Who would think that traveling the world by tour bus with a legendary rock band could be boring? That would depend on how you travel. If you're Neil Peart, who has been on the road since 1974, and you have the option of riding your motorcycle from show to show or be cooped up on a bus there's only one thing to do. Take the scenic route, stop and smell the roses, or literally, the lilacs and turn the trip into an adventure. Now that sounds like a plan!
Earlier this year Neil asked me if I would ride with him in Iowa where I grew up. The second leg of the second summer of their Snakes & Arrows tour began in Moline, IL, and that's where we would start. See, he knows that's where my Mom (who I don't see as often as I'd like) lives, and a 'business excuse' from him would certainly be proper justification for the trip. Right? Right. That's just the kind of guy he is, or as he would say, "that's the way we roll!"
After a string of RUSH shows in Southern California, entertaining some of my favorite drummers like Chad Smith, Ray Luzier, Dean Gronemeier, Jose Pasillas, Jamie Borden and Sammy Watson, I was off to the first show in Illinois.
As I'm driving to the venue my phone rings. It's Michael Mosbach, Neil's riding partner/security for the tour and a great drummer himself. He says, "Gump [Lorne Wheaton, Neil's long time drum tech] got appendicitis and is in the hospital for an operation. He won't be here. We're in a jam and it's two hours to soundcheck. Will you help us out?"
"Be there in 15 minutes," I say. Then I think to myself, "Naw, they're just hazing the new guy giving him a proper fright before a nice leisurely trip." I text Michael from the parking lot saying, "You guys are going to have to try harder than that to rope me in." There's no response. I head into the venue and there is Mike up on stage polishing cymbals by himself. OK, now it's serious.
I have set Neil up a couple times for rehearsal and recording sessions using what I learned from Gump on the SABIAN-sponsored S.S. Professor tour after RUSH's R30 Tour. I also filled in earlier this year when Neil was finishing rehearsals for the tour by himself, so I wasn't entirely clueless. But I had never set up the electronic kit or changed the patches through his solo. I remember in those rehearsals when Neil said, "I won't rehearse the solo. I really need Gump here for that, to change the kits in the right spots." Oh man, we're going to have to do it tonight! I took a deep breath and thought, I'll just do the best I can and there are a ton of people here to help, so we'll get through this. The crew all stepped up and had most of the kit in place by the time I got there. Most of the components on Neil's kit are a millimeter apart. There's no give. It's either right or its rubbing. The hi-hat cymbals are 1mm from the 12" tom. The hi-hat post is 1mm from hitting the 10" tom etc. If this brace doesn't fit then something is wrong. The mic placement tech Anson says, "This isn't right. I don't normally have this much room to fit the mic in here." Tweak here, tweak there and maybe it's right. I start to tune the drums that have been sitting for a couple weeks while the band was on break. Argh! The two 15" floor toms are mixed up! One is an inch deeper than the other. The legs fit into the stays though, so I should just swap the two drums, but leave the legs right? WRONG! Oh man, its really getting close to soundcheck now. Management brought in Jim Burgess, who is Rush's electronic programming guru. Thank goodness he's here to help with the electronics!
Having just heard about what's happening, Neil walks up on stage. He's confident and calm and hands me a cheat sheet that indicates where to change the patches in the solo. We run through those changes. "I play this twice before you switch it," he says. George, the stage manager and tour carpenter, will be spinning the drum riser so that's one less thing I have to worry about. Neil and I make a few adjustments on the kit, but in survival mode you just deal with the things that are a half inch off. At least the cymbal guy would get the cymbals in the right place. Well, except for two splash cymbals in the wrong places. We made it through soundcheck, but my phone is ringing off the hook because I have all these old friends and family coming to the show. Ugh! No time for socializing tonight.
The doors open for the show and I'm crawling around underneath the sheet covering the kit. I've got a flashlight in one hand and a Sharpie pen in the other, marking each pipe, knowing I'd be starting from scratch the day after tomorrow in St. Paul, MN. No one else would be able to read my writing, but it proved to be the smartest thing I did all week. After a quick bite to eat it's show time. The lights go down and Neil runs up on stage. I remember to shine a light into the 6-inch opening where he gets into the kit and then the band kicks off. After the first song everything goes pitch black on stage. Uh Oh! I can't see him! What if he's asking for something? If he isn't he probably doesn't want a flashlight shining in his eyes. I just stand up and let him know I'm there. The band launches into Ghost of a Chance. Anson walks in front of the kit in the middle of the song to move a mic. "Everything OK?" I ask. "The snare drum sounds funny." I couldn't even tell in my headphone mix. Neil hits so hard that unless he breaks the drum in half I probably wouldn't notice. The song finishes and he comes leaping off the riser looking right at me. "The snare drum head broke! Tell Dirk (Geddy Lee) to stretch it out between songs!" I dive into the riser and my radio tangles up in something. I remove the snare and pass it to Anson, then lock down the spare that was already prepared. Back to business in no time, but what are the chances of that happening to us tonight? It happens maybe once every 100 shows, Neil would tell me later. The head simply pulled out of the metal collar that holds it. What next? When the band starts into The Main Monkey Business, I lean over to Jim. "Do you hear a pigeon?" He gives me the are you nuts? look. Great. I can't hear a broken snare head and now I'm hearing pigeons. It turned out that Neil was trying to get the snare back into the correct place after I swapped it, and it made its way up against the DAUZ trigger activating a pigeon 'coo' sound every time he hit the drum. It was comical, but Neil wasn't laughing.
Michael radios me and asks me to come down to the dressing room and speak to Neil about changes that need to be made. I could tell he was uncomfortable on the kit tonight so I hope there's something I can do to help. He asks me to move the snare a half inch to the right. This may seem picky to some, but ask any experienced drummer what a half inch can do to the way you strike the drum. It affects where the shoulder hits the rim and if the tip hits the center. It can change your whole posture behind the kit when it's off. Great drummers use muscular memory. What is muscular memory? It is the way you learn to type without looking at the keys. It is the reason you're able to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and know just where the light switch is. You don't have to think about those things anymore - they just happen. Well, if you move a guy's light switch he's going to have to hunt for it and think about it. If you're thinking about the physicality of what you're doing then your attention is not fully on the music. That's why he's uncomfortable.
The second set kicks off with Far Cry. Neil and John, the pyro tech, warned me about the pyro in this song. There's a red light on at the side of the stage when it's about to happen. I cover up with a fireproof blanket, but I've got to peek. Bad idea. The pyro is a concussion bomb that sits on the back of Neil's sub monitor. I thought it was just going to be tall flames. I'm looking right at it from about five feet away when it goes off. It moves so much air that I feel my eyeballs change shape. COOL!
Later, its time for the drum solo. Every time I push a button it changes the sound on every electronic pad on the kit including the midi marimba. Neil comes to the part where I have to make sure and hear it twice. There's a delay effect on the sound in the main PA and I switch it after I hear it twice. Problem was, though, that I was supposed to wait for him to physically play it twice and I knew that. Oops! At least I got the "Cotton Tail" patch right. That was the big one. Neil comes off the riser after his solo holding up two fingers and says with a smile, "I said two times, right?" Yup! No argument from me. The show ends and I've got an army of helpers on the kit to tear it down. It's a jigsaw puzzle trying to fit things in their proper place, but John - smart guy he is - took pictures of the cases full of gear that we could use as a guide. Many big tours just break the riser in half and roll it on the truck with the kit set up on it. Neil's gear is so close together and with all the electronics a little vibration would be a very bad thing, so down it all comes.
Usually Neil races to the bus and is down the road before the lights are even up in the venue. But tonight he's waiting around for me to finish before taking off. We employ the subtle art of Scottish relaxation techniques and discuss the day... a difficult, exhilarating, exhausting day. Not being accustomed to sleeping in a bunk on top of a diesel engine, I wore ear plugs and awoke the next morning to a rattle of the bunk curtain. Then I quickly remembered we've got a full day of riding motorcycles through rural Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. Now this I was looking forward to! Neil and I had breakfast in the lounge while Michael and Dave (Neil's longtime bus driver) slept. We packed up the bikes and away we went.
Funny how it took about 10 minutes for the stress of yesterday to just fall away. I have ridden with Neil before and he boogies along at a pretty good clip, but he's taking it easy for me, knowing I'm on an unfamiliar bike - his BMW1200GS. That didn't last long though, and we got pulled over for speeding near the Mississippi River. I knew we were busted, so I back off from Neil hoping the trooper would only pull me over, but he just pulled along side and gave me 'the wave' to follow him. I knew exactly what he meant, so off we went in pursuit of Neil. I think to myself, "after all the nights I've spent on Sunset Blvd with rowdy rockstars when we could have attracted the attention of the boys in blue but never did - I'm going to jail with The Professor!" We got to meet a very professional trooper who was nice enough to knock the speed down a little so he didn't have to take us with him. This was the one time I was hoping someone would recognize Neil and that perhaps I would benefit from a little celebrity juice. No dice, but I've got nothing to complain about. I join a select group of Neil's riding buddies who have matching speeding tickets. We should get t-shirts made. Paradiddlin' Skooter Trash Scofflaws.
We're not the types to let a little thing like that ruin the day, though. We've got 300 miles to go and the nice thing about bikes is you had better pay attention to what's ahead of you, not what's behind. The country roads in rural Iowa became flatter and straighter so we pass the time by taking photos and jokingly shaking our fists at all the John Deere dealerships as we went by. It was in different decades, but Neil and I both grew up working at our father's farm implement dealerships that happened to sell equipment competing with the mighty JD. We'll show them!
After reaching Spirit Lake, Iowa, and finding there were no quaint hotel rooms left we checked into the Super 8. Neil got the Executive Suite, but I was too tired to come up with some sort of joke about the suite at the Super 8. We had a good ol' fashioned Iowa steak dinner and called it a night.
Neil gave me the crew knock (one solid bang) on the door the next morning, letting me know he was on his way down to breakfast. There was to be little scenic riding today because this was a show day. I had to get to the venue to set up the kit. Neil would normally never be caught dead on an Interstate, but tonight needed to be more comfortable than Moline and I was happy to get another chance with proper time to get it right. We hit the road and got pulled over again almost right away, just across the Minnesota border. Neil has a radar detector, but it has one fundamental flaw; he can't hear it go off when he's riding 80 mph! Only a warning this time, though.
We get to the venue in St. Paul with plenty of time to get things right. Neil changes the oil on both motorcycles while I work on the kit with the rest of the crew. Things just seem to come together today. As I thought, no one would be able to read my labels on the hardware, but I can and that's all that matters. Neil comes up early for soundcheck and we make sure to get him comfortable. Geddy stops by the drum riser for a bit of the old 'bassist vs. drummer'. "Will our pigeon be back tonight?" he asks. Hardy har har...
Gump usually sets up the practice kit in "Bubba Gump". That's what they call Neil's dressing room. Michael and George took care of that in case I fall behind. I find Neil warming up playing in 5/4. He counts aloud phrasing on top of a bass/hat ostinato in groups of 3. I'm humbled.
The show is amazing and Neil is comfortable. Almost giddy! I give him the lighter in the air after an exceptional performance of Natural Science. He cracks up. With the pressure off I just soak it all in and realize that I'm watching one of the greats do his thing in the best seat in the house. Time to get out the camera.
We rip the kit down and hit the road. Neil wakes me the next morning for breakfast in Fargo, ND. I look out the window of the bus and there's a huge billboard that says "Be Grateful". I thought how appropriate that was and say, "I am!"
North Dakota is the last state in the U.S. that Neil hasn't ridden his bike through. We change that with a big circle around the state, enduring some pretty hefty winds along the way and stopping at abandoned buildings that made for great photos.
We settled in Minot, ND for the night at a Holiday Inn. We discover his room opens up to the indoor water park and arcade packed with screaming kids. Mine opens up to the hotel bar. I say, "Let me see if I got this right. You asked for a poolside room, didn't you, and you paid extra for it? Ha Ha! Should I leave the door open when I leave so you can truly enjoy the children at play? Shall I call room service and have your dinner served poolside? I'll be at the bar." This is where I get beaten by a motorcycle jacket on my way out the door.
We climb on the bikes and head to the arena in Winnipeg, central Canada, where Gump will be back to work and waiting for us. I'd like to say no one was happier to see him than me, but I'm pretty sure Neil was. Though aching and limping around from his surgery a few days ago he was large and in charge. "What did you do with the power cord to the Kat? What did you do to the 15" floor toms? Did you guys run over the power cable under the riser?" Welcome back buddy!
With everything back to normal they could return to their routine. As for me, I left with a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a 1,414 mile motorcycle adventure with Neil Peart.
Without the help of George, John, Jim, Russ, Bucky, Brent, Anson and Michael the shows in Moline and St. Paul would have been canceled. Gump said that it was nice to know it took five people to replace him for a couple days. Wrong. It took about double that.