Zen and the Art of Motorcycling in Neil Peart’s ‘Far and Away’

“I can’t pretend a stranger / Is a long-awaited friend.”

— Neil Peart, 1981

Thirty years ago, the drummer and lyricist for the Canadian power rock trio Rush penned a line in the song “Limelight” that defined his shyness and feeling of being uncomfortable living under the magnifying glass of fame. That line is, of course, quoted above. Therefore, it might seem strange that since the mid-’90s, Neil Peart has become something of an accomplished memoir writer or personal essayist, writing about his travels – first on bicycle, then on motorbike – around the world, visiting far flung and exotic destinations. In such a position, Peart has opened himself up and offered fans a peak into his psyche with such books as The Masked Rider, Ghost Rider, Traveling Music, Roadshow and now this book, Far and Away: A Prize Every Time.

This all might seem a bit unlikely to Rush fans who know from “Limelight” that Peart considered himself “Cast in [an] unlikely role / Ill-equipped to act / With insufficient tact / One must put up barriers / To keep oneself intact.” In his latest role as a memoirist, Peart has essentially torn down the barriers that divided him from fans and, more or less, opened himself up to express his feelings about art, writing, traveling, music and life in general. Maybe it’s growth and maturation, a grudging acknowledgement that, in pop culture, the line between the private and personal, and the public nature of being celebrated, are becoming more and more blurred. Peart has seemingly and gradually taken on the attitude that, well, if you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well join ‘em – or at least control or spin the amount of information that fans receive by powerfully writing in his own words what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera eye, before the gossip mags do at least.

To that end, Peart has, in recent years, become an active blogger by generally penning essays or stories whenever he gets the change over at his official personal Web site, Neil Peart.net. Granted, Peart tends to write a little on the long side – some of his missives are well over the 10,000 word mark – which breaks a well-worn tenant about the nature of blogging: the shorter, the better. However, the Web site is a platform for Peart to connect with his fans and offer a personal glimpse inside the private life of Rush’s most reclusive member.

Now, a large swath of those blog posts/personal essays between the years 2007 and 2010 have been republished and repackaged into book form under the current Far and Away, which is a lovely coffee table book packed with all sorts of breathtaking color pictures and purple prose. At nearly 300 pages long, it’s an absorbing account of Peart’s travels by motorcycle between gigs, making the tome a little like a pseudo-travelogue, as well as detours into his adventures hiking in unusual locations, snowshoeing in the woods around his Quebec residence, and his thoughts on the art and craft of drumming.

The cynical Rush fan might scoff at this book: Why buy it when you’ve read most, if not all, of the material on Peart’s Web site for free – or at least for the price of an Internet connection? Additionally, some might also have a bone to pick with Peart’s publisher, ECW Press, for the book was available in hardcover in May of this year and is now, a scant four months later, making its paperback debut at a slightly deflated price. If you have the feeling that Far and Away is a bit of a cash grab, you’d be absolutely right.

However, for the casual Rush fan like myself – I was very heavily into the group during my high school years having collected all of their albums on CD, but drifted away from them during my university years as my musical palate changed and began to veer more towards more underground and independent sounds – this book is a welcome chance to catch up on the behind-the-scenes look that Peart has been offering devotees these past few years. Peart has a personable and affable style of writing that often meanders (a typical blog post or “essay” can weave between his thoughts and experiences when travelling by motorcycle, to notes on the historical aspects of the particular town or village he’s passing through, to an out-of-left-field rumination on the benefits to be found from atomic power all in the same space), but remains compelling and engaging as his prose is meticulously well crafted. Reading Far and Away is like taking a personal journey with a good friend who has a great yarn to tell you about his globetrotting trips around the world.

Part of the charm of Far and Away is that Peart partakes in a form of pseudo-adventure motorbiking that he’s coined as “shunpikin’”, meaning that Peart very rarely takes the Interstate while travelling across America (or the four-lane highways of western Europe or South America for that matter), choosing instead to travel on much less frequently used roads that he’s mapped out with a traveling buddy (Peart almost never rides alone, for safety reasons such as what if he gets stranded in the middle of nowhere outside of the reach of cell phones) and charted on his and his buddy’s sometimes unreliable GPS systems (which he affectionately calls “Doofus” and “Dingus”). Sometimes this means that Peart and his biking partner find themselves on what can be considered logging roads – basically ruts carved through a particular forest or mountain that offer the dangers of rocks and tree roots that can damage or destroy one’s bike tires. The off-the-beaten path nature of Peart’s travels yields some interesting and absorbing tales, and makes one yearn to do some traveling of one’s own across the world’s vast expanse – particularly on roads that are only really used by people who live along them.

Indeed, the more time you spend reading Far and Away, the more you get to know Peart on a personal basis. However, while Peart reveals himself to be the type of guy that might make a great dinner companion, the book exposes some notable flaws in his personality: namely, he’s not exactly a person who respects the rules of the road. Most notably, I was taken aback at Peart’s insistence of including “self-posed action portraits” of himself while riding his motorcycle: he essentially takes his camera in his left hand while riding, and snaps shots of himself in front of the landscape that he’s passing through, and these are shown ad nauseam throughout the book. This is akin, in my mind, to texting while driving or talking on a cell phone with one hand off the wheel: a definite no-no insofar as ensuring the safety of oneself and others sharing the road.

Peart also admits that he uses what we call in my neck of the woods a “fuzzbuster” – a device that detects police radar – which is illegal in some American states and Canadian provinces. While Peart notes that he uses the radar detector on open roads with little traffic where he feels safe soaring above the speed limit in order to make it to a show on time (or enjoy the delight of whipping through the landscape at a exhilarating pace), you might feel a little uneasy at Peart’s penchant for speed on the highway. (To wit, Peart and his companions get pulled over for speeding a grand total of three times throughout this book, but ride away with “friendly warnings”. Lucky guy.)

There are also instances when Peart and his buddies confront a “Road Closed” sign on some of the back roads, particularly through mountain passes, but proceed on, anyway. While Peart does reflect on the necessity of wearing leather armoured road gear to prevent personal injuries if he falls – even if that means wearing the cumbersome clothes in swelteringly hot heat in America’s south – his disrespect for the laws of the road make one thing abundantly clear: it might be nice to read about and reflect on some of his travels into generally unexplored lands, but I sure as heck wouldn’t want to be a passenger sitting on the back seat of his motorbike!

If you come to this book expecting any insights into Peart’s personal life, you might find yourself a bit disappointed. Peart has very little to say about his bandmates, bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, and much of his digressions on being a drummer in a highly-successful arena rock band that is getting on to close to 40 years as an entity are largely confined to how he has refined and perfected his technique. That alone is fascinating – Peart is largely considered to be the greatest living, or at least greatest active, drummer in rock music – and the fact that someone just turning 59-years-old still feels the need to constantly improve his drumming is laudable and commendable. Plus, Peart openly confronts the reality that he’s getting on in years and might someday face a diminishment in his playing abilities, which makes you appreciate his growth as a performer even more.

However, you won’t walk away from Far and Away with a greater understanding of the interplay and dynamics of Rush as a band, which may be disheartening to some. In some ways, Far and Away shows that Peart has some walls that he is unwilling to tear down.

Similarly, while Peart has undergone a great deal of transformation in his personal life by becoming a father to a baby girl named Olivia (to whom this book is dedicated), especially after the trauma of losing his first wife and only child to cancer and a car accident respectively within months of each other in the late ’90s, he has very little to say about the pleasures of becoming a father again – only to note his trauma and fear about this little life after losing his first daughter tragically so many years ago. In fact, he almost has more to say about a hummingbird that nested and laid eggs in his garden at his Los Angeles residence than about his own personal decision to become a dad in his golden years.

Plus, as good as this book can sometimes be, it lacks focus – especially in the beginning, when Peart is still getting his feet wet over the whole blogging thing – and it could also be argued that this collection of 22 stories could have been pared down. Particularly, an entry about snowshoeing to a communications tower with a red beacon on top that has obscured his view of a pristine landscape at his Quebec home away from home an hour north of Montreal is a little on the bland and banal side, and is certainly overlong. It’s hard to feel sorry for a well-to-do guy whose perfect vision of the night sky has been obstructed, considering that if Peart isn’t happy with his landscape, he has the inclination and resources to, you know, move to somewhere a little more less habituated – as he notes he has done in the past – rather than to laboriously trek to the location to give him the satisfaction (but not the readers’) of shaking a fist at it.

Still, there is much delight to be found from Far and Away, particularly in its transformative nature to live vicariously through one of rock music’s most successful performers. I do a lot of my reading at night just before bedtime and I found that reading this collection in bed, aching from working at a computer all day, was soothing and relaxing: the perfect reading material to ease myself into a blissful and much needed sleep – kind of like the literary equivalent of the glass of Macallan, which is a brand of malt scotch whiskey, that Peart usually partakes in after a long day’s riding as a nightcap.

While Far and Away is a disparate collection that rambles all over the place – both within its long-winded entries and in its dissimilar stories that touch upon motorcycling, drumming, and nature walks – the material is mostly engaging and well-thought out, and is a joyous celebration of a living legend. One thing is for certain, given Peart’s growing role as a non-fiction writer, it seems as though he starting to acknowledge that strangers might just be, in some respects, long awaited friends. For fans of Rush, this is something to celebrate and behold, and, even if you’ve read much of this material before, Far and Away is a pretty good permanent collection of thoughts from one of the greatest and thoughtful minds in rock ‘n’ roll.

RATING 7 / 10