In 2004, the veteran rock band Rush launched their Thirtieth-Anniversary Tour, performing fifty-seven shows in nine countries, in front of 544,525 people.
Drummer 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.”
Sunset 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.
After 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.
Turning 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 Trails tour 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.
Michael 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.
At 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.”
Now 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.
And 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.
Then 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?”).
Those 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 there, to watch and listen and not have to work. But I guess that might not be quite so exciting — at least after the 500th time.
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.
For 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 Trails tour 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.”
Alex laughed and shook a finger at me. “Yeah — whatever you do, don’t wreck the show!”
But, 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.
After 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 Lexington.)
The 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.”
That is so good.
Michael 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.
“Who?” I 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.
After 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 journal note:
And 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.
Consider 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.
By 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.
Best show yet for me, so far. Strong, solid, smooth, and “effortless” (relatively, of course.)
Happy audience too.
Magic word — love to see people who are “delighted.”
The next day I completed that review.
Last night continued great, by the way, solo and rest of second set best yet, for me.
Now can I go home?
It 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.
That 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.
I 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.
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!”
That 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.
Once 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.
Onstage 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 that.
I 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.
To 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.
Riding 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.
In 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.”
Then “The 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.
And, 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.
At 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.”
I 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.