Neil Peart's Bleeding Heart
Neil Peart, the extraordinary drummer for the band Rush, has produced another terrific travel journal titled Far and Wide: Bring that Horizon to Me! Peart is already a photojournalist of some acclaim, having written several tour diaries over the years full of his musings and pictures from life on the road with one of the most successful rock acts of our time.
Many libertarians born into Generation X, your author included, are undying Rush fans. The distinctly Canadian trio’s mix of driving prog-rock sounds good loud, but manages to stake out a sound that is not heavy metal yet completely unlike their major influences --The Who, Led Zeppelin, Cream among them. Rush set themselves apart as the thinking man’s cerebral rock band in an era of 80s Spinal Tap arena acts, making it almost cool to be a Rush geek (on an early tour supporting KISS, the debauchery-seeking Gene Simmons famously burst into their hotel room to find the group ... reading).
Their thematic albums never courted easy radio appeal, and those themes — especially in the band’s early work — advanced individualist, anti-egalitarian, and anti-collectivist messages in songs like Anthem, 2112, The Trees, and especially Freewill.
Those themes came courtesy of Peart, who wrote the band’s lyrics and contributed heavily to arrangements. He is considered one of the all-time greats among drummers, both technically and stylistically, in stark contrast to time-keeping drummers who stay in the background. Known as a onetime fan of Ayn Rand (hence Anthem), Peart’s rationalist and freethinker views were on full display in the band’s early catalog. They even thanked Ayn Rand in the liner notes to the album 2112 — only to be called “junior fascists” by some in the press.
But Rand was a passing interest for Peart, and the years mellowed him to the point where in a 2012 Rolling Stone interview he termed himself something Ms. Rand would never abide: a “bleeding heart libertarian.”
Now I call myself a bleeding heart libertarian. Because I do believe in the principles of Libertarianism as an ideal — because I’m an idealist. Paul Theroux’s definition of a cynic is a disappointed idealist. So as you go through past your twenties, your idealism is going to be disappointed many many times. And so, I’ve brought my view and also — I’ve just realized this — Libertarianism as I understood it was very good and pure and we’re all going to be successful and generous to the less fortunate and it was, to me, not dark or cynical. But then I soon saw, of course, the way that it gets twisted by the flaws of humanity. And that’s when I evolve now into ... a bleeding heart Libertarian. That’ll do.
Just a few years later, however, Peart followed up this interview with a bizarre statement that then-presidential aspirant Rand Paul — a big Rush fan — “hates women and brown people,” a slander for which Peart has never apologized. Nor did the band stand idly by when Senator Paul played Rush songs at campaign events, although their lawyer insisted the cease and desist letter was about protecting copyrights, not Paul’s politics.
Regardless of Peart’s erstwhile libertarian outlook, Far and Wide is a great read and unique example of the tour diary genre. The book chronicles the final farewell Rush tour of 2015, named “R40” to symbolize the band’s four decades of touring and success with the same three-piece lineup. The tour itself is a marvel of logistics and scheduling, deploying a small army of drivers, pilots, managers, chefs, riggers, lighting techs, sound engineers, and gophers. The whole spectacle requires moving thousands of pounds of gear every day, always a city or two ahead of the band. The entire process, honed over decades with plenty of trial and error, could be a case study in entrepreneurial discovery and risk. The costs involved are staggering, and every nickel must be accounted for. Fortunately for Rush, their relatively well-heeled and aging fans create plenty of demand for tickets, especially given the band’s insistence that farewell really means farewell.
The tour takes place over three grueling months, featuring 35 concerts and covering 17,000 miles of North American turf. The culmination is the band’s final bittersweet concert at the Forum in Los Angeles, a venue they know intimately from 25 appearances over the years.
The twist is that Peart traveled those miles by motorcycle, not by private plane or luxury coach.
Known as an inveterate traveler who loves adventures, Peart started out carrying a bicycle on the tour bus in the 1980s — hoping to get closer to the ground and actually explore the cities otherwise whizzing by. Upon arrival in Salt Lake City or Atlanta or Calgary he would jump on his bike and see the town, quite anonymously, until sound check time back at the arena in late afternoon. Queuing fans never imagined the identity of the helmeted cyclist riding around behind the venue.
This eventually led to an interest in motorcycle touring, given some mishaps trying to ride his bicycle between tour stops. After a terrible 10 months in the 1990s where Peart lost both his teenage daughter and wife, he took to motorcycling as therapy and covered 55,000 miles across the Americas. At some point the thought struck him: why don’t I ride a motorcycle on tour, between stops?
That’s what makes Far and Wide so interesting, especially if you like rock music, road trips, and BMW motorcycles. And not just any BMW motorcycle but the R1200GS, an expensive behemoth considered the king of “adventure” bikes. And Peart takes adventure to the limit, often subjecting himself and his riding buddy to back roads that don’t even show up on GPS devices. They studiously avoid interstates, placing them squarely at the mercy of diners, fast food chains, dollar stores, and Best Western hotels (or worse).
But Peart loves it, and doesn’t miss flying a bit — even with the comfort private aviation affords his band mates. On the road for tens of thousands of miles with no automobile cage surrounding him, Peart digs into the heart of America and often likes what he finds. Frequently hot, dusty, rain-soaked, tired, and looking for a pit stop, he gets admirably up close and personal with the Deplorables — from mechanics to waitresses to weather-beaten hitchhikers at truck stops. Peart clearly loves America, for all its faults, and in fact moved from Toronto to Los Angeles before becoming a naturalized US citizen.
Interestingly, in this sense Peart is the opposite of bleeding heart “liberals” when it comes to average Americans in flyover country: he likes them very much, has frequent contact with them, and often admires them, in person. In the abstract, though, they worry him and seem beyond redemption in some cases. This is a repeating though minor annoyance throughout the book: there is an element of world-weariness in many of Peart’s observations, one that betrays his sense that things could be so much better if only the rubes would drop certain outmoded ways of thinking.
A telling anecdote involves the breakdown of his riding buddy’s motorcycle. A friendly Mormon couple in a restaurant offer the buddy a ride while Peart heads on alone, and even maneuver their pickup truck against a hill so the damaged bike can be loaded rather than left awaiting a tow. While he finds the couple “cool and intelligent” during the long ride to Los Angeles, the buddy makes sure “not to reveal my agnosticism, for fear of tension, or me being cast out of the vehicle.” He’s joking, somewhat, but his notion that the couple would care at all if he was a Catholic, Jew, or atheist comes across as smug and insular. Mormons actually know non-Mormons.
Religion and religiosity are particular bugaboos for Peart, and his insistence on peppering the book with personal thoughts on the irrationality of faith gets tedious fast. Chapter 10 finds him scanning a map of upstate New York for fun back roads when he notices the tiny city of Palmyra, birthplace of Latter Day Saints founder Joseph Smith. This leads to a lengthy passage about how Mormonism in particular perplexes him, although all religions are silly and suspect:
But not to pick on the Mormons — they’re just one example of magical thinking, and far from the most extreme. Every superstition has its magic clothes — Jewish beanies, scarves, and sidelocks; priests, bishops, and popes in their fancy dresses and hats; and even the austere Buddhists in their Saffron robes.
After a few more more cliched jabs at Mormon business acumen, “magic underwear,” fundamentalist literalism regarding the Book of Genesis, and the story of Noah’s Ark, he gets to the root of his opposition to what he sees as mystical religious nonsense:
It doesn’t take a cynic — maybe only a skeptic — to believe that future generations will view us as we do Ancient Egyptians or Aztecs. Fascinating, maybe, but laughably primitive. And probably a little — “horrible.” The one telling question to address to any religion seems obvious to me: How do they treat women?
His coup de grace with respect to silly religious people finishes with a flourish in dismissing Christ, Moses, Abraham, Joseph Smith, and L. Ron Hubbard in one fell swoop:
All of them were undeniably visionaries, as I would define it, and apparently believed their own visions. Fair enough — but the miracle is that others believed them. The rest of us, or at least the rationalists, answer with Christopher Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Or stand behind astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
Rolling out Hitchens and deGrasse Tyson as reliable atheist authorities might scratch a self-righteous itch for Peart, who also brings up the “Westboro Baptist Church” (groan) as a symbol of what enlightened thinkers are up against. But there is a superficial feel to his bias, suggesting a man who doesn’t fully grasp that dismissing faith is mostly a luxury for rich westerners in recent centuries. One gets the perception that he has not studied any religion thoroughly, and that for all his intellectualism he has little patience for religious people who place human reason in some greater context.
There are other nits, though minor, that suggest Peart is more bleeding heart than libertarian. For starters, the book is sponsored by taxpayer funds through the Canadian Council for the Arts and the Canadian government’s Canada Book Fund. This is no crime, one supposes, as Peart undoubtedly has paid millions in taxes to his home country. But he is not some unknown starving artist — surely someone with his wealth, fame, and business contacts can manage to publish a book entirely privately?
It is also no crime for a libertarian, especially an avid motorcyclist, to enjoy US National Parks. Peart is thrilled when gifted with an annual pass, and proud to display it when touring through Glacier National Park. But his complaints about peak season traffic and slow-moving RVs don’t yield any interesting follow up thoughts about market pricing or private conservation. And his disgust with fracking in Texas demonstrates no hint of libertarian impulse, given his lament that the industry “has been allowed to grow completely unchecked.” Is his land or capital involved? Does he have proof of external harm? And whom exactly would he charge, and trust, with “checking” the fracking industry? His admits “no one has been able to prove that fracking is bad, but it sure doesn’t sound like a good idea.” This sounds more like dogma than freethinking.
He also can’t get through the book without bringing up Walmart, with which he has a love-hate relationship. His personal bus, transporting Peart, his riding buddy, a driver, and a trailer for motorcycles, often spends the night parked in Walmart parking lots. The lots are safe, well-lit, close to interstates, and make early morning shopping fast and convenient. Yet Peart offers the most flaccid and unoriginal criticisms: Walmart represents ugly suburban blight, it killed Mom and Pop businesses, it promotes crass low-rent consumerism... These kinds of trite opinions again lend the perception that Peart has not thought about some things too deeply.
Nits aside, this is a worthy book for Rush fans and anyone who simply loves engaging road stories. Peart provides plenty of insight into the band, its history and rough patches, and his own growth within it. These insights reveal a man who is refreshingly humble and the furthest thing from a rock star stereotype. The reader comes away appreciating the intelligent, thoughtful, and completely unpretentious legend behind the drums.
Ultimately, Far and Wide can give us only an incomplete look into the experiences and worldview of Mr. Peart. But his conception of human liberty we glimpse in the book is more of the heart than mind, leaving us wondering whether he would scoff at the “mere economics” of Mises or Rothbard. It also leaves us wondering if he applies the same freethinking rationalism and demands for empirical proof to bleeding heart government policies.