through the years of using science fiction as a device, but it started to become more overt in style and more traditional in shape. I gravitated to that a lot because it helped me as a songwriter and helped me in terms of the direction that I wanted to go in.
And of course, the overall sound of the band kept shifting in many ways as well.
Neil and I as a rhythm section were trying to get earthier and slightly funkier and trying to experiment with moving the songs in a different way instead of just kind of at breakneck speed. We always were a band that played fast. I mean, when you listen to an old Rush album, the first thing you notice is, “Jesus, slow down!” But we were in a hurry. I mean, we were in a hurry. So we consciously moved in to find a deeper groove and the idea of groove became different than the idea of groove as a young prog-rocker. So I think his lyrics changed at the same pace. As we were looking for a deeper groove he was looking for a more real way of expressing himself, a more earthbound way shall we say.
A song like “Bravado” is a great example of both of those changes.
Exactly, yeah. I think that’s one of his best lyrics. It’s one of my favorite Rush songs. I always loved to play it, and it was emotional. I love to sing that song.
You’ve got formidable skills of your own, but were there times when you were truly kind of awed with stuff that Neil either conceived or was just pulling off technically?
With regularity. I’ve never met a musician like him. He was a monster drummer of the highest magnitude. I’ve met some great musicians but I had the pleasure to watch him every night onstage and watch him improvise, as he got older, through his solos. When he became determined to add improvisation as part of his drum solo every night, that’s a bold, brave step for him and the level of complexity that he functioned at. I don’t know many other musicians that can function at that level.
So for me, I was always trying to live up to his watermark, so to speak, because he pushed me. He would say the same thing about me, but of course, I always thought, “No, no, I’m following you.” And he’d go, “No, no, no. You’re making me sound good. Here’s all my rough edges.” So it was a partnership. But he awed me over and over again. He was relentless in the studio and he would play it as many times as required. Half the time, you’d be going, “Well, that’s a take, right?” And he would say, “No. It wasn’t a take.” Not for him. He was so incredibly demanding of himself and of course, you have to rise to that level. It just happens that way. It just becomes your band mantra when you see a guy working that hard. You work that hard.
One of the things that’s unique about Neil and Rush is the number of songs where there’s entirely different rhythmic approaches for different verses. How challenging was that not only as the bass player but the bass player who had to sing at the same time?
It was intentional and it was discussed. Even way back when we did “Beneath, Between and Behind,” if you look at the third verse of that song, we said, “Hey, let’s just shift the emphasis and go back on the beat.” It almost turns into a shuffle for one verse. So we both loved doing that kind of thing. That’s the fun part.
It wasn’t a challenge. I mean, singing was always a challenge over the rhythm-section parts that we would sing together but I always worried about that later. It was the writing of it and the thinking up of those parts that was so much fun for us. Whenever we finished an album, we always ran off one version that was just bass and drums just so that we could glory in the quirkiness of our rhythm section together and also the unblemished sound of bass and drums before all that white noise [laughs] came and got plastered on top of it.
So you have your own personal, bootleg versions of Rush albums that are just bass and drums?
Yeah, somewhere. I haven’t dug them out in years but somewhere I have our original bass and drums as did he.
Neil wrote in his book that he was very proud of the drum solo he did your final tour, and he was under the impression that you and Alex never said anything to him about it.
Yeah, and it’s not really true! I told him lots of times. I’ve heard that before and I don’t know why he felt that way. I mean, I listened to that drum solo every night in awe and I talked to him about it numerous times. I don’t know why he thought we didn’t give him enough respect for it. He was hard of hearing so maybe he didn’t hear me. [Laughs] It bothers me that he didn’t feel that we gave him his due on that tour, because most certainly we did and his drum solo was incredible and different almost every night on that tour.
Neil felt a lot of pressure to be the drum god people expected when he played. How did you see that weighing on him?
He set the bar really high for himself, and as his body started to let him down he worried that he would betray that. He was really big on that. He used to say all the time that he never wanted to let down the kid in him. He would visualize him as a kid watching his own drum performance and never wanted to let that kid version down. But it was really a very difficult gig and as time went on and his body started to, as I said, let him down, it became much more difficult for him to get through it. Yet somehow he did. Any talk of a compromised version of one of our songs, it’s just not in the cards. If he couldn’t do it the way he’d done it in the past, he didn’t want to do it, and that was pretty much it.
Still, you pulled off everything on the R40 tour, didn’t you?
Yeah, I know. But he struggled through that tour. He had lot of weird issues, physical issues, a tendency to get infections. He was so fucking stoic. He would never let, you know … You’d see him limping or something and you’d go, “Man, what’s going on?” “Oh, fuck … I need to tell you.” But you had to guess if he even had a cold, because he didn’t grumble about that kind of stuff. He was the exact opposite of me. When I have something wrong, everyone in the fucking organization knows I have something wrong. [Laughs] I really tried to teach him how to whine but he just couldn’t learn.
“You had to guess if Neil even had a cold, because he didn’t grumble about that kind of stuff. He was the exact opposite of me. When I have something wrong, everyone in the fucking organization knows I have something wrong.”
When and how did you first become aware of Neil’s discomfort with fame and compliments and all of that sort of thing?
Well, it happened over time. In the early days, he didn’t behave like that. I think he always had a little bit of stage fright, but he got over it as soon as he hit the stage. But it really happened over time, the more demands that were made of his time and the more notoriety he was garnering as a drummer and as member of the band. All that stuff started to play on his nervous system, and he started reacting in a much more extreme way as he got older.
I was thinking about this the other day. Early on, the first few tours we did, he was laughing a lot, having a lot of fun onstage. There was a time when we would even sit backstage after a gig and sign autographs for fans, especially in the U.K. The U.K. fans were used to lining up to get autographs after certain gigs; there would be literally hundreds of people lined up. So we would sit there in the drafty hallway as they were ushered in, and Neil would sign for everybody. As we got into the Eighties, something changed in him that made him much more sensitive to his private time and his exposure to the public and he started backing away from it.
He started taking off on his own between shows, first on a bicycle and then on a motorcycle. How did you feel about that?
Well, every once in a while it was odd for us. We missed him. We wanted him to hang out after a gig sometimes and just get wasted with us as we used to do in the early days. But it was his only method of staying sane, and he needed to do that. So we allowed him that luxury. There was no way you were going to stop him, anyway. It’s not like we would say, “Hey, Neil. Don’t do that.” That wouldn’t have flown. With Neil, it was, “This is who I am. This is what you have to deal with.”
It didn’t really affect our closeness, I would say. But sometimes you weren’t quite sure, and then you’d see him the next day at soundcheck, and he just couldn’t stop talking your ear off about this or about that. So there was always something that drew us back together and of course, our dinnertime conversations were really important to him. That was his touchstone with Alex and I, and that was our time to catch up and take a breath together.
But he was prepared to forgo after-gig partying. On days off, sometimes we would find each other in some town where he wasn’t staying 100 miles away, and we would have strategically organized meals together from time to time. I would say Alex and I probably wanted him to hang out more than he did, but we just accepted that was who he was and that’s what he needed to stay sane.
He always made sure to arrive at the venues early, but was it stressful to know that one third of a band was off on a motorcycle somewhere on the day of a show?
It did make us nervous from time to time, especially when he was cycling through South America. We didn’t know where the fuck he was, but you just get inured to it. You just get used to him taking care of himself and that’s why he had Michael [Mosbach] with him. Michael was his security guy as well as his buddy, and he had [a satellite phone] so no matter where he was he could reach us.
You worried about his safety, but he was a safe driver. I remember one time, I did a bicycle ride, and you’ve never seen a guy observe every single road rule like him. I mean, he always had his wits about him.
Can you point to drum parts of his that you loved the most?
It’s a big library of drum fills, but I loved his playing in “One Little Victory.” That was one of the few times that we could convince him to play the same part more than once. It was very difficult to get him to play the same part more than once in the same song but that was one of them. That whole triplet, double-bass-drum feel always blew me away, and in fact, I think that was the first thing that blew me away about him when we first met him. He got behind this little drum kit he had with 18-inch bass drums and he started playing those triplets, and wow. He had a thing.
He tuned his drums perfectly, too. A lot of drummers are great technicians, but not all of them tune their drums with the kind of fanaticism that he did, and his drums were very melodious because of that. They actually make his drum parts sing more and make them more memorable because of that fact. So that’s a very important aspect of his musicianship is the way he tuned his drums, not just the way he banged them. Rhythm parts are one thing, but the melodious nature of how his drum kit was presented and tuned by him made him a really unique player in my view.
What were your usual methods for developing parts together?
We just went down the rabbit hole when we did our bed tracks. In later years, I would write my part first and then he would write his drum part. In early years of course, we worked everything out on the floor together. When we wrote “YYZ,” for example, we would just talk it right through.
As I was writing the melody for that, we would talk through what he was going to play and where his bass drums were going to go, and I would go with it during rehearsal. Then you lay it down, and I could you hear what he’s doing with his bass drum a little more clearly, and then I can move my notes around to smack right when he’s smacking it. In later years, Alex and I would write the songs apart from him and send Neil a finished demo with, like, two versions, one with Alex’s genius drum-machine parts, and one that had no drum-machine parts so that he could envision his own thing.
Then once we got together in the studio, he would play to a guide track of the part that I had written, and he would find it too stiff to play to, because it was obviously played to a machine. So very often I would plug in live while he was doing his drum track and play the part again, and this way we could figure out a groove together. I would then take his new part and change what I had written so that it was more simpatico with his presence on the track. So it was a kind of convoluted step-by-step process. We chased each other a little bit, but at the same time we always ended up where we wanted to be and by that time you really can hear all the nuances of the rhythm part.
What do you remember about Neil developing his parts on something like “La Villa Strangiato”?
That was really hard to play, that song, when we first wrote it. We couldn’t get through it. We kept fucking it up because there’s so many details, so many rhythmic shifts. Again, we wrote that kind of in sync with each other so I don’t know how to describe that process really. As you’re working on one section you’re intimate with what he’s playing, and then I’m intimate with what I’m playing and we try to make sure we can hear each other and I’ll go to some new place and he’ll go, “Oh, I like that. OK, I’ll go there with you.” And vice versa. And that’s how you sort of build it and then you try to remember that sucker and that’s not so easy.
How was it to deal with just someone who could be so methodical and perhaps rigid about certain things, and then being part of a triangle with him?
Well, it wasn’t always easy because he could be rigid. He could be unmovable on certain subjects. But I used to say this to the producers that we worked with: “Just be honest with him. If you’re trying to get him to do something, you have to, first of all, explain yourself very well. If you can’t explain yourself very well, you’re going to lose.”
So when I dealt with him, he trusted me; I trusted him. He loved me; I loved him. I knew that; Alex knew that. But there are times where you’re at loggerheads. So you have to make your case, and if you make your case well and it’s not bullshit, you actually are making sense, he will see your side of it, and so that’s really what life with him was like. Sometimes he would be insistent that, “No, I don’t agree with you and that’s not cool with me.” We would just agree to disagree and maybe the part doesn’t go anywhere. Maybe we don’t use it. But more often than not we find a happy meeting place. He was a very reasonable dude, but what he wouldn’t stand for is giving him a reason to do something that didn’t hold water.
What were the kinds of things that he would truly put his foot down about?
Well, gigs for sure. How often he would play, when he wouldn’t play, how far the drives were between. He was very determined to do a tour his way. That’s one thing. In the studio, I don’t know. He was pretty good to work with in the studio. I don’t remember many hissy fits. But if he’d done a song too many times and you wanted to ask him to change it, you’d better have a fucking good reason to ask him to change it, because he’d been chopping wood all day.
He’s not there to keep playing until you’ve satisfied every fucking weird experiment in your head. He would take that for a while, and pretty soon he would be done with that. You’re talking about a guy that left a serious amount of broken sticks behind him at the end of every session. That’s how hard he played. I mean, you could make a fire back there. So he had good patience, but he didn’t suffer fools, and if you were going to play the fool, he didn’t suffer you, either, no matter how much he loved you.
“You’re talking about a guy that left a serious amount of broken sticks behind him at the end of every session. That’s how hard he played. I mean, you could make a fire back there.”
You’ve said that there aren’t really Rush outtakes, but is there really nothing in this studio archive as far as perhaps different versions, Beatles Anthology–type stuff?
No, there’s nothing. There’s nothing there. There’s nothing left. There might be half-finished demos somewhere where we got halfway through and went, “Oh, this song sucks.” And it never got made.
And it’s not really in keeping with your ethos to put stuff like that out.
No, it’s not. I mean, some of those things may not even be in a stage that there’s drums on them. You’d know when you’re working on a song if you’re beating a dead horse. If that song wasn’t really coming together — and especially with me as I got older — I had less patience for staying with a song that obviously wasn’t working.
Sometimes you come in the next day, and Alex and I would be working on a demo, and we’d go, “What the fuck is this song, anyway?” He’s like, “I don’t know. I’ve forgotten why we were doing it.” So you just trash it and start again. We didn’t record anything and then at the end say, “No, that doesn’t make it onto the record.” Those things don’t exist at all.
Neil once said he didn’t really count in his head, despite the complexity of your songs.
Well, first of all, he did count. [Laughs] We both counted. There’s certain things you count, especially pauses. You count pauses. When you’re playing off time and you have a lot of pauses in a song, you’d better be counting in the same meter or you’re going to just blow it when you come back. You wrote your parts and this is where we thought the same. This is where we agreed. You learned the part and the part had a determined length of time, and you glued all these parts together.
So if you’re remembering the part, you don’t have to count it because the part goes this long and then the next part goes this long and the next part goes this long. So maybe that’s completely unconventional, when you don’t read music, to write like that, but that’s how we did it. We wrote these parts and we put them all together and you just remembered them one after the other, after the other. Whether he was capable of remembering them into his seventies, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m capable of remembering them into my seventies. And maybe that was something that played at the back of his mind about playing when you’re older, because your memory is not as sharp.
It’s not like you can have sheet music in front of you.
No, you’re out there naked and if you lose it mentally, if you lose the count mentally, or the part disappears on you, which happens from time to time — we have some fantastic train crashes once in a while onstage … But that’s a bigger fear, I think, than anything onstage, is trying to recall that bit that has somehow ran away from you.
I told Neil that watching him rehearse, I got the idea that his parts worked in a sort of three-dimensional geometry, and he actually said that was the way he thought of it as well. Did you ever talk about the way he saw rhythm?
I think he had his way of splitting his mind into so many segments. He had true independence, as many drummers do, but he pushed that independence to its very limit and I think he equated it in a way of me singing, playing bass, playing foot pedals, all that. That requires a kind of separation of brain too. So I think from that perspective, he viewed his gig sort of like my gig, but I don’t know how he fucking did half the shit he did because it was just so independent. Just the other day I was playing with my grandson and I was trying to teach him that idea and you start when you’re a kid tapping your head and rubbing your belly. So you put that at the power of 1,000 and then you’ve got Neil Peart.
I mean, Neil was right — you were also pushing the limits of that kind of rhythmic and musical independence onstage.
Yeah, but my wife doesn’t think I can multitask just because I can’t make the main course and the appetizer part at the same time. So I’m not very good at multitasking, apparently. [Laughs]