Neil Peart is best known as the lyricist and drummer with the band Rush. Ghost Rider is an autobiography that describes a bleak period in the life, when his daughter and his wife both died, in under a year, leaving him alone after twenty years of family life. He starts off by asking himself a simple two part question:
How does anyone survive something like this?
And if they do, what kind of person comes out the other end?
The book is essentially the quest for the right answer to that question. Since the book was written and published, and he wrote the lyrics and played the drums on a new Rush album (Vapor Trails), we know that he survived well enough, but that doesn’t relieve the palpable tension at the start. After taking care of essential business, he set off on his motorbike, criss-crossing Canada, Mexico, and the USA. In a period of fourteen months he covered 55,000 miles in three trips, mostly lodging in motels, with occasional visits to friends and family. The Ghost Rider was a personification of loss and the drive to survive it; travel for its own sake, an attempt to lighten the burden of grief by creating new memories to balance the old ones.
There were also whole seasons spent at his home in rural Quebec, by the lakeside. Little of it productive, some self-destructive (booze, pills, TV), some intellectual, analyzing the situation and working out ways to help himself. Quite successfully, as it turns out, but the bike trips played the most important role in this process. He found himself trying out things he used to like, some of which he still did, some of which he didn’t. He described the process as “the care and feeding of a little baby soul” – a hit-and-miss proposition, if a movie billboard could reduce him to tears while driving down Sunset Boulevard in a rented Porsche with the top down. Writing long letters to friends served to kill hours and help him organize his thoughts; at one point that was all he was doing besides riding, and the letters make up large chunks of the book.
Peart certainly doesn’t try to portray himself as any kind of noble hero, or victim, and doesn’t skimp on much detail. In some parts, especially in the way he and his wife reacted to the death of their daughter in a car crash, it’s more than we want to know, but writing the book clearly served a therapeutic purpose. There is some wry black humour too, for example the way his “air of tragedy” seemed to attract women at times, or in becoming a “bachelor with a vengeance”, parking his shiny, unridden Ducati 916 in his living room. He also indulged himself in some very hostile attitudes towards tourists in Reno and others, and towards Californicators. Yet he found himself surprisingly at home in Los Angeles, hanging out with the South Park creators, and he later moved to the area. (If Rush ever appear on South Park, this is where it started.)
Before I began Ghost Rider, I wondered if Peart would exhibit the same pattern I have seen in others when confronted with personal tragedy. The way I would describe it, in a totally amateur fashion, is that a mental shock of such a magnitude numbs the critical faculties, and leaves people susceptible to ideas that they would not normally entertain. The most common result is that the person turns to religion, but other self-delusional behaviour has been seen, such as UFO-chasing or worse.
Neil Peart is known as a staunch atheist, and has expressed these ideas in his lyrics over the years, yet he found himself visiting churches in Mexico and lighting candles in memory of his daughter, who he remembered liking cathedral architecture when they had visited Paris before. He was also badly shaken by an uncannily accurate Tarot reading – and indeed, Tarot cards feature in the design of Vapor Trails. Several songs, especially The Stars Look Down, document the way his ideas evolved over time, and he appears to have kept it together intellectually. If he’s gone soft, it’s in the nicest possible way – by falling in love and remarrying, and by injecting a new sensitivity into his lyrics.
Some reviewers, especially staunch Rush fans, have commented elsewhere that the book is self-indulgent. There’s some truth in that charge, especially considering the considerable resources that Peart had at his disposal, both human and material. Not many people have the luxury of taking off on a motorbike for months at a time, or have all those friends and relatives to lean on. But, so what? The trip and those interactions are the foundation of the book’s appeal, and a straightforward “misery” description would have been less interesting to read. It becomes clear, in the book, that his financial position was not all that secure, and he thus had a clear motivation for writing this book and returning to Rush.
I simply suggest reading it, especially if you have suffered a personal loss of the kind he did. I personally found it educational; by comparing my experiences to his, I learned something about why I acted as I have done in the past, especially in how I relate to others. The journey described in the book, both on the road and through time, is a good illustration of the principle encapsulated in this famous quotation:
Sometimes the nicest thing you can do for somebody is to let them help you.
— John Steinbeck