Although I'm usually too lazy to bother fiddling with LPs these days, those old black beauties sure do come in handy when I'm preparing to interview a band that's been around as long as Rush. Shuffling through my prized rows of plastic-enclosed 12-inchers, I come across a copy of the band's self-titled '74 debut, and long-forgotten song titles such as "Finding My Way" and "Working Man" soon have me drifting back to the halcyon high-school days of mag wheels and lemon gin.
Just as I'm reliving the air-guitar stance I took upon first hearing "In the Mood" in all its cowbell glory, Rush vocalist-bassist Geddy Lee calls from Toronto, so I wonder aloud whether he has fond recollections of that time as well.
"Fond recollections?" he ponders. "Umm, yeah...I guess they're fond. Some of them are kinda tough recollections because, you know, we were struggling and doing a lot of bars, and we recorded that album in the middle of the night. After we'd finish with the bars we'd load up and go over to the studio, load in, record all night, then load back out in the morning. So I wasn't gettin' too much sleep back then, but...I didn't seem to need much either."
After 23 years, 17 studio albums, and more gigs than Gretzky has goals, Rush has proven itself to be far from a '70s relic, but its prog-rock stylings have kept it representative of the dinosaur/disco decade - and, as such, a target for cynical types who can't forgive the era for spawning Styx or Saturday Night Fever. Lee has his own ideas about why '70s rock takes more heat than it deserves.
"Purists prefer a simple, basic kind of rock 'n' roll," he says, "and most critics are purists. But there is a large number of musicians out there who are not satisfied to play that kind of rock, which leads to the inevitable contradictions and opinions. Sure, some music of the '70s was a little pretentious, and some of it was bombastic, but some of it was highly creative. And some of it will endure, as in any decade."
Naysayers notwithstanding, Rush's music is the kind that will last for some time - and as if to demonstrate that, the band's first seven albums will soon be released in newly remastered form. "I've been just checking through all of them over the past two months," explains Lee, "and I'm amazed what a fresh coat of paint'll do for some of those tracks. It's still hard to listen to some of them - because they're pretty old - but certainly from a sonic point of view they're cleaned up and toughened up, and ready for the CD world."
Rush fans have come to expect their fix of new Rush music every year or two, but the band's current release, Test for Echo, is its first since the Counterparts disc of '93. In the interim, the band members took almost two years off from each other, which Lee points out was something they pretty well had to do.
"Rush is a very full-time job for me," he says, "and when I'm not actually playing, there's other aspects of the job that I really enjoy doing - like preparing the production and coordinating rear-screen projection - so as a result it takes up a lot of my time. I was getting to a point where I was just a bit burnt-out on the whole process, and I think everybody needed some time to question whether they wished to continue, and whether this was still a fun thing for all of us to do."
From the sound of things, the most revered of Canadian hard-rock institutions was pondering the unspeakable: halting its illustrious career just short of its silver anniversary. But if there were any actual rumblings of a potential breakup within the Rush camp, they never got leaked to the music press.
"Well, we never, never talk in those terms," confirms Lee, "we just quietly consider whether we want to continue, and we leave it at that. I don't think we've ever verbalized those words - 'Do you guys want to break up?' You know, after any bad night any one of us quits, but we're still there the next day."
During their time apart, the various Rush members got to indulge in some rewarding side projects. Drummer Neil Peart produced a big-band album, Lee produced a baby daughter, and guitarist Alex Lifeson produced a solo album, Victor.
"That was a really healthy thing for him to be involved in," says Lee. "He got to express himself unadulterated and unbullied by Neil and myself, and I think that was great for him. I was really proud of him for doing it all himself the way he did it. You know, he engineered it, he produced it, he got all the musicians together, and he recorded it in his house, so...well done, I say."
In January of '96 Rush regrouped and entered New York's Bearsville Studios with producer Peter Collins, coming out with what Lee interprets as a much more universal record, lyrically, than the previous, highly personal Counterparts. The title track includes lyrics by longtime Max Webster/Kim Mitchell wordsmith Pye Dubois, whose previous Rush collaborations include the 1981 radio staple and concert standard "Tom Sawyer". "Every couple of years he makes a brief appearance," says Lee, "and we were happy to continue that tradition with this album."
Both "Test for Echo" and "Tom Sawyer" will likely make the set list when Rush puts on a two-and-a-half-hour show at General Motors Place on Friday (May 16). An Evening with Rush starts at 7:30 p.m. precisely, and there's no opening act. That's a first for the band.
"We've got 4,000 albums," quips Lee, "and we want to play songs to keep ourselves happy and to keep our crowd happy, so we decided, 'Let's give it a shot.' And it's worked out very well. We're able to indulge ourselves by playing a lot of new material, but we're also able to indulge our fans by playing a tremendous amount of old material, such as 2112 and things like that."
With a new album on the shelves and a new tour on the go, it's business as usual for Rush, which was recognized for its considerable achievements last February by being inducted into the Order of Canada. That formal event definitely wasn't business as usual for Sir Geddy, though.
"To hobnob with the Governor General in Ottawa and just check that whole scene out was pretty interesting," he relates, "'cause that pomp and ceremony is not something that's a regular part of my daily life. I don't get to wear a tux very often, you know."