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How the Ghost Rider Coped with a Terrible Loss

by Bruno Van de Casteele

November 23, 2014

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Donate Rush is one of those rock bands that doesn't get enough recognition for their amazing musicianship and incredible career. It's difficult to define them in a single sentence, their musical style evolved over the years. Starting out as a prog rock band, with a first album in 1974 (influenced by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd), they evolved into more hard rock with a brief synthesizer intermezzo, defining in essence their own genre. What didn't change over the years is their incredible talent for playing music, especially live. No wonder, then, that they seem to have a relatively small but very engaged group of fans.

Those fans do not come only for the music, mostly written by Alex Lifeson (who plays guitar, and sings backing vocals) and Geddy Lee (bass, synthesizers, vocals). The fans (and I count myself among them) also come for the lyrics, written by the drummer, Neil Peart. They are not your usual love songs, and neither the pseudo-deep grunge by your typical hard rock groups. His lyrics cover a multitude of subjects, from philosophical to celebrating science, fantasy or science-fiction, touching psychological concepts (like fear or mob rule) or the relativity of our short existence. Peart has described himself as a "rational-scientific-skeptic," and that is quite clear when you read their song lyrics, his books, or his blog.

Rush and their musical-philosophical treatise on Free Will.
In 1996-1997, Peart experienced two shattering losses. First he lost his only daughter (in a car crash) and then 10 months later his wife (from cancer). As one can expect, he was completely shattered by this. He lost all interest (in his house, his career, his drums, his friends, and his money), he went through a really dark period with, at the time, almost no idea how he could get out of it.

He has written about how he coped in one of his books, Ghost Rider (2002). The title refers to a photo he had taken of his motorbike in the middle of a desert road, where it seemed the bike was not on its stand, but that it was riding without a rider. Also, as he said himself, the ghost refers to how he felt himself, i.e. as not being there or not being his real self.

Afterimage, written in the eighties about dealing with the loss of a friend ("suddenly you were gone") but which applied also completely to Pearts situation in 1996.
The book was written based on notes taken and letters written during a several month motor bike tour of North America. He explains that he just saddled up his bike and rode off, away from his house and all the painful memories. The result of that tour was not only that his sanity came back and he learned to cope (a bit) with the loss, but also the book. I recommend that book for anyone experiencing the loss of a loved one. It is not a dry description, but a vivid account of how a non-religious person can get out a very deep existential crisis. He also wrote a song later on, also called "Ghost Rider" that summarizes the idea a bit.

The song Earthshine, inspired by the astronomical phenomenon but also a reflection upon himself during these difficult times.
The book describes very well how we started on his journey, being only interested in riding, and thinking everyone and everything (even the rain) hates him. Slowly, he learns to appreciate things again, starting with his dinner, with walks in nature or finding interesting literature. Through letters to his friends and family, you see he slowly starts to appreciate other things and people again, and starts caring once more, as he described it himself. Far from an optimistic and feel-good path, he also tells of how he fell back again into sadness and frustration, several times. The mourning process is not a single road upward, there are many pitfalls, and it is normal to have to restart the process a couple of times.

Countdown, about the launch of a Space Shuttle.
When, after a year or so, he arrived at a friend's place in California, he met a woman and dated her for a short time. He describes the mixed feelings he had about this, both of still mourning and being in love. He then describes an odd encounter he had during a walk with her at the beachfront, an encounter that should interest skeptics. For "fun," and also because he wants to keep an open mind (he describes himself as a skeptic and not a cynic), they went to see a Tarot reader. The cards he drew are, of course random (Death, Wisdom, The Tower, Wheel of Fortune, High Priestess), but stunning is the interpretation he got from the reader. He even had it written down by the reader, to be sure he remembered it correctly.

Even when he wrote down the event in Ghost Rider about four years later, he was taken aback by the "precision" and how it rocked his worldview. Though it certainly troubled him, he doesn't make it a pivotal moment in his book—for him it's just an anecdote that reflects his troubled time. When I read it, I firstly couldn't really map it to the cards drawn (I could give a different reading that matches the cards and his life better), and secondly, it shows clearly how the reader performed cold reading with some lucky guesses — and nailed it just by sheer luck. Also, you have to consider that the guy wrote it down after Peart asked him to, allowing him some leeway in reinterpreting certain phrases on which he got a positive feedback.

For instance, the reader described "after great tragedy and tribulation you are trying to rebuild yourself." That might be good observation (some people cannot hide their emotional state), or just guessing (everyone has tragedies and tribulation). Then "you're dwelling on past conflicts, travelling with regrets." The travelling is correct, but regrets is a bit vague, as is the dwelling on past conflicts. Anyone has conflicts and might be dwelling on it — so an almost guaranteed hit.

The reader got it right that "You work in the performing arts of some kind — actor? musician?" But that is a pretty sure hit on Venice Beach in California. The description "Now you are travelling far from home" is laughable, as Peart's Canadian accent must have given that away quite clearly. Again the guy guessed partially right with "you will find a new beginning with a relationship [...] This person [...] will help you straighten out your money problems as well," but not at the time!

It might have been easy to guess a new relationship starting when you see a couple in love, especially given the 20-year difference between Peart and his date. However they later broke it off, and Peart remarried a couple of years later, with someone else. Furthermore, though Peart didn't care about money during that period, he was living on his savings, so he didn't have financial problems. His marriage did indeed lead to his financial problems "solved," as his new wife insisted that he return to his true passion, drumming. Rush came back from hiatus, and he had an income again. But that's a far-fetched interpretation, and the guy was probably guessing that it could happen with his date, and not in the future with someone else.

In short, the reading did not convince me, but it shows one interesting and disconcerting thing: even for a skeptic and scientific rationalist like Peart, it is easy to think there is something to the magic of Tarot and think such a reading is accurate, especially when one is in a difficult and vulnerable part of one's life. I'm quite certain that I would have thought the same in the same situation, and it might serve as a warning for us all.

Peart doesn't come back on the specific anecdote, and I speculate he only used it to reflect his tormented emotional state at the moment (with or without Tarot reading), and the choices he had to take going forward. I don't criticize him for mentioning it, let alone for considering that the reading might be correct. We are, after all, only human. Even Rush.

Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. By Neil Peart. Toronto: ECW Press, 2002. 400 pp. ISBN: 1-55022-548-0. $21.80

Subdivisions (one of their better known songs), about the pain of growing up "differently", i.e. not conforming to what others (peers, parents, ...) think you should do or think.

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by Bruno Van de Casteele

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