Neil Peart’s Painful Victory: Vapor Trails

vt rush
Happy 16th birthday to Vapor Trails

It would not be an exaggeration to argue that meeting Carrie Nuttall served as one of the most important moments in Peart’s life and in precipitating Rush 3.0.  In her, Peart found a reason to live fully, a reason to rediscover excellence, and a reason to return to his life in Rush.  It was through their mutual friend, Andrew McNaughton (now deceased), that the two met.

In those days, Andrew and I often talked on the phone from wherever I wandered, and shared our sorrows and anxieties. Typically, Andrew was determined to find a “match” for this crusty old widower. When my motorcycle had carried me back across the continent yet again, to pause in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Andrew sent me a few test Polaroids of a photo assistant he had been working with-a pretty dark-haired girl named Carrie. Again, I was reluctant, gruffly telling him, “not interested”—but finally I made my meandering way west again, and stopped for a while in Los Angeles.[i]

When she met Peart, she knew next to nothing about the band.[ii]  She told him, however, that she would love to see him perform again, especially considering his reputation as a drummer and his own love of music.  For Peart, all of this proved almost Faerie-like.

Andrew introduced me to Carrie, my real angel of redemption; in less than a month we were deeply in love, and in less than a year we were married in a fairy-tale wedding near Santa Barbara. Carrie: Beautiful, smart, cultivated, artistic, affectionate; Deep green eyes, long dark hair, radiant smile; Tall, slender, shapely, nicely put together; Half English, half Swedish, all American, all mine. The answer to a prayer I hadn’t dared to voice, or even dream. Carrie.  Soulmate, a lover, a wife, a new journey to embark upon, the greatest adventure. [iii]

Though still in pain—a pain that would (and will) never fully cease—when he met her, he found her instantly attractive intellectually as well as personally.  They bonded almost immediately in friendship.  She considered him a modern-day Conquistador, armed in black leather and mounted on a powerful red horse, forever seeking the road and adventure.  But, his days of restless exploration had come to an end, and the Ghost Rider faded into memory.  On September 9, 2000, just three days short of his forty-eighth birthday, Peart married Nuttall in Montecito, California.[iv]

Since they met, Peart has demonstrated a sheer joy in his writing—not only how he writes but what he writes—that is lacking in his pre-2000 writings.  Part of the explanation might simply be age and wisdom, but Peart has made Carrie a part of his public life in ways he never had with Jackie.  Of course, this might have been Jackie’s choice is well.  Regardless, Peart is especially happy when Carrie is an immediate part of his Rush life.  Not atypically, Peart gushes about her visit to a concert.

Carrie flew into Nashville for the last few days of rehearsal and the first show, and out of deference to Her Ladyship, Michael and I moved to a slightly nicer—or at least more central—hotel. Before Carrie and I met, in 1999, all she knew about the band was a teenage memory of hearing “Tom Sawyer” or “The Spirit of Radio” on car radios, but she liked to watch our shows. At the Nashville rehearsal hall, she put in her earplugs and joined the small audience sitting in a handful of chairs in the middle of the dark, booming soundstage, and watched us go through the show. I liked being able to look out and see her there, my pre-Raphaelite beauty giving me a smile and a wave.[v]

Mixing her own profession with his, Nuttall published a gorgeous and artful book of photography, Rhythm & Light (Rounder, 2005), all of it dealing with her husband’s drumming.  The project began when the two missed one another because of their respective professional commitments as Rush began writing Vapor Trails.  The two agreed that he would be her next project.  “Well known for his private and sometimes reclusive nature, Neil had never before allowed anyone—friend, family member or photographer—to be privy to the day-to-day process of his creative life.”[vi]  Though he balked a bit at first, Peart found he loved the togetherness as well as his wife’s art.  Indeed, he gave her complete access to his re-learning of the drums and his interactions with the entire Rush team.  As she put it, he put all his vanity aside.  “I was surprised to note the quiet elegance, grace, and refinement that was evident, along with the more expected raw, powerful, intense energy associated with rock drumming,” she explained.[vii]  She already knew of her husband’s intensity, but seeing him in action actually shocked her.

“I always knew he was focused,” Nuttall said, “but I had never seen him in the role of drummer and lyricist before we got married. And I wasn’t prepared for it. You hear stories, but until you’ve seen it firsthand, you have no idea. And that’s what it was with me seeing Neil take on those roles.”[viii]

The end product, Rhythm & Light, pleased Peart greatly.  “Both Carrie and her subject are caught here in the purity of that pursuit,” he reflected.  “Hers for the light, his for the rhythm.”[ix]

However much happiness—and it is immense—his wife and daughter, Olivia Louise (b. 2009) have brought the Canadian drummer, writer, and lyricist, the scars, understandably remain.

The scars remain tender. Never, ever healed, but only lightly scabbed over. Time does not heal all wounds, but only allows us to adapt, if we can, to a life that is forever altered. Some wounds are like physical disabilities that will never heal, but can only be compensated for, adapted to. Now when I think back to the dark years of the late ‘90s, I feel far away in time, even unto building a new life and new memories, and my Ghost Rider persona seems ever more distant—unknowable. I have come to think of that book’s author in the third person—another character in another life. Sometimes I feel the way Robert Pirsig portrays his memories of the man he was before electroconvulsive therapy in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.[x]

If all art is the telling of a story, Peart continued his in what can only be known as Rush 3.0.

Not only did Peart lose and rediscover himself, he had to do the same with the drums when he returned to work in 2001.  “The first day we started work on the album, Neil was driving into Toronto from Quebec.  He said that the closer he got to Toronto the more grey and foreboding the skies got, and the more he felt like turning back.”[xi]  Lifeson wondered if the band could recover its skills.  He especially wondered if Peart would recover his skills:

You could hear him during those early days warming up and it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is not the drummer that we used to know.’ And he knew it. He had only played his drums once since the tragedies. It was a long, hard trip back from nothing to build up his stamina and strength.[xii]

Slowly, however, Peart began to grow in confidence as the three began to rehearse together, getting ready for the album that would be Vapor Trails.  “For the first three or four weeks back together, we did much more talking than playing,” Lee explained.  In fact, he thought, they sounded pretty bad at first try.[xiii]  Lifeson and Lee gave Neil his own rooms to write and to practice, thus relieving him of any pressure.  “We realized there was a return of spirit happening,” Lee noted.  “We were pretty focused on making something great.”[xiv]  He continues, “we were desperate to prove to each other that we could still rock.”[xv]  As Peart’s confidence grew, so did his spirit and so did the spirit of Rush.

Lifeson especially found himself getting emotional as he realized how much life was returning to Peart and to the band.[xvi]  “I think this was a very therapeutic thing for him to do.  When he began, he hadn’t played in four years, other than a short period in the middle—and this is one of the best drummers in the world!” says Lifeson.  “To not play for that long was very difficult.  But, you know, music is all about spirit and celebration and the spirit had left us all, especially him.  You could see the rejuvenation in him as his playing got better and better.  He became more confident.  He plays great on this record.”[xvii]  Lifeson felt a thrill about the fire they’d rediscovered.  “I love that it captured that spark, and I think that’s one of the reasons that this record sounds as spirited as it does and as passionate as it does,” the guitarist said. “It’s pure playing, without too much of your brain getting in the way, which with Rush, in the past, can be a bit of a problem.”[xviii]

Vapor Trails

Rush released their seventeenth studio album, Vapor Trails, on May 14, 2002.  Not surprisingly, the emotional tone of the lyrics reflects Peart’s life of the previous half decade.  The opening track begins, tellingly, with Peart pounding the drums and continues at a throbbing and frantic pace throughout the track.  This is truly “One Little Victory,” a celebration of life over death.

Celebrate the moment

As it turns into one more

Another chance at victory

Another chance to score


The measure of the moment

Is a difference of degree

Just one little victory

A spirit breaking free

One little victory

The greatest act can be

One little victory

Track two, “Ceiling Unlimited,” is another blistering track, harder than anything Rush had done in almost a decade.  Filled with hope, Peart notes that one can rise above the inanities of the day, a theme he has explored in many previous songs, such as “Tom Sawyer” and “Subdivisions.”

Feeling unlimited

Eyes on the prize

Changes never end


Winding like an ancient river

The time is now again


Hope is like an endless river

The time is now again

In more pedestrian words, the individual person can achieve almost anything she or he imagine and then some.

“Ghost Rider,” the third track, is one of resignation and penance.  In this song, the lyricist reflects on his journey into the wilderness, his relentless pursuit of escape after the twin tragedies in his family.

Pack up all those phantoms

Shoulder that invisible load

Keep on riding north and west

Haunting that wilderness road

Like a ghost rider

“He really was the Ghost Rider.  His recovery was very painful,” Lifeson reported at the time.  “We spent more time mixing that song than we did recording our first two albums.”  Yes, the song was that important to the band and to Peart.[i]

Sounding a bit like a modern Yes song, “Peaceable Kingdom” wishes what might be true—a Quaker-esque world in which the various peoples of the world love one another.

Dream of a Peaceable Kingdom

Dream of a time without war

The ones we wish would hear us

Have heard it all before

Playfully, Peart inserts a number of images from the Tarot, such as “Justice” and “The Hangman.”

The following pair of songs, “The Stars Look Down” and “How It Is” consider the notions of fate, acceptance, and resignation.  “Have you lived a lifetime today,” he asks, “Or do you feel like you just got carried away?”  The former song especially posits an omniscient but uncaring god—one who allows the most terrible of tragedies to occur with nothing but a shrug of his shoulders.

Melancholic to the extreme, “Vapor Trail,” ponders the fleeting and ephemeral nature of many of the things we consider most important in the world.  “Secret Touch” posits Stoic fortitude within the cycles of the world, with Peart’s lyrics reflecting those of the very first philosopher in world history, Heraclitus.

The way out

Is the way in

The way out

Is the way in…

One of the most beautiful songs Rush has ever written and produced, “Earthshine” simply rocks.  A play on Renaissance science, it offers a glimpse of pure beauty, much in the vein of Hold Your Fire’s “Tai-Shan,” lyrically.


Stretching out your hand

Full of starlit diamonds



Reflected light

To another’s sight

And the moon tells a lover’s story


My borrowed face

And my third-hand grace

Only reflect your glory


You’re still out of reach

Form a dream to rise to


Following the same trajectory as “Earthshine,” “Sweet Miracle” wonders at the unbought grace of life.

Somewhat mercurially, Peart and Co. change direction with “Nocturne” and “Freeze Part IV of Fear,” each meditations on unworthiness.

The final track, though, takes us back to the beginning with yet another victory.  “Out of the Cradle” is nothing if not a pronouncement that Geddy, Alex, and Neil are back, reborn, renewed, refreshed, and reformed.

It’s a dream for the waking

It’s a flower touched by flame

It’s a gift for the giving

It’s a power with a hundred names


Surge of energy, spark of inspiration

The breath of love is electricity

Maybe Time is bird in flight

Endlessly mocking

Here we come out of the cradle

Endlessly rocking

Endlessly rocking

If anything, the 2013 re-mixed version of Vapor Trails only highlights Peart’s very personal and confessional lyrics.  Indeed, if Grace Under Pressure examines the state of the world and laments, Vapor Trails examines the state of the soul and rejoices. . . mostly.

In a move somewhat unusual, Peart openly revealed all of the inspirations for the album in an official press release.  It is certainly worth repeating here:

“Lyrically, no overall concept emerged, but I can trace some interesting sources for particular lines,” he said.

He said Walt Whitman ( influenced the song “Out Of The Cradle,” while Thomas Wolfe ( inspired “How It Is” and “Ceiling Unlimited.”

“Wolfe’s title ‘Of Time And The River’ and looking at a map of the Mississippi Delta suggested the ‘winding like an ancient river’ lines,” Peart said.

“‘Ceiling Unlimited’ also offers a playful take on Oscar Wilde’s reversal of the Victorian lament, ‘drink is the curse of the working class,’ while Joseph Conrad’s ‘Victory’ gave the ‘secret touch on the heart’ line.”

W.H. Auden and Edward Abbey’s “Black Sun” influenced parts of the song “Vapor Trails,” Peart said.

Both “Nocturne” and “Secret Touch” were inspired by an article in the Utne Reader called “What Do Dreams Want.”

“I was also struck by a psychologist’s approach to analysis and dream interpretation, ‘without memory or desire,’ he said.

Author A.J. Cronin’s 1935 novel title “The Stars Look Down” “seemed to express a fitting view of an uncaring universe,” Peart commented. But he took some inspiration from paintings, as well.

Guitarist Alex Lifeson previously told JAM! Music that “Peaceable Kingdom” was originally intended as an instrumental piece, but after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, it morphed into a meditation on the attacks.

Peart adds that the 19th century Quaker folk artist Edward Hicks “painted no less than 60 versions of the same biblical scene, ‘Peaceable Kingdom,’ and the tarot card ‘The Tower’ seemed a chilling reflection of the events of September 11, 2001.” (A number of tarot cards are used to illustrate the lyrics on “Vapor Trails.”)

When it came to finding a title for the album, Peart said the decision was straightforward.

“A unifying theme sometimes appears in the collected songs and suggests an overall title, like ‘Counterparts’ or ‘Power Windows’; other times a particular song seems emblematic, like ‘Test For Echo’ or ‘Roll The Bones.’ Neither approach seemed right this time, so we went with the song title we liked the best, ‘Vapor Trail,’ and made it plural to refer to all the songs.”[ii]

While almost everyone in the music world lauded the return of Peart, after his tragedies, reviewers continued to remain skeptical about the music Rush made.  Rolling Stone, far less nasty than usual, more or less dismissed Vapor Trails as the same as ever when it comes to Rush, but without the complexity of prog.[iii]  Rolling Stone has never embraced prog, but its criticisms were not meant to be complimentary.  Guitar World gave the album a perplexing 3.5/5 rating without explaining a single negative thing about it.[iv]  Andrew Tuttle of the Orange County Register gave the album an “A-” claiming that the band had successfully combined all of their previous incarnations while also “explor[ing] adventurous territory.”[v]  Billboard labeled the album “an absolute triumph.”[vi]

It must be noted, however, and understandably, that Peart can barely reflect for any length of time on that period of his life.

It was more necessary than anything. That album was just something we had to get through. The Ghost Rider book is something I’ll never read again. They asked me to do an audio version of it and I said, ‘No.’ They sent me auditions of other people reading it and I’d get up to about the fourth paragraph and say, ‘I don’t want to listen to this anymore.’ It was just something that needed to be released and exorcised. That’s the way I feel about that album too.”[vii]

He feels much the same about the Vapor Trails album as a whole.  In his 2011 book, Far and Away, he admitted:

Listening to some of that music just before setting out on this journey, as the three of us reviewed a couple of remixes of songs from Vapor Trails for an upcoming anthology, I can still sense my emotional state then—an underlying mood of anger and confusion that comes through even in my drumming, never mind the lyrics.  I still have the anger, all right, but I think I’ve left the confusion behind.[viii]

Yet, out of the horrors of Peart’s life, renewal came, and powerfully so.  The first show of the Vapor Trails Tour was in Hartford, Connecticut, June 28, 2002.  The three members of Rush—and all of the road crew—experienced tangible anxiety that night.  Had they their lost their way?  Had they lost their abilities?  No, of course not.  Rush, that night, became not just Rush, but RushPlus, Rush 3.0.  “I remember looking out at the audience and there were people crying,” Lifeson remembers of that magical night.  “It was so emotional. I guess it was their chance to purge some of their emotions.”[ix]  After the performance—one of the most glorious returns in the history of music—the three men did something they had never done before.  They hugged for nearly 10 minutes.[x]

The above is taken from Bradley J. Birzer, Neil Peart: Cultural (RE)Percussions (Wordfire Press, 2015).





If you’d like a more in-depth progarchy look at Rush, here’s a handy guide:

Rush – ABC 1974 – Live – 1974 (released 2015) – Review by Craig Breaden

Rush – A Farewell to Kings – 1977 – Review by Kevin McCormick

Rush – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live) – 2013 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – Grace Under Pressure – 1984 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – Power Windows – 1985 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – R40 “Completist” live concerts box set – 2014 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – R40 Live – 2015 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – Rush – 1974 – Reviewed by Craig Breaden

Rush – Test For Echo – 1996 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – Vapor Trails Remixed – 2013 – Review by Brad Birzer

Clockwork Angels – Concert review by Brad Birzer (2012)

Kevin J. Anderson – Clockwork Angels – The Comic Scripts – 2014 – Review by Brad Birzer

The Art of Rush – Hugh Syme, written by Stephen Humphries – 2015 – Book Review by Brad Birzer

Neil Peart: The Most Endangered Species – Essay by Brad Birzer (discussion of “Natural Science”)

The Saving Grace of Neil Peart – Essay by Brad Birzer

Brad Birzer’s Top 10 Rush Albums

Signals: A Prog New Wave Song Cycle

Notes for Part I

[i] Peart, “Remembering Andrew,” (January 25, 2012).

[ii] Steve Stav, “Percussion, Photography Cross Paths in ‘Rhythm & Light,’” (July 2005).

[iii] Peart, Ghost Rider, 453-454.

[iv] Peart, Ghost Rider, 455; and Sorelle Saidman, “Ricky Rushes to Release,” Vancouver Province (September 26, 2000), B4.

[v] Peart, Roadshow, 81.

[vi] Carrie Nuttall, “Rhythm and Light: Moments That Otherwise Pass Unnoticed,” introduction to her Rhythm & Light (Cambridge, MA: Rounder, 2005).  No page numbers used in the book.

[vii] Nuttall, “Rhythm and Light.”

[viii] Scott Iwasaki, “Photos Dramatize ‘Rhythm And Light,’” Deseret News (June 17, 2005).

[ix] Peart, “My Rhythm, Her Light,” in Nuttall, Rhythm & Light.

[x] Peart, Far and Near, 303.  See also Lee and Lifeson’s comments in Paul Elliott, “Everybody Loves Rush,” Classic Rock (July 2015).

[xi] McNair, “Rush’s Long Road to Triumph in Rio,” 16.

[xii] Menon, Rush: An Oral History Uncensored.

[xiii] Steve Morse, “Vapor Trails Follow 6-Year Hiatus,” Hamilton Spectator (May 13, 2002), C8.

[xiv] Angela Pacienza, “Rejuvenated Rush,” Edmonton Journal (May 21, 2002), C2.

[xv] Steve Morse, “Vapor Trails Follow 6-Year Hiatus,” Hamilton Spectator (May 13, 2002), C8.

[xvi] Menon, Rush: An Oral History Uncensored.

[xvii] Sandra Sperounes, “Rush: Arena Rockers Hit Concert Trail,” Edmonton Journal (September 8, 2002), B1.

[xviii] Eric R. Danton, “Rush: A Relic Refreshed,” Hartford Courant (Jun 28, 2002).


Note for Part II

[i] Sandra Sperounes, “Rush: Arena Rockers Hit Concert Trail,” Edmonton Journal (September 8, 2002), B1.

[ii] “Peart Reveals Literary Inspirations Behind Rush Album,” Jam! Showbiz (May 31, 2002).

[iii] Richard Abowitz, Rolling Stone (April 24, 2002).

[iv] Mac Randall, Vapor Trails Review,” Guitar World (June 2002).

[v] Andrew Tuttle, Vapor Trails Review, Orange County Register (May 20, 2002).

[vi] Christa L. Titus, “Spotlight Review: Vapor Trails,” Billboard (May 18, 2002).

[vii] Menon, Rush: An Oral History Uncensored.

[viii] Peart, Far and Away, 116.

[ix] Menon, Rush: An Oral History Uncensored.

[x] Menon, Rush: An Oral History Uncensored.

7 thoughts on “Neil Peart’s Painful Victory: Vapor Trails

  1. Despite the Trauma’s,the Loss,the emotional-coma that Neil went through during the late 90’s………they STILL managed to make their way back!!! Yes………it took QUITE a bit of TIME for them to DO SO……….but “Magic” can never happen on the first try!!!

    Personally…………AFTER the 90’s………..I honestly didn’t care much for the “direction” in which Rush ended up going towards!!! Yes……..yes………I understand MANY RUSH fans out there,will throw their arms up immediately after reading that,and start angrily accusing me of “Blasphemy” for those words!!! Trust me……….it’s NOT meant in that way at all!!! In fact,their musical-prowess had always continued to Excel more than ANY OTHER Band I can even think of,later in their career!!!

    More clearly…………….Vapor-Trails and all the albums AFTER that one………..really left my Heart wanting much MORE than what the band provided!!! Similar to when my ears FIRST HEARD the song “La-Villa-Strangiato”,and it was just such an AMAZING,UNEQUALED mix of emotions and feelings,that it literally took DAYS for my head to ACCEPT what my ears were sending it!!! Even to this day………….each time I hear the FIRST few opening notes of that song,I KNOW PRECISELY what it is,YET……….I remain listening because the thoughts and feelings I had from the time BEFORE,of listening to that song……..may be much DIFFERENT THIS time around (and it ALWAYS IS!!!)…… it’s always an EXCITING event to listen to “Classic” RUSH,as opposed to listening to any album AFTER 1999!!! Excellent Article Sir-Brad!!!


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Vapor Trails by Rush at 16: Peart’s Victory | Stormfields

  3. Paul Menard

    I can understand Peart’s reluctance to revisit the Ghost Rider book. It tore me apart just to read it. It must have been hell to write it. As far as the Vapor Trails album goes, the remix was much needed resulting in a very good listen. Sometimes I turn up Ghost Rider in my car when I’m alone and sing along. It feels good to sing along and cry with Neil.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a well written and argued piece. If I have any qualms with the article, they would be nit-picky and not overly insightful (for instance, how “Ghost Rider” got its name, and why there are Tarot allusions throughout the CD). Say what you will about “Vapor Trails”, but it is a vital part of the Canon that is Rush. Witthout “Vapor Trails”, there would have been no more Rush.

    “One Little Victory” is sets the stage: the opening driving double bass drum section is pure bliss for this life-long Rush fan. It signified that Neil had come back to the land of the living and loving, and we, the Rushinati, were overwhelmed by, and rejoiced at, his return to the drum throne. His openness and honesty on those songs meant the world to us. We liked to think that Peart’s return was, in no small part, the result of many of us keeping the fire burning, gently encouraging a wounded to soul on the mend.

    The CD, though, did suffer in the Sound Quality Department. Many of the songs are pushed beyond the limit and lack the dynamic ranges Rush is famous for using. At times, the sound is muddied and unintelligible. “Ceiling Unlimited”, for instance, is a masterpiece, a tour de force of writing and playing. However, the song’s overall sound is overly distorted and forced together, especially with Lifeson’s guitar riff. While the remix version fixed some of the problems, the remix does not capture the immediacy of Lifeson’s guitar or Lee’s bass.

    The rest of the CD is wonderful. “Secret Touch” is quintessential Rush. The CD shows three longtime friends reconnecting and rediscovering themselves. Lyrically, themes of hurt, loss, healing, and redemption are given proper treatment.


    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m revisiting Vapor Trails now with a new lens. I’d heard of Peart’s tragedies, motorcycle pilgrimage, and efforts to re-learn drums. But only the cliff notes/Wikipedia version. None of that music hooked me post Rush 1.0. It just felt a little empty and compact post Signals.

    Then again, I’m not a big fan of most music that came out of the decade of my birth excepting the NWoBHM, underground metal, and Thrash. Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Yes, even Led Zeppelin’s Coda even felt like a loss of propelling momentum and invention.

    Prog metal became a wonderful resurrecting force for 70s style complexity in the 90s. But I don’t find myself gravitating to Rush’s music there either.

    Thanks for the new vantage point to give 90s and 00s Rush a new shot.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. James

    Great piece. I think I must be the only person on earth that loved the raw intensity of the original Vapor Trails mix. I was fortunate enough to see that tour, too, and in my opinion it was the band’s finest moment, they were unparalleled. We all knew we’d been a part of something special, and the material from Vapor Trails left scorch marks on our ears.

    Liked by 2 people

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