I wasn’t going to write about Neil Peart and his death this month after a three-year fight with brain cancer. I figured everything that could be written about him would be written by others more familiar with his remarkable life as the drummer for Rush, so I’d leave it to them. After all – and please don’t deport me for saying this – I’ve never been a fan of Rush. I can appreciate the music, but I rarely care to listen to it.
I do, however, respect Neil as a motorcyclist, and I love his wonderful writing. It’s perceptive and evocative and brutally honest, and if you’re not familiar with it, you should be. He was the author of at least six books, and he’s perhaps best known for his 2002 memoir Ghost Rider – Travels on the Healing Road. It tells of how he took off on his motorcycle for an 88,000-kilometre road trip to come to terms with the death of his 19-year-old daughter Selena, killed in a car crash on her way to start university, followed within the year by the death from cancer of his wife Jackie.
A month after Jackie died, his dog died, and a month later, in August 1998, he rode away from his home in the Quebec Laurentians on his BMW R1100 GS and headed directly for Inuvik and then Alaska, to try to shake himself out of his misery. On every page, you feel the pain, the puzzlement, and the resolve.
In the end, the journey took him back south to Mexico and across to Belize, then down east to Newfoundland and back to the west coast. He didn’t do it all at once; it was four separate, mammoth rides, returning home after each one, over a total of 14 months. He used his red GS for the first two rides, to Alaska, Belize and then back, and his red K1200 RS for the final rides east and then west. Throughout this two-wheeled bildungsromain, he wrote letters to friends, including his best friend Brutus (jailed in the US mid-way through the year, for possession) and his close friend Mendelson Joe. Those letters form much of the narrative in Ghost Rider, and ultimately, there is salvation. He remarried, and fathered another daughter.
Neil loved motorcycles, and when Rush was on tour, he was well-known for riding his BMW to travel between concerts while his two band-mates flew. He didn’t ride alone; most of the time, he was accompanied by his friend Michael. This was partly for the camaraderie, but also highly practical: thousands of people were waiting for him to turn up for work on stage, and if his bike broke down, he could just take Michael’s as a spare. He never had to do this, but he was prepared, just in case.
For all you could want to know about Neil’s philosophy as a motorcyclist, and his attention to the details of riding, read this interview with the American Motorcyclist Association.
Everything Neil did in his challenging life was in the pursuit of perfection, and he inspired us because of it. There’s a joke that asks, how many drummers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? The answer is five: one to screw in the bulb, and four to talk about how much better Neil Peart would have done it. He was the master of a 40-piece drumset, he found peace through building miniature model cars, his lyrics for Rush were insightful and poetic, and above all, he was just a regular guy. He once rode up to Yellowknife with Brutus and wrote about it in the April, 1996 edition of Cycle Canada magazine. Like I said, just a regular guy.
One of the highlights of my professional career was when he read and reviewed my book Zen and Now for the Bubba’s Book Club pages of his personal web site, neilpeart.net. “Hallelujah, brother pilgrim of the open road,” he wrote, and I felt my life was complete.
The world is full of people with truly exceptional talent, but when somebody is able to apply their exceptional abilities to everything they do in life – play an instrument, ride a motorcycle, connect through prose, raise a family, live life to the fullest, inspire a generation – then that is rare indeed. Neil Peart will be sorely missed.