Sunday, September 13, 2020
Nineteen years after I spent a memorable afternoon with Mike Scott inside a Boston hotel, I called up The Waterboys songwriter for an interview about the latest album, Good Luck, Seeker. This time, Scott was in his home studio in Dublin.
"All the days I'm not parenting I come here and work," he told me. "I'm either working on music or making videos."
I was only able to include a portion of stimulating conversation in the article so I thought I'd share some of the bits that ended up on the cutting room floor.
The focus of this interview for The Christian Science Monitor newspaper was about Scott's poetic lyrics but we also talked about how, unlike so many of his contemporaries, Scott strives to change up his sound. The new record, and its two predecessors, are notable for often embracing a lush sound with RnB influences and hip-hop rhythms. The cracking first single, "The Soul Singer," is propelled by a horn section with the blast of an afterburner.
Scott: "I loved soul music when I was a kid. I grew up in the '60s and so the latest Four Tops and Temptations and Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye and the Supremes records were always on the radio and I grew up with those just as much as the Beatles and the Stones. And I mean, it wasn't buying Four Tops albums. I was buying new singles. And then later I was big into Sly and the Family Stone. And then disco. I was mad for disco around 1978. I'd be buying all the disco records on 12 inch. So all of that has had an effect on me as well."
The new album includes a cover version of "Why Should I Love You," Kate Bush's collaboration with Prince. Scott is a longtime fan of both. I reminded him that his sleeve notes to Dream Harder detail a dream that he once had of meeting Kate Bush in Edinburgh and the two of them searching for a cafe. "Yes, that's right," Scott chuckled. But it turns out that he has never actually met Kate. Nor has he met Prince, though the two of them formed a mutual admiration society. Scott still occasionally plays "Purple Rain" at Waterboys shows, as he did in Boston last year (with Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention fame guesting on drums). Prince, meanwhile, had been known to cover the most famous Waterboys song.
"He's covered 'The Whole of the Moon' twice and he's done it in two different arrangements. I've heard one of them. Like everyone else, I've heard the funk version of 'The Whole of the Moon' that he did at a benefit concert," Scott said. "And the other time was at Ronnie Scott's club in London where apparently he did a piano/vocal version which I've never heard and would love to hear."
Mostly, though, the focus of my interview was on Scott's lyrics and the recurring themes in his songs.
I reached out to Ian Abrahams, author of the biography Strange Boat: Mike Scott and The Waterboys, to glean his insights into the songwriter's words.
"I think there's three or four particular strands to Mike Scott's lyrics. As you say, there's the spiritual and mystical, which is a little bit undefined in how that reflects his own outlook, and of course our feelings towards these intangible ideas often shift and change as our life unfolds, so they inform us differently at different times in our lives, but there's not a definitive idea of where this part of his lyrics shapes his own life. I mean, clearly his relationship to Findhorn in particular has been a very powerful influence on his words, because it's a mighty powerful influence on him over the years, but I think his sense of spiritual is a fluid thing and he takes what he needs from those ideas depending on where he is in mind and in location."
Another influence on Scott are poets such as Robert Burns and WB Yeats (On An Appointment with Mr. Yeats - my brief review here - Scott created an entire album out of the latter poet's works) and also the writer CS Lewis. I asked the songwriter about each of them.
"Burns is Scotland's national poet. I'm very proud of him. And he wrote some really great work.... But he wrote in Scots, which this means much like Shakespeare, it's quite hard to understand him. You need to really work at it. His songs, I don't think he wrote the tunes. I think he fastened his lyrics to existing traditional tunes.... Some of his songs, I like more than others. But I always value him as a great writer and a great poet. Yeats: Another great poet. But I don't like all his work. I'm not interested in all of it. I also think he some of his more occult material, like 'A Vision,' I don't find very interesting. And then C.S. Lewis, I like all his fiction. And I don't we don't have much interest in any of his Christian theology. That theology comes into some of his fiction, some more than others, but whenever he's in fiction I'm with him."
Ian Abrahams, the biographer, shared this interesting observation with me about other literary influences on Scott:
"I also find it really interesting to dig and speculate at other, less obvious, moments where he's writing with other writers in mind. One that struck from his early work was hearing the SF writer Harlan Ellison in Scott's 'The Girl In The Swing', and if that's a deliberate homage or allusion that's going on there ("you just asked me do I know what love is"), I think that's really intriguing in the way that Ellison was the angry young man of science fiction, and Scott was equally an angry young man of rock music right back to 'Another Pretty Thing'... and Ellison kept that going all his life, and it feels like Mike has as well."
I didn't have time to ask Scott about the occasional humorous, tongue-in-cheek songs he's written. But I did ask him about his penchant for writing songs about other artists and musicians. He's written a tributes to Patti Smith, Mick Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Hank Williams, Elvis, and, on the new album, actor Dennis Hopper.
"I don't know how that happens. 'Has Anybody Here Seen Hank' came out of the title. I remember there was a concert and someone said something and, one way or another, the phrase 'has anybody here seen Hank?' came up. And I remember improvizing a song on the spot. It was in Cardiff, 1986. I'll never forget it. And it didn't become the song 'Has Anybody Here Seen Hank?' but it sparked the idea. The Patti Smith one came out of a line she had in song, 'a girl named Johnny' and I stole that, I confess, and turned into 'A Girl Called Johnny' - partly written about her but partly not really about her at all."
As for Scott's writing process? He told me he's always got something cooking, which is why he's released four albums in five years and already has the next one written.
"I just write for fun," he told me. "I didn't like homework when I was at school...and sometimes I get asked to do things, prepare this or do that or write this and I think, "It feels like homework and I don't like it.' But making music never feels like homework."
Monday, July 27, 2020
- Steven Wilson—The Future Bites (upcoming, 2021)
- Tim Bowness—Late Night Laments (upcoming 2020)
- Bob Dylan—Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)
- Braids—Shadow Offering (2020)
- Sarah Jarosz—World on the Ground (upcoming 2020), Song Up in Her Head (2009)
- Dua Lipa—Future Nostalgia (2020)
- Ed O'Brien (EOB)—Earth (2020)
- Elbow—Live at the Ritz (2020)
- Flock of Dimes—So Much Like Desire EP (2020)
- Laura Marling—Song for Our Daughter (2020)
- Rustin' Man—Clockdust (2020)
- Four Tet—Sixteen Oceans (2020)
- David Bowie—Is It Any Wonder (2020)
- Joe Satriani—Shapeshifting (2020)
- Tim Bowness/Peter Chilvers—Modern Ruins (2020), California, Norfolk (2002)
- Pearl Jam—Gigaton (2020)
- Porcupine Tree—All new live digital releases on Bandcamp.com (2020)
- Richard Barbieri—Past Imperfect/Future Tense EP (2020)
- Israel Nash—Lifted (2018)
- John Paul White—Beulah (2016), The Hurting Kind (2019)
- Braids—Native Speaker (2011)
- Radiohead—In Rainbows Limited edition box set (2007)
- In Tua Nua—Vaudeville (1987)
- Joni Mitchell—Dog Eat Dog (1985)
- Peter Gabriel—Plays Live! (1983)
- Supertramp—Famous Last Words (1982)
Saturday, February 29, 2020
- Steven Wilson—The Future Bites (2020)
- Jonathan Wilson—Dixie Blur (2020)
- Robert Plant—Digging Deep vinyl singles box set (2020)
- Soccer Mommy—Color Theory (2020)
- Colin Edwin—Infinite Regress (2020)
- Joe Satriani—Additional Creations and Bonus Tracks (2014)
- Chris Isaak—Live at the Fillmore (2010)
Now, another author is been hiding after death threats.
Jeanine Cummins' book tour for "American Dirt" was canceled due to "specific threats to booksellers and the author."
Why has this novelist whose thriller was an Oprah Book Club Pick been targeted for her work?
That's the subject of my deep-dive cover story this week for Monitor Weekly magazine.
It's a story about the "woke" social justice movement, old hierarchies in the publishing industry, and the further encroachment of cultural appropriation claims into the realm of fiction. (A shorter version is available online here.)
Saturday, January 25, 2020
Friday, January 10, 2020
Before the phone call from Neil Peart, I was a jangle of nerves. It was October 2006. Neil was calling from a hotel room in Toronto to promote his new book, Roadshow: Landscape with Drums: A Concert Tour by Motorcycle, which traced his 21,000-mile journey across North America and Europe during Rush's 2004 tour.
My trepidation was due to the fact that Neil hadn't been conducting many interviews during that period of his life. Neil was renowned as one of the most intensely private rock stars on the planet. In part it was because he was a naturally shy man who was never comfortable with fawning adulation. It was also because people kept wanting to ask him about the awful tragedy of losing both his teenage and daughter and wife between 1997 and 1998. Imagine having that wound endlessly prodded by Rush fans, however well-intentioned. Although Neil had emerged from his multi-year hiatus of grief to resume recording and touring with Rush, he wisely retreated from public contact. Accompanied by his close companion and security expert Michael Mosbach, Neil took strenuous measures to avoid contact with fans. To come across Neil Peart in the wild (his natural habitat, really) would have been more rare than stumbling across Bigfoot.
So, yeah, I was nervous. I wanted to do right by the interview. We started talking...and I immediately relaxed. Neil was friendly, easy to laugh, and very much at ease. The interview focused on what he was listening to (we talked about our mutual love of Porcupine Tree), watching (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby!), and reading (Graham Greene, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and so many others). It was more a casual conversation than formal interview and it was a hugely enjoyable experience chatting with someone who was so thoughtful and erudite.
Neil Peart was truly a Renaissance Man. He was naturally interested in the world around him and he pursued his many interests with hard-working zeal and a disciplined pursuit of excellence. He'll be remembered primarily, of course, as one of the very greatest drummers who ever lived. The man turned millions of concert attendees into air drummers. But Rush was just one (very sizable) aspect of a multi-faceted life.
Neil Peart was an intellectual and an autodidact who sure did deviate from the norm... For instance, during the 1980s, the drummer began bicycling hundreds of miles from one show to the next (stopping off at art museums along the way). And though he was a collector of expensive cars and enjoyed racing them, his favorite transportation was his BMW motorcycles. As a highly skilled motorcycle rider, he always took the small, off-the-beaten path route rather than well-traveled highways. A metaphor for his life, really. He was obsessive about visiting every single national park in the US (there are 61 of them) and made sure to get his park passport stamped at each one. Neil didn't just take up rowing, swimming, and cross-country skiing, he worked to master their proper techniques and stretch himself to the limit in each pursuit. He was a scholarly birdwatcher. A chef. A model kit builder. About the only thing I think he never got around to doing, though he sometimes talked about the idea, was fly-fishing.
Neil's intelligence and many interests made him a wonderful raconteur. It was in talking about books during our interview that I really connected with Neil. Reading was the great love of his life, perhaps even more than music. If he didn't have drumsticks between his hands, he had a book in them.
After the interview, I posted a parcel of books and CDs that I thought Neil would enjoy. Neil later wrote about one of the books, Case Histories, calling it "a gripping mystery by Kate Atkinson, whose genre is referred to as 'literary thriller,' which apparently doesn’t have to be an oxymoron."
A year later, when the R30 tour had finished, I was surprised and delighted to receive a hand-written postcard (picture above) from Neil to thank me for the gifts. A few years later, he sent me another personal postcard (see below). Indeed, for all his aloofness, the drummer was renowned for taking time to write to fans—something that very few rock stars of his stature would do. Not surprisingly, many bands that toured with Rush have testified to how the trio went out of their way to look after their opening acts. It's true what they say about Canadians being the nicest people....
Neil Peart was, first, a man of letters. He invested great time and care in corresponding with friends. The Canadian treasured that ancient and fast-fading art of composing thoughtful letters about, well, "news, weather and sports"—paraphrasing the words of a local television newscaster he once came across—with a close circle of pen pals. All those years of mindful tapping at keyboards and licking envelopes and stamps were a preparation, of sorts, for his foray into becoming a public author. Later, Neil began sharing similar epic essays on the open forum of his website—plus cooking recipes and book reviews. Neil Peart was one of the finest essayists of our age. And if that strikes you as hyperbole, just go read his "News, Weather, and Sports" pieces on his website NeilPeart.net (select from the list in the drop-down menu) and you'll quickly come to the same conclusion.
Neil's first book was an account of a cycling trip across North Africa. It was the first of his many publications as a first-rate author. His books were part memoir, part travelogue. His experiences in Africa, South America, Europe, and America were never dull. An explorer by nature, he had so many adventures (including a number of narrow escapes from harrowing situations). I'm particularly fond of his 2004 memoir, Traveling Music: Playing Back the Soundtrack to My Life and Times, in which he used his travels to chronicle not just the music that shaped him but also share revealing stories about his childhood and music career. One of the paradoxes of Neil Peart is that although he was an intensely private person, his books were unstinting in how much he opened himself up to his readers. There are many, many, many memoirs out there about people who've experienced tragic loss and devastating grief. Yet few of them immerse the reader in the experience of what it's like to go through the stages of mourning, seemingly endless concentric circles of hell, quite like his memoir Ghost Rider does.
Neil displayed the sort of facility with prose that he employed behind a drum kit. (Admirably, he was also a stickler for the proper use of the em-dash!) But what made him such a treasured travel writer was that he didn't just describe physical journeys—he wrote about mental ones. Neil was a thinker. Traversing swathes of the world by bicycle, motorcycle, and car, Neil was innately curious about the human condition. He wanted to parse the ideas, past and present, that shaped the places he visited and the people he met.
Neil's innate curiosity and scholarship fed into his lyrics, which offered sophisticated treatises on ethics, philosophy, and social commentary. Then again, The Professor wasn't above writing the occasional humorous riff on how a dog might view the world around him!
I could never have imagined that one day I'd get to write a book with Rush's art director Hugh Syme. I am hugely fond of Hugh, who was a joy to work with. I owe this wonderful honor to my dear friend Matt Scannell (Vertical Horizon), who recommended me to Neil, and Hugh. The Art of Rush was a dream project. (Neil chose his friends carefully—as he expressed it in the "Limelight" lyric, "I can't pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend"—because he invested so much love and time in each relationship. It's testament to the qualities of grace and love that Matt embodies and expresses that Neil befriended him.)
It was a pleasure to interview Neil again (and also Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson). Neil worked closely with Hugh on the concepts and ideas for Rush's artwork and so he was very invested in the book. I was inspired to write the best pages I could, knowing that an author I so admired would be reading them. I wanted to attain the sort of excellence he strove for.
Around the same time, Matt also invited me to write sleeve notes for Vertical Horizon's Echoes from the Underground album. Matt invited me to Jim Henson studios in West Hollywood to watch Neil lay down some drum tracks for that album. I sat quietly and unobtrusively in the corner of the control room, observing the virtuoso at work. (See the video of that day, below.) The sheer power of his playing made me hope they had reinforced glass in the control room. Neil was talking about a new ascending drum fill he'd been working on for some time, and unfurled it on the track to magical effect. I witnessed the immense concentration he brought to bear. And enjoyed those moments when he'd chuckle, eyes twinkling. It was an experience I'll never forget.
People may not appreciate that Neil's mastery of his drums was a result of talent, yes, but also immense practice and dedication. During the mid-1990s, Neil started taking drumming lessons with Peter Erskine and Freddie Gruber. Eager to challenge himself and learn more from those jazz masters, Neil had to fundamentally unlearn his largely self-taught style and learn anew the techniques imparted by Gruber. That work ethic applied to many aspects of Neil's life. On more than one occasion, he wrote about his great capacity for endurance.
Neil Peart's final tour with Rush was indeed one of fortitude. By the accounts of his band mates, Geddy and Alex, he was often in great pain. Many years of athletic drumming had taken their toll.
Those of us in the audience had no idea. (As Neil was fond of saying, quoting Gruber, “It is what it is. Deal with it.”) As always, Neil pushed himself past the point of excellence each night. In a short essay for Classic Rock magazine, he explained how his signature drum solo that tour was the culmination of everything he had learned as a drummer.
And then Neil left the lighted stage. He retired from the band, from drumming, from public life.
Neil had other interests he wanted to pursue, such as publishing a final book, Far and Wide. More importantly, he wanted to spend quality time with his second wife, Carrie, and their daughter, Olivia. It was apparent from his writings how much they enriched his life. I never met his family but the bell of my heart tolls for them...
Neil had often expressed admiration for the way in which Bill Bruford had retired during his early 60s, knowing that it's best to bow out when you're at the top of your game.
“Lately, Olivia has been introducing me to new friends at school as ‘My dad – he’s a retired drummer,'” Peart told Drumhead magazine. “True to say,” Neil said, before adding that it’s “funny to hear.”
“It does not pain me to realize that, like all athletes, there comes a time to … take yourself out of the game,” Peart added. “I would rather set it aside then face the predicament described in our song ‘Losing It.'”
(The lyric he's referring to: “Sadder still to watch it die, than never to have known it.”)
When Neil's drumming mentor and friend Freddie Gruber was near death, he had a conversation with Neil's wife during which he told her, "I had quite a ride. I wish I could do it all again."
Neil couldn't have lived life any fuller. A "Homeric life," as Bradley Birzer, author of Neil Peart: Cultural Repercussions, wrote in his tribute piece. As one mourner put it on Twitter today, "He lived the lives of 10 men."
He leaves his many fans with glorious memories, millions of words, and dozens of albums of music. But he also leaves an example of how to live life—never wasting time, always looking to improve oneself, forever seeking the meaning of it all even in the darkest hours.
As he put it in the lyrics to the song "The Garden": "The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect."
During his truly extraordinary life, Neil Peart more than earned both those things.
Follow me on Twitter: @steve_humphries.