Today is the 66th birthday of Canadian-American Neil Peart, who was famously perched on the drum throne for the 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Rush from July 1974 through the band’s final concert at the Los Angeles Forum on August 1, 2015. Hailed as one of the greatest drummers in music history, Peart is also a prolific writer and motorcyclist.

“Art is the telling of stories,” Peart wrote on his blog. “What might be called the First Amendment is, ‘Art must transcend its subject.’ However, sometimes art’s natural subject—life—transcends even the mightiest attempt at conveying it.”

Shady Pass
Washington State’s Shady Pass peaks at roughly 6,400 feet elevation.Michael Mosbach

When I transitioned from bicycles to motorcycles in late 2013—as Peart had done in the late '90s—my friend Ken Eichstaedt gave me a copy of Peart's 2002 book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. Inside its cover Ken wrote:

“To Gary: Maybe a motivation to ride? A tough story but very enjoyable. Hope you like it.”

Peart was lyricist for the three-piece band alongside bassist and lead singer Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson. His lyrics for Rush address universal themes and diverse subject matter including science fiction, fantasy, and philosophy, as well as secular, humanitarian and libertarian themes. All of his books are travel-based nonfiction, though they diverge into his life and these subjects as well.

Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is every motorcyclist’s dream.Michael Mosbach

Like most people who’ve led a physically active life, the wear and tear finally caught up with him, and with a nine-year-old daughter and wife taking center stage, the man who once famously wore a handlebar mustache and kimono has retired from music. The 6-foot-4 Peart suffers from chronic tendonitis and shoulder problems, which led to the band officially retiring in January 2018. He still enjoys motorcycling, as most of us with old-age maladies do.

New world man

“Riding toward the next turn at the outside of the lane, using all the available road, maximizing my own visibility and the ability of other vehicles to see me, I would look through the corner as far as I could, appraise its sharpness, banking, and surface, then choose the turn-in point,” he wrote about his experience in the Alps 14 years ago. “Squeezing the tank with my knees and holding on, my hands were free to be as smooth as possible on the brakes, throttle, and clutch, as I settled my entry speed and gear, then leaned the bike into it, pushing on the bar and leaning on the inside footpeg, using my body to help the turn.

“When I’m riding my motorcycle, I’m glad to be alive. When I stop riding my motorcycle, I’m glad to be alive.”

“When the bike was heeled over and angling through the curve, I used the edges of my mirrors as guides, my peripheral vision keeping the tip of the inside mirror along the radius of the painted lines,” he added. “I also used a trick I had learned from yoga, of throwing my senses ahead of me: when I was learning the ‘balanced poses,’ standing on one foot with the other limbs extended, a yoga instructor pointed out that it was helpful to focus on a distant point—to fix my concentration, my awareness, away from the space under my foot. The same concept worked for me on the motorcycle. Instead of thinking of the road under me, or just in front of my wheels, I tried to ‘send myself’ farther ahead. By concentrating on a point well up the road, my movements on the bike and its controls became smoother, and I could go faster with less anxiety.

“More excitement, less fear—an important part of my old formula: Danger + Survival = Fun.

“At the end of a long day on the road, I felt the mixed buzz of all-day vibration, overstimulation, and weariness—the underlying awareness of having gone the distance, enjoyed it, and survived it. I had once come up with a refrain that often played in my head: ‘When I’m riding my motorcycle, I’m glad to be alive. When I stop riding my motorcycle, I’m glad to be alive.’ ”

In Peart's 2006 406-page book Roadshow: Landscape with Drums: A Concert Tour by Motorcycle, he writes in rich detail about the band's 30th anniversary tour, which included 57 shows in nine countries in front of 544,525 people. He launched his own parallel tour, riding between those shows on his BMW motorcycle. From Los Angeles to Nashville, Salt Lake City to Key West, Prague to Berlin, Peart covered 21,000 miles, riding through 19 countries. His goal was to document the tour as "the biggest journey of all in my restless existence: the life of a touring musician."

Neil Peart
Playing in front of a packed house in Red Deer, Alberta.John Arrowsmith

Can you imagine doing your job while also riding 21,000 miles, usually off the beaten path? Peart’s enthusiasm for music and life seemed to have been re-energized by his time in the saddle, a feeling many of us have felt in our 50s.

All the world's a stage

“Then there was that mighty roar when the house lights went down, a physical wave against keyed-up nerves as I ran onto the stage into the twilight, and settled behind the drums while the opening movie played through,” he wrote.

“Those audience responses created a sensory buzz greater than any sense of personal vanity, and that was part of the addiction that crept into your soul over the years. That atmosphere was exciting and contagious, and never got old—despite all the stress, the fatigue, the performance anxiety, and the sheer repetition of doing it night after night. A rock concert remains one of the most exciting events I have ever experienced. Though I must admit, I have always had a secret wish just to be there, to watch and listen and not have to work. But I guess that might not be quite so exciting—at least after the 500th time.

“The hardest show of the tour is always the first one, with all the preparation it takes to bring everything to that point of readiness, and the pressure of actually doing it, just once, in front of an audience. The first stage, in many ways, was the final stage. After that, no matter how difficult it was to perform at that level every night, it could never be as uncertain, or as exciting, as the First Show.”

Exit…stage left

And on August 1, 2015, Peart played his final show with Rush. The band’s final song was “Working Man,” and the R40 Tour grossed $37.8 million, with 442,337 tickets sold at 35 concerts. Peart wanted to keep his family at the center of his life.

"It's a true dilemma," the drummer told Prog Magazine at the beginning of the tour to celebrate Rush's 40 years with Peart. "Should I be excited about leaving my family?" he said. "No, and no one should. I've been doing this for 40 years. I know how to compartmentalize. I can stand missing her, but I can't stand her missing me. I'm causing pain."

The staying power of the man and his two friends is unheard of in rock; not many bands in the history of music have maintained the same uninterrupted personnel for such a duration, and there is none I know of who’ve had an active motorcyclist and author like Peart.

So happy birthday to the man who has embraced life despite its curveballs and challenges. I vividly recall lying on the hot concrete of my driveway in Allouez, Wisconsin, home, large headphones blaring “Tom Sawyer” into my brain as a high school freshman in the spring of 1981. Your beautiful soundtrack of music and words has inspired millions in your 66 years on this planet, and for that I’m lifting a glass of Macallan single malt Scotch whisky in your honor.