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Discussed in this episode
Traveling Music: The Soundtrack to My Life and Times by Neil Peart
Mark’s previous appearance on the Best Book Ever Podcast
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
Shock Rock 2 edited by Jeff Gelb
The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa by Neil Peart
Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road by Neil Peart
Clockwork Angels by Neil Peart and Kevin J. Anderson
Assembling California by John McPhee
Sinatra Live in Paris
Nina Simone at Town Hall
Naïda by Scott Overton
The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power by Desmond Cole
The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King
Masquerade: The Complete Series by Valerie Francis
Discussed in our Patreon Excerpt:
Terminal House by Sean Costello
Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer (I never voluntarily pick up sci-fi, but after hearing Mark’s description of this book, I immediately grabbed a copy of this one at my library!)
The Hope Sze Medical Mystery Series by Melissa Yi (an 8-book series that begins with Code Blues: When Medicine Becomes Murder)Lightning by Dean Koontz
(Note: Some of the above links are affiliate links, meaning I get a few bucks off your purchase at no extra expense to you. Anytime you shop for books, you can use my affiliate link on Bookshop, which also supports Indie Bookstores around the country. If you’re shopping for everything else – clothes, office supplies, gluten-free pasta, couches – you can use my affiliate link for Amazon. Thank you for helping to keep the Best Book Ever Podcast in business!)
Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m talking to Mark Lefebvre. Mark is a writer book, industry, representative podcaster speaker, and one of my favorite book nerds. Today, Mark joins me to talk about why Traveling Music by Neil Peart, from the band Rush, is the Best Book Ever. Now, wait! Women listeners, don’t click away yet! This conversation is really special to me. Mark and I really disagreed about this book, and, honestly, about this particular rock band. My general policy on the podcast is never to criticize any book by a living writer. I know how hard it is to write a book, and I don’t want to put that kind of negativity into any author’s life. No matter what I think of a book, my goal here is to learn why it’s important to someone else. However, this was a tricky situation because although Neil Peart died recently, I was still reticent to criticize it because I know Mark personally, and I know how much Rush means to him. Ultimately, we were able to talk about our different reactions to this book, as well as touch on our responsibility as readers when we encounter problematic texts from our heroes. It’s a fascinating, funny conversation from one of my most fascinating and funniest friends. And even if you are not a fan of Rush, meaning if you’re a female – Yeah. I said it! – I promise you’re still going to like this bookish chat.
For more information on how to support this podcast, check out my Patreon. For about the cost of a latte you can have access to all sorts of extra goodies every week. You’ll get exclusive interview clips with my guests that are only available to patrons. I also send out advanced notice of the books we discuss, curated reading lists, my monthly reading wrap-ups, including the good, the bad and the DNFs, and essays about the reading life. Go to Patreon to learn more about how you can help me keep the candles burning over here in my reading cave.
Now, back to the show.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Mark! Welcome back to the Best Book Ever Podcast.
Mark Lefebvre: Hey Julie, this is the best podcast ever when we’re talking about books. And I’m so thrilled that I get to chat with you about books.
JS: And I’m so thrilled that you’re back. You’re my first repeat guest, which is exciting.
ML: Wow. I didn’t realize that. What an honour, with a “U”, as we spell it in Canada.
JS: Thank you for speaking Canadian. And thank you for translating, just in case. Mark, we discussed a lot about your reading life back in episode 9, I believe, when we talked about Earth Abides. So I really want to encourage my listeners to go back and listen to that one, because that was where we really got into the nitty gritty of what books mean to you. You’re one of the most devout book lovers I’ve ever known in my life. I think the only thing you talk about as much as books is Rush. I have heard you many times, over the years, refer to a Rush lyric that got you through a rough time, or when you feel joyful about something, you will post a clip from a Rush song or something like that. I want to ask you what, what is it about them? Why is their music so important to you?
ML: I’m the kind of person, I can’t have a conversation without something someone’s reminding me of a lyric of a song. Music resonates with people in a really interesting way. Music is typically shorter and powerful. You’ve packed in a lot. I think of music like poetry. You talked about that on a recent episode of your podcast. There’s something about poetry and music that, you’ve packed a lot of thought introspection and meaning and intent. Instead of 80,000 words, you’ve jammed it into 50 words or 100 words or whatever. Music has that same effect. Combining not just the lyrics, but the actual sounds of the music, can make you feel different things. And so it’s always resonated for me. There’s an oft-used quote in my circles of Rush nerdism, “There’s a Rush lyric for that,” because with all of the albums and all of the great lyrics, mostly, 95% or 98% of the lyrics were written by Neil Peart since he joined them for their second album, there was always just something that touched me. When it comes to Rush, I think it was about 1984, their album Grace Under Pressure came out and I was this geeky teenager. My buddy Pete – my best friend, the longest relationship I’ve had in my life, I’ve known him since I was about four years – Pete Heidrick, who was a big fan of Rush, he brings a cassette over. He recorded their latest album, Grace Under Pressure. And he goes, you would like this because it talks a lot about this dystopian post-apocalyptic world kind of thing. That was the theme of the album. And I listened to that over and over and over just something resonated with me in the intelligence of the lyrics. I don’t know what it was. They struck me and they continue to strike me. And even in conversations, as you know, to this day, we’ll refer to a Rush lyric and go, you know, when Neil wrote this, this is what he was thinking.
JS: Tell me how you got to this book. When did you learn that Neil Peart, who is the drummer for Rush is also an author?
ML: Well, early on, I was reading a horror anthology from Pocket Books called Shock Rock 2. It was edited by Jeff Gelb, and it was horror stories, to the theme of shock rock. And there was a short story co-written by Neil Peart and Kevin J. Anderson, some sci-fi guy I’d heard about. It was based on Neil’s travels through West Africa on a bicycle, which he used to do between tours in the early days. And then the Masked Rider came out a few years later from a small Canadian press.
JS: Which is a nonfiction book, right?
ML: It was a non-fiction book and it was called the Masked Rider, about bicycling through west Africa. And it’s his stories from his life of bicycling through west Africa and his experiences. And I think in Traveling Music, he actually uses some excerpts from some of those moments or things that didn’t appear in the book. I remember reading it thinking, wow, that is so cool. Like he doesn’t get on the tour bus, or fly, or whatever. Whenever there’s a chance, he gets on his bicycle, bause he wants to experience the place he’s in. He wants to absorb it. And then later on, the next book, unfortunately, was after his wife and daughter died within the space of about a year and. That was called Ghost Rider and he had, by that time, discovered the joys and love of motorcycle driving. And then his journals and books were just so amazing over the years. I was a little sad that he didn’t return to fiction. The closest he came was in Clockwork Angels, when the ideas that he worked with Kevin J. Anderson. Kevin wrote the novelization of the story that Neil had conceptualized through lyrics. That was the closest he came to writing fiction. I would have loved to see more of his fiction, but his journal was just so introspective and I found them intriguing.
JS: Why don’t you start by describing the plot of this book for our listeners?
ML: The premise is basically – it’s kind of almost his life biography, but told through the music he was listening to, experiencing, and studying. Because in many ways he doesn’t just listen to it. He’ll walk into it and do really incredible research. Like into the Beach Boys and all these. I learned so much about it. You can appreciate it as a listener, but also as a fellow musician. But what the premise, or the framework, for the book is, which I thought was fascinating is, he remarried, and then relocated down to Southern California. And his partner was probably on a work trip for a conference or something like that. I’m trying to remember what it was. He’s a car fan, he had as a huge car collection. Or had; it’s being auctioned off right now. But he was taking one of his cars on this extended road trip. He used that as the framework to tell the story of his life through the music he was listening to. And I loved that he was so eclectic in his music, because it’s kind of like your reading, right? You read anything and everything, even a geological history of California. That sounds like one of the most boring things ever, but you found something fascinating. And the same thing with his music. He doesn’t stick his nose up at any kind of music. He listens to all kinds of music, whether it’s country music or Frank Sinatra, classical music, rap, rock, pop, all the different flavors in between. He seemed to be, he seemed to embrace all kinds of different music. So, that’s kind of the framework for the book. And it’s interesting that it’s, you know, just this framework of over the course of just a few days, but he goes back decades. He goes back to when he was a kid growing up not far from where I live. He grew up in St. Catherine’s, Ontario, and then he moved to California. So he even talks about some of those tragedies that happened in his life. He talks about joining the band, and the experiences of the auditions and meeting, Alex and Getty. What I love about this book, compared to his other books, because I love pretty much anything he’s written, but is this one has a perfect framework in a way that no other book did. And another reason this book was important to me is I found a picture, in 2004, when I was reading the book. My son, Alexander and I are, sleeping. I’d fallen asleep in the middle of the afternoon, he was having an afternoon nap. And I was just so exhausted because I was a young parent and I was just exhausted. And there’s a picture of this book on the nightstand beside me. So I’m like, okay, I must’ve been reading it shortly after Alexander was born, within the first few months. And it was so great to reread it again. Alexander is 17 now. I forgot so much. I forgot the pleasure of rereading a favorite text. And I have you to thank for that, because you know, I re-read Earth Abides again so I could chat with you over the podcast. And then I re-read this again so I could chat with you for the podcast.
JS: He’s the main lyricist for Rush, right?
JS: Do you see similarities in how he writes books as to how he writes lyric?
ML: I mean, his lyrics are a lot more concise. There are a lot more, um, like he has to remove some of the words. But there are so many things about his lyrics that I know what he’s talking about. Or if I don’t, I apply it to something in my own life. It’s interesting how that resonates. I think his lyrics are probably more powerful in many ways because he can get that same sentiment down, where it may take a chapter to get that story out. You get to the same thing down in three minutes.
JS: Did you add any music to your personal playlist after reading this book? I did.
ML: Did you really? I’d like to hear yours first.
JS: Well, he talks a lot about Sinatra and, in particular, Sinatra Live in Paris. So I added that one. And then a Nina Simone album that I didn’t know. I added that one as well, which I cannot remember the name of, but I’ll put it in the show notes. I did enjoy that, because I’m not much of a music person, and so it was interesting, like you said, the breadth of his music fandom is pretty incredible.
ML: So here here’s something that may resonate with you. If you go through and just look at the lyrics to Rush albums, you will recognize what Neil was reading when he wrote that song. You’ll know that he borrowed this from this novel and he borrowed this from that novel. And he borrowed this from Aristotle’s Poetics and he borrowed this from Shakespeare and he borrowed this from something. So much of his lyrics were based on news and books he had been reading, over the years. I think that’s something. For me, there was an immediate connection between introspective thought, reading, and music. And for me, that’s the heart of why I love this band so much. You get with Elvis Costello, you get with Bob Dylan, you get with Taylor Swift, you get with Neil’s lyrics for Rush.
JS: Was there anything in the book you dislike? Are you able to look at this book critically? Or is it because you’re such a fan, do you just sort of accept it?
ML: I think there were things that didn’t resonate with me and I just kind of glossed over them and I just kinda, you know, we’ll ignore it. It’s kind of like when you love someone and you just ignore the annoying things. I’m trying to think if there are elements of his writing which do bother me. It’s weird being critical of someone you admire so much. But there are elements of his writing that just seem a little bit too navel gazing. I appreciate it; I’m a really good navel gazer. I appreciate a good introspective moment. But sometimes they go off on these tangents and they don’t necessarily come back. The problem with me, the reason I have trouble. Finding those moments I don’t like is because I’ll go on those tangents and love every moment of it. It’s kind of like, you know, Stephen King could write a grocery list and you’d like it, so it’s that sort of thing. Any other book, it would bother me, but I’ll follow Neil. I just want to listen to what he has to say about this album. I don’t know. What about you? What were the parts that bothered you?
JS: The one thing I do want to draw attention to is that here were a couple of moments where he said things that – he made sort of an insensitive reference and then said, now I would never call it that. But so-and-so called it that. I thought, okay, but you’re the one with the platform, who just repeated that thing. Like, for example, the Africa stuff. He came back from Africa and he had the flu or something. His doctors couldn’t figure out what it was. I’m going to bleep this out of the podcast, but his doctor said, sometimes people come back from Africa and they have [redacted] fever. And he actually used that term. And then he put the comment, Now, I would never say that, but that was what my doctor said. Okay, but you’re the rock star. You just put it in there. The doctor didn’t have a big audience. You did.
ML: Oh yeah. You know what? Actually that did bother me. I remember where I was when he said that and I went, it was like, yeah, I do remember that. Of course I blocked it. Because again, it’s confirmation bias. Like, well, Neil would never say anything that’s not 100% perfect.
ML: But, you know, thank you for mentioning that because I forgot. But good point. I bet you, if I went back and read Masked rider, when he was a white man experiencing west Africa, uh, I bet you there were a lot more things where he is a little bit more critical. I don’t know.
JS: Well, obviously I haven’t read that book, but I will tell you, I did not enjoy the parts where he reflected on Africa in Traveling Music, because it felt very, um, what’s the right word here, that’s not going to make you hang up on me? It felt very like, I am the white man in this uncivilized place, kind of paternalistic attitude.
ML: Yeah. I’m this advanced species coming to your primitive planet. There were elements of that in traveling music, which probably even deeper in Masked Rider because Masked Rider was written like 10 years earlier or more.
JS: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you. Because I knew there was a book about his experiences in Africa. And I was wondering like, does he express any joy toward it? Because in Traveling Music, I just got the feeling that he went to Africa to make himself kind of feel tough. He even says, I go there to feel good about where I live. And I thought, fuck you. That was where I started getting really irritated. This is not your entertainment. Other people’s poverty is not your entertainment. All he really talked about in Traveling Music was he sort of focused on the hardships of his African travels.
ML: And people he was traveling with, and the conflicts.
JS: Yeah. And so, I am hoping that book about Africa is really about joy and beauty. Is that the case?
ML: Yeah, I think my memory, my misinterpreted memory of that book, which I’m sure there was a lot of insensitive things in it. I loved that book. I’d never read a travel biography before, nor had I ever been interested in it because who gives a crap in my close minded worldview?
JS: Back then, you mean. We should say. You’re also a very big traveler now.
ML: Yeah, I think I had only lived in two cities in my life then, and I only left the country once. But I remember finishing the book and thinking, wow, I just got a chance to be on the ground in a country that – all I had known about Africa, for the most part, was some of the stereotypical stuff you saw about the white savior complex of let’s have a big musical celebration. Let’s write some songs and save the starving kids and all your kids starving in Africa. The most I’d known about any specific part – because Africa is a gigantic continent. It’s huge. Right? It’s more diverse than North America could ever dream of being, when you think about it. But west Africa was a part of Africa I knew nothing about, and I left that book feeling like I had experienced it, and some of the people, and some of the villages. He was this white guy, the Masked Rider, and that was a nickname that they called him that was translated because he had the goggles on to protect his eyes from the bugs and stuff. And he was this oddity of traveler. He was the minority; he was the excerpt. I remember David Suzuki talking about that, another Canadian hero I admire. And I remember Neil talking about what that felt like. But I felt an appreciation for a country and thought, well, I’m never be brave enough to do a bicycle tour, but oh my God, I would love to experience not being a tourist. I mean, you’re always a tourist, but trying to experience what it’s like in the depth of a neighborhood, not in the polished white version. I had that privilege a few times in my travels where local folks have taken me and shown me the places that tourists don’t know about. And those are always the richest experiences.
JS: Okay, so that’s good. I’m glad to hear that, actually, because I did not get that sense of joy and discovery from the parts of the African travels in Traveling music.
ML: Yeah. They did seem very negative. Although to be quite honest with you, Julie, I’m probably tainted by my white boy perspective. And therefore, I probably didn’t even notice half of the slights that were made when I read it.
JS: Well, see, that’s the difference then, right? I’m coming into this brand-new in 2021 where we have an totally different understanding, which is great. I love those kinds of evolutions. So it’s interesting to read this book that spoke a different language when it was published. And it’s not an entirely fair. He probably would write the book differently if he wrote it today, he would probably change a few things. And that’s an interesting thing as a reader to be conscious of is how far will you go? It’s something I struggle with all the time as a consumer of art. How much do I say that that person is a product of his or her time and how much do I say Nope, this is unacceptable at any time? It’s a hard line to walk. I don’t know the right answer. There was a point in this book where I closed it and I said, Nope, I’m not reading this anymore. It was after fever comment where I said, nope, that was a step too far.
ML: And interestingly, that sort of reaction to literature is a moving target.
ML: What would have offended you then maybe doesn’t offend you now. It changes over time and you’re like, wow, this wasn’t offensive then, but now it is. Or I had been offended because I didn’t understand enough that I took offense without realizing the depths to which I didn’t yet understand. It’s interesting.
JS: I found myself really envious of you as I was reading this that you have this history with the band and with him. And so I’m envious of you being able to go into it with just this unabashed love of it, where I went into it with no personal connection to it at all, other than my husband and one of my closest friends loves their music. But I have nothing for them. And so I was nothing but stark and critical toward it. It didn’t, it didn’t hurt my feelings at all to close the book and go, nah, that’s not for me, because I have nothing personal invested in this. I thought, gosh, it would be neat to be able to read this with your history with this author. It would be great. It would bring you a lot closer to him, I would think. Because he’s a very honest storyteller.
ML: Yeah. And I think one of the things is he does seem to capture moments that he just describes them perfectly. When you talked about that moment and there are elements throughout it, when he talks about his reaction to music and I’m like, oh yeah, I know what he’s talking about. And I think that’s one of the reasons why music in particular, because it’s such a short, abbreviated way to get to hook you. It could be the beat. It could be some rhythm, it could be one set of lyrics.
JS: So, Mark, at this point of the podcast, I normally ask people what they’re reading these days. I’m going to ask you that, but first I’m going to ask you, what are you listening to these days? Anything new, or are you kind of stick with what you already know?
ML: No, I try to listen to new things. I’m really trying to find more local music and local independent musicians and try and get a flavor for some of their music. I toggle between trying new things, listening to musicians that other people have talked about that they love, but I’ve never really attended to. I mean, sometimes a song would come on and Liz goes, what? You don’t know that song? It’s so popular. I was like, well, I only listen to classic rock on the radio! So, you know, I’m not going to hear the pop songs or whatever. But sometimes I will know, and I’ll go, oh, that’s so-and-so he used to be in this other band. Oh, that’s neat. Yeah, I do it more for just understanding more about it. I mean, ironically, TikToks. Like songs that are used as clips on Tik TOK, like the 15-second clips. I’m like, what is that from? Or even a Lucifer, the TV show on Netflix? Like the song on that? Nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh! What is that? I want to hear the whole song.
JS: Goddammit, Mark. Now I have to pay royalties for Lucifer theme.
ML: No you don’t. I was so off key, no one would ever recognize it. So that to me is a fascinating way to learn about new music. You know, 80% of the stuff I listen to is the standard stuff that I love and adore. Give me a good, Piano man by Billy Joel. Cause what a great story that is.
JS: So, what are you reading right now?
ML: Right now I’m reading a Naïda, a science fiction thriller by a friend of mine, Scott Overton. It’s kind of like a Michael Crighton-esque thriller about this guy who discovers a symbiotic from 10,000 years ago that’s been living from an alien civilization at the bottom of this deep river in mid Northern Ontario. And it becomes a symbiotic with him and he ends up having its power is that you can swim underwater and see underwater. So I’m reading that right now. I’m just about to start reading Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In. And Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian. Thomas King is a very well-respected indigenous Canadian writer. Award-winning. This book is, I think it’s like 12 years old. And it’s back on the charts again. I need to know more. I need to learn more about different perceptions, because I’m blinded by so much of my white privilege. I’m reading – okay, this is wonderful – Valerie Francis’ Masquerade. It’s this erotic romance, and it was serialized and she wrote it specifically for busy women, because it was done in 10,000 word chunks of 12 chapters, month by month. And the premise is: would you, if you wouldn’t get caught, would you do it? It’s this monthly liaison that’s organized between the married man and this other woman who’s just in the process of leaving her ex and it’s their monthly getting together. The rules are, you can’t know each other’s real names, you can’t, communicate outside of this once a month, and you can’t fall in love.
JS: I wonder what’s going to happen.
ML: I wonder what’s going to happen. I’m reading a lot of these books on the black arts. I have about six books that ‘m just kinda looking through for research for a novel I’m working on, but it’s like, Liz goes, you’re not going to read any of those incantations in the house, right? The black magic is based on historic cult origins. And so I want that to be realistic. So I’m kind of noodling through a bunch of these rules of dark magic. You know, how to resurrect the dead.
JS: She does not want that, like on your bedside tables?
JS: That’s totally fair. Liz. I’m with you on that one. Well, I want to thank you for joining me and for tolerating my obviously wrong opinion about Rush all these years. I clearly have no taste in music. That’s what all the white men tell me, anyway.
ML: But now Julie, whether we agree and love a book or whether we have a different way of approaching it, I love chatting with you.
JS: It is my favorite. Thank you so much. Will you tell my listeners where they can find you and your work?
ML: You find out everything you want about me, and things you don’t want to know about me, over at markleslie.ca.
JS: Thank you, Mark.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms! For more information on this episode and links to all the books we discussed, follow the podcast on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can also find me on Instagram.
Remember, I’m looking for guests from all walks of life to tell me about all genres of books. If you have a book you want to talk about, GO HERE.
Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.