From a very early age, I’ve been a fan of the Canadian trio Rush. I recently had a chance to sit down with Neil Peart, the band’s longtime drummer and lyricist. (I cannot believe that I just wrote that last sentence.)
A prolific writer, Peart has just published Far and Near: On Days Like These, his latest collection of observations and stories.
He was kind enough to send me a signed copy and I’ve been poring through it. Like his other book, one not need to be a Rush fan to appreciate Peart’s story telling. It’s a beautiful text, rife with interesting photos, anecdotes, and factoids, as well as the occasional political commentary. For instance, the 2013 government shutdown of national parks nearly derailed Peart’s travel plans.
PS: Tell me a little about your new book.
NP: This is a sequel to Far and Away, which was a collection of stories that I wrote for my website over a period of about three to four years. This, similarly, recollects my touring adventures on the road by motorcycle, some of sojourns at home, whether adventuring around in California or up in Quebec, Canada. Basically, they’re open in the sense that anything that I care enough about to work on can go into those stories.
I think in music you’re always hoping that you’ll have a like-minded audience and that the music you like making will appeal to them too. That’s the same way that I approach the stories. Just as we play our music for an ideal listener as it were, I have an ideal reader in mind who’s interested in nature like I am, interested in physical activity like I am, and human history. On other things along the way I try not to spread the audience too thin. If I find an interesting story somewhere, I’ll just leave a hint and say, ‘For anyone who’s interested, there’s a good story here.’ I won’t spend half a page for those who don’t care.
It occurred to me too that that’s what education should be. We should go to children and say, “There are some interesting things over here if you want to learn about plants or bugs or rocks or dinosaurs.” Not all of them will. Why bore them all with a subject that only a few of them are interested in?
That’s the approach that I take in the stories. I take a lot of care in the editing of them and the presentation of them on my website first. I then gather three or four year’s worth of them, which essentially combines artistic adventures as well as adventures in the wild, wild world.
PS: Beyond your observations, there are some really great photos in the book.
NP: The book is a collection, a hybrid of photographs and words. Over the years, I have found better and better ways of marrying the two and to think ahead. Oh, in that story, I’ll probably want a picture of that landscape or that moment. It’s something that has grown over time, not only to be a consuming art form for me but immensely satisfying—everything I want to write about, everything I want to share.
Most of it comes from enthusiasm in the true sense—things that get me excited I hope other people will get excited about too if I can just write them right. And that’s always true with music. It’s not the music you hear in your head that other people are going to hear. You have to be able to make it true enough to the image in your head and that’s where technique and technology come in for sure and knowledge. It’s not true and will never be true that someone who knows nothing can sit in a basement and make great music. It can never happen with any kind of great art. It takes a much bigger point of view than that. It doesn’t just take technique, of course. It doesn’t just take technology. They’re all tools that translate the music in your mind to the ears of another person—the visions in my mind through words and pictures to the imagination of another person.
I’m learning all the time. I’m evolving all the time as a human being. I’m getting better, I hope, in all of the important ways. So if I were less in the past it would be sad. It’s like when people ask me my favorite record, my favorite Rush album. How horrible it would be if I had to say something from thirty years ago. How embarrassing, right? Well I did something good thirty years ago but it’s been pretty much downhill since. No, no! I couldn’t live with that.
PS: You’re kind of reminding me of the Mark Twain quote about a teenager who thinks that his parents don’t understand him well. Twenty years later he remarked that they learned a lot.
NP: Exactly. That’s a good one, yeah. It was about his father, I think. When I was 21 I couldn’t believe how much my father had learned (laughs).
PS: Talk to me a bit about the subtitle of the new book. It seems that the phrase holds special significance for you.
NP: Remarkably so, yeah. It came about as so many beautiful things do: by accident. I was just reading an English magazine about old cars and in two cases the journalists were driving old Lamborghinis and were saying, “I felt I should be hearing ‘On Days Like These’ by Matt Monro.” I kind of knew who Matt Monro was, a Sinatra-type singer, but I hadn’t heard of the song. I just presumed that it was about beautiful days like these and I’m driving a beautiful Lamborghini around the English countryside. But, in fact, the song was the opening theme for the original of The Italian Job written by Quincy Jones. The lyrics were by Matt Monro’s manager. Imagining anyone’s manager being a lyricist? It still blows me away. But he wrote a lot of good songs; he was good at it.
The song has a mood about it. Watching the opening of that movie, Rossano Brazzi is driving an old Lamborghini over the Alps. Beautiful music is creeping in under the engine. The music just became one of those sound bytes, not an earworm. It never annoyed me. As I rode though Iowa or the English countryside or the Rocky Mountains or the Great Plains, that sound would be in my head (my helmet) playing all day long. I loved the words for it and the mood that it carried to me all the time. I still get it all the time.
I just loved the way the words on days like these resonated.
PS: In the book, you do quite a bit of wordplay. For instance, I didn’t know that word casino is from the Italian word for gathering place.
NP: (Laughs.) That was a story about Catalina Island off the coast of California. They have a beautiful old Art Deco-style building built in the 1920s. They call it the casino but there was never gambling there. I was curious. When I find a situation like that I go, “What a minute! What?” I had to do the research and find out those things.
Research, of course, nowadays is all about keystrokes. Good research means that you start with those links and keep going and going. Serious scholars point that out now. You cannot really just research on Wikipedia. As much as I love Wikipedia and support and contribute to it, you can’t stop there. That’s a beginning for real research.
When I’m looking into writing something about nature or history, I really have to make sure that I get my facts straight.
There’s another example from that same story. There was a place called Prisoner’s Bay on one of the Channel Islands. I loved that name. It was right out of The Hardy Boys or something. I wanted to find out why it’s called that. There was a simple story that some prisoners were marooned there during the Spanish era and then they disappeared, but the real story is way more complex and it took a lot of research to find out what really happened. The irony is that no one knows what really happened. There are other versions of that story that, when I wanted to write properly, I had to incorporate.
The same thing happens when I write about birds and animals. I want to get it right—and people for that matter. It takes a lot of thought and a lot of refinement and a lot of careful writing to put that forward.
I just ran into a quote the other day from Wallace Stegner, one of my all-time favorite Western writers. He said, “Hard writing makes easy reading.” Man … that is so good. I can’t believe that I never ran into it until now, but that is again the way that I approach it. I spend a lot time working over the words and pay an editor to help me get that clear. I have my test readers like Kevin J. Anderson does too—people he trusts to make sure that he’s getting across what he thinks he’s getting across.
It’s like what I said about music before. It’s not science (laughs). The fact that you can have a vision in your brain and try to describe it and transmit it doesn’t mean that it’s received. That’s the gift of technique and perhaps it’s easier explained in prose—in words—if you can get just the right words. In the primary instructional books of writing, the order of things the reader has to know, how to present and render a scene in the way that the reader needs to do it to see what you are seeing. That’s the simple definition of technique in that sense. Maybe if people have trouble with the natural musician idea, imagine someone who’s never written anything thinking that they can go in a basement and produce a great novel.
There is no such thing as a natural writer in that sense—without some type of schooling (often journalism, often a lot of failed unpublished words). For myself, I wrote for 20 years before I published and I’m so glad that I had all that practice. I’d go on a trip and write a little diary of it and share it with my friends and all that. I was learning how to do it and I’ve had good teachers—and the same with music all throughout my career with drumming.
Writing and music have to be learned over time and practiced. The great thing about live performance, at least in music (and that prose writers miss out on), is that you have an audience to judge how well you’re doing. That’s one of the great things that we’ve had.
Our background is in performance and I’ve come to realize in more recent years that our songs were written to play live. It seems like a simple thing but it’s not. Our songs were not written to be listened to in headphones or on the radio. They were written to be played. All of the little infinite detail that went into the arrangements and giving ourselves lots of breathing room in terms of playing what we wanted to play and using up any ideas that we had—all of those were conceived to be performed. I mean, there were rare exceptions in songs that we allowed to be a studio experiment. Thinking of most of the middle period of our songwriting, arranging, and recording, it was all to play live. All of those songs were made so we could still play them 30 years later—and like them. And that’s a great thing. On none of our songs now do we go, “Awww, I don’t want to play that again” because we still like those songs and we still like playing them in the physical, technical sense. A lot of them are a real challenge to get through. I take a deep breath before I start into them. And when you do them well you feel good. That’s an enduring reward we didn’t know we were getting ourselves into.
Click here to order Far and Near: On Days Like These.
In this part, I ask Neil some questions about R40 and his time off. In Part III, I’ll ask him the fans’ questions. Coming soon!
PS: Rush is releasing an R40 boxed set. Can you talk a little bit about what’s on it and how the idea came together?
NP: Well, it was really trying everything that we had. To me, one of the standout editions was the Test for Echo Toronto show. It was almost at the end of that tour and just before so much went crazy in my personal life particularly and we didn’t play again for five years after that. It was a tremendously emotional memory—that particular show and that particular material. When I watched the way I played then, for example, just after I studied with Freddie Gruber, I had evolved in a different way from that incorporated but I played a certain way on that tour that I really liked to watch: real graceful and I was concentrating very much on technique. All of that was fresh and kind of unique to that tour and yet it had never been released. At the time it was filmed (that Toronto show) there were apparently some technical difficulties with audio and we were told it was useless. It just sat in the vault for all these years. So having that resurrected is important to us personally and autobiographically and also I still really like that body of work represented by Test for Echo album and what we presented on that tour too. The solo I was doing was interesting to me in terms of what I was doing and the evolution of myself as a soloist. For all of those reasons, I’m particularly glad that that saw the light of day again.
PS: That took place in the late 1990s. Let’s go back another decade. One of my other favorite bands is Marillion. Rush played a bunch of dates with the band in the 1980s. I was wondering if you had any particular recollections of them?
NP: Not particularly. It was only a very few shows, maybe six or seven at the most, one of which was at Radio City Music Hall. My memories are all pleasant. They were nice people and their music suited our music very well. It was a very brief time.
There were some bands, of course, we toured with for whole tours like Primus, for example, where all sorts of complexities in the relationship had a chance to develop. But really when you do a few shows with somebody you’re kind of busy with your own thing. There wasn’t that much engagement. At the same time, my memories were good.
PS: What are you listening to these days?
NP: Not a lot, honestly. I kind of stepped away and this time off I like to call a sabbatical. I haven’t been resting by any means but I have been pouring myself a lot into prose writing in different avenues and different levels—just stepping aside from the pattern of life that I’ve followed for so long. When Geddy, Alex, and I talked about this time at the end of the Clockwork Angels tour, we agreed we’re going to take a year and not even talk about work. We’re in touch all the time and friendly and so on and sharing notes on our lives and things of mutual interest and jokes but we’ve kind of stuck to that pledge and I’ve been very glad to take my day-to-day energy and expend it on traveling and writing, basically. Even small adventures. On touring life, for example, we’re away for three weeks, home for a week, away for three weeks, so I’d be traveling on my motorcycle on tour fro show to show, gathering a lot of experiences, doing a lot of that writing exercise described. Looking at the landscapes of America or Europe or South America, to put this in words and share this with others. That was the exercise there. Now what I love to do is go away for three or four days to Death Valley or skiing in Quebec or whatever and have that same experience and spend the rest of the month writing about it (laughs) because there is so much stored up that I want to write about. I’m very interested in natural science and natural history and trying to weave all of that into my own personal experience and again share it. It’s been a tremendous time to be involved in that.
I’ve been involved with the Clockwork Angels graphic novel project during this time which has been truly rewarding to be engaged in that project with a small group of creative people in the burgeoning world of comics right now. That will be gathered together as a graphic novel next year. It’s been a sense of taking the same creative energies that have gone into the band all these years. Alex and Geddy and I agreed not only the last few tours but we’ve basically gone ten years—a solid run of recording and touring. That’s what we really wanted the respite from at this time. We decided to step back. Like I said, this is truly a sabbatical to do research about this, travel to do research, and do other kinds of work other than the main profession. That’s pretty much a good definition.
Here’s the final part of the interview. I ask him the top-rated questions on my site. He talks about songs that he’d like to play as well as whether they’ll be string sections on future tours.
Originally published on Huffington Post.