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Time and Motion

  Neil Peart: Traveling Music: The Soundtrack to My Life and Times
Neil Peart
ECW Press, 2004
Rating: 4.0
 

Posted: August 24, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist for the band Rush, has previously published two travelogues: The Masked Rider, an account of bicycling through Africa, and 2002's Ghost Rider, which recounts the author's grief-fueled motorcycle odyssey through Canada, the United States and Mexico as a means of escaping from, and coming to grips with, a couple of family tragedies. With Traveling Music, Peart revisits the travelogue format, but with a more ambitious scope. The road trip at the heart of Music -- a six-day round trip by car to Texas's Big Bend National Park -- serves as a framework for a thoughtful, sprawling collection of autobiographical sketches, record reviews, geographical history and past travel adventures.

Most of all, though, Traveling Music is intended as a kind of dissertation on individual drive, particularly as it pertains to music and motion -- the drive to create and the urge to travel, to explore, to chart new experiences. These two titular impulses -- traveling and music -- are presented as smaller facets of man's larger need to be doing something. And indeed, Music -- like much of Peart's lyrical oeuvre -- is presented as a celebration of that drive, especially as it relates to his own life.

And also, not to get too metaphysical, as an example of that drive in action: Peart occasionally stops to remind us of the book's origins and its intentions. As he recounts late in the book:

"In the two perspectives I wanted to explore, present day and distant past, I saw a pattern that reminded me of songwriting. Those alternating moods, or frames, could be cast as verses and choruses, maybe even with a middle section set apart somehow, to be a "middle eight." I could see the possibilities, and started trying different ways of imposing that architecture. I would begin each section with a lyrical line, and maybe try to tie them all together into an actual song at the end."

And so Traveling Music is structured in "verses" and "choruses" rather than chapters, each prefaced with a lyric that sets the stage for what's to come. It's a clever conceit, and while it works well, it also proves distracting -- coming as it does on the heels of the book's other structure, the Big Bend travelogue. For the most part, the interlocking devices are easy to navigate: The verses mainly stick to the present (including the Big Bend trip), and the choruses to the past (highlighting a formative stay in Britain, or a range of seminal musical influences encompassed in the '60s concert film The T.A.M.I. Show).

Indeed, it's not the dueling structures that occasionally trip up the reader, but long digressions within these sections. The fourth chorus, which kicks off with a lyric line about "drumming at the heart of an African village," dutifully recounts two impromptu occasions during bicycle journeys (in 1985 and 1992) in which Peart got to drum with African natives. But then it suddenly plops us into a harrowing account of an earlier leg of the latter trek, one with no discernible tie to drumming, and in fact no particular thematic significance to speak of. It feels like a story Peart just wanted to get into the book somehow, linked to the rest of the section only by an early statement that "traveling became a kind of home for me, and also a kind of music. Adventure travels moved from inspiration to perspiration on a quest for new horizons."

Likewise, the verses are given to anecdotal detours away from the Big Bend trip, and travel reminiscences within that travelogue, without clear transitions back to the main "narrative." Such is the winding nature of the book that Peart's idea of writing a book around the music he's listened to on the trip isn't expressed until page 200 -- just over halfway through!

To be fair, though, Traveling Music is about much, much more than the CDs Peart enjoys during his trip -- although to be sure, his listening tastes are certainly diverse (both Frank Sinatra and Radiohead?) interesting (it's nice to know there are others out there who can appreciate certain genres, or bands like the Beatles, without wholeheartedly embracing them) and occasionally head-scratching (at least, it's hard for this writer to share Peart's appreciations of Madonna, Linkin Park or 98).

But those tastes make up a relatively small part of a book that touches on topics including bird watching, regional history, mariachi music and a spirited defense of progressive rock, among others. And although such a multitude of subjects might overwhelm a less engaging writer, that meandering feel never derails the proceedings. That's because Traveling Music isn't defined by its attempts at structure, but rather by the abovementioned explorations (and many more besides) of that certain drive. In an absorbing, conversational style that favorably recalls John Irving's (and makes one impatient for a book about his life with Rush), Peart weaves his many threads together into a paean to the lifelong quest for knowledge, for movement, for excellence. It's that questing spirit that gives Traveling Music its momentum, and makes even its longer detours worth the trip.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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