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Backroads & Backbeats:
Neil Peart Takes the Scenic Way to Work
BMW Owners News Magazine
by Don Argento
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Almost everyone commutes to work, but what if each day's "office" was in a different
city? What if you had two days to ride a BMW R1200GS on the back roads of the United
States, Canada, Europe, or even South America to your next "office"? Well, you would,
wouldn't you? That is the way Neil Peart, world-renowned drummer and lyricist of the
rock band Rush, rolls.
Known for his complex, intricate
and extraordinary command of
his drums, Peart has been honored
countless times by DRUM!
and Modern Drummer magazines.
He hits hard. Very hard! Every strike
of the drumstick is precise and powerful. If
you've ever had the good fortune to see him
play live, you've witnessed the equivalent of
an Olympic athlete performing percussive
acrobatics that are rhythmically hypnotic,
metered like a Swiss clock, and musically
compelling. Naturally, his bandmates,
Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, are equally
celebrated on their respective instruments.
After nearly 40 years together, thousands of
shows, and 40 million albums sold, Rush
was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of
Fame in 2013.
Granted, Peart doesn't work every day
like most of us; the band schedules their
tours with shows spread out every other
night, allowing him two days between venues.
It works out for everyone, he says.
"When I first started riding to shows, my
bandmates were happy to fly because they
didn't like traveling by bus, and I didn't like
flying. So it made a perfect way for us to
settle our desires. I have a bus with a trailer
and motorcycles in it, and they have a jet.
Everybody's happy with that arrangement."
Peart logged an impressive 28,000 miles
between 72 shows on Rush's most recent
Clockwork Angels Tour, in 2012–13. The
band has indeed reached a groove; Neil
continues, "We're kind of ruling our destiny.
This past tour was a perfect example of
everyone being so happy with the way we
were performing-and the way we were
Peart's routes are carefully planned and
always avoid the major highways, "Freeways
and motorways are less than one percent
of our riding, we figure." Unlike most
tourists who visit the towns and cities on
their expedition, it's what lies between them
that piques this world traveler's curiosity. As
Neil puts it, "Every day I pick the tiniest
roads on the map. Then we try to put them
on the computer map, and then onto our
GPSes." Sometimes the GPS can't even
locate such remote roads-what his riding
partner, Michael, calls the "mystery
roads"-but that doesn't stop him from
going off the grid. It takes a little strategy to
ensure his timely arrival to the gigs while
"straining the limits of machine and man"
("Red Barchetta," 1980). To that end, Peart
has a little saying, "Magic happens, but it
often requires some planning."
Though Neil takes pride in a small collection
of vintage sports cars, he doesn't
pine for a garage full of motorcycles. In fact,
there's only been one brand that ever summoned
his affection and attention-BMW.
Peart clarifies, "I didn't start riding until my
forties, quite late in life. Growing up, in the
back of my mind was always-someday I
will ride a motorcycle, and it will be a
BMW." It should come as no surprise that a
man so driven and focused would know
exactly what he wants. "It goes back to the
old black ones with the white pin-striping.
That always looked to me just how a motorcycle
In fact, Peart doesn't really love motorcycles
as objects, but more like what Melissa
Holbrook Pierson called "The Perfect Vehicle."
He considers one motorcycle, his GS,
to be all he needs. He turns them over every
50,000 miles, selling them to friends, and
all are accounted for. He calls them the "GS
Geezers," and is now riding "Geezer 7."
What's so significant about 50,000 miles?
He explains, "For me it's kind of the benchmark.
Like cars, motorcycles have an arc.
For a two-cylinder motorcycle to have a
trouble-free 50,000 miles is pretty admirable
When he started touring with Rush in
1974, opening for other bands and often
with a meager 20-minute set, there was
plenty of downtime. Peart quickly decided,
"That was no kind of life." Breaking his
touring life into decades, he spent his twenties
reading, "Getting an education a young
musician usually doesn't in all the other arts
of the world." With an endless thirst for literature
and non-fiction, he loves sciences
especially, "Nature, history, geography,
geology, all of those are of interest to me." In
his thirties, he turned to bicycling for exploration,
noting, "I carried a bicycle on the
tour bus, and on show days I would go out
and ride around the city or, on days off, out
into the countryside." Ever hungry for a
challenge, he raised the stakes by riding 100
miles between shows, stating, "I'd have to
make it on my own, and it was long before
cell phones. So it was a tremendous feeling
of self-reliance and independence that
really appealed to me." He claims he never
had a bad experience on a bicycle, even
when traveling from Manhattan to New
Jersey's Meadowlands. People, even New
York natives, would tell him he was crazy,
but the reality was different: "If anything,
people will talk to you on a bicycle. You're
an innocent freak."
Peart finally decided to cover more
ground by moving from bicycling to motorcycling.
"When I was in my forties, I
decided I had grown up as far as I was going
to." In the mid-1990s, he and his pal Brutus
started their BMW motorcycling experiences
with an R1100RS and a K1100RS that
they rode up to the Arctic and around Mexico.
He reports, "Those were very unsuitable
bikes for adventure touring." So when
the first Oilhead GS came out, they both
bought those and traveled through Germany,
Austria, Italy and Sicily, ferried over
to Tunisia and went around the Sahara. He
recalls excitedly, "We had all the adventures
that adventure travel should contain. We
said, 'Okay, this is for us!'" So the GS became
his "preferred mode of travel."
In the late 1990s, Peart rode that first Oilhead
GS on a different kind of journey, a
desperate flight of more than 55,000 miles.
He was trying to survive the loss of his first
daughter, Selena, who died at age 19 in a car
accident in 1997, and her mother Jacqueline,
who died merely 10 months later from
grief. He kept a detailed journal of an odyssey
that eventually became the book Ghost
Rider, and he gave that name to the old GS.
It was retired after 100,000 miles, but kept
for sentimental reasons. Neil eventually
made his way back to some new kind of
"home," and the band, and began a new life
in Southern California with his wife Carrie
and four-year-old Olivia.
When Neil started doing concert tours by
motorcycle, he faced the absolute necessity
of "showing up on time." He began to ride
with a partner in case his bike failed him,
but in all those 15 years, all those tens of
thousands of miles, it has only happened
once, on this most recent tour. He recounts
the story: "We got up at 5:30 in the morning
and rode through Yellowstone heading
down to the next show in Salt Lake City. My
rear tire pressure indicator was flashing,
and I found a nail." Peart decided to try to
carry on, and managed to cover 300 miles,
but as he came down from the mountains
the temperature rose into the 90s. "The tire
started not holding air anymore, and by
now we're in the sagebrush desert and it's
getting to around 100 degrees. An attempt
to plug it failed, so I had to say 'Sorry' to the
friend riding with me on my spare bike.
But, at least we were in a shady place where
I could leave him and carry on to the show."
Flat tires and other unforeseen setbacks
are good reasons Peart travels with a partner
and spare bike. The spare also helps
when scheduling service on the road, not to
miss a day of riding, and that has to be choreographed
almost to the level of his mindblowing
rhythms in Rush's elaborate songs.
"There's a lot of preparation and daily
maintenance involved in making it work on
that level. I do my own oil changes, but
every 6,000 miles is a major service and the
bike needs to go to a dealer. So I'll send one
bike with my bus driver on the trailer."
Peart uses a number of aftermarket products,
including Motolights on the front.
"Anyone coming at me is going to see that
triangle of lights and they know right away
it's a motorcycle." He prefers Jesse luggage
cases because he had bad luck with a BMW
factory one years ago that fell off, losing
some precious cargo, so he "never trusted
them again." On previous bikes he's preferred
block-profile Heidenau rubber, saying,
"I got a little bit spoiled by those
Quebec City (Photo by Michael Mosbach)
tires-they were so capable even on snow.
We were warned not to use the Heidenaus
on the new bike. But eventually the aftermarket
Speaking of the new Wethead he acquired
in April of 2013, "I'm always a little skeptical-
I don't get the new model as soon as it
comes out, and even then I'm not sure I'm
going to like it better than the old one. But
the new water-cooled engine is such a great
evolution-strong and very satisfying.
'Dyna' mode is our everyday default, but in
wet weather the 'Rain' mode of traction
control and ABS is excellent; it's just so
reassuring. The bike is truly an evolution in
You would think with the sheer number
of miles of back roads and remote riding,
Peart would opt for a GS Adventure, but he
claims, "The size and weight is the thing.
When you get into 'challenging' terrain, you
don't want even an extra 15 pounds. I like
the fuel capacity, of course; but I have a rule
that between the Mississippi and the
Coastal Ranges. I always carry a gallon can
of gas on the back, and it's saved me a lot of
times." As someone who achieved a personal
milestone riding from LA to Denver
for his Iron Butt license-plate frame, he
knows when he's found the right fit. "I love
the feel and balance of the GS as it is," he
Peart never puts his feet on the pegs
without donning head-to-toe gear. Lately
he favors an Aerostich Transit suit, as "the
first truly waterproof, anti-UV leather suit.
I don't have to put my rain jacket on if it
starts raining-that's hugely liberating to
me. It breathes very well and is super comfortable.
I must have 50,000 miles or more
on mine now without any problem." He's
been a steady fan of BMW Santiago boots,
and says, "I love BMW gloves! I have their
rain gloves, cold weather gloves, and summer
gloves." Peart isn't the only one who
realizes the quality and styling of great gear,
he mentions. "My friend Brian Catterson,
former editor-in-chief at Motorcyclist and
before that at Cycle World, said, 'BMW's
unknown secret is how good their gear is.'"
The drummer protects his head, and
anonymity, with Schuberth helmets, and
says of modular helmets, "If I do stop and
ask someone for directions, it's great to lift
that shield and let them see your face. It
changes the nature of social encounters
hugely, I think, for motorcyclists. Even with
the GPS, we get lost often enough, and I
really treasure human encounters like that
as part of the way I travel." Though he rides
typically with one partner, not with groups,
he feels the deeper connection to others
touring by motorcycle, especially on the
many European ferries he's traversed.
Considering the vast number of miles
and shows, it takes an immense amount of
endurance to maintain a schedule like this
Rock Star. On days between shows, Neil
wakes up with an alarm clock, eats a hearty
breakfast, then spends seven or more hours
burning up the twisties. He'll repeat that
routine on show days, cutting the fun a bit
short to arrive at the venue by 3 p.m. He'll
perform any necessary maintenance on the
bike, then it's off to sound check. After the
band is satisfied, Neil will visit with his family
on Skype, then it's dinnertime with his
bandmates. Prior to the show, he warms up
for about 20 minutes, then Rush takes the
stage for two long sets. Well before the
house lights come up, Neil is aboard his
tour bus barreling down the road. He concludes
the arduous day with a relaxing hit of
his favorite scotch, The Macallan.
To meet the demands of his rigorous job,
Peart trains hard with cross-country skiing,
gym workouts, swimming, yoga and practice,
practice, practice. That's how he builds
his incredible endurance for three hours of
astounding drumming at each show. Add
eight hours a day on a motorcycle and you
have an incredibly demanding routine. So
why not just chill on the bus? He emphasizes,
"For me, the riding time is stimulation.
It's a different kind of concentration
and certainly a different kind of responsibility.
On stage I feel responsible to a similar
degree, but a mistake isn't going to kill me.
There's a big difference there. I find they
complement each other. I notice that when
I do take a day off the bike, I feel the pain
much worse." Peart elaborates, "I feel like
maybe the vibration is therapy in itself-
just being on the bike. Cause I'll hurt. At the
end of a day of riding, oh yeah, I'm sore all
over. I always say that about drumming,
too, if I'm sore all over that's okay." Meaning
he can live with pain, as long as it's not isolated,
noting, "If my back hurts, or my neck,
or hip, or knee, or ankle, or whatever, I hate
that. That's why I train so much for drumming,
to prevent that kind of injury. It's the
same on the bike. That's what I love about
the GS, too; it's comfortable enough you
can be on it 10 hours a day. At the end of the
day, yes, you're going to be tired and sore,
but all over." With the considerable amount
of fatigue he endures from his rigorous
schedule, it's fair to ask if he ever feels the
need to pull over and rest. "I don't mean
this in any superhero way, but the focus of
concentration on a motorcycle is such that I
could never feel drowsy." Considering his
level of stamina, he's just a cape shy of
Peart's a Zen master for sure, balancing
the mental focus and taxing physical
demands necessary for his extreme drumming
and lengthy rides. He says, "They do
complement each other. Being on the bike
is more responsible in terms of a more
mortal existence, and yet I feel freer. On
stage I feel responsible to an ideal of accuracy
and excellence that is painfully
intense." Peart, of course, wants to please
the fans, but he holds himself to an even
higher standard-his own. He knows when
he's had a great night and when he's a bit
off. "It's often said about show business,
and it's true, that you're only as good as
your last performance. Fortunately, my
consistency has gone up over the years so
that now I can honestly say that rarely do I
have that kind of show. But that's one
reward of touring- if you do have a bad
show, you get another chance."
On a motorcycle, though, you might not
get a second chance. Peart realizes this and
remarks, "As soon as I swing my leg over
that saddle, I'm riding that bike. There's
nothing else. I never listen to music in a
headset, but songs will play in the mental
jukebox. As soon as things get dicey,
whether in traffic or you've got a curvy bit
of road, some gravel, or something like
that-the music stops. It goes into pause,
you deal with the moment, and then the
music will restart again. It's phenomenal
how that works."
Neil has been playing drums for almost
50 years and with Rush for nearly 40. Does
he feel he's gotten better? "It's been a progressive
pursuit as a drummer and a
band-we have gotten better." Every Rush
fan would love to know his favorite
recorded performance, but without hesitation
he responds, "If it wasn't the latest one,
I would have to quit. There's no question in
my mind that Clockwork Angels is by far my
best performance on every level, musically,
technically, sonically, in every way. Not a
shadow of a doubt." When asked if he's
become a better motorcycle rider, he's just
as confident. "I've certainly become a better
motorcycle rider over the years. It's like
asking, 'Do you think you were a better
motorcycle rider 10 years ago?' I hope not
or you should quit!"
Impossible is not a word in Peart's vocabulary.
It is, however, a word that's been used
to describe what he does on a drum kit.
Having known him for a number of years,
the thing that strikes me the most about
Neil is the amount of time, effort, passion,
thought, care and heart he puts into everything
he does, not just drumming, writing
or motorcycling. Everything! It's no
surprise that when faced with a challenge,
he rises to it. In 2010, as he looked over the
band's itinerary for the upcoming South
American leg of the Time Machine tour, he
noticed four days off between Brazil and
Argentina. Most of us would think, oh
great, some beach time sounds relaxing.
Not Neil, oh no. Straight away he contacted
Brutus, his overseas "travel supervisor,"
and asked him, "Could we make it from
Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires in four
days?" Brutus reported, "It looks like it
could be done." Neil declares, "That meant
it had to be done! Because another one of
my guidelines in life is: What's the most
excellent thing I can do today? Sometimes
the most excellent thing I can do is go to
work. That's a reality we all have, on whatever
level. Accepting that, there are some
realities that go along with my particular
style of going to work, but I can make the
best of that journey and get the most interest
and satisfaction out of it." He chooses to
live by a motto his father instilled in him:
"If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing
well." As any fan of his will tell you, he does
what he does very well.
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