About the Author

Neil Peart

Neil Peart is the drummer for the Canadian band Rush.

Books by this Author
Clockwork Angels

Clockwork Angels

The Novel
edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook
tagged : rock
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Far and Away

Far and Away

A Prize Every Time
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
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Far and Near

Far and Near

On Days Like These
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover Paperback
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Far and Wide

Far and Wide

Bring That Horizon to Me!
edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook Paperback
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Excerpt

Introduction: Thirty-Five Concerts. 17,000 Motorcycle Miles. Three Months. One Lifetime.

 

“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—

Home!

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 other mountains, often more for the view than the physical challenge, but have never felt drawn to take on, say, Annapurna or Everest. Kilimanjaro was the highest summit I ever needed to reach.

One major reality is that my style of drumming is largely an athletic undertaking, and it does not pain me to realize that, like all athletes, there comes a time to . . . take yourself out of the game. I would much rather set it aside than face the fate described in “Losing It.”

Because I am keeping it, baby! No regrets here; I feel proud, grateful, and satisfied with what I have accomplished with two lumps of wood. My late teacher Freddie Gruber was friends with Buddy Rich for decades, and told many tales about the famously acerbic master. (Other drummers have played certain styles better, naturally, but no one has ever matched Buddy’s hands and feet.) Buddy once pointed to the drumsticks in Freddie’s hands and said, “Just remember, dummy—those two lumps of wood have kept you out of the electric chair, and out of working at the corner gas station!”

Late in his life, Buddy Rich was asked if he considered himself the world’s greatest drummer, and he gave an inspiring reply: “Let’s put it this way: I have that ambition. You don’t really attain greatness. You attain a certain amount of goodness, and if you’re serious about your goodness, you’ll keep trying to be great. I have never reached a point in my career where I was totally satisfied with anything I’ve ever done, but I keep trying.”

Among my reading on the R40 tour, on the bus and in motel rooms, was a biography of Buddy Rich’s one-time employer Artie Shaw. A celebrated clarinetist (he called Benny Goodman “the competition”) and charismatic big-band leader, Artie Shaw famously gave up playing at age forty-four. The book by Tom Nolan is called Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake—from one of Artie Shaw’s favorite phrases: “Three chords for beauty’s sake, and one chord to pay the rent.” Another quote of Shaw’s I heard years ago was enough to make me curious about him: “I could never understand why they had to dance to my music. I made it good enough to listen to.” Late in life, he summed up the arc of his career like this: “Had to be better, better, better. It always could be better . . . When I quit, it was because I knew I couldn’t do any better.”

Of course I wouldn’t rate my own decision, or my limited mastery of my instrument, in a class with a brilliant musician like Artie Shaw. (Even now I hear the poignant strains of “Begin the Beguine” in my inner radio—the way he could bend notes on that clarinet.) After he quit, what Artie Shaw wanted to do was . . . write prose. And like Buddy Rich, Shaw had a quick and cutting wit. Toward the end of his life, his caregiver once asked him, “Mr. Shaw—are you comfortable?” After a perfect beat, the old man gave a rueful shrug, “Eh—I make a living.”

Prose writing offers another profound insight from one of my idols in creative non-fiction, John McPhee. He wrote, “People often ask how I know when I’m done—not just when I’ve come to the end, but in all the drafts and revisions and substitutions of one word for another how do I know there is no more to do? When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way. What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

All of which goes to explain that this show felt like a journey’s end, at least to me, so when Alex, Geddy, Jonny, and I played “Losing It” at the Los Angeles Forum on August 1, 2015, the song carried just a little more meaning for me, and perhaps for many others. As Jonny walked offstage beside my drum riser, I stood and gave him a “bow.”

That I could feel good about this occasion—well, I can only compare it to the way I feel at the end of a long motorcycle journey. I don’t regret that the ride has to be over, but rather feel grateful for the miles I have traveled, for the sights along the way, and to be exactly where I am.

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Ghost Rider

Ghost Rider

Travels on the Healing Road
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
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Excerpt

Outside the house by the lake the heavy rain seemed to hold down the darkness, grudging the slow fade from black, to blue, to gray. As I prepared that last breakfast at home, squeezing the oranges, boiling the eggs, smelling the toast and coffee, I looked out the kitchen window at the dim Quebec woods gradually coming into focus. Near the end of a wet summer, the spruce, birch, poplars, and cedars were densely green, glossy and dripping.

 

For this momentous departure I had hoped for a better omen than this cold, dark, rainy morning, but it did have a certain pathetic fallacy, a sympathy with my interior weather. In any case, the weather didn’t matter; I was going. I still didn’t know where (Alaska? Mexico? Patagonia?), or for how long (two months? four months? a year?), but I knew I had to go. My life depended on it.

Sipping the last cup of coffee, I wrestled into my leathers, pulled on my boots, then rinsed the cup in the sink and picked up the red helmet. I pushed it down over the thin balaclava, tightened the plastic rainsuit around my neck, and pulled on my thick waterproof gloves. I knew this was going to be a cold, wet ride, and if my brain wasn’t ready for it, at least my body would be prepared. That much I could manage.

The house on the lake had been my sanctuary, the only place I still loved, the only thing I had left, and I was tearing myself away from it unwillingly, but desperately. I didn’t expect to be back for a while, and one dark corner of my mind feared that I might never get back home again. This would be a perilous journey, and it might end badly. By this point in my life I knew that bad things could happen, even to me.

I had no definite plans, just a vague notion to head north along the Ottawa River, then turn west, maybe across Canada to Vancouver to visit my brother Danny and his family. Or, I might head northwest through the Yukon and Northwest Territories to Alaska, where I had never travelled, then catch the ferry down the coast of British Columbia toward Vancouver. Knowing that ferry would be booked up long in advance, it was the one reservation I had dared to make, and as I prepared to set out on that dark, rainy morning of August 20th, 1998, I had two and a half weeks to get to Haines, Alaska — all the while knowing that it didn’t really matter, to me or anyone else, if I kept that reservation.

Out in the driveway, the red motorcycle sat on its centerstand, beaded with raindrops and gleaming from my careful preparation. The motor was warming on fast idle, a plume of white vapor jetting out behind, its steady hum muffled by my earplugs and helmet.

I locked the door without looking back. Standing by the bike, I checked the load one more time, adjusting the rain covers and shock cords. The proverbial deep breath gave me the illusion of commitment, to the day and to the journey, and I put my left boot onto the footpeg, swung my right leg high over the heavily laden bike, and settled into the familiar saddle.

My well–travelled BMW R1100GS (the "adventure–touring" model) was packed with everything I might need for a trip of unknown duration, to unknown destinations. Two hard–shell luggage cases flanked the rear wheel, while behind the saddle I had stacked a duffel bag, tent, sleeping bag, inflatable foam pad, groundsheet, tool kit, and a small red plastic gas can. I wanted to be prepared for anything, anywhere.

Because I sometimes liked to travel faster than the posted speed limits, especially on the wide open roads of the west — where it was safe in terms of visible risks, but dangerous in terms of hidden enforcement — I had decided to try using a small radar detector, which I tucked into my jacket pocket, with its earpiece inside the helmet.

A few other necessities, additional tools, and my little beltpack filled the tankbag in front of me, and a roadmap faced up from a clear plastic cover on top. The rest of the baggage I would carry away with me that morning had less bulk, but more weight — the invisible burdens that had driven me to depart into what already seemed like a kind of exile.

 

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Roadshow

Roadshow

Landscape with Drums: A Concert Tour by Motorcycle
edition:eBook
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The Masked Rider

The Masked Rider

Cycling in West Africa
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback eBook
tagged : cycling
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Excerpt

It is said that one travels to East Africa for the animals, and to West Africa for the people. My first dream of Africa was a siren–call from the East African savanna … great herds of wildlife shimmering in the heat haze of the Serengeti, the Rift Valley lakes swarming with birds, the icy summit of Kilimanjaro. So I went there, and I loved it. The following year I went looking for an interesting way to visit West Africa, to learn more about the African people — the animals drew me to Africa, but the people brought me back.

 

After much searching I found a name — Bicycle Africa — and signed up for a month–long tour of "Cameroon: Country of Contrasts." At the end of it I swore I’d never do anything like that again — but the following year I forgot my vow, and returned to bicycle through Togo, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast.

Cycling is a good way to travel anywhere, but especially in Africa; you are independent and mobile, and yet travel at "people speed" — fast enough to move on to another town in the cooler morning hours, but slow enough to meet the people: the old farmer at the roadside who raises his hand and says "You are welcome," the tireless woman who offers a shy smile to a passing cyclist, the children whose laughter transcends the humblest home. The unconditional welcome to tired travelers is part of the charm, but it is also what is simply African: the villages and markets, the way people live and work, their cheerful (or at least stoic) acceptance of adversity, and their rich culture: the music, the magic, the carvings — the masks of Africa.

Africa is such a network of illusions, a double–faced mask. It is as difficult to see into it as it is to see out of it. To those who’ve never been there it is an utter mystery, a continent veiled in myths and mistaken impressions, but it is equally obscure to those who have never been anywhere else. It used to be said that electronic media would bring the world closer together, but too often the focus on the sensational only distorts the reality — drives us farther apart. That is why in Ghana the children followed me down the street chanting "Rambo! Rambo!" and that is why Canadians look at me as if I were a lunatic when I tell them I’ve been cycling in Africa — they can only picture it from wildlife documentaries, TV images of starvation camps, and old Tarzan movies.

Africa fascinates me — in the true sense, I suppose, as a snake is said to transfix its prey. And the more times I return, the more countries I visit, the more the place perplexes me. Africa has so much magic, but so much madness. Yet I keep returning, and surely will again. This attraction is compelling and seems to grow stronger, but, like any lasting relationship, it is no longer blind.

And maybe that’s always true. After the first infatuation we’re always most critical of what we feel the strongest about. It’s too often the case in relationships, and certainly regarding one’s own family or country. You can criticize your own, but don’t let anyone else try it. That’s when love shows its teeth.

If my attraction to Africa is no longer blind, it is still blurry. From within and without, Africa is as much the "Dark Continent" as it was two hundred years ago — hard to see into, hard to see out of. The mask obscures a face which is so complex and contradictory; it takes a lot of traveling even to get a sense of it. And traveling in Africa is, by necessity, adventure travel.

Some people travel for pleasure, and sometimes find adventure; others travel for adventure, and sometimes find pleasure. The best part of adventure travel, it seems to me, is thinking about it. A journey to a remote place is exciting to look forward to, certainly rewarding to look back upon, but not always pleasurable to live minute by minute. Reality has a tendency to be so uncomfortably real .

But that’s the price of admission — you have to do it. One reason for making such a journey is to experience the mystery of unknown places, but another, perhaps more important, reason is to take yourself out of your "context" — home, job, and friends. Travel is its own reward, but traveling among strangers can show you as much about yourself as it does about them. To your companions and the people you encounter you are the stranger; to them you are a brand–new person.

That’s something to think about, and if you try you might glimpse yourself that way, without a past, without a context, without a mask. That can be a little scary, no question, but you may get a look behind someone else’s mask as well, and that can be even scarier.

 

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Traveling Music

Traveling Music

Playing Back the Soundtrack to My Life and Times
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
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Republic of Nothing

Republic of Nothing

Reader's Guide Edition
by Lesley Choyce
afterword by Neil Peart
edition:Paperback
tagged : literary
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The Republic of Nothing

The Republic of Nothing

by Lesley Choyce
afterword by Neil Peart
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback Paperback
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