Published Oct 01, 2002Rush drummer Neil Peart is widely and justifiable considered one of the most literate lyricists in rock music. His themes and concepts, inspired by everything from science fiction and fantasy to author Ayn Rand's neo-philosophical, libertarian writings, to life and human nature, have evolved over the years from sprawling, grandiose tales of future civilisations where music is banned (2112) and mythology-laced hokum (Hemispheres) to more introspective musings on existentialism and love.
Yet despite 28 years living in the limelight and 16 albums worth of words that have been heard and sung and dissected by millions worldwide, Peart has remained an enigmatic and intensely private person. He rarely discusses the songs he writes, opting instead to let the words do the talking for themselves. In fact, he may be one of the most uncomfortable rock stars ever.
However, with his second book, Ghost Rider, (his first was a recollection of his cycling exploits in Africa), Peart has exposed more of himself than ever, and written so much more than a typical musician's diary. In fact with the exception of passing references to his band mates and his being a musician as his job and not a lifestyle, you'd probably never know he was a rock star at all.
Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road is a pulpy, 460-page tome that documents a 14-month, 55,000-mile motorcycle trek across North America that Peart undertook in the wake of a double tragedy. In the space of a year he lost his 19-year-old daughter, Selena, in a car accident and his wife Jackie (Selena's mother) ostensibly to cancer; although as Peart suggests early in the book, it may well have been the unbearable torture of losing a child and a broken heart that eventually killed her.
But from great tragedy comes great art. Peart unflinchingly recalls the tragedies and chronicles the grieving process he went through before making the decision to hit the road; to move from suffering hermit to healing gypsy. He traces his movements across Canada from his rural retreat in the wilds of Quebec through Northern Ontario, the Prairies and eventually all the way up to Alaska then down the West Coast of North America and back again. With nothing more than two saddle packs of supplies (including The Macallan, a fine highland single malt scotch whiskey) strapped to his well-maintained BMW R1100GS motorcycle, and a belly full of determination, Peart methodically crossed the continent.
The crisply-written book is part travelogue and part therapeutic catharsis. It resonates with humour and grief and ultimately personal triumph the accomplishment of completing the journey and getting his life back together. In fact, it's best summarised in the dedication: "To the future, with honor to the past."
He tells his story, one that is both heart-wrenching and inspiring, through first-person narrative written at journey's end and excerpts from his road journal. He also includes selected letters home to family and friends, entries that offer a revealing glimpse into the mindset of the author like one sent to a friend named Steven in which Peart's anger and frustration are evident: "If there is any point in carrying on, it is not in simply existing, in cluttering up the world with another bitter and nasty old man or a joyless hermit, or a suffering martyr forever living in the past and punishing everyone else for what life has done to me."
Or one to eccentric multi-media artist Mendelson Joe on his return to Quebec where he captures the intent of the process: "Last summer when I set out on my journey, I was driven by a sense, or a hope, that motion would be a good diversion' for me, especially compared to sitting here stewing in my own bile, but I had no idea just how important it would be."
In addition to the travelling, talking about and exorcising some of the demons that haunt him has obviously been an important part of the process. Being candid seems to give him solace. Ironically, but not at all surprisingly, Peart is refusing to talk about his book publicly and for recent promotional jaunts to plug Rush's 17th studio album, Vapor Trails, has deferred to his bandmates.
He did, however grant Modern Drummer magazine an exclusive interview, in which he talks about being back in his band (and that was never a certainty) as being an important part of the healing process that began with his trip.
"The only thing I was motivated to do was travel, to just go down the road every day to see what was over the next hill or around the next corner," he recalled to the Modern Drummer's William Miller. "Hope was the only muscle at work then."
But as Ghost Rider clearly demonstrates, his mental muscle must have been getting quite a workout as well.