When I was thirteen a Saturday morning ritual for a few weeks was hopping on my bike and riding into town to Abbie’s Pizza. Not because Abbie flung the best pizza in town, but because Abbie had a jukebox. And on that jukebox was a new song called “Tom Sawyer” which I would play over and over again, feeding into the slots my entire allowance in quarters – less enough money for a slice and a Coke that is. From that moment on, I considered myself a huge Rush fan. Hell, more than twenty years later, Geddy, Alex and Neil were on my wedding invation list.
But Neil was the one who spoke to me. I suppose that comes by default being the lyricist for the band. But it was also due to the interviews I heard him do. He was unbelievably smart, (his nickname “The Professor” fit) culturally aware and in tune to the world around us. And his cynicism was always in sync with mine. I would long to hear him discuss the band’s new album and the topics of the day and especially his lyrics. Whether writing about black holes, the launch of the Space Shuttle, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, gleaming alloys air cars, natural since, freewill, the battle between heart and mind, life, loss and longing, he’s demonstrated a knack for the written word. I always longed for him to write a book.
And he has. Three actually.
“Masked Rider” was his first about his cycling trips through Africa. His second was “Ghost Rider” subtitled, “Travels on the Healing Road” which he wrote touchingly about his devastation and recovery after losing both his daughter and his wife in the span of a year. His third is “Traveling Music”.
Neil can write, and write well. His style is concise and very matter-of-factly written. I suppose very much like Hemmingway, but having read only “Old Man and the Sea”, I am not one to make this comparison. But I do anyway. What is most apparent about Neil’s writing is his cynical and almost angry voice. I did not notice it while reading “Masked Rider”, and I expected it when he wrote about his devastating loss, but when reading his latest work, which I assumed would be lighthearted and happy (as he himself said was his goal), his bitterness towards life and humanity annot help but show through.
Neil writes of his life as a world famous drummer and the constant invasion of privacy this brings. He writes of his continual disappointments as it relates to people, friends, producers. fellow musicians and strangers as they never seem to do what is expected and forever let him down. He also writes about his disappointments in the nature world with each visit to an over-crowded and un-maintained National Park or a less than perfect car or bike journey that ends in a hotel or restaurant with bad food, bad service and bad accommodations. (It’s sad ‘cause its true.)
Lots of negativity seeping through his joyful recollections of the music and performers that shaped his musical landscape. But, there are a few moments of genuine joy as he talks about his major influences like Keith Moon of the Who, Buddy Rich, and the drummer from the Beach Boys. And delightful moments of happenstance during his travels such as the time in Africa he encountered an old tribal leader teaching an Irish care worker to play the drum. The young Irishman had no rhythm and Neil asked if he could try. The old man started slowly with a simple beat which Neil echoed perfectly. The elder then picked up the pace, changed tempo and Neil was right there. With a smile the old man continued and they both started slapping out a rhythm that escaped the walls of the wooden shed. Soon there were dozens of village woman and girls dancing to the beat and gawking at the silly white man who could play drums. They ended and there was laughing and clapping as the girls fell to the floor exhausted. The stunned Irishman looked at Neil and asked “How do you know how to drum like that?”. To which Neal responded, “I’m in the business.”
He also perfectly nails the freedom and the almost genetic need to sometimes take to the road and drive with nothing but himself, his thoughts and his music. And this is the thrust of the book.
He relishes these trips and has worked them into not only his vacations, but sneaks them in whenever and wherever he can between stops on his tours with Rush. And he convincingly describes these personal odysseys and thoroughly details how the mandatory soundtrack he brings on these trips synchronistically fit his moods and his travel’s, and seamless tie into his memories and experiences of his past and at times, his future.
He loves Rock ‘n Roll. He appreciates jazz, classical and even hip hop, but no other music can provide an outlet for an artists to express themselves, nor a medium for a listen to get emotionally involved like Rock ‘n Roll. But regardless of the genre, what moves him is the honesty and integrity of the musicians. As long as they are making music for themselves and not for others, then he listens. And hopes other will listen and support them. For some artists, like Joe jackson for one, you need to just buy their album by default to keep them going.
During later tours of the band, Neil used to mix the tapes of songs that the audience heard before the band took the stage. Because it was a rock concert after all, he would leave Frank Sinatra and Madonna (of whom he is a big fan) and mix Zeppelin, Tool, Hendrix, Coldplay, Tragically Hip, Radiohead and the Who.
Toward the end of the book, this memoir started to feel like resignation letter to his band mates. I don’t know if this was conscious or not, but his lack of interest in his drumming (saying it was “what he did”) and the exhaustion that now results in a long tour, seems to drop hints that the times is now to move on. Hell, its been thirty years since the band put out their first album, so its not like they haven’t dedicated their lives to their music.
I think it may indeed be time for Neil to shift gears and dedicated more of his days to travel and writing. I enjoy his books, and his thoughts and how his mind works, but I wish it spun more positive webs. I know a passionate, knowledge hungry man like Neil has a lot of things to say about the world, and maybe what he needs to put a happier perspective on things is to make the complete transition from drummer to writer. This way, maybe the next time he finds himself sipping his Macallan at the edge of a canyon watching the sunset, he can reflect upon not what yesterday had taken away, but what tomorrow may bring.