Sunday, March 7, 2021

A review of Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road (Neil Peart)

Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road (2002) did not quite meet my expectations, both the book itself and in a larger sense who I believed/expected Neil Peart to be. In life Peart was such a private person that I knew very little about him, even after listening to Rush for decades, seeing them in concert some 6-8 times, and reading articles and interviews here and there. With Ghost Rider I spent 460 pages inside Peart’s head, and now feel like I know him a lot better.

The bulk of the book consists of reprinted letters to his friends written and sent while on the road from approximately 1998-2000, during some 2 years of solo motorcycling that took him across Canada, North America, and Mexico. Peart would get up early and ride his BMW motorcycle all day, stopping at hotels around 4 or 5 p.m. to eat, drink, and smoke, occasionally tour the local scenery, and write letters. He often rode through the rain or navigated unpaved roads, putting a beating on his bike which necessitated frequent repairs. Peart is revealed as a lover of nature, an aficionado of good food and wine/scotch whiskey, books including the likes of Jack London (he’s a fellow The Sea-Wolf and Martin Eden fan, I was pleased to discover), and someone who valued staying connected through letters and evening calls with a circle of friends. Peart also put a premium on staying private from the general public. He was rarely recognized during his travels and when he was, was intensely uncomfortable with the attention. Ghost Rider reveals that Peart had some low(ish) self esteem issues, and was amazingly humble given that he was/is a top 5, maybe top 3, rock drummer of all time. I’d also put him way up in the pantheon of all-time great rock lyricists.

Of course this trip was prompted after the crushing loss of his daughter and common-law wife within a year of each other, the first at age 19 in a single car accident, the latter from cancer but also depression and a broken heart. Heart-rending stuff. These experiences destroyed the former Peart and left him rootless, unmoored from his past, and severing him from what he thought to be his chief interests, including drumming, which he abandoned for more than 18 months. Certainly he lost all interest in touring and playing with Rush, which clearly he considered his work/professional life, separate from the interests that fed his soul. Rush and music are mentioned surprisingly little in Ghost Rider.

Ghost Rider is also raw at the edges.Peart is at a few points angry, even petty, in his criticism of “fat Americans,” and an inattentive waitress. Some of these passages come across as a bit mean-spirited, directed at people who didn’t seem to actually interact with him, and were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But these incidents were most prevalent earlier in his ride/early in the book, when he was angry at the world. A few times Peart expresses (understandable) anger that loud, boorish people are alive, while his wife and daughter are dead. I can’t blame him—that’s a catastrophe that I cannot imagine enduring, and I’m sure it led to emotions spilling out of which he had no control. I give him a pass.

Peart on the road.
In short, Ghost Rider is recommended, but probably only to Rush fans. At more than 400 pages it gets a bit repetitive on the travelogues, and could have been trimmed down. I would have liked to have seen less emphasis on letters, especially letters recounting old stories with old friends that lack emotional impact and relevance to an outsider, and more self-reflection on his healing journey. Some of the passages about him going through his daughter’s effects (stuffed animals, books) were heart-breaking and will remain with me. Peart’s time wintering in Canada, fending off the depravations of a squirrel intent on his bird feeder, with a nerf gun, were good fun, and revealed surprising sides of a complex person I never knew. I was so glad to see him meet the love of his life at the end, and say goodbye to the “Ghost Rider” persona he adopted on the journey (he adopted a few others too, pseudonyms, which seemed to be an ongoing theme in his life, a coping mechanism for not being fully comfortable in his own skin, but this aspect was not as well explored as it could have been).

I find myself these days listening to more Rush than I have in a long time. It’s fueled by a love of great music of course, but I suspect it’s also nostalgia for my youth, and for my days seeing Rush in concert, which will no longer happen again after Peart passed away in early 2020 from a glioblastoma.

Farewell Neil Peart, you are gone but never forgotten. Thank you for Ghost Rider, and the music, and your life.


jason said...

Nice review--I'm not a big enough fan to read it, but it does sound like it's a rewarding read to fans.

Robert Zoltan said...

Nice review, Brian. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks guys... worth the read if you're a Rush fan and want to learn more about Peart.

Dave M. said...

I too am a long time Rush fan. I'm listening to Rush a lot again because of Geddy Lee's autobiography. I must get Ghost Rider. Thanks for the review.