It's a wet, white blizzard in downtown Toronto and the waterfron is as deserted as it's ever been. But just around the corner sits arguably the most skilled drummer in the history of rock (at one point, at least).
Rush's Neil Peart sits casually in front of an elaborate copper-plated drum kit, respectfully examining each drum head. "Everything's been custom-made," he says, tracing his fingers over African drums, Indian drums, valves and electronic pads. "I was a part of the whole concept process. … I went over 200 different samples [before] choosing these ones for my solo."
Peart looks older than most Fly by Night fans would remember, but he's aged well, built as solid as his drums, with a baritone voice to match. As the prolific drummer of Rush, one of the most successful rock bands to come out of Canada, Peart could easily just coast on his musical legacy. But rock is only one of his passions. In May, after the release of Far and Away: A Prize Every Time, Peart will have authored five books.
He is by no means the first musician to enter the publishing world, but he's one of the few who have done it themselves, and done it well. Peart rolls his eyes when he talks about musicians using ghostwriters. "But that isn't always the case - guys like Bob Dylan, even Sting, and Stuart Copeland, their books were all done well, and done by themselves. The difference is that I had been perfecting my reading for 20 years before publishing."
Far and Away is a reflective, immersion-style travel diary detailing the musician's motorcycle trips along the back roads of North America, Europe and South America. "When I write about history or nature or geology, it's from a first-person point of view," Peart says. "It's me riding past a town [by motorcycle] and figuring out why something is the way it is."
Like many books written by celebrities, the reader's perception will be unavoidably linked with their perception of Peart. But with the exception of the author's day job, this is by no means a rock 'n' roll tome. Instead of sex and drugs, Peart uses Far and Away to express a deep appreciation of nature, through the Laurentian Mountains in deep winter to the vivid sunsets and barren deserts of Death Valley, Calif., to humble South American villages.
"I got terribly lost between Brazil and Argentina, but it caused a beautiful experience. … I found myself lost in this little town in the corner of Brazil and basically ended up finding a place to stay just before the sun came down," Peart says. "There was this combination of West African music and Brazilian music, and I had never heard that combination before. It was a transcendent moment for me. … I had been lost, and now I was found."
Peart's life seems to follow a similar pattern of lost and found. The 58-year-old grew up in Port Dalhousie, Ont., was given a drum set at age 14 and performed his first drum solo that year. Later on, he played with local bands at roller rinks, high schools and church halls, before moving to London, hoping to play alongside legendary drummers such as John Bonham or Keith Moon. But that wasn't quite how it played out. Unable to find success in the U.K., he returned to Southern Ontario to sell tractor parts for his father's company.
In 1974, Peart auditioned for the Toronto-based Rush, who had recently lost their drummer. He joined the band two weeks before their first U.S. tour, and the rest is rock history.
Peart's first book, The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, was published in 1996, and his second, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, in 2002. The latter followed the death of his 19-year-old daughter in a car accident in July 1997, and the death of Jacqueline Taylor, his common-law wife of 20 years, just 10 months later. Ghost Rider introduced an embedded optimism in his writing, discussing his marriage to photographer Carrie Nuttall in 2000. The two had their first child, Olivia, in 2009.
Far and Away follows the tradition of Ghost Rider in that it details Peart's personal thoughts and experiences, and applies them universally. "Not to be a spoiler, but in this book I really do come across what I think is the reason for living, and why we all live the way we do," Peart says. "I worked on this for two years, and by that point I couldn't find anything wrong with it."
Although Peart writes sometimes as if he's seeing the world for the first time, his philosophy on life is actually deeply refined. It's as if his head is finally clear. "When I'm driving my motorcycle across North America, when I see these small towns, these little diners, gas stations - that was somebody's dream, and I can relate to that," he says. "It would be a dream, and it would be a life."
* Far and Away: A Prize Every Time by Neil Peart ($32.95) is available in May from ECW Press. Rush will play Hamilton April 19 and Montreal April 20. For more information, visit neilpeart.com.