Today’s post will be a cocktail mix of part meteorology, part song lyric analysis, and part cross-country geographic transect. How are these three things related? Well, I like to use transects when I teach Geography … and I sometimes listen to rock music when commuting … and I also like to clarify meteorological terminology when I can.
You may have seen a current local conditions status page on The Weather Channel. The meteorological and aviation term “ceilings” refers to the height of the lowest layer of the flat base of clouds. If you are looking up, how high do you have to reach in order to touch the cloud base – or the “ceiling”? This is a height usually reported in feet above ground level. Modern meteorologists use a ceilometer, which measures the cloud base height with a laser. What if there are no clouds in the sky? In that case, a number cannot be reported – and so the condition is listed as “ceiling unlimited”.
The term is also the title of a song by the Canadian rock band Rush, off of their 2002 comeback album “Vapor Trails”.
Listen to the song via the YouTube video posting linked here.
Make sure to view the lyrics of the song in the link posted here.
Fans of Rush are well aware of the personal life tragedies which occurred to drummer and lyricist of the band, Neil Peart. In 1997, Mr. Peart’s nineteen-year old daughter Selena was killed in a horrific traffic accident. He and his wife Jackie were devastated by the loss. A year later, Neil’s wife also died — from cancer officially, but many felt that she had died of a broken heart, and willed herself to die because she could not deal with the pain of her daughter’s death. Band members Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson agreed that Rush should go on hiatus, and possibly never continue. Neil Peart’s story of grief is told in the book “Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road” (Amazon link here).
While still in a state of extreme grief, Neil suffered other indignities. His faithful family dog died soon after his wife, then his best friend was sent to prison for marijuana possession. All alone with this own dangerous thoughts, Neil took off on a solo motorcycle ride across Canada. A photo of his red BMW Touring Motorcycle, which was a gift from his wife during happier times, is seen in the photo gallery below. (Click an image to view full size.)
His first route (See Google Maps Route above), took him from his home in Quebec, across Ontario, and the Prairie Provinces, eventually crossing the Arctic Circle, then over the Canadian Rockies to British Columbia and Vancouver Island. He later continued riding south into the USA, down into Mexico and across to Belize.
Mr. Peart traveled approximately 50,000 miles, often riding 500 miles or longer each day. The lyrics he later wrote for the Rush album reflect his travels and feelings down this “healing road”.
Riding a motorcycle through the wilds requires concentration, which helped to take his grieving mind away from his emotional pain. Mr. Peart himself drew the example of how infants can be calmed by taking a car ride. Riding across North America calmed his “baby soul”. The “Ghost Rider” book – written some time later — includes many of Mr. Peart’s observations about the physical terrain and culture. The lyrics intertwine with his mixed feelings of anger, resentment, thankfulness and humility. He kept a journal, which includes excerpts from letters and other supportive messages exchanged with his friends. The Rush movie documentary “Beyond The Lighted Stage” has a segment about Neil’s travel linked on this YouTube clip. Make sure to listen to Neil’s observation about travel at time 4:00.
His band mates thought that the group might not ever play together again, so Vapor Trails must be viewed as a “comeback” album for the group. (It was back to Rush heavy-metal basics (… and no keyboards were used!) The album title itself symbolizes the ephemeral nature of existence. We live — then soon we are gone — leaving only partial evidence of our lives. That trace will then also soon evaporate. The record makes for some pretty good “motorcycle music” or for driving those long-distance geographic transects! The other songs also contain Zen-like travel philosophy. You can listen to the entire album, with on-screen lyrics here.
“Ceiling Unlimited” is probably my second or third favorite song on the album — the title coming from a Weather Channel forecast Neil happened to catch on one stop. When Mr. Peart’s experience is considered, these lyrics make perfect sense.
Lyrics are in bold italic, my vapid comments are in orange font.
It’s not the heat / It’s the inhumanity / Plugged into the sweat of a summer street / Machine gun images pass / Like malice through the looking glass
……….. Perhaps this is a grip about bad situations, and negative human interactions one might have when traveling. Neil was known for having a short-fuse and did not interact well with the public. Although Geddy and Alex relished meeting and interacting with Rush fans, Neil hated it. “Machine gun images” may allude to the rapid paced movement of objects coming into, and then out of vision very quickly on a fast moving motorcycle. It might also allude to his own dark thoughts.
The slackjaw gaze / Of true profanity / Feels more like surrender than defeat / If culture is the curse of the thinking class / If culture is the curse of the thinking class
………. Similarly, the “slack-jawed” insult may be reserved for the contempt he felt for ignorant people. I hope that he does not really have contempt for rural people. One will run into people with bad attitudes on a trip occasionally. Educated in the arts, and having an appreciation for literature as Mr. Peart is known for, I also know what a burden it is when you have knowledge of art or esoteric subjects, yet all of your daily interactions are with ignoramuses.
Ceiling unlimited / World so wide / Turn and turn again / Feeling unlimited / Still unsatisfied / Changes never end
………. Could this be an awakening of some hopeful thoughts. Now that his former life has been destroyed, is his future all open-sky? Unlimited in possibility? What would his wife and daughter have wanted for him?
The vacant laugh / Of true insanity / Dressed up in the mask of Tragedy / Programmed for the guts and glands / Of idle minds and idle hands
I rest my case – / Or at least my vanity / Dressed up in the mask of Comedy / If laughter is a straw for a drowning man / If laughter is a straw for a drowning man
………. Well, he had to set his luggage on the dressers in many small town hotels as he traveled. The shows and commercials he would see on his motel television would provide nothing useful. Likely, he would have to put on a false face of friendliness when interacting with locals. Being amused or acting friendly on occasion with a friendly clerk or waitress could not ease his pain, but perhaps it was all he had.
Ceiling unlimited / Windows open wide / Look and look again / Feeling unlimited / Eyes on the prize / Changes never end
………. (Repeats from the chorus) Perhaps he begins to heal a little, day in and day out.
Winding like an ancient river / The time is now again / Hope is like an endless river / The time is now again
………. My favorite line is “the time is now again”. Because time in this situation does not matter. There is only the here and now. He had no destination. The natural environment, the river had been flowing and cutting its course for millennia. This may be the temporal version of the old country expression “no matter where you go, there you are.”
Songwriters: Alex Zivojinovich / Gary Lee Weinrib / Neil Elwood Peart. Ceiling Unlimited lyrics © Ole Media Management Lp.
It took the sap four hours to flow … added up in total … over the course of one week. If you want to borrow my copy of “Ghost Rider” or “Vapor Trails” see me in my office today!