The surviving members of RUSH, as well as Neil Peart’s family and friends, sat down with Rolling Stone to discuss the legendary drummer’s final years. The feature was published on Thursday to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Peart’s death.
Peart was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in August 2016 and was given 12-18 months to live. Prior to the diagnosis, Peart’s wife, Carrie Nuttall, said she noticed changes in her husband’s behavior: he struggled to complete his beloved crossword puzzles and had difficulty speaking. At first, Nuttall assumed he was merely depressed, but her fears were realized after he received an MRI and ended up in surgery.
Friends say Peart handled the illness with “strength and stoicism,” and was determined to make the most of each day. He spent most his of his time riding his motorcycle or with his daughter, Olivia, who he was particularly close with. In fact, at the conclusion of RUSH’s final tour in 2015, Peart began volunteering at the library of Olivia’s school. “She got to see Daddy at school all the time,” Nuttall told Rolling Stone. “At night, he’d come home and cook family dinners. “He was living his life exactly the way he wanted for the first time in decades, probably. It was a very sweet, content time … and then the gods, or whatever you want to call it, snatched it all away.”
Peart asked his friends and bandmates to keep his illness private. “Neil asked us not to discuss it with anyone,” RUSH’s Alex Lifeston told Rolling Stone. “He just wanted to be in control of it. The last thing in the world he would want is people sitting on his sidewalk or driveway singing ‘Closer to the Heart’ or something. That was a great fear of his. He didn’t want that attention at all. And it was definitely difficult to lie to people or to sidestep or deflect somehow. It was really difficult.”
“He didn’t want to waste his remaining time talking about shit like that,” added RUSH’s Geddy Lee. “He wanted to have fun with us. And he wanted to talk about real things right up to the very end.”
Friends say Peart also spent a significant amount of time revisiting old recordings with RUSH. “My guess is that he was just reviewing some of the things that he accomplished, in terms of music, anyways,” Lifeson said. “And I think he was a little surprised at how well it turned out. I think that happens, you kind of forget. It was interesting to see him smile and feel really good about that. And when he still could write to us, he wrote about how he was reviewing some of our older music and how it stood up for him.”
As Peart had dealt with his fair share of tragedy in life — in 1997, his daughter Selena died in a car accident; his common-law wife Jackie passed from cancer soon after — he lived life with a sense of fatalism. Rolling Stone writer Brian Hiatt recalled a 2015 interview he did with Peart, who said at the time, “My daughter died at 19, and my wife died at 42, and I’m 62 and I’m still going. How many people have died younger than me? How many drummers have died younger than me? I’m already in bonus time. … Something is gonna kill me. Look, I ride motorcycles. I drive fast cars. I fly around a lot in airplanes. It’s a dangerous life out there. I like what one old-timer said about motorcycling: ‘If you love motorcycling enough, it’s gonna kill you. The trick is to survive long enough that something else kills you first.’ ”
However, Peart was bother by the idea of leaving behind his daughter Olivia. “There was still much he wanted to do. When everyone says, ‘Oh, he was so stoic and accepted his fate,’ and all that? Yes, he did. But it also broke his heart,” said Nuttall.
Peart ended up living more than three years after his diagnosis, and remained lucid in the weeks leading up to his death. Friends say he threw himself a final birthday party in 2019 and continued to ride his motorcycle, albeit with the assistance of friends.
He never again played drums after RUSH’s final tour, but he did encourage Olivia to follow in his footsteps. He set up a drum set for Olivia in the family’s living room, just as his parents had done for him: “Neil immediately said, ‘She has it,’ ” said Nuttall. “She did inherit what he had. And of course, that thrilled him. … He made a huge effort not to make her feel intimidated by him — he didn’t sit there and stare at her having her lesson. He would be out of sight, but he’d be listening.”
You can read the full feature at Rolling Stone.