2004, the veteran rock band Rush launched their Thirtieth-Anniversary
Tour, performing fifty-seven shows in nine countries,
in front of 544,525 people.
and lyricist Neil Peart launched his own parallel tour,
riding between those fifty-seven shows on his BMW motorcycle.
From Los Angeles to Nashville, Salt Lake City to Key
West, Prague to Berlin, Peart covered 21,000 miles,
through nineteen countries. Along the way he kept a
journal of his impressions, writing about those countries,
and those fifty-seven shows, with the aim of documenting
the tour as “the biggest journey of all in my
restless existence: the life of a touring musician.”
Boulevard. The name alone resonates like few street
names in the world, and few streets in the world were
ever as beautiful as Sunset Boulevard at 5:30 in the
morning, May 14, 2004, from the saddle of my motorcycle.
Winding through the pre-dawn twilight, framed by luxuriant
foliage, cool, fragrant air, and the solitude of the
road, I felt the quiet thrill of beginning a long journey.
five weeks of hard work, good lunches, and lots of soup,
the two long sets had come together, and we could more-or-less
play them all the way through, most days. It was a marathon
performance for all of us, well over three hours of music,
and as the drummer, it was particularly demanding, even athletic, for
me. The show was longer than we had intended, and certainly
longer than I wanted, but despite some creative medleying,
we hadn’t been able to bear cutting it.
up Laurel Canyon, then east along Hollywood Boulevard,
I pulled up outside the apartment building where Michael
lived, and parked beside his gunmetal gray BMW GS. Michael
had agreed to be my riding partner once again for this
tour, as he had for the Vapor
in 2002, and although I had stressed to him that this beginning
cross-country blitz was optional — just something
I wanted to do to reacquaint myself with the country I
would be traveling in for the next five months — Michael
had insisted on riding it with me.
and I were setting out from Hollywood on a 2100-mile journey
to that other entertainment capital, Nashville, where the
final pre-tour rehearsals would be held with the band and
crew, and our full production of lights and staging. I
wasn’t sure how long this first ride — another
kind of pre-tour rehearsal — might take, given variables
like weather and traffic, not to mention unexpected obstacles
like flat tires or mechanical problems. I figured if we
could average at least 500 miles a day, we could still
do it in four days, arriving on Monday in time for rehearsals.
Of course, I wanted to do better than that.
the end of a long day on the road, I felt the mixed buzz
of all-day vibration, overstimulation, and weariness — the
underlying awareness of having gone the distance, enjoyed
it, and survived it. I had once come up with a refrain
that often played in my head: “When I’m riding
my motorcycle, I’m glad to be alive. When I stop
riding my motorcycle, I’m glad to be alive.”
that we were getting close to opening night, Alex, Geddy,
and I played through that show with earnest dedication
to getting everything right. I was giving it everything
I had, straining and sweating, and in fact, I was already
playing for an audience, though they were imaginary. It
is a defining trait in my character and attitude toward
performing that no audience is more unforgivingly critical
than an imaginary one. They knew exactly how well I was
supposed to play, and whether I had or not.
it’s the trying that’s so hard, especially
in live performance. Every night you push yourself to your
absolute limits, mentally and physically, and as the standards
rise, you’re like a high-jumper continually raising
the bar. On a good day you might clear it, but the rest
of the time you just fall on your ass.
there was that mighty roar when the houselights went down,
a physical wave against keyed-up nerves as I ran onto the
stage into the twilight, and settled behind the drums while
the opening movie played through (“What did they
put in my tea?”).
audience responses created a sensory buzz
greater than any sense of personal vanity, and that was
part of the addiction that crept into your soul over the
years. That atmosphere was exciting and contagious, and
never got old — despite all the stress, the fatigue,
the performance anxiety, and the sheer repetition of doing
it night after night. A rock concert remains one of the
most exciting events I have ever experienced. Though I
must admit, I have always had a secret wish just to be
watch and listen and not have to work. But I guess that
might not be quite so exciting — at least after the
hardest show of the tour is always the first one, with
all the preparation it takes to bring everything to that
point of readiness, and the pressure of actually doing it,
just once, in front of an audience. The first stage,
in many ways, was the final stage.
After that, no matter how difficult it was to perform at
that level every night, it could never be as uncertain,
or as exciting, as the First Show.
the three of us, performing was an all-consuming state
of mind, in which every note and every beat was a matter
of complete focus, analysis, and effort — a
total commitment. After one show on the Vapor
in which I hadn’t been feeling well physically — nauseous
and light-headed — I said to Alex that I had thought
I was having a heart attack or something. But, I said, “My
fear wasn’t that I was going to die. I
was worried that I was going to wreck the show.”
laughed and shook a finger at me. “Yeah — whatever
you do, don’t wreck the show!”
in its essence, that feeling was real. In the consummate
self-immolation of every life-or-death performance, I really
would rather die than wreck the show. But I guess that
would wreck the show, too.
the Columbus show, which was another very good one for
us and the audience, we had another day off, establishing
a typical rhythm for this tour: two shows, day off, one
show, day off, then two shows again. [Bus driver] Dave
drove us south to a truck stop near the Kentucky border,
and the next morning Michael and I rode a long loop down
through the Daniel Boone National Forest and around Lexington,
with its vast, park-like horse farms on manicured lanes.
(Last tour I wanted to move to Virginia; this tour it was
day also gave me one of my all-time favorite church signs, “IF YOU TAKE SATAN FOR A RIDE,
PRETTY SOON HE’LL WANT TO DRIVE.”
is so good.
and I followed a perfect country road along a high bluff,
with fields on our right and panoramic views to our left,
down over the Ohio River and across to wooded Kentucky.
I remembered that stretch of road from the spring of ’97,
riding it the other way with Brutus, and taking a photograph
from beside the Overlook Restaurant.
“HE IS NO RESPECTER OF PERSONS,” said
the church sign.
wondered. “The Debble?” The
quote was attributed to the book of Acts, and I decided
to look it up. It turned out to be God who was no respecter
of persons, meaning that when it came to Judgement Day,
he didn’t care who you were.
that long day, in which we had covered over 600 miles of
mostly back roads, and spent fourteen hours on the bikes,
traveling through so much southern Americana, I made a
about those who bewail the loss of “regionalism” in
America. Whether or not it’s worth regretting, it’s
definitely still there — if
those armchair anthropologists would get off the interstate!
Away from the cities and beltways, away from the suits
and logos and trailer-trash TV talk shows, there are still
a million pockets of “Americana” out there,
small town gas stations and diners where you will meet
hillbillies, aristocratic southerners, weathered ranchers,
overalled farmers, solitary fishermen, burly loggers, apple-cheeked
grandmothers, and friendly, decent folks. And a million
landscapes, from snowy mountains and starkly majestic deserts
to white picket fences and maple trees on Main Street.
Roy’s Motel on Route 66 in Amboy, California, the
Queen’s Kitchen in Fairview, Oklahoma, the Wheatleigh
Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts, the Hammond Family Restaurant
in Madison, Indiana, the Cowboy Café in Tilden,
Texas, and “La Maison de Saucisse de Lac Artur,” in
Louisiana’s Cajun country. All part of the Great
American Theme Park.
2004, our San Antonio audience had grown from a couple
of hundred people at Randy’s Rodeo to 11,288 happy
fans at the Cellular Telephone Network Amphitheater. For
myself, I had a simply magic show,
and even by the intermission, I was making a journal note.
show yet for me, so far. Strong, solid, smooth, and “effortless” (relatively,
word — love to see people who are “delighted.”
next day I completed that review.
night continued great,
by the way, solo and rest of second set best yet, for me.
can I go home?
is a harsh fact of a musician’s life on the road
that out of a tour of fifty or sixty shows, only a handful
will be “magic.” A sublime performance is as
rare and mysterious as an astrologer’s planetary
confluence, and far less predictable. A set of separate
elements in motion must coincide at exactly the same time
and place, and like the magic which is supposed to result
from planetary confluence and sublime performance, it cannot
be summoned on demand. Like, say between 7:30 and 11:00
on June 25, 2004, at the Cellular Telephone Network Amphitheater
in San Antonio.
night, even when I sat down at the practice kit for my
seven o’clock warmup, I could feel it — what
baseball pitchers call their “stuff.” Hands
and feet worked smoothly together like they wanted to,
sticks and beaters struck clean and true, and everything
I played flowed out with controlled fire.
had my stuff, and the stars and planets must have been
aligned, too. The show poured out of us like a force of
nature, sweeping out in waves from the stage and the lights
and the speaker cabinets, ebbing and flowing over a cheering,
smiling, delighted crowd. We were all locked together in
a long, timeless moment of sublime pleasure, and as song
after song played out into the ether, I felt energized
and ever more determined to make this the one.
unforgettable sight that night at Red Rocks was a row of
handicapped fans in wheelchairs up on the stage-right side.
They sang along with “Roll the Bones,” “Why
are we here?,” laughing
wildly with their hands out to their sides, then pointing
down at their wheelchairs, “Because we’re here!”
was a strange and beautiful response to the song — and
to us — and an apt interpretation of those words.
My smile of appreciation for their spirit was bittersweet.
again, it was simply a magical show,
and would remain in my memory as one of the best nights
of the tour. I was glad photographer Andrew was there,
too, for he captured some memorable images — including
the one that graces the cover of this book.
that night [near Washington, D.C.], I noticed an older
woman, certainly in her sixties, watching us with a wistful
intensity, looking both confused and earnest, somehow.
I had seen people like that before in our audiences, sometimes
older couples, sometimes stooped and gray-haired single
men and women, and I had the feeling — perhaps informed
by the shared understanding of a bereaved parent — that
they had lost a child who had been a fan of ours, and were
trying in this way to reconnect. My heart was touched by
have said before that the two best things about touring
are, one, lots of motorcycling, and two, with all the calories
I burn onstage, I can eat anything I want. Traveling in
Continental Europe would push both of those advantages
to the maximum.
my eyes, and to my soul, the most beautiful part of the
world was the Alps, not just in Switzerland, but where
they spilled into Germany’s Bavaria, Austria, France,
and Italy. Every time you crossed a mountain pass, or rounded
a bend along a glacial river, another prospect of stunning
natural beauty awaited — vertical walls of granite
rising up to snowy peaks before you, or a serene valley
of lush pastures and tidy homesteads falling away below.
The air was a bracing cocktail of pines and snow, hayfields
and wildflowers, with the keen edge of the high elevations.
toward the next turn at the outside of the lane, using
all the available road, maximizing my own visibility and
the ability of other vehicles to see me, I would look through
the corner as far as I could, appraise its sharpness, banking,
and surface, then choose the turn-in point. Squeezing the
tank with my knees and holding on, my hands were free to
be as smooth as possible on the brakes, throttle, and clutch,
as I settled my entry speed and gear, then leaned the bike
into it, pushing on the bar and leaning on the inside footpeg,
using my body to help the turn.
the bike was heeled over and angling through the curve,
I used the edges of my mirrors as guides, my peripheral
vision keeping the tip of the inside mirror along the radius
of the painted lines. I also used a trick I had learned
from yoga, of throwing my senses ahead of
me: when I was learning the “balanced poses,” standing
on one foot with the other limbs extended, a yoga instructor
pointed out that it was helpful to focus on a distant point — to
fix my concentration, my awareness, away from the space
under my foot. The same concept worked for me on the motorcycle.
Instead of thinking of the road under me, or just in front
of my wheels, I tried to “send myself” farther
ahead. By concentrating on a point well up the road, my
movements on the bike and its controls became smoother,
and I could go faster with less anxiety.
excitement, less fear — an important part of my old
formula, “Danger + Survival = Fun.”
most ways, the last show of the tour didn’t feel
any different from any of the others. The same rituals,
the same tension, the same walk from the dressing room
to the stage. I waited with Geddy and Donovan at stage
left (Alex went on from stage right) for the intro film
to play through. When Jerry Stiller said “Come on,
it’s show time!,” we would run onstage, and
Alex would start the “R30 Overture.”
Spirit of Radio,” “Force Ten,” and onward,
one by one. There was no time to think “that’s
the last time I have to play that song,” as
the concentration and energy required were still the same,
and the importance of my own performance was still the
same, last show, first show, or any in between.
last show or not, it went very well, as we worked our way
through the set, in front of an enthusiastic and smiling
audience of 10,076 people.
the beginning of 2112,
Alex holds up thumb and forefinger circled in a zero,
and we share big goofy smiles. The last appearance of the “pirates,” then “La
Villa Strangiato,” with Alex’s last story-time,
then through to the big ending. A quick drink and iced
towel behind the stage, then run back on. In celebration
of the last night, a dozen or so of the crew guys join
Alex and Geddy at the dryers, helping to throw the T-shirts
into the audience. Then we launch into the fast-paced trio
of “Summertime Blues,” “Crossroads,” and “Limelight.”
put my drumsticks down on the floor tom to my right, stand
up, bow and wave to the audience three times, then run
for the car.