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Neil Peart
Overcoming grief

Cast in this unlikely role, ill-equipped to act . . . one must put up barriers to keep oneself intact. 

When I first encountered the song Limelight (back when it was released), with its amazing lyrics, I thought that the lyricist, Neil Peart, was probably referring any unknown artist who’s thrust into the limelight due to success. Or at least any subsection of those who didn’t necessarily crave the spotlight.  Over the years, with the advent of the internet, one began to hear stories that Peart was not comfortable around his fans. The final confirmation that Peart was being autobiographical in Limelight came (for me, anyway) in the brilliant Rush doco, All the World’s a Stage, where the extent of Peart’s crippling social ineptness was covered at length. 

My heart went out to Peart over his losses in the late 90s, and I am certainly morose over his recent death. Those events made me finally get around to Ghostrider.  I was Googling something about Peart, and among the results, I saw that Audible was offering Ghostrider and a few other Neil Peart books for free, perhaps as a nice gesture to grieving Rush fans. Generally, I prefer to read books rather than hearing them read to me, but in this case, I took the freebie.

As I got to (sort of) know Peart through this book, I found myself wondering how this incredibly shy, quiet, introvert became such a loud, roaring monster on the drums. It’s easy to see he’d have the discipline to become one of the greatest drummers of all time. And also the drive to do so (pre-tradgedy) was obviously there, too.  But Peart’s look-at-me drum style is the polar opposite of his don’t-look-at-me personality. Regardless, that’s not the story being told here.

Skip ahead to this book, Ghostrider.  I cannot imagine the pain and loss that befell Neil Peart. Losing his 19 year-old daughter in a car accident, losing his wife a year later to cancer (and a broken heart). What’s less-known is that shortly after the first two tragedies, his parents also had to put down the family dog, and Peart’s best friend and riding buddy, Brutus, went to prison for dealing large quantities of pot. 

Thus Neil Peart, an incredibly introverted, very private person, found himself needing a way to deal with tons of pain. He wasn’t totally alone, though he might as well have been, as he was mostly emotionally unable to cope with his remaining friends other than to write to them along his journey. The method he chose for dealing with the pain was to get on his motorcycle and ride all over North America and Mexico.  Ghostrider chronicles his journeys though a series of diary entries and extensive letters he wrote to Brutus who was unable to ride with him due to being in prison.

Let’s start with the good. Anyone familiar with Neil’s lyrics already knows how thoughtful, and articulate he was. One of the first things you’ll notice about Ghostrider is Neil’s tremendous facility with the written word.  The voice here is very much that same voice you hear in all those great Rush lyrics. Of course it is.

And it is that voice describing his journey from his personal hell back to the land of the living. The journey itself, and the book’s main content describes a man getting on his motorcycle, and riding from sun-up till sun-down, almost every day for more than a year.  And in the end, (as we know) he does find his way back from all that pain. 

But here’s the thing. Cathartic as the journey clearly was for Peart, Ghostrider can become a pretty tedious read at times.  You’re reading (or in my case hearing) the inner monologue of a man spending 10-12 hours a day on a motorcycle, as 55,000 miles eventually tick away going from one town to the next. These experiences start becoming very samey as he describes foliage, cites the birds he sees, the scenery of national parks, the places he stays at night, what books he’s reading, his struggles to get the bike serviced in remote areas. Worse, from an editorial/production standpoint, the book often unnecessarily duplicates some scenes, as they are first described as they happen, then repeated semi-verbatim in letters to Brutus. This is where a publisher should have stepped in with some editorial license, and chosen one way or the other the convey the experience — not both.  

In a sense, you could make the case that absolutely nothing exciting, or even interesting happened to Neil Peart on his 55,000 mile journey.  Ghostrider is not an adventure story, in the sense of the many Jack London stories Peart often read along the way. It’s not even a Kerouac-style travelogue. What’s probably better to say is that everything worth reading about that happened to Neil Peart on his journey, happened in his head. It’s not that there aren’t insights to his recovery process along the way. There are. But Peart is so introverted, so cripplingly emo (he talks frequently of his inner 14-year old girl among his other internal personas), and so inside his own head, that readers may bog-down in the seemingly-endless, largely similar real-world experiences, of a man who’s passions in life were, reading books, riding motorcycles, bird-watching, a good scotch at the end of the day, and avoiding people. Readers must decide for themselves whether the continuous cycle of such similar events can sustain interest. About midway through the book, I adjusted the speed in Audible so that the reader read to me at 1.5 times normal speed. Had I been actually reading, I’d likely have done some scanning and skipping.  An interesting read that, IMO, could have done with some editing down. Read it if you want to know who he was. Not because it's a riveting read.

That said, it's still gutting to know that Peart fought his way back from all that tragedy, rebuilt his personal life and career only succumb to brain cancer at age 68.