The music of Frank Sinatra, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, and many other artists provides the score to the reflections of a musician on the road in this memoir of Neil Peart's travels from Los Angeles to Big Bend National Park.
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About the Author
Neil Peart is the drummer and lyricist for the rock band Rush and the author of "Ghost Rider." He lives in Santa Monica, California.
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The Soundtrack to My Life and Times
By Neil Peart
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2004 Neil Peart
All rights reserved.
"Driving away to the east, and into the past"
The Santa Ana winds came hissing back into the Los Angeles Basin that week, breathing their hot, dry rasp through what had once been the fishing village of Santa-Monica-by-the-Sea. The streets around us were littered with dry palm fronds and eucalyptus leaves, and the view from our upstairs terrace reached the distant blue Pacific through the line of California fan palms down along Ocean Boulevard. The incoming waves battled the contrary wind, as dotted whitecaps receded clear back to the long dark shadow of Santa Catalina Island, bisected horizontally by a brownish haze of smog.
More than three hundred years ago, the Yang-Na natives called the Los Angeles Basin "the valley of the smokes," referring to the fog trapped by those thermal inversions. And even then, wildfires sometimes raged across the savanna grasses in the dry season, creating prehistoric smog. Then and now, the air was usually clearer by the ocean, ruled and cooled by the prevailing sea breeze, but the Santa Anas invaded from inland, carrying hot desert air over the San Gabriel Mountains, through the San Fernando Valley, all the while gathering airborne irritants from the whole metropolis and driving them right through Santa Monica, and on out to Catalina.
The Cahuilla Indians believed the Santa Anas originated in a giant cave in the Mojave Desert that led directly to the lair of the Devil himself, and early Spanish arrivals picked up on that story and named those hot, dry winds the Vientos de Sanatanas, or Satan's winds. Later arrivals to Southern California were more concerned with Christian propriety and boosting real estate values in this earthly paradise, and the Chamber of Commerce issued a press release in the early 1900s: "In the interest of community, please refer to the winds as 'The Santa Ana Winds' in any and all subsequent publications."
Still, the devil winds were blamed by longtime Angelenos for effects both physical and psychological: Raymond Chandler wrote in Red Wind that when the Santa Anas blow, "meek little wives feel the edge of their carving knife and study their husbands' necks." Modern-day urban myths associate the Santa Anas with rising crime rates, freeway gun battles, wildfires, actors entering rehab, Hollywood couples divorcing, bands breaking up, irritated sinuses, and bad tempers all around.
As a recent immigrant from Canada, I had thought all that was local folklore (or just a regular day in L.A.), but I had only lived in Santa Monica for three years, and spent much of that time working with Rush in Toronto or touring in other cities. Now, though, in late March of 2003, I was feeling the effects of those abrasive winds on my sinuses, and my mood. Along with the brownish haze over the sea and my itchy nose, tension was in the air.
For one thing, there was a war on. The United States and Britain were just into the second week of the attack on Iraq, and no one knew what might happen. The smoke and mirrors of propaganda and the phantom menace of "weapons of mass destruction" had been paraded before us so much that a kind of contagious anxiety had been sown. Dire possibilities seemed to be on everyone's mind, and in every conversation. The chance of a chemical attack on Los Angeles seemed ... at least worth worrying about. When the war began, I had said to my wife, Carrie, "Let's go to Canada," where I still owned the house on the lake in Quebec, and still had friends and family in Toronto. However, now some mysterious disease called SARS was spreading from Asia to Canada, and people were dying, hospitals were closing, there was a travel advisory against Toronto; it was a bad scene there too.
Then there were the interior battles, and internal "travel advisories" — the "don't go there" areas. I had some serious personal and professional issues weighing on my mind — big questions and big choices to make.
Work, for one thing. After only a couple of months at home, and spending most of 2002 on the Vapor Trails tour, and all of 2001 writing and recording that album, I felt I was just catching my breath. But plans had to be made so far in advance. Recently the band's manager, Ray, had been entertaining (or torturing) me with various scenarios of recording and touring possibilities for the upcoming years, and I would have to give some answers soon. In 2004, the band would celebrate our thirtieth anniversary together, so we'd probably want to do something to commemorate that. A party, a cake, a fifty-city tour?
What about prose writing? With a stretch of free time ahead of me in 2003, I felt I wanted to get started on a writing project of some kind again, and friends were encouraging me to write more. But what did I want to write? (Now what?) Maybe try something different from the travel-writing style of my first two published books, The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa (1996) and Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road (2002). Some fiction? History?
I didn't know, but I was thinking about it.
There were a few half-finished traveling books in my files, narratives of journeys I'd taken through the early '90s and never had the time or drive to complete: the third of my African bicycle tours, of Mali, Senegal, and the Gambia; several motorcycle explorations around Newfoundland, Mexico, and North Africa; perhaps I should look at them again. Or, back in the fateful summer of '97, I had abandoned a narrative recounting the Rush Test for Echo tour, called American Echoes: Landscape with Drums, when my life was suddenly pulled out from under me by tragedy and loss. But I wasn't sure I wanted to take up that story again, or any of the old ones. Something new would be good, it seemed to me.
In another area of my mind (I picture little, self-contained clockwork mechanisms, slowly grinding through their particular subject of cogitation until they produce the answer, the "right thing to do"), I was thinking about the house on the lake, up in Quebec. Having lived in California for over three years now, I didn't get there much anymore, and yet when I did visit, it remained ineffably haunted to me, after the tragedies. (Selena and I would stand right there in the kitchen, arms over each other's shoulders. That terrible night Jackie and I got the news in this hallway, and Jackie fell to the floor right there. These were not happy memories to continually relive.) The Quebec property was large and the upkeep was high, and maybe I didn't need it anymore. Maybe it was time to say goodbye to that place, and to that time.
Another little clockwork mechanism in my head was working on the problem of our California home, which was feeling increasingly too small, especially in its lack of a writing space for me. A two-bedroom townhouse, with Carrie taking one of the bedrooms as an office to run her photography business as well as most of our lives, left only the loft above the kitchen, open to the rest of the house. I would find myself trying to write against the clatter and chatter of our Guatemalan housekeeper, Rosa, and one or another of her cousin-assistants, vacuum cleaner and dishwasher, ringing telephones, and our cheerfully-mad assistant, Jennifer, running upstairs, all apologetic, to use the fax and copy machine.
It seemed that my years of training at reading in a crowded dressing room had made me able to concentrate no matter what was going on, and it had already served me well in writing — much of Ghost Rider had been written and revised in a recording studio lounge, with Vapor Trails being mixed on the other side of the window, the other guys coming and going, talking, laughing, watching TV, and occasional breaks to approve final mixes. The work could certainly be done, it just took longer.
There were other things on my mind, too. So much percolating around my poor little brain; I needed some time to think.
It seemed like a good time to get out of town.
In early March, knowing Carrie was going to be away for those six days later in the month, I started browsing through the road atlas (the Book of Dreams), thinking of where I might go. My favorite destinations always tended to be the national parks of the American West, where I could combine the journey with some hiking, birdwatching, and general communing with nature. While living in California (and not away working), I often made overnight motorcycle trips to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks in summer, or to Big Sur or Death Valley in winter, exploring the myriad of Southern California's backroads with my restless curiosity and love of motion (and giving Carrie some time to herself, too). With a little more time and the opportunity to cover more distance this time, my first inspiration had been to ride my motorcycle to Utah, and wander around the wonderful national parks in the southern part of that state, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Canyonlands.
However, a look at the online weather reports tarnished that idea. The overnight temperatures in Bryce Canyon and Moab were still in the twenties, Fahrenheit, and that meant icy roads. No good on a two-wheeler. Even Yosemite was still in the grip of winter, and the only national park in the American Southwest I could think of that might not be under snow was Big Bend. So, I thought, "go there."
I had passed through that area of Southwest Texas once before, by motorcycle, during the Rush Test for Echo tour, in late 1996, with my best friend and frequent riding partner, Brutus. That tour was the first time I attempted that novel method of traveling from show to show, with my own bus and a trailer full of motorcycles. During the previous two years, my friendship with Brutus had grown strong as we both became interested in long-distance motorcycling. Exploring the pleasures and excitements of motorcycle touring, and learning that we traveled well together, Brutus and I had ridden tens of thousands of miles around Eastern Canada, Western Canada, Mexico, and across Southern Europe, from Munich down through Austria, Italy, and by ferry to Sicily, and across the Mediterranean to Tunisia and the Sahara.
We developed a comfortable rhythm between us, of tight formation, lane position, relative speed, and overall pace. Apart from being an entertaining dinner companion, Brutus always wanted to get the most out of a day — he could carpe that diem like few people I ever met. On an early ride together, we were motorcycling from Quebec to Toronto, normally a six-hour journey on the four-lane highway. Brutus convinced me to try one of his "adventurous" routes across Central Ontario, along county roads and country lanes that constantly changed number or direction. When we finally arrived in Toronto, I mentioned to Brutus that it had taken us nine hours instead of six, and he said, "Yeah, but would you rather have fun for nine hours, or be bored for six?"
Elementary, my dear Brutus, and a lesson was learned that reinforced my own tendency to seek out the back roads. From then on, if there was a chance to make a journey I had to make into a journey I wanted to take, I would seek out the high road, the winding road, and make the most of that traveling time.
So, when I was making plans to take my motorcycle on the Test for Echo tour, I convinced Brutus to come along too, as my official "riding companion" (he didn't take much convincing). Credited in the tour book as "navigator," a big part of Brutus's job really did become the plotting of the routes every day, as we moved around the country. He made it his mission to seek out the most interesting roads and roadside attractions, and while I was onstage, thrashing and sweating under the lights, Brutus sat in the front lounge of the bus surrounded by maps, magnifying glass, tour books, and calculator. He worked out the most complicated, roundabout, scenic, untraveled routes possible — that would still get us to soundcheck on time. (From the beginning, I warned Brutus that I tended to get "anxious" on show days, especially about the time, and that if we did not arrive at the venue at least an hour early, we were late. To his credit, we never were.)
As the bus roared down the interstates of America, Brutus would tell Dave where to stop for the night, usually a rest area or truck stop near the back road he had chosen for the morning. Sometimes I would go to sleep as Dave sped through the night, then wake to my alarm clock and the steady drone of the generator, in a wonderfully stationary bus. There was never enough sleep, but we were determined to make the most of the day, and sometimes I crawled into my riding gear, unloaded the bikes and rode away — without even knowing where we were. If it happened to be my turn to lead (we alternated every fuel stop), Brutus would point me in the right direction, and give me a sheet of handwritten notes on road numbers, mileages, and town names. Riding off into the morning, I followed Brutus's clear directions on the map case in front of me, and gradually discovered my place in the world.
After a show in El Paso, Brutus and I slept on the bus while Dave drove us to a truckstop near Marfa, Texas. We got up early the next morning, unloaded the bikes from the trailer, rode south to Presidio, and followed the Rio Grande to Lajitas for breakfast. (It's a measure of how Brutus and I lived on that tour, making the most of every minute and every mile, that so much could happen before breakfast. Especially on a day off, with no schedule, no soundcheck, and no anxious drummer to worry about.)
Just after Lajitas and Study Butte ("Stoody Beaut"), we entered Big Bend National Park, and crossed through a tiny fraction of it, on the fly. We cut north to Marathon, east to Langtry (made famous by Judge Roy Bean, "The Law West of the Pecos"), Comstock, and Del Rio, and north to Sonora. There we met up with Dave and the bus again, and wheeled the bikes back into the trailer in the gathering dark. (We always tried to avoid riding at night — it was more dangerous, and we couldn't see the point of riding through scenery we couldn't see.) I remember falling asleep almost immediately on the couch in the front lounge, as Dave drove us on to the hotel in Austin, for the next night's show. Music played quietly from the Soul Train Hall of Fame CD (introduced to me by Selena, as it happened, in her teenage taste for "old school" R&B, echoing one of my own "first loves" in music).
On that tour, Brutus and I were up early every morning and rode a lot of miles, often 500 or so on a day off, and maybe 300 on a show day. In 40,000 miles of motorcycling on that tour alone, through forty-seven states and several Canadian provinces, Brutus and I had many adventures together, in every kind of weather, from blistering heat to bitter cold and torrential rain, even snow and ice. A certain amount of pain and suffering kept things interesting, and made for good stories, but one thing we were constantly short of was sleep. On show days I used to squeeze in naps whenever I could, sometimes even setting my alarm clock for twenty minutes between dinner and pre-show warm-up.
So often our brief, rapid travels between shows were a kind of "research," checking out places that might be worth a later, more leisurely visit. Even that small taste of the Big Bend area had been impressive, as part of a continent-wide tour in which we had seen so much of America's scenic beauty. I retained a vague memory of majestic rock formations and wide desert spaces, canyons, bluffs, and mountains enclosed in a wide arc of the Rio Grande.
However, Big Bend National Park was 1,200 miles away from Los Angeles, on a fairly tedious, familiar interstate all the way (no time to take the high and winding road all that way). There were some areas of dodgy weather out that way too. Even by freeway, I'd have to ride two and a half long days to get to Big Bend, spend a day there, then turn around and make the same long slog home again. It didn't sound like a very appealing motorcycle trip, but it might be fun by car.
And not just any car. Early in 2003, I had become the proud owner of my longtime "dream car," a BMW Z-8, black with red interior (always my favorite combination). Driving that sleek, powerful two-seater through the Santa Monica Mountains, up Old Topanga Canyon to Mulholland Drive, and a longer trip up to Big Sur and back, revived the thrill I used to feel driving an open sports car (usually with music playing). Taken seriously, on a challenging road, driving could really feel like a sport, comparable to riding a motorcycle with adrenaline-fueled urgency.
Motorcycles had dominated my garage and travels for the past seven years, and bicycles before that, but I had loved cars since childhood. Mom says my first word was "car," and there's a photograph of me as a baby sitting behind the wheel of our '48 Pontiac, my tiny hands reaching up to the steering wheel and a beaming smile on my chubby little face. In my teenage years, drums and music had attracted all my attention (and all my money), so it was not until my early twenties that I bothered to get my driver's licence — and only then after I'd already bought my first car. It was a 1969 MGB, an English roadster of traditional character (meaning it leaked oil and had an unreliable electrical system).
Excerpted from Traveling Music by Neil Peart. Copyright © 2004 Neil Peart. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Praise for Traveling Music,
Praise for Ghost Rider,
Praise for ROADSHOW,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you are a fan of the greatest North American Band of all time, 'RUSH' (as I am). Or perhaps just a music lover, musician or someone who truly loves exceptional writing. I highly recommend Neil Peart's latest installment - 'Traveling Music'. He once again displays his writing genius and 'paints a beautiful canvas' for the reader of his 'What Now' journey from his home in California to Texas. Along his sojurn, he plays a vast array of music ranging from Sinatra to Linkin Park to Madonna and to the grand finally 'Vapor Trails'. From recounting his childhood memories of listening to his father's musical favorites, to 'The Who', right up until modern day music such as 'Vertical Horizon'. For each artist,song and orchestration, Neil provides the reader with a little history for the current CD that is playing in his BMW, as well as his personal memories and emotional attachment to that particualr song and artist. Neil also outlines in perfect detail the many changing landscapes of Americana and the interesting people he meets along the way. Another caveat is the inclusion of some of his other travels recounted in both 'Ghost Rider' (a truly touching story) and 'The Masked Rider'. As a lyricist for 'RUSH', Neil has always been a great inspiration to me and has proven time and time again what a gifted writer he is. Looking forward to the next book!
Neil's imagery is second to none. Especially the African Bike Tour.
I have read almost all of Peart's books and have enjoyed them all, but I had held off reading this one. I was under the impression that it was just about the music he liked to listen to while traveling. I came to find out that it's an autobiography mixed with music reviews, mixed with travelogue. It's been a great read and I'm sorry I held off reading it until now. I should have known it would rock!
There is a telling part in Neil Peart's 'Traveling Music' where Neil, perhaps my favorite musician of all time, describes the band Linkin Park's appeal to him by writing, 'It occurred to me that another reason I appreciated Linkin Park was because I had no idea what they looked like, or how they projected themselves visually...I had no idea where they were from, what age they were, what race they were, what kind of haircuts they had, or even how many of them they were. It was just about the music.' Well, being an amazingly huge Rush fan, and having Neil Peart shape a lot of my mostly conservative/libertarian views, I did know more about him than that...but not enough to say WHO he was. 'Ghost Rider' did a lot to fill that in, but not nearly as much as 'Traveling Music,' and, sorry to say, I am now a little sad that I've gotten to know more about the man behind the music. Finishing this book coincidentally around the time of the National Review's 'Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs of All Time,' with two of Rush's works prominently featured, I was sad to see that, actually, despite somewhat of a grudging respect for Ayn Rand, Neil actually is nowhere near conservative/ libertarian himself. Even worse, there seems to be a certain innate smugness and arrogance to the man, which some might have seen before (and apparently have, according to some of his anecdotes), but somehow or other, I thought that that was just a reaction to seeing so many people on the road, of not having a complete sense of privacy -- in other words, that deep down inside, Neil Peart would be a nice man to talk to. I think, having read 'Traveling Music,' that he would be...but only on HIS terms, and if you happen to hit him wrong, there goes your chance of friendship with him. (Although, of course, even in his memoirs, he says nothing about his complicity in losing his privacy via courting the spotlight the way any musician of renown does - such introspection and admittal would've been most welcome.) The book itself is good, and I appreciate much of his views on American musical icons like Frank Sinatra and Patsy Cline and music both popular and otherwise in general -- however, I still think that most progressive rock fans would be aghast to learn of Peart's respect for Madonna and 98º (?!?) and seeming obsession with The Beach Boys. Much as with that of 'Ghost Rider,' the ending of 'Traveling Music' is also anomalous, with the story of Rush's involvement with the SARS benefit concert at Toronto back in 2003...rather than congratulate himself on his (admittedly improving) prose-writing skills, Neil needs to concentrate on his denouement-building. Overall, I tried very hard to separate my growing (and surprising) disdain for the man and separate out his writing...but, heya, that's hard enough to do when dealing with a memoir. Will I love Neil's music, past and future? Always. The man himself, though? Eh...I must just be getting old...