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Riding the Continent

Riding the Continent

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Far and Wide

Far and Wide

Bring That Horizon to Me!
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?Begin as you mean to go on” is an old English expression that comments amusingly on this photograph. I am poised to go onstage to start the second set of a show on the Rush fortieth anniversary tour, R40, in the summer of 2015. The glowing lights at my waist are the radio pack that drives my in-ear monitors, which will fill my head with musical information and consume my “interior world” for the next ninety minutes or so. The blazing lights ahead of me are an arena filled with something like ten thousand people. The heat and light of their joyous excitement is an utter contrast to my cold fire of determination and will—as it should be. It is my job to reward their anticipation—to be all they expect and more.

Beginning as I would go on, my energy is tightly coiled in anticipation of that challenge before me. Even the first song in that second set, “Tom Sawyer,” remained a mental and physical ordeal after thirty-five years and thousands of performances. In the reverse-chronology setlist we followed for that tour, each song led back in time, album to album, year to year. Thus I would have to replicate drum parts conceived and executed when I was a child?barely into my twenties. As a harsh-but-fair critic (like myself) might describe how I played the drums back then: “More energy than skill; more ideas than technique; more influences than originality; more enthusiasm than accuracy.” Since then, with the benefit of many years of practice, dedication, and the guidance of three phenomenal teachers—Don George, Freddie Gruber, and Peter Erskine—I have balanced those scales a little, at least.

And at almost sixty-three years of age, I was glad I could still do all that—bring the energy and enthusiasm of my twenties to the somewhat improved technique and accuracy of maturity. But . . . it was a battle—a battle against time, in more than one sense.

Another edge to that waiting-offstage mindset was a visceral awareness that so much can go wrong, human and technical, in one’s immediate future. And in front of a lot of people. Performers of every kind might define their audience as “strangers with expectations.” During the uncertain heat of live performance, I fear human errors, and I fear electronic letdowns. As much as ever in my life, I want every show to be good, but can never be sure, or even confident, that it will be. In that pre-show mindset, I almost sympathize with athletes who pray before a game, or Grammy winners who thank “the Creator” for giving them a trophy. (A friend’s Jewish grandmother once said, “What do you get when you get old” A trophy!” She meant “atrophy.”)

So when the houselights go down and I dash through that curtain and up the stairs to the stage, I am tense with focus and uncertainty—though equally focused on not displaying tension or uncertainty.

People sometimes say things like, “You look so relaxed when you’re playing the drums'so in command.” I can only laugh and say, “Well, I sure wish it felt that way!”

?Begin as you mean to go on” can also refer to my intention to take a cue from the R40 tour’s reverse-chronology setlist, and open this story with the final show. If I am going to try to tell something about a forty-one-year relationship with Alex and Geddy, and a separate relationship with the music we have made together over those decades, it will be necessary to do some leaping about in time. So why not start at the Los Angeles Forum on August 1, 2015, the final show of the R40 tour . . .

We had played in that building many times (twenty-four, according to a plaque on the wall there'so now twenty-five), but the last time had been two nights on the Test for Echo tour, in late 1996. After that the building’s ownership had fluctuated for a while: it was one of the first to bear a corporate name (such shall be nameless here—fight the power, fight the branding), then was owned by a church for several years. For complicated and tragic reasons, we did not return to perform again in Los Angeles until 2002, and that time we tried playing at the new mega-arena, named after a chain of business-supply stores. We didn’t like that cavernous space, but later enjoyed playing the Hollywood Bowl and Universal Amphitheater (now demolished for a Harry Potter—themed ride at the adjacent amusement park) a few times, and last tour at the Finnish Telecommunications Company Theater downtown.

Before the Time Machine tour in 2010 we had planned to do our production rehearsals and first show at the Forum, but there were worrisome rumors of imminent bankruptcy—and the possibility of our equipment being impounded inside. So we set up our production and rehearsed in a film studio soundstage instead, the old Paramount Studios (now Sony) in Culver City.

On the next page we see double-nought spy Bubba (my longtime nickname among many friends, first applied by Andrew MacNaughtan, our late photographer, assistant, and friend, who also introduced me to my wife, Carrie, in 1999) and my Aston Martin DB5 in front of the Garbo Building. (Greta Garbo is mentioned in one of the Bond books, maybe From Russia, With Love, when the face of one of the “Bond girls” is compared to Garbo’s.)

The Los Angeles Forum was developed by a Canadian entrepreneur, Jack Kent Cooke, who was born in Hamilton, Ontario, almost exactly forty years before I first drew breath in that same town. (The nearest hospital to our family dairy farm near Hagersville.) The Forum was built in Canada’s centennial year, 1967, the same year the old Philadelphia Spectrum went up—two buildings that always felt alike to me in our early days. There was something about those two venues—I don’t think we ever had a bad show in them. They were small enough (considered as arenas) to sound good when they were full of people; the audiences were energetic and enthusiastic, and we always seemed to play well.

Another connection—in the 1980s I rode my bicycle to both of those venues several times, and remembered the neighborhoods on the way. From Philly’s venerable downtown through ritzy/quaint Rittenhouse Square, then through streets of tidy working-class row houses down into military housing farther south. In Los Angeles, pedaling downhill from West Hollywood on La Cienega past commercial districts, body shops, and bungalows with iron grilles over doors and windows. Then up and over a bleak hill with nodding oil wells—one of many oilfields under the city—and down to Inglewood, which was said to be “dangerous.” That was never a problem on a bicycle—in Harlem; downtown Detroit; the East End of London; or Inglewood, California, I was always seen as a harmless crank.

This time (everything so different now that I live in Los Angeles) I took a car. With a driver. For there would be another party after this show, naturally enough—but it was the third party that week. That was about three years’ worth of parties for this Bubba. But it had to be borne, obviously. Just added to the pressure I was under.

To me, first, twentieth, or last show, this was still “just a show.” Or, more accurately, it was just still a show. Meaning I felt no sense of lightness, relief, or “doneness.” Not yet. There was still a long, hard, and always uncertain job to do.


A few days earlier, friend Stewart Copeland had emailed me:


You had better jam your hat on tight next Saturday because me and every other drummer in town will be coming down for a last chance to cop your licks at the Forum show.

Can’t wait! I know it will be legendary and the bards will sing of it for generations. I’m polishing up my air drumsticks even now . . .


That was very sweet of him??the praise of the praiseworthy” from a man and drummer I had long admired. I wrote back to him:


On the bus outta Phoenix, heading for a Château Walmart in Pasadena, where we’ll park for the last hour or two, then have breakfast and unload the motorcycles and ride?


In regard to your message, all’s I can say is, *Gulp.*

You know—it’s only the last show of the last tour, and with all the “Judges” in attendance.

Well, I’ll just do what I do every night—try not to suck!


Stewart’s reply was classic:


Laaaast show?! I had better get a Late Nite permit.

And please do, for all the children, suck just a little bit.


Well, of course I did suck just a little bit, here and there—human after all—but mainly played pretty well. No egregious errors, all of us made it to the end of “Monkey Business” together (a part that had plagued us during that third run of shows), and I was pleased enough with the final statement of my solo’s odyssey. Its improvised narrative had grown throughout the tour, but as with everything else, I could never be sure it was going to “work.” Stewart, Chad Smith, Taylor Hawkins, Doane Perry, and probably a few other drummers were in the house—and many other friends and family, including wife Carrie and five-year-old daughter Olivia.

That night violinist Jonny Dinklage, veteran of the previous tour’s Clockwork Angels String Ensemble, joined us once more for “Losing It,” as he had for two shows in the New York area. Recorded in 1982 for our Signals album, it was performed live for the first time this tour, but only a handful of times—including with original violin soloist on the record, Ben Mink, in Toronto and Vancouver. (A young Jonathan Dinklage, growing up in New Jersey, heard that recording and was inspired to play violin.)

After playing that song with Ben a couple of times at soundcheck in Toronto, he remarked to me that he never paid much attention to lyrics, but that this song really resonated for him now. I think all of us must have felt that, in our own ways.

In the song’s two verses, an aging dancer and writer face their diminishing, twilight talents. The dancer was inspired by a character in the movie The Turning Point, while the writer was Ernest Hemingway. Just before his suicide in 1961 he spent days staring at a blank piece of paper in his typewriter. He was trying to compose a few lines, a simple “regretful decline” to an invitation to the Kennedy White House. When he couldn’t even do that, he got out the shotgun. (?The sun will rise no more” comes from Hemingway’s first big novel, The Sun Also Rises.)


The dancer slows her frantic pace

In pain and desperation

Her aching limbs and downcast face

Aglow with perspiration

Stiff as wire, her lungs on fire

With just the briefest pause

Then flooding through her memory

The echoes of old applause

She limps across the floor

And closes her bedroom door

The writer stares with glassy eyes

Defies the empty page

His beard is white, his face is lined

And streaked with tears of rage

Thirty years ago, how the words would flow

With passion and precision

But now his mind is dark and dulled

By sickness and indecision

And he stares out the kitchen door

Where the sun will rise no more



After fifty years of devotion to hitting things with sticks, I would rather avoid any sense of “losing it” by simply setting it aside and moving onto other interests. You have to know when you’re at the top of your particular mountain, I guess. Maybe not the summit, but as high as you can go.

In relation to both summits and Ernest Hemingway’s story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in September 1987, right around my thirty-fifth birthday, I joined a five-day hike up and down Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro. At 19,341 feet, I stood at Uhuru (Freedom) Peak with two of the guides and a German university student, Dieter, while an English student, Domenick, took the photo. Domenick also contributed the bottle of whisky in the foreground, with which we all toasted our achievement.

Since then I have climbed many

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Two Wheels Through Terror

Two Wheels Through Terror

Diary of a South American Motorcycle Odyssey
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It’s total chaos this morning in Guaymas. Streets not flooded or buried in mud are clouded by a swirling powdery dust suspended in the air above the roadway, making it difficult to see or breathe. Every thick mustached, potbellied public official has different information about road conditions heading south. The bridge is fixed. The bridge is only fixed enough for light vehicles. And the bridge won’t be fixed for weeks and we’re all stranded. Most people I ask say it’s impossible to pass. Eemposeeblay! That’s code for me; whenever someone tells me I cannot do something, what they really mean is, they cannot, but I can.


Saddled up and cinched down, I’m ready to roll and leave the rumors behind. Just when my frustration is peaking from dealing with uncooperative Federales, I met an innovative Mexican in a small pickup truck who knew a way around the checkpoint. Vamos a ver. (Let’s go see.)

Sure enough, after winding our way through the crumbling back streets of Guaymas, we arrived near another connection to the main highway south where there was a mile–long string of traffic about to be permitted through by a different team of Federales. Concerned over further delay, I white–line it to the front of the line and find my way back to Highway 15. The road beyond is empty, with hundreds of cars and trucks now following me far behind. It doesn’t take long to see the damage. It isn’t just a few washed out bridges but rather about thirty partially crumpled concrete overpasses. Work crews have been busy all night reconstructing traffic lanes around flooded gullies while others are filled with gravel. I never would have been able to cross any of these washouts on my bike. The mud is much too deep.

The original double–lane highway was built on top of elevated dirt levees designed to control seasonal rains, but clearly not capable of withstanding hurricanes. The fragile road is now being undermined by rapidly flowing water and ready to collapse at any moment. Buses too heavy for the cantilevered asphalt plunge headfirst into the muddy swamp where they lie like fresh carcasses, ready to be picked clean by bandits of the night. It’s chaos for a hundred miles yet Mexican repair crews juggle and divert cars from both directions to keep traffic moving.

Hopefully, the road stays passable long enough to get me to Los Mochis, my anticipated overnight. CNN weather forecasts promise that new storm; Hurricane Lorena will still be swirling in this weekend. Wherever I wind up tonight could be home for a few days.

Word must have passed that the roads are shot because once ahead of the pack, there is no traffic in either direction. Today the fresh green Mexican countryside belongs to me. I almost forgot how beautiful it is down here and how nice the people are. A simple smile or a Buenos dias, and everyone is my friend. They want to know where I’m coming from and where I’m going. They can’t comprehend that I’m riding to South America on this little green motorcycle so I just respond, “Southern Mexico, maybe Guatemala,” and that alone is enough to shock them.

I arrived in Los Mochis by mid–afternoon, enjoyed a spicy Mexican dinner, and found a new twenty–dollar–a–night hotel with hot water, air conditioning, and color TV. There was just enough time to shower and search for a Café Internet, to send my readers a hearty Buenas noches from Mexico. Life is good.


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One More Day Everywhere

One More Day Everywhere

Crossing 50 Borders on the Road to Global Understanding
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In November 2001, while on a motorcycle ride from California to the tip of South America, capture by a Colombian terrorist army was not what I had in mind. Yet on one quiet, sunny afternoon, on a remote Andean highway, there wasn’t a choice. Marched at gunpoint into the mountains outside of Medellín, after that moment I knew that life would never be the same. During five grueling weeks as an involuntary guest of the National Liberation Army, they eventually broke my spirit with head games and torture. When I was finally freed in a Christmas prisoner exchange with the Colombian government, as an ultimate act of defiance against my captors, I continued to pursue my original goal of riding to the tip of South America and back. But once returning to California, after one too many restless nights, I realized that recovery from that incident would be more difficult than anticipated, and although I was back in Palm Springs, it was still a long road home. After late evenings and early mornings of teeth–grinding turmoil, I eventually concluded the only way to restore my psychological health and dignity was to continue what I had been doing — riding motorcycles to exotic lands. My silent mantra illuminating the path to positive thought became “Living well is the best revenge.” But since I had already tackled South America, the new goal would become traversing the entire globe, alone on a motorcycle. At first, friends and family still shaken by my Colombian ordeal couldn’t accept what I needed to do, reminding me of the current headlines highlighting increasing international terrorism and an impatient world furious with American foreign policy.


But for me, still reeling from a firsthand experience of human madness, there was no other way to contend with such a festering wound of personal doubt and deepening emptiness. I needed to find out what was really out there and hopefully confirm a suspicion that humanity was not inherently evil.

Yet in a post–9/11 climate of fear, Western societies were growing increasingly alarmed with news of more terrorist plots. Jerked from a slumbering state of denial, on September 11, 2001, the United States of America had been savagely attacked with its own technology and more was promised. From bombings to kidnappings, evidence of constant threats in a volatile world was blasting across our TV screens. Terrorists wanted citizens to feel helpless and cringe in fear. When we hide at home, they win. In a frightening overreaction, would America ultimately strangle under its own self–imposed security? Unable to defeat the U.S. militarily, could Osama bin Laden and others like him win the most strategic battle, unwittingly aided by our own political masters?

As a nervous U.S. Congress inched toward smothering the Constitution, would an Orwellian prophecy become a reality? With a proliferation of street corner surveillance cameras and an abuse of wiretapping regulations, lawmakers, worried about appearing unpatriotic, were looking the other way. And Americans were beginning to accept the concept of Big Brother protecting us. After all, who would vote against bills cleverly labeled “The Patriot Act” and “Homeland Security”? Yet while struggling from paycheck to paycheck, Americans were either confronted with tales of terror or droned into complacency with celebrity gossip and reality TV. The lack of truthful, relevant information was numbing.

For me the decision was simple and final: I had to clear my head with a journey into the real world, the developing world, and examine that world through the eyes of those who lived there. For Westerners abroad during the most uncertain political climate in recent history, traveling the earth alone was more than an adventurous challenge; it was a direct message to terrorists wherever they lurked: We are not afraid. But more important, we refuse to hate.

On a 52,000–mile odyssey exclusively through developing nations across five continents, I stumbled upon a startling realization. We, the American people, have been deceived. Nearly every preconceived notion about the world fed to us by our national media was proved false. Meeting the people of planet earth face to face as a lone traveler becomes an opportunity to discover firsthand that we are all the same — and sometimes even related. Eventually, a truth surfaces: while governments may not get along, people do.

From lopsided Middle East horror stories to rumors of ruthless Russians, one by one, foolish myths were dispelled as poverty–stricken strangers invited this wandering motorcyclist into their wooden shacks, offering their last crumbs of bread. But riding the earth alone wasn’t easy and plenty went wrong, contending with daily challenges of harsh weather, difficult terrain and explosive geopolitical events. Despite a year of planning, at times, given the steady changes in circumstance and necessity to take chances, I was nearly sucked over the edge. Enduring hypothermia while riding mud roads through Siberian tornadoes led to the blissful solitude of the Mongolian Plains, with an electrifying jolt into adventure and humanity. In a Munich hospital, my congested kidneys nearing failure, I wondered if there wasn’t a safer way for a man to restore himself? Later, a reckless mid–winter crossing of eastern Turkey’s frozen Anatolian Plateau nearly stalled the journey until spring.

Sitting cross–legged in a Syrian Bedouin’s tent silently sipping tea while American fighter jets patrolled the skies over nearby Iraq, I pondered — Who would have thought my odyssey would lead to this? While traveling Egypt, eluding mandatory military escorts, my journey through the ancient Nile Valley was peaceful, with throngs of young Arabs gathering to shake my hand. A sunrise climb of Mount Sinai took my breath away, the same as it must have for Moses when he accepted the Ten Commandments. And later that night, with distant gazes into the dancing campfire, a nomadic Bedouin chieftain described life while previously under Israeli occupation as “Paradise.”

After being granted a special–entry permit from the commander of Israeli Defense Forces, on election day in Gaza, I was cornered by Palestinian thugs from Hamas and the question arose — were my feet too close to the flames? Stranded in the Sadar District of Karachi while terrorists blew up mosques and hunted Westerners, fate was tempted once more when I flipped a coin to decide my next destination — India or Afghanistan?

On the Nepali border, coughing up black soot in a dollar–a–night flophouse, I was anxious to ride into the sporadic violence of civil disorder to escape the madness of Indian roadways. Brought to my knees while visiting the Killing Fields of Cambodia, it took the innocent smiles of bashful natives to eventually revive a wobbling faith in humanity. Weary from a year of tumultuous travel, the steamy massage parlors of Bangkok provided sensuous mid–journey relief before heading south to Indonesia, where the wilds of Borneo set my imagination ablaze while I established a world’s record as the first person to circle the island on two wheels. But once in Sumatra I found that nothing could prepare me for the horrors of tsunami–ravaged Banda Aceh. Saving the best for last, it was the soft humility and alien ferocity of Africa that finally fulfilled a dream that began during my turbulent youth.


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Shooting Star

Shooting Star

The Rise & Fall of the British Motorcycle Industry
tagged : history
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Japan's Motorcycle Wars

Japan's Motorcycle Wars

An Industry History
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