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By Neil Peart
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2006 Neil Peart
All rights reserved.
The Story So Far
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By 1976, I was twenty-four, and had been playing drums for eleven years. During the previous two years, I had actually been making a living at it (most of the time), touring and recording with my bandmates in Rush, Alex and Geddy. During that brief, frenetic time, we had played hundreds of concerts across the United States and Canada, and recorded three albums together. More or less by default, I had ended up writing nearly all of the lyrics, an unexpected sideline growing out of a youthful obsession with reading.
The band's first, self-titled album had been recorded just before I joined, and when it sold 125,000 copies in the United States, the record company pronounced it "a promising debut." When the next one, Fly By Night, sold 125,000 copies, it was "a solid followup." But when the third album, Caress of Steel, sold 125,000 copies, they called it "a dog."
We were urged to be "more commercial," write some "singles." So, in our contrarian fashion, we recorded an ambitious and impassioned sidelong piece about a futuristic dystopia, along with a few other weird songs, and released our fourth album, 2112, early in 1976. It was considered by the beancounters to be our last chance, and without any promotion from them, it was something of a snowball's chance.
However, constant touring and word-of-mouth began to build our reputation. When 2112 surprised everyone (including us) and sold 500,000 copies in the United States, a Gold Record, and attained the same relative status in Canada (50,000 copies), we were free to choose our own directions. From then on, almost no one thought they had the right to tell us what to do, and we went our own way. Miraculously, our audience went that way, too.
With a little success, life began to grow bigger, even as it became so much busier. Emerging from the tunnel of my music-obsessed adolescence and teenage years, I was starting to think about "life beyond the cymbals," to use Bill Bruford's perfect phrase.
But at first it was hard to get much beyond the cymbals. Traveling most of the time, from arena to club to college gymnasium, crammed into a small campervan (misnamed by its makers the "Funcraft") while each of us drove three-hour shifts through the night, it was hard enough just to stay entertained. In the old analog days, we had no video games, satellite TV or movies, no CDs, DVDs, or iPods. Usually there was only the radio on the dashboard, crackling out '70s pop hits and Bible-Belt evangelists. Even reading was difficult in the dark, bouncing van, a crowded dressing room, or a shared room at the Holiday Inn.
Our popularity increased slowly, more or less gradually, but still eventually brought strange changes in the way people around us behaved. One afternoon, before a show at a small arena in the Midwest around the spring of 1976, three or four of us from the band and crew were on a lawn outside the venue, throwing a frisbee around. Young long-haired males began gathering, just staring at us, apparently fascinated by our frisbee-playing. We exchanged looks, but kept throwing and catching. Then some of the watchers started yelling out our names, and calling others over, until there were dozens of people around us. That kind of appreciation was what we were out on the road working for, of course, but not so much for our frisbee-playing, and as the crowd grew bigger, the fun seemed to go out of the game.
Similarly, in those early days, I sometimes liked to walk from the hotel to the venue, exploring the streets of San Antonio or San Francisco, but suddenly (it seemed) the "reception committees" outside the stage door became too large, too clamorous. Again, naturally you want people to admire your work, but not so much your walking around. I was simply not easy with that sort of attention; I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable.
Typically, that is the point in one's career when it is customary to lose your way, feel alienated, and start drinking too much, or taking a lot of drugs. Mostly that kind of behavior just made me throw up, so I hid out and read books. Devouring everything from the great novels to overviews of history and philosophy, I read in a fever of distraction and the drive of a high school dropout's pride—to make up for lost time and learn something, preferably everything. Many of the old paperbacks in my library still have stick-on stage passes in their inside covers, from bands we opened for like Aerosmith, Kiss, Ted Nugent, Blue Oyster Cult—and most of my library still consists of paperbacks, carried around on various journeys.
As our modest success continued, we stepped up to larger modes of touring transportation, from a small RV (the infamous "Barth") to a series of Silver Eagle tour buses. Eventually, we even had our own rooms at the Holiday Inn. Along the way I tried various other pastimes that were portable, like a model-car-building workshop in a small road case, with a surgical array of miniature tools and an aerosol-driven airbrush. I would set it all up in my room on a day off in Jumer's Castle Lodge in Davenport, Iowa (or similar), and build intricately detailed model kits. I spent weeks on one replicating Alex's 1977 Jaguar XJS, white with red interior, with full engine plumbing, working suspension and steering, and even articulated seats that folded forward and slid on little rails.
Brief fads sparked and faded among band and crew, like roller-skating around backstage corridors, racing radio-control cars on courses marked with gaffer tape, and even playing ice hockey in rented arenas after concerts. In the early '80s, I started carrying a bicycle with me on the tour bus, and that not only gave me a welcome outlet of freedom and independence, it made my world much bigger. I spent my days off roaming the country roads of South Carolina or Utah, and show days visiting art museums in Worcester, Massachusetts, Kansas City, or Seattle.
Over the years, my "mental map" of American cities was a changing network of not just hotels and arenas, but local hobby shops, bookstores, bicycle shops, art museums, and more recently, BMW motorcycle dealers.
During our Roll the Bones tour in 1992, I formed a backstage lounge act, the Murphtones, with one of our crew members, Skip. We would meet in a tuning room before the show and play jazz standards, Skip on guitar, and me with wire brushes on my little warm-up drums. On a later tour, Counterparts, in 1994, Skip and I published a semi-regular tour newsletter, The Vortex, lampooning touring life with humorous contributions from crew members and drivers.
The title came from a conversation in my hotel room in Pensacola, Florida, during rehearsals before that tour. Sitting around after work with Alex and a couple of the crew guys, I mentioned that I was already starting to feel that on-the-road mentality, of the world closing in on the narrow reality of performing, traveling, and just surviving.
Alex said, "I know what you mean. It's like a ... vortex."
I nodded, "Yeah, it sucks you in."
Tour manager Liam said, "No—it just sucks."
When Skip and I put together the newsletter, that became our masthead and our motto: The Vortex, "It Sucks."
Under that, it said, "Price: Being There."
For a couple of tours in the early '80s, Geddy and Alex and I studied French before every show, our office arranging with the local Berlitz school to have teachers sent to the arena.
During a couple of long tours with Primus in the early '90s, both bands would gather in the tuning room before the show and stage tumultuous jam sessions. Everybody played unfamiliar instruments, banged out incidental percussion on lockers and bicycle frames, and guitar players Alex and Ler brought in pawnshop accordions, violins, and flutes. It was not always terribly musical, but it was a lot of fun.
Back in 1976, though, I decided my on-the-road hobby was going to be writing prose. In the same way that loving music had made me want to play it, it seemed that because I loved to read, I wanted to write. In a pawnshop in Little Rock, I bought a clunky old portable typewriter, and on rare days off, huddled in a hotel room in Duluth or Dallas and tapped away at my first experiment: adapting the story from our most recent album, 2112, into narrative form. That ambition died peacefully in its sleep by about page fifty.
Typically, in the narrative arc of a would-be writer, an abandoned first novel is accompanied by attempts at short stories. That pawnshop typewriter made me think of its previous owners and what they might have written on it, and that suggested other pawnshop tales. I envisioned a chain of stories I was going to call "Pawnshop Guitar." But that didn't fire my imagination either.
So, I followed another well-worn trail and dug some skeletons out of the family closet. "Green Pastures" was a Thomas Hardy-like bucolic melodrama of rural atmospheres, repressed passions, and births out of wedlock. However, I was uncomfortable with the idea of trying to publish that kind of story, because even though the main characters had passed on, there were others who were alive and would recognize themselves, and be embarrassed or wounded. And what would my mother say?
So, the next thing you try is fictionalizing the adventures of your own youth, and for the next few years I worked on a series of stories about a character named Wesley Emerson (after my paternal grandfather, who died when I was a baby—I always liked his name). In a typical exercise of "write what you know," my Wes was a musician in a rock band touring the United States (though a singer, tellingly), and not surprisingly, his adventures were based on experiences I had known or heard about.
Wes flew with his bandmates in a chartered jet to watch the first launch of the space shuttle Columbia, and Wes and his friend from the band's road crew carried a passedout stripper from his room back to hers (a story I only heard about, I hasten to clarify). In any case, that conceit also died of natural causes: lack of will, or "heart failure," you might say.
Recently I read an interview with a veteran photojournalist, witness to many battles and horrible atrocities, who said that as a young man, he had been certain that if he could just "get the right picture," it would change things. He would make people see how wrong war and genocide were, and they would stop.
I recognized the same secret ideal that had driven me as a lyricist: early on, I had truly believed that if I could just express things well enough—injustice, narrow-mindedness, destructive and thoughtless behavior—people would recognize their own folly, and change. Perhaps that naïveté is necessary to a youthful sense of mission; perhaps you have to believe that a song, a story, a painting, or a photograph can change the world.
But eventually you learn to moderate your goals. In 1987, I wrote the lyrics for a song called "Second Nature" which included the realization that even if I could not accept compromise, I would have to accept limitations. "I know perfect's not for real/ I thought we might get closer/ But I'm ready to make a deal."
My prose-writing goals were finding their limitations as well, and around that same time, I tried writing about my first experience of "adventure travel," a bicycle trip through China. Although the result was unskilled and unfocused, right away I knew I had found my niche: travel writing. I wanted to try to describe the people and places of the world as I found them, rather than inventing imaginary ones.
It seemed that as I experienced landscapes, cultures, wildlife, and weather, and my own thoughts and feelings, I was always thinking, "How would I describe this in words?" Experimenting with both traveling and writing, I tried to find an authentic way of expressing myself, that elusive "voice," and worked through several experiments along those lines. Between tours and albums, I was traveling the world, often by bicycle, and trying to translate those journeys into narratives.
Many attempts later, from magazine-size stories to self-published books, and fully twenty years after buying that pawnshop typewriter, I began to publish a few books: The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, in 1996, then Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, in 2002, and Traveling Music: The Soundtrack to My Life and Times, in 2004.
Still, there was one travel story that continued to elude me, the one that represented the biggest journey of all in my restless existence: the life of a touring musician. I had tried to capture that paradigm from the beginning with the Wes Emerson stories, and time after time since then, even in songs like "Limelight," but I had never been satisfied. I kept thinking that if I could just make people see what it was really like, they would understand everything. And, like everybody, I wanted so badly to be understood.
During our Test for Echo tour in 1996 and 1997, I traveled between shows by motorcycle for the first time, with my own bus and a trailer for the bikes. I would sleep on the bus after the shows, in a truck stop or rest area, then unload the bike in the morning and ride. My riding companion and navigator was my best friend, Brutus, whose nickname, incidentally, came from him telling me one day that he was going to call his powerful, heavy BMW K1100RS "Brutus." Not being one for naming machines, I said, "Oh yeah? Well ... I think I'll call mine ... 'Timmy!'"
He frowned and shook his head, "You can't call it that."
So I said, "Well, how about 'Skipper?'"
That didn't stick either, but Brutus did.
Pausing at roadside diners, on the bus, backstage, and in motel rooms, I kept a daily journal of the seventy-six shows and the 40,000 miles of motorcycling between them, and at the end of that tour, in the summer of 1997, I began working on a book I was calling American Echoes: Landscape with Drums. Unfortunately, a series of terrible tragedies in my life interrupted that project, and I set it aside.
In fact, I set life aside for a few years there, lost in grief and wandering, and when I returned to touring with the band in 2002, after our Vapor Trails album, I was content just to do it—endure it, survive it, experience it, surrender to the Vortex—and didn't even try to document that tour.
However, early in 2004, when Rush was preparing to launch our Thirtieth Anniversary Tour, I decided once again to try to tell the story of a traveling roadshow, a concert tour by motorcycle.CHAPTER 2
The Mother Road
The open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself. William Least Heat Moon
Sunset Boulevard. The name alone resonates like few street names in the world, and few streets in the world were ever as beautiful as Sunset Boulevard at 5:30 in the morning, May 14, 2004, seen from the saddle of my motorcycle. Winding through the predawn twilight, framed by luxuriant foliage, cool, fragrant air, and the solitude of the road, I felt the quiet thrill of beginning a long journey.
From the western end of Sunset, above the Pacific Ocean, my red BMW R1150GS carried me past dark stores and shops, overarching trees and tall hedges of cypress, California fan palms and royal palms, all streaming by under a pearly gray sky. For once, the sinuous dark pavement was almost empty of other traffic, and my motorcycle hummed along, its characteristic "boxer" sound like the purring of a big cat. The wind whooshed past my helmet, filling it with occasional waves of jasmine, and that subtle perfume seemed almost intoxicating, like the lilacs of my childhood in Southern Ontario. The gentle wafts of scent alternated with an aromatherapy yin-yang, the spicier note from the tall columns of eucalyptus.
I leaned the bike into the curves, down through the wooded valley of Will Rogers State Park, glancing briefly over at the house Dennis Wilson had rented in the '60s, where the Manson "family" had moved in on him. I always wondered what ghosts that perpetually shaded house might harbor, and this time I noticed the walls and roof had been removed—it was being gutted, renovated, maybe exorcised.
Excerpted from Roadshow by Neil Peart. Copyright © 2006 Neil Peart. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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