One weekday evening during my freshman year of high school, Dad was driving me to my guitar lesson in his ’99 Subaru Outback (undoubtedly one of the best vehicles I’ve ever ridden in, especially for its age). As usual, we tuned in to the local classic rock station, Lone Star 92.5 KZPS, to mutually enjoy the regular diet of music from the greats: Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the like.
A song came on the radio that I thought I had heard before but had never listened to closely. From the opening lyrics, I realized it was “Tom Sawyer” by this band called Rush.
I had heard songs by Rush before, but never thought any more or less of them than I might have thought of any other band that had its four or five hit singles from the “good ol’ days” rotated on the air. This time, though, was different.
As we drove on in the dark and the song played on, my ears started picking up things that intrigued my teenage brain: the overdriven-yet-clean guitar tone, the snarly bass that stood out in the mix, the complex drum fills, the “retro” synth sound, and the piercing-yet-palatable vocals. I fixated on a time change in the middle part of the song, realizing that tapping my foot in 4/4 time no longer locked me in with the rhythm that seemed to be dropping an eighth-note somewhere. I was enthralled with “Tom Sawyer” from beginning to end, and when we arrived at lessons, I told Brian, my guitar instructor, “I want to learn to play this song!”
So began my fascination with, appreciation for, and maybe (slight) obsession with this unique Canadian rock trio. I don’t consider myself a geek by any means, but the one thing I will “geek out” on is Rush.
I’m in good company, too. Watch the documentary Time Stand Still and you’ll see Rush super-fans who attend multiple concerts on every tour, some of whom have seen them over one-hundred times(!) over the past forty-plus years.
Rush is a band that can be a bit polarizing. This is reflected in their fans, who are easy to stereotype: white males who are (now) in their 50s and 60s, many of whom are or were considered “nerdy” or “uncool.” There’s also a joke that the only concert where men choose to use the women’s restroom because of a line out the door is at a Rush concert. Historically, music critics lived up to their job title when “reviewing” Rush (what do those snobs know, anyway?), and Rush’s music got less airplay than many other bands’ material because, especially early on, it wasn’t very “radio friendly” (someone should have told those disc jockeys that they could’ve taken a twenty-minute break during “2112”!).
There’s no doubt that Rush is an acquired taste. While most bands wrote songs about sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, Rush all but left that stage lyrically by 1976, just two years into their career, and began addressing such diverse subjects as philosophy, politics, mythology, science, science fiction, and relationships beyond carnality. Musically, their individual abilities on their respective instruments are outstanding and their ability to fuse their parts together into a greater whole is unparalleled. They pulled out any and all stops they wanted, evolving from a Led Zeppelin-influenced, straightforward rock band into an accessible progressive rock ensemble that sometimes bordered on heavy metal, with drum- and bass-driven rhythm flanked by permeating, ethereal guitar chords and solos, and complementary synth lines to boot. Their sound and style (both music and fashion) changed with the 80s to a much more synth-heavy sound and MTV-friendly song lengths, and then again with the 90s when they moved back towards good ol’ rock (and away from Miami Vice-style outfits). They wrote in atypical meters and weren’t afraid of time changes, but made it work and, not only that, made it sound good.
Perhaps that’s why they appealed so much to me back then, as a fifteen-year-old wannabe rock guitarist who also happened to like science fiction and was good at math. To paraphrase a lyric of theirs, I deviated from the norm, as they did.
A quick glance at the lineup is enlightening as to the band’s vibe of rugged individualism and independence. On guitar is Alex Lifeson, born Alexandar Zivojinovich (“son of life” is a transliteration of his Serbian surname), a son of immigrants from what was then Yugoslavia. On bass and vocals is Geddy Lee, born Gary Lee Weinrib, a son of Jewish immigrants who both survived the Holocaust. (“Geddy” is how his mother pronounced “Gary” with her thick accent, and it stuck.) On drums and also serving as the primary lyricist is Neil Peart (pronounced “peert”), and the fact that he both hits the skins and writes the lyrics says it all. (He could give Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” a run for his money.) From what I’ve gathered as a fan, they were all the “uncool” kids growing up but found shared likes in music, interests in books, and a sense of humor, the latter permeating and pervading everything they touch, from album liner notes and tour booklets to on-screen skits and on-stage antics.
In short, the three were not the typical “cool dudes” who moved to New York or Los Angeles to start a rock group (though being from the Toronto area may have helped). Nor were they the typical band that put out a few good albums, then later went through personnel changes* or dissolved due to rubbing egos or “artistic differences” (yet gets back together years later for a “reunion tour” or five, minus a couple key members!). For forty years, save a four-year hiatus following Neil’s back-to-back losses of his daughter and wife, they wrote, recorded, and toured. They worked hard, they sold albums, and they sold out concert halls. Perhaps most importantly, they did it all their way, regardless of what the record company execs thought. It worked.
Rush taught me that rock music could be intelligent yet still fun. They taught me that rock lyrics didn’t have to be about sex and drugs, two things I as an adolescent Christian intended to avoid yet heard advocated in the music I liked. They also assured me, an insecure high school student trying to figure out who he was, that it was okay to “deviate from the norm.”
Perhaps most of all, they inspired me. As a guitarist, I tried to learn as many of Alex’s riffs and parts as I could, but never could achieve the touchstone tone and technique of “Limelight”. Recently, I “came out” as a bassist and started learning Geddy’s parts. I bought a Fender Jazz Bass in part because of the sound he gets out of his. (Mine’s not the Geddy Lee signature model, for those of you who know the difference.) I could, and still can, relate to many of the characters and situations that Neil illustrates in his lyrics, like the boys mentioned in “The Analog Kid” and “Middletown Dreams”. It was all of this and more, tightly-knit and packaged up, that left an indelible mark on me. I still get a thrill when I listen to “Tom Sawyer” (click the link to listen, and tell me you don’t wish to be in that cozy, warm studio), the song that started it all for me.
I could go on, but I realize not everyone shares my fandom. This was not intended to be a comprehensive history or description of a band; this was merely my attempt to do justice to the greatest band in the universe (though I know this doesn’t cut it). Alex, Geddy, and Neil are probably done, which means that Rush is also probably done, but what a great run they had.
Guys, if y’all happen to read this, from the bottom of my heart, thanks so much for the music!
I hear their passionate music
Read the words
That touch my heart
I gaze at their feverish pictures
The secrets that set them apart
When I feel the powerful visions
Their fire has made alive
I wish I had that instinct —
I wish I had that drive
Spirits fly on dangerous missions
Imaginations on fire
Focused high on soaring ambitions
Consumed in a single desire
In the grip
Of a nameless possession —
A slave to the drive of obsession —
A spirit with a vision
Is a dream with a mission…
— “Mission”, Hold Your Fire (1987)
*John Rutsey played drums on Rush’s eponymous debut album in 1974, but left the band shortly after its release. Jeff Jones played bass with Rush in the very early days, and went on to have a career with the band Red Rider.