I felt stupid saying it. I was at an outdoor concert venue in Southeastern Massachusetts to see Rush, and I was telling the woman at the box office that I was a friend of the band’s drummer, and there was a backstage pass on hold for me. She’d probably heard things like that all the time from people trying to bullshit their way in, but it happened to be true, so I showed her the instructions Neil Peart had emailed me the night before. I’d made Neil’s acquaintance when he’d reviewed my second novel, Pike’s Folly, on his website, where he regularly reviews books, old and new, that catch his attention. The review was favorable, generous even, and I contacted him to express my thanks and share my admiration for his band. I’d grown up listening to Rush and attempting (badly) to play along to songs like “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of Radio” on the drums. Having my book reviewed by Neil Peart was one of the more surreal events in my writing life, and when he responded to my note, I was happy to find him personable, kind, and enthusiastic about contemporary fiction. When Rush made their next visit to the east coast, we arranged to meet up for a few minutes before the show.
After some hesitation, the woman at the box office radioed back to Neil’s personal assistant, Michael, who soon pulled up on a motorcycle and said, “Climb on and I’ll bring you backstage.” I knew both Neil and Michael were motorcycle enthusiasts, so the bike didn’t surprise me, but I hadn’t been on a motorcycle in 25 years, and I hesitated now. What was the protocol? Did I hang onto the guy, or was that taboo? Fortunately we didn’t have far to go, so I clenched my legs together to avoid falling off as the motorcycle lurched ahead, then continued down a loading ramp and across a restricted parking lot behind the venue. The usual array of rented trailer trucks made a maze out of the back lot, and we zipped past them at speeds more suited for the open road. I felt slightly embarrassed—everyone seemed busy prepping for the show, and I hoped my little social visit wasn’t a nuisance. (Note the mix of self-loathing and self-aggrandizement. Those two always go together, always, always.)
We climbed off the bike — thank God this happened before my hip replacements — and after numerous swipes of the security pass hanging from a nylon cord around Michael’s neck, we were in. A narrow corridor jam-packed with mostly guys in Rush roadie jackets ran past one multi-purpose room after another, some with their doors closed and others open, until finally we came to a room with a hand-marked sign taped to the door that read “Peart.” I wondered what name had been there the night before: maybe “Dylan” or “Tweedy.”
Michael introduced me to Neil, who was relaxing inside the room and having a smoke. I hadn’t expected cigarettes for Neil, but then I remembered the picture of him smoking behind his kit on the back cover of Permanent Waves. I tend to be the kind who resists fawning whenever I get the chance to meet a well-known person, because I know how much it annoys most of them. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “anti-fawning,” but I try to show equal interest in the whole of the person, not just the thing they’re famous for. I was fairly certain Neil had had his share of dudes gushing about how much Moving Pictures had changed their life, and I didn’t want to be another one. Besides, we had a shared interest in each other. He liked my writing and I liked his music (and his writing, too), and we both wanted to meet up.
(Neil had mentioned in an earlier email that the reason he’d bought my book, Pike’s Folly, was because he thought it was about Pikes Peak in Colorado, and as a nature lover that interested him. I’m glad he wasn’t too disappointed.)
We talked for about twenty minutes while Neil smoked and showed me his traveling notebook, where he kept ideas for song lyrics and blog posts. Writers are observers, so of course I noticed his appearance. He was tall and somehow managed to have both a wiry and muscular physique. His build was muscular but his body language was more that of a wiry person’s, all coiled energy, limbs in motion. He spoke fast and with a kind of mellow enthusiasm as we discussed our creative processes, what we liked and what bugged us, and all the while he seemed to be managing his energy for the show ahead, like a boiled pot turned down to simmer. At one point another local friend joined us — also a writer as it turned out, who’d written the short story on which Neil had based the lyrics for the Rush song “Red Barchetta.” The conversation turned friendly and three-way as we sat on the couch next to Neil’s practice kit. His practice kit was nothing like the monster he played on-stage—just three cymbals, a kick drum, a snare, a floor tom and a mounted tom. It looked like the kind of stripped-down kit a student might learn on.
It was time for the band to do its sound check, and I fully expected to shake Neil’s hand and return past security to the general admission gate. Instead Neil offered to show me around the stage, and of course I said yes. (My actual words were probably more like, “Hell, yeah!”) Once on stage, I tried not to get in the way as dozens of crew members scrambled to set up the band’s massive gear. Neil’s drum riser was only partially assembled; noticing the casters on its underside, I joked, “I foresee rotation in your future,” and Neil laughed.
Here’s where I nearly committed my second faux pas, the first being my clumsiness on Michael’s bike (the whole “Do I hang onto him or not?” thing). Neil was explaining about his kit, and I made the mistake (this wasn’t the faux pas—that’s coming) of assuming that, as a somewhat technical drummer, Neil wouldn’t be a big fan of Keith Moon, whose style I always thought of as more intuitive. When I lofted this flimsy observation, Neil kindly shot it down—it turns out, Moon is one of his favorite drummers. (Dumb of me; I love Thomas Bernhard but it’s not like I write like him at all.)
The near faux pas happened when Neil was describing the process of tuning his drum heads. We were standing beside the looming kit, and one of Neil’s ride cymbals was a foot or so away from my left hand. Maybe you can already see where this is going. Some things are just instinctive—we do them without thinking, without even necessarily wanting to do them. When you’re near a cymbal, you give it a little tap, right? It’s irresistible. You see it standing there, and you turn your index finger into a drum stick, and you tap it. It’s like waving at fish in a fish tank. And so, standing next to Neil Peart’s eleven piece drum kit, I raised my left hand, pointed at the cymbal with my index finger, and screamed inside my head:
DO NOT TAP NEIL PEART’S CYMBAL!
Faux pas averted. Never before have I been more grateful for my inner voice. My hand fell back, and the rest of the band gathered to run their sound check. Hey, there’s Geddy Lee—like, five feet away from me! (When I was a kid, my friends nicknamed me Geddy because I supposedly looked like Geddy Lee. I don’t know—I don’t see it.)
Again, I expected to leave, but to my pleasure and surprise I was allowed to watch the sound check, so I sat as one of only a handful of people in the 12000 seat outdoor venue and enjoyed the band’s work-through of “Distant Early Warning” (which they didn’t even wind up playing at the actual concert). It was impressive to watch the band execute their complex music with apparent ease while joking with roadies, peering up into the light racks, and conferring with their sound technicians. I think one of the pleasures in life is being amazed by what other people can do. Our own talent doesn’t generally impress us—it’s something we take for granted—but it impresses those who don’t share the same skill. Part of having a talent is not being overly impressed by it. I don’t think the guys in Rush sit around basking in themselves. If they did, I don’t think they would’ve become Rush to begin with. In my experience, self-impressed people tend not to accomplish much in life.
The sound check ended, and once again I expected to be sent on my way. (What is it about me that always expects to get the hook?) Instead I was invited to have a pre-show dinner backstage with the band and their crew. Here’s where I committed my third faux pas — it was more a faux pas of omission, and no one but me would’ve cared or given it a second thought. Still, it was dumb of me. As you might expect, the band had a pretty lavish spread—two-pound boiled lobsters, heaping stacks of 18 ounce prime ribs. Seeing all this food, I realized these guys probably ate like kings every night. Fuck, they earned it, but goddamn! Such generosity, to share their food with me, but instead of accepting their offer and partaking of a juicy prime rib, I decided I didn’t want them to think I was taking advantage — what puts these dumb thoughts inside my head? — and settled for a soda.
Just a soda. Could’ve had anything, and as much of it as I liked, and instead I just had a soda. I was hungry, and it was dinnertime —there was no reason not to eat. But I didn’t want anyone to think I was taking advantage.
What kind of person does that? What is wrong with me? Why do I apparently think myself so unworthy of kindness?