Saturday, January 25, 2020

Playlist January

  • Field Music—Making a New World (2020)
  • Gary Moore—Live from London (2020)
  • Les Amazones D'Afrique—Amazones Power (2020)
  • Bass Communion/Freiband—VL Tones (2020)
  • Wire—Mind Hive (2020)
  • A Winged Victory for the Sullen—The Undivided Five (2019)
  • The Slow Show—Lust and Learn (2019)
  • Bruce Soord—All This Will Be Yours (2019)
  • Henrik Freischlader—Live 2019 (2019)
  • Eilen Jewell—Boundary Country (1973)
  • Greg Brown—Milk of the Moon (2002)
  • Joni Mitchell—Travelogue (2002)
  • Low—Things We Lost in the Fire (2001)
  • Lauryn Hill—The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
  • Nick Drake—An Introduction to... (1994)
  • Richard Thompson—Amnesia (1988)
  • Japan—Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980)
  • David Bowie—Pinups (1973); Santa Monica '72 (1994)
  • Pink Floyd—Saucerful of Secrets (1968)

Friday, January 10, 2020

Neil Peart: 1952 - 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 (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." 

Those words inspired lyrics on Rush's final studio album Clockwork Angels: “Some days were dark/ Some nights were bright/ I wish that I could live it all again.” 

In an interview with longtime Rush chronicler Philip Wilding (whose remembrance piece is a must-read), Neil offered the following comment on Gruber's wistful lament, "I don’t feel that way. Maybe I will when I’m older. Nevertheless, I respected it so much...."

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.