RUSH: THIRTY YEARS LATER
July 8, 2004
So I’m standing there, in the open-air stadium that is the Hollywood Bowl, the same concert hall whose designers included Frank Lloyd Wright. The concert hall that once hosted The Beatles, Sinatra, and Klemperer. I’m standing there on the 6th of July and the air is electric and RUSH is performing for me and about 18,000 other fans, and it occurs to me—they’re celebrating 30 years and I’m about to celebrate 40. This thought lingers in the air along with much marijuana smoke as Geddy, Alex, and Neil jam to One Little Victory. It is the opening song of the second set, the opening tune that is but a part of a night filled with light and sound. This band is tight. It is tight in the way Broadway choreographed dance is tight. Tight in the way a formula-one engine is tight. There is improvisation, but I suspect even the improv has been rehearsed. But so tight is the band that it seems completely off the cuff. There is a brief departure toward the end of The Trees in which the band segues into The Beatles’ Day Tripper; Geddy gets silly near the climax of Working Man, and Alex tells a surreal pirate story during the mega-instrumental La Villa Strangiato. There is very little talk between songs. There are very little breaks in the repertoire. They rock and they rock hard. Neil’s trademarked drum solo is delivered early, but it is just as impassioned, just as intense, as it was on the 1976 release All the World’s a Stage; in fact, it’s better—much better and is delivered with much more depth, skill, and personality, reflecting a lifetime of experience and passion. And I’m thinking, this is a good place to be. I don’t know these guys, but when you spend 25 years of your life listening to their music and interviews, reading their words and watching their videos, you get a sense that you do know them. You’re wrong, of course, but you do get that sense. But you also get memories, and what is life without memory?
It would be pointless to try to put into words the full emotional (pardon the expression) rush of the evening’s music. There is too much energy, too much emotion, for words. As a devotee of this trio for the past 25 years, I have found enjoyment and solace in their music during good times and bad times, during life’s highs and lows, its sucker punches and its shoulder taps. Musically, I’d describe myself as someone who “goes through” a lot of bands and a lot of music genres. From rock to classic rock to classical to jazz to big band to Latin to disco to swing to alternative etcetera, I’ve pretty much been “into” all types of music at one time or another (except country, which, like George W. Bush, represents all that is soulless and wrong in the world). I like a lot of music, and I still like Rush—probably more now than ever. They are an amazing trio that has somehow managed to remain together for more than 30 years during times when it’s been very fashionable for bands to simply call it quits or for one member of the band to decide he or she is far superior to the other members (anyone remember The Police?) and chart a solo career replete with unimaginative songs written exclusively to be played in area malls, hospitals, and retirement homes.
Rush have been together and have overcome many obstacles—the first of which, I’d imagine, was finding a record label. Little wonder the band self-produced its first album. Later, cuts from the album would be played on a radio station in Cleveland, Ohio; this would eventually lead to a recording contract with Mercury Records and the rest, as the saying goes, would be history. And one could imagine that, following the mega-popular release Moving Pictures, the band might simply have collapsed from within, having achieved what many consider its magnum opus. Not so. They pushed on, into and through the terrible 80s. Rush’s 80s releases are fairly strong if not a bit heavy-handed with synth. But, unlike many of their contemporaries, Rush survived the 80s and persevered into the 90s and beyond, taking time apart for solo projects but ultimately returning to the band with a cleaner, more hard-rock sound with releases like Test for Echo and the 2002 release Vapor Trails (arguably their most hard-rocking album to date).
I suppose one of the most difficult tasks for any band that has the longevity of Rush is to compile a set list that will satisfy the needs of both the fans and the band members themselves. No easy task I would imagine. And how boring it would be to fans (and likely to the band as well) to simply hear a three-hour “best of” set, even if the set included Tom Sawyer, Limelight, and The Spirit of the Radio. Many of these radio favorites were indeed a part of the concert, but other, more obscure tracks such as Red Sector A and Between the Wheels, crept in unexpectedly from time to time. And it was these tracks, more than Working Man and The Trees that really resonated within me and shot me back in time. I was entering my junior year in college when 1984’s Grace Under Pressure was released. I’d spent 1982 and 1983 playing and dissecting Moving Pictures and Signals, wasting my downtime between classes at the local video arcade on games like Centipede and Astro Blasters and wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life. What do you want from me? It was 1984. I was 19, and there was little to do with one’s free time for a commuter college student who spent his weekends working at McDonald’s. There was dating, sure. But musically—forget about it. I have never dated a woman who enjoys Rush. Most of the women I’ve been involved with romantically were not schooled in Canadian rock and, if given the chance, wouldn’t wanna take off to the great white north. And even if she did enjoy them—even if she knew every word to every track on Moving Pictures and could play the bass line to YYZ, I doubt she’d want to listen to them 24/7. I can do that. It’s sick, I know. But I can do it and enjoy it. I can write, draw, and edit to Rush. They have unwittingly become the soundtrack to my life, and honestly, as far as soundtracks go I think you could do a lot worse. And it happens that Di and I are diametrically opposed as far as Rush is concerned. But as Dean Martin once sang, That’s Amoré. (As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t have even been at the concert—had no intention of going to the show [mainly because I always end up surrounded by a bunch of losers who can never seem to shut up while the music is playing]—but Di surprised me with tickets, proving once again that…That’s Amoré.)
What is Rush in the 21st century? Rush to me is Marvel Team-Up and Fantastic Four comic books and sci-fi. Rush is 2112 and Star Wars, open highways and starry nights. Rush is winter storms and summer heat. Rush is a five-hour journey along the Pennsylvania Turn Pike from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. Rush is a thinking-person’s rock whose lyrics rise above the typical “drink/party/get laid” themes of most rock songs. Rush is not so much a band as a legacy. There is more than 30 years of history in this band. Watch the Rush in Rio DVD and witness for yourself the kind of fan-base this band has. We are rabid. I can hear a Rush song, virtually any song, and be taken back to a time and place, whether it be last week or 25 years ago. I can recall listening to the portable radio on the porch of my parent’s house in 1979 at the age of 15 and hearing The Spirit of the Radio for the first time. I was hooked from that moment on and have never lost interest because the band has never lost interest. They’ve not forgotten how to create interesting sounds. They’ve never gotten lazy and gone the three-chord route. And now Rush have gone back to their own roots with an album of covers featuring some of the songs that influenced their choice of profession. This was not, as is the case with many bands, a band that is out of steam. On the contrary; they are more powerful than ever, and the release of Feedback is simply a sort of harkening back to one’s roots. Rush performed a few of these tunes at the Hollywood Bowl, including The Seeker, Heart Full of Soul, and Summertime Blues. A few fans shouted “Sell outs!” as the band began its encore—I don’t think they get it. In reflecting upon the concert, there were actually quite a few uptight concert goers. A pig-faced woman shouted for the people in front of her to sit down (apparently forgetting or perhaps never knowing that part of attending a rock concert involves STANDING). A few guys in the row behind me chose to simply talk through the entire concert. While Alex was in the midst of his “pirate” soliloquy, one of the chuckle-hut fans asked, “What the hell has happened to that guy?” I wanted to explain that Alex and the band are just having fun, just fucking around. But I figured the explanation would have been lost so I chose not to expend the effort.
There are few bands that I can say have genuinely helped me. Creatively, Rush have provided me with a considerable amount of inspiration in my comics writing. There are many Rush references laced within my writing; most of them would be unrecognized by all but the most die hard fans. But that’s okay. They’re not there for anyone but me. Music is therapy. And whether your form of therapy is Mozart, The Beach Boys, Dave Brubeck, The Beastie Boys, Aimee Mann, or some other artist is insignificant. What matters is what it does for you therapeutically and what you take from it at the end of the day. If I’m in a bad mood, I can pretty much snap out of it by throwing on Permanent Waves, 2112, or Hemispheres. When I’m feeling low I can listen to Resist, Freewill, or Available Light and feel uplifted. Rush is a band that is not for everyone. Their lyrics and music do not speak to everyone. But to those of us to whom they do speak, I consider us lucky. We have a wealth of material and inspiration, and hopefully more on the horizon, by some very talented and dedicated craftsmen. They are 30 and I’m soon to be 40. Like most folks, I’ve gone through my share of ups and downs, and like I mentioned earlier—I don’t know Alex, Geddy, or Neil. But I feel like they’ve been there with me through a lot of it. Crazy? Perhaps. But so is rock, baby. So is rock.
EXTRA: Click HERE to read the Great White North remix version of this article on Pop Thought.