Book Review : Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road by Neil Peart. ECW Press, Toronto. 460pp approx £12 UK, $20 US
This is a book written by a heavy rock drummer. I’m sure you’ve heard some variation on the standard ‘drummer joke’- viz, drummers are stupid (and often retained in bands because they are cheaper or less complex to programme than drum machines), for example: “what do you call someone who hangs around with musicians? A drummer” etc etc.
I’ve known a few drummers, but not enough to be able to confidently say whether Neil Peart is the ONLY exception to support the stereotype. Playing with Canadian rock band Rush for nearly 30 years he has consistently been lauded by his peers, has been regularly voted as top drummer in various industry and fan-based polls, he’s been involved in teaching the instrument in several musical styles and, perhaps most important of all in ridding himself of the ‘dumb drummer’ label, he writes most of his band’s lyrics…. And there isn’t a ‘come on, oooh baby, let’s lie down and shag’- line amongst them: Rush have often been criticised by the earthier end of the rock world for their ‘cerebral’ lyrics, but that is often a complaint coming from people who’s very spelling is a bit suspect, so one might consider it to be sheer jealousy about command of the language. Peart’s lyrics are diverse, clever, deep, insightful and memorable. And he’s a drummer (albeit a brilliant one)? If you can’t accept that idea then it’s time to get over it.
So, this is a book by a drummer- is it Keith Moon-esque tales of drugs, earthbound TV sets and crashing cars, or a lightweight tabloid-style tour diary, simply counting and vaguely detailing the kind of cocaine-and-hooker excesses that we non-celebrities might only dream (or have nightmares) about?
It’s a very personal tale of his life for about 3 ½ years following the kind of tragedy that we definitely would have nightmares about- in the space of a year or so he lost his (only) teenage daughter in a car accident, his wife to cancer, his dog died and his best friend went to jail. To go into social worker speak for a moment, this is the kind of ‘catastrophic removal of support networks that can have very negative client outcomes’. Any two of those would be enough to make someone ill, let alone all four, which by rights would kill the majority of those who experienced it. While still in the extremes of grief, Peart took off alone on a major road trip, covering over 50,000 miles around the wilds of Canada and the Americas on his motorbike, travelling at an often extreme rate, regularly riding 500 miles a day; the sheer process of concentrating on the bike and the road ahead taking his mind away from the pain…at least while he was in motion…. it quickly becoming obvious that if he stayed very long in one place the compounding grief was going to catch up with, and kill him…. this work is a complex interweaving of travelogue, a journal comprised of externalising his feelings and wishes in letters to friends and family written while on the road, the extreme relevance of the words of American authors whose terrain he is travelling through, and the corresponding journey around a disintegrating internal landscape, his soul if you wish: hence the title- he paradoxically had to become a virtual ghost, with no internal substance and nothing left, in order to survive.
However, it is certainly not some sparkling-clean new-age confessional about how he’s been to hell and back and how one or more of god/jesus/faith/rock and roll/crystal therapy “saved” him. The subtitle gives the clue- it was the process of the journey that helped, a Darwinian ordeal through which only those with the will to survive can pass, that and the saving grace of a big red and pretty fit motorbike, which is not just some rock-n-roll cliché. This is not a tale of sweetness and light, of acceptance of what fate any God had handed down- acceptance is a concept he has great, and very understandable trouble with: “when I saw other people with their children, or with their lovers and mates, or even just apparently enjoying life, it wasn’t so much ill will that moved me, as it was jealousy, resentment and a sense of cruel injustice”
So, this is not a book about rock music, and it’s not strictly a book about magic either- but it belongs on this site as it demonstrates a lot about the human person, how we work, about “honouring the tribe”- our family and friends, it’s a documented rite of passage (we are all going to meet Grief one day, and probably way more than once) and Peart uses the pen like a wand- beautifully, enchantingly, purely. Gods know what kind of stuff he will produce when or if he eventually puts down his drumsticks one day and decides to be a full-time author.
It was not his plan to make this journal into a book initially- the record-keeping for most of the book is obviously in part simply to keep himself vaguely sane, and even he misses a large hint at one very low stage : “rain and trucks and … mud and cold. I huddled under the dripping eaves of a shack … thinking ‘why am I not at home, warm and dry, writing a great book?’… it made a lovely picture. But the answer remained the usual one- ‘shut up and get back on the road’ ”
If you were moved by Julian Cope’s 2-part autobiography ‘Head On/Repossessed’, another piece of great human writing by a musician (and with which this shares some threads and themes), then you will not be let down by Ghost Rider. You don’t have to like the music, or indeed even to have heard it before. If you have ever lost anyone close to you then this book might just help a little bit. No miracles are promised, since everyone grieves differently, but there is such a wide swathe of real humanity running through the Peart who gives of himself so much in this book that I can’t see anyone who reads it coming away the poorer for the experience. Stuff the idea of ‘New Man’; give me someone like this anytime.
I won’t give away the ending, as the effect of the book is reliant on that, but having been handed a tiny and considerably less painful share (for the reader) of where the man’s been and what he’s done to fight his way back to ‘somewhere’, which may or may not be classified as ‘recovery’ (it’s a process, not a “thing”), you hear yourself cheering him on through the final pages, to a shocking and joyous conclusion. As he valuably points out, being scarred by an experience is not the same as still being crippled by it.
A tremendous book, and ‘real’. I didn’t shed any tears for Kurt Cobain, but did for this. Read it.
Rush band website here
In common with my other reviews of books etc on this site, this has been done with no inducements from a publisher or anyone else, and I bought my own copy of the book.