The quiet death of Neil Peart

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Neil Peart of Rush, July 2010 (Paul Warner/WireImage)

“I can’t pretend a stranger/ is a long-awaited friend” –Neil Peart, “Limelight”

The death of Neil Peart, the mastermind lyricist and consummate drummer of the legendary trio Rush, took fans by surprise when it was announced on Jan. 10. He had been diagnosed with brain cancer more than three years ago, yet no one aside from his family, close friends and medical team knew.

When I read the first short reports confirming his death, I figured he died suddenly, victim of a heart attack or accident. Surely I would have known if he were battling something long-term.

But no. He was diagnosed with glioblastoma three and a half years ago. It now appears that the diagnosis occurred shortly after Rush’s last tour in 2015. No one questioned the lack of touring since then. Peart had reported severe tendonitis on that last tour and had announced his retirement from drumming. If only other bands (I’m looking at you, KISS) would take inspiration from Rush and go out on top.

So Rush retired, and Peart totally retreated from the spotlight as he tended to do. He was the least likely rock star, entirely uncomfortable with the notion that he was adored for simply doing something he loved. He just didn’t quite get it—why being a musician would inspire such worship.

“I love being respected, being appreciated is awfully good, but anything beyond that just creeps me out. Any sense of adulation is just so wrong,” Peart says in 2010’s documentary “Beyond the Lighted Stage.”

In this age of social media, of 24/7 celebrity news, of oversharing every bump and bruise, every broken heart and migraine, Peart managed to keep his illness out of the public eye. I’m amazed that no one leaked the news—not the hospital parking lot attendant, or orderly, or anyone who may have happened upon Peart and noticed that something looked wrong. I honestly thought there were no more secrets in the 21st century. Even more remarkable—not only did Peart die without fans knowing he was ill, but he also was dead three days before the news was announced.

Lee went on tour just over a year ago to promote his book, “Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass.” Over and over, interviewers asked him about Rush and if there was any chance the band would tour again. Over and over, Lee said Peart was done drumming and didn’t elaborate, content to let fans think that Peart’s arms and shoulders were simply worn out. How Lee could not betray his knowledge, how he could keep from breaking down knowing that his friend of 45 years was dying, also amazes me.

I understand that some people derive energy from publicly sharing their challenges. They crave support not only from loved ones, but from acquaintances or even strangers. But the way that Peart approached dying is a chance to give us pause. In the past three years, he saved his energy for the things that truly mattered: focusing on his health and reveling in the love and support of family and close friends. And as he wrote in “Limelight”:

“One must put up barriers/to keep oneself intact.”

Before we hit “post” or “share” or “tweet,” let us think who we want around us. What is the reason for sharing our news beyond close friends and family? It may turn out there’s a very good reason. But then again, maybe our energy is better spent not engaging with near-strangers.

Some Rush fans may have wanted to know about Peart’s cancer in order to prepare themselves and feel less of a shock at the news. But the way it was, up until that Friday fans thought Peart was living quietly and happily, navigating a life at home with his wife and young daughter without the distractions of touring or recording. In their minds, he wasn’t ill or suffering. The lasting image is one of peace. And that is his last true gift to fans.