Love remains, though everything is lost
Memories fall towards you sometimes, like brown leaves out of the blue of the sky. The thunder of drums coming through the wall backstage at a long defunct outdoor arena on the outskirts of Nashville. The eve of the R30 tour, myself, Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee mid-interview, I’d already spoken to Neil in his dressing room across the hall, seated next to a drum-kit the size of which can best be described as ominous. He was giving that same set of drums merry hell as I attempted to chat to his band mates in the next room. “Neil”, said Geddy, arching an eyebrow, “Practices to practice”. Alex nodding with a thin smile, “He’s disgusting”. Neil, oblivious, unflinching, not twenty feet away, drumming for an hour before he went on stage to best prepare to drum for another three. As he rolled around the kit and the bass pedals made a tattoo that I could feel through my chest I thought, god, he’s superhuman.
He was all too human though, I’d been to Toronto to talk to Alex and Ged for Vapor Trails, the comeback record made after Neil’s years of hurt; the loss of his daughter and then his wife. It would take a few more years before he’d speak to me or anyone come to that. But we sat that afternoon talking about everything from TS Eliot to how he had driven his favourite BMW motorbike from home in California to that first show in Nashville (much to the chagrin of the band’s management), how he had made the transition from bicycle to motorbike on tour even though he was initially, “Afraid of motorbikes”, but only because he was a klutz, put him behind a set of drums and he’d float around those pale drumheads like they were an extension of his body, his very being, but watch him walk up the ramp to the stage and he was more than capable of going over his own shoes. It wasn’t the motorbike he didn’t trust, just his inability to stay on one.
Another year and another rehearsal room in Toronto, another leaf from another sky. Picture this: a dusky room, and one of Neil’s old tour kits set on a riser in the middle of the room. Between us is a classic Rush flight case, a huge oblong of scratched blue paint used to house part of his drums, the band’s logo from their debut album stencilled on the side. We’re using it as a table for my tape recorder and and our coffee. I don’t remember the interview, I don’t know what album or tour we might have talked about, we usually went quickly off topic, books, politics, and writing, always writing. The drums, almost blocking out the light, seemed to consume everything. He caught me staring and motioned to the drums. “How”, I asked, “Do you even get in there?” It was truly a 360 of drums, bells, and probably some whistles too. He stood quickly up, reached out for one of the toms and, like a minor miracle, pulled it back on a hinge, making space to step in to the drum stool. If I told you I didn’t gasp, then I’d be a liar.
Though that wasn’t the full extent of the miracle, perhaps, and I’m surmising, because it was the practice kit for the tour and not the one he’d playing live each night, he asked me to sit behind it and get a feel for what he saw every night. I’m guessing, but I’d say there were as many drums as there are stars in the Canadian sky, they seemed to go on forever, to be almost out of reach. My mind actually boggled. And then, because life is sometimes a gift and we’re lucky to live it, he handed me a set of sticks and bade me have a go. I’m not a drummer, my fountain pen sometimes gets away from me and makes my cats scatter, but I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to show Neil Peart how it was done. I went all in, attempting something that I’d air drummed a thousand times; the infamous roll across the toms from the intro to The Temples of Syrinx. This might come as something of a surprise, but I’m here to tell you it’s not as easy as Neil made it look. Not even on the third attempt, Neil gave me a look that was either concern or consternation and opened the gate up for me with a look that suggested I’d best get down now.
Two more if I might. Birmingham NEC, the tour where Ged had invested in a chicken rotisserie as a backline. During the set a roadie would be sent on stage to baste Geddy’s chickens (sounds like a filthy euphemism, it’s not.) It came as a complete surprise to me when I was forced on stage in a pinny and chef’s hat (no, really) armed with a basting bowl and brush and pushed up the surprisingly steep stairs to the stage. To compound my fear and confusion, Rush had just broken into The Spirit of Radio, a single I remember buying as a teenage one Saturday morning back home in Wales. Christ, I thought, no pressure, all of this as Alex pealed that extraordinary riff out into the dark and cavernous NEC hall. The stage was huge, it looked like a grey and white football field. To my right, Peg, a dear friend and one of the Rush family since the very beginning, could be heard laughing out loud from the shadows, screaming my name in a way that I’d like to think was done with some affection.
I basted Ged’s chickens with due diligence, opening up the smokey glass rotisserie doors, adjusting the heating knob and moving along the stage. It was only the out of the corner of my eye, I was staring straight ahead trying not to think of the 15,000 people behind me, that I caught sight of the furious, pumping machine that is Neil Peart up close. His legs were like pistons, arms a familiar blur, his face stony with concentration, he looked like a steam train that was locked in place, desperate to pull away. And then, just as I reached the last rotisserie, he turned his head towards me, burst out laughing and exclaimed, ‘Phil!’. His metre didn’t shift, not a fill missed, there, just for a moment, in that swirling darkness punctuated by pulsing stage lights, he grinned and looked at me like he’d just caught me stealing apples in his yard. It was a moment of such beauty and stillness that it still makes me pause now. I was scared to write any of this down as I’ve been gulping tears back all morning, but until this point, these memories have only made me smile, happy to have stood briefly in his light, but the memory of that laughing face, his dizzying skill now gone forever makes my heart break over and over.
One final leaf, the last of autumn, winter following on in its wake. Henson Studios in Hollywood, Rush recording and mixing the last pieces of Clockwork Angels. I’d literally flown in that afternoon, dumped my bags at the hotel and headed to studio, idling in LA traffic, the Californian sky a burnt out blue white. One of the first people to greet me was Neil, courteous, warm, holding a bottle of 12 year old Macallan as a welcoming gift, he sourced tumblers and ice too (and then Al drank half of it, but that’s another story for another time) and we sat, me and Rush, and listened to fades and mixes of what would be their last album. Neil and Geddy eyes closed to fully feel the music as it disappeared to a whisper. Later, as we stood in the studio car park waiting to head for dinner (Neil was planning on staying there a little longer to go over the record) he showed me his silver Aston Martin, the model that James Bond drove in Goldfinger. It practically glowed in the sunshine, low, sleek, an omnipresent feat of engineering and hubris. I wanted to embrace it.
And then, while I was still in my Aston Martin reverie, he started talking about my first novel, Cross Country Murder Song. I knew he’d read it and I knew he’d enjoyed (there had been an email that had almost made me faint with delirium and made the teenage Rush fan in me hyperventilate), but this: “I read it again, it’s better again the second time”. I looked at him like he’d just grown wings and had begun to levitate. “I took it on my last trip on my motorbike, it’s a road trip, so it was perfect to read while I was on the road”. I think he might have clapped me on the back as we made plans to do a formal interview over the next few days, Ged was calling me to our car to go eat and Neil walked away with a cheery wave as jet-lag and joy collided somewhere inside my head.
Neil Peart never knew he touched my life, he probably would have shrank back from the idea. He was a goof, supremely talented, kind, open and could catch a drumstick even if it had been dropped from a helicopter. His words spurred me on to be a writer, his music to go on even when I didn’t want to (and I have never wanted to stop more than I have at this moment in time, but I’m playing Rush and still moving slowly forward) and along with his two incredible friends reminded me that not all rock stars are idiot pricks. So, I’ll hold this moment in time and think of that NEC stage, the Hollywood parking lot, the last time I saw him backstage at the LA Forum, his face a mask of sadness as Rush rode the circus out of town one last time. And there he is now, the ghost rider on his beloved BMW moving in and out of the traffic, slowly lost to the fading light, a figure getting smaller and smaller until eventually you can’t seem him at all, out on a highway somewhere and lost to the sky.