Okay, I admit it: I've never understood the appeal of Rush. When friends would tout the instrumental gymnastics and lyrical insights of bombastic discs such as 1976's 2112 (largely inspired by the writings of--gulp--Ayn Rand), I'd respond with a shudder and go back to my Clash albums. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Nineties: The Clash, along with most other bands from that era, vanished, while Rush kept going and going and going--and their astoundingly rabid boosters followed them every step of the way. One Denver aficionado, John Castellano, even started a petition drive to ensure that guitarist Alex Lifeson, drummer Neal Peart and bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee would bring their latest tour to Colorado. Such dedication inspired me to give another chance to the latest Rush opus, 1996's Test for Echo. But while repeated listens were not nearly as painful as I'd anticipated, they still didn't reveal to me the essential greatness of the music made by these three Canadian art-rock legends. So I turned for help to Lee, the man who in the mind of many observers epitomizes all that was, is and will continue to be Rush. Our conversation was quite a pleasant one, with Lee proving himself to be a charming, personable chap with--I'm not kidding--a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor. (To hear an outtake from the interview, visit our Web page at www.westword.com.) Will these characteristics persuade you, gentle reader, to become a member of the Rush army? Read on--if you dare.
Let's start with the new album. A lot of groups that have been around as long as yours has don't even bother to write new material; they'll release an "MTV Unplugged" set or its equivalent. Why do you think it's important for veteran bands to write new material and to do new songs?
I think if you don't, you end up being called a veteran band all the time. [He laughs.] There's something nice about being considered contemporary from time to time. It's not really very interesting to me to be constantly living off the past, and although there may be some fans who might prefer that we do that, to me, without getting the new material going and without being involved and feeling that this is my creative time, there's no point in carrying on, really. I couldn't really see us lasting too long without the spark of new material and new juices flowing. And that's really the most fun part of the whole thing. I can't imagine doing without it. It would be a building without any foundation.
The new songs are definitely harder and punchier and more concise than I think a lot of people expected. I'm wondering what led you to move in that particular direction.
It's just something that we initiated a number of albums ago, and we seem to have had a hard time getting there. We've gotten into this mode of orchestration that's a hard thing to get away from.
Why is that?
I think that once you become reliant on a lot of other instruments, like keyboards and so forth, and you develop an ear for orchestration, then every time you hear a space, you want to fill it. It's a style of recording and writing and arranging that can seem very enjoyable for a certain time period, but then it almost becomes a trap. There's always this temptation, you know--"There's the keyboard over there and, jeez, I could put a little line here." Sometimes it takes more discipline to leave well enough alone.
Another surprise for listeners on this album is the song "Dog Years," in part because the words are actually quite funny. [Lines include: "In a dog's life, a year is really more like seven/And all too soon, the canine will be chasing dogs in doggy heaven."] To say the least, you guys are not usually known for your sense of humor. Are there things on previous albums that were intended to be funny and people have not picked up on them?
"Dog Years" is the most overt we've been with our humor. But the humor in our music has been there for many, many years. If you look at any of the titles of our instrumentals, you'll see it. People take them very seriously, but believe me, that wasn't our intention.
Could you give me an example of that?
Well, the whole "La Villa Strangiato" [from 1978's Hemispheres], with its fourteen different parts. Every one of them is a total absurdist piece of work. And there's a certain essential element to our music that's absurd--and I like that a lot. It's humorous to me, but not in the same way it is to other people, because I think it comes from knowing how ridiculous we are in a certain way. When we were young, for example, we didn't know how ridiculous some of our arrangements were. Maybe if you talked to a jazz musician, he would say, "Wow, they're playing 7/8 time with this weird riff, and then this heavy thing comes in here. That's absurd." But when we were younger, we were like, "That wasn't absurd. That was cool!" [Laughs.] Now we realize the connotations of it, but it's still so much fun to do that we can't resist. So I guess we're more aware of our weirdnesses. Many of those things were subtle and escaped a lot of people, but they did not escape the fans at the Harvard Lampoon, who a couple of years ago inducted us as honorary members.
Usually when the Lampoon inducts someone, they state their reason for doing it. What was their stated reason for inducting you?
Well, they said we were the musicians of the millennium, which was absurd to begin with. It was basically appreciating the subtlety of our humor and the absurdity of our very being, I suppose. But it was a wonderful ceremony and quite funny--and really quite memorable.
I can imagine some folks being offended by that, but obviously you were not.
Oh no, not at all. We were very complimented. I was very happy to be part of that--at least to be exposed to that side of university life.
Harvard fits in with the picture a lot of people have of Rush fans. There's an idea that many of your fans are very intellectual and very schooled in topics like science and mathematics. Is that a complete misconception, or are there a lot of Rush fans who would fit that description?
I think there's a number of them that do fit that description, but there are so many different kinds of Rush fans. Night after night there's a drastic range of people out there. Sometimes there are kids who are really young; it seems clear that this is their first concert. And other times there are people who look as old as me--and I go, "Wow, that's weird," because when you're an artist, you always have a tendency to think of your audience as being young. But some of them have grown up with our music and are our age, and they are very dedicated to the band and very supportive.
Are there times when this obsessiveness becomes a little disturbing?
It can get out of proportion, absolutely. Sometimes something you do or say gets blown out of proportion and analyzed to death, and there's no resemblance to the original statement.
Can you think of an example of that?
Yeah, actually, I can. There was a group of musicians who did a tribute album for us--I think it was last year. And when we were approached about it--well after the record was under way--we wanted to know who was doing it, who was involved and what the record label was that was putting it out. And it came to us that the label was in the quote-unquote business of doing tribute records. That felt a little fishy to me. It felt like some guy was getting some musicians together, regurgitating some material and exploiting our fans' support.
Perhaps more of a business decision than a group of people who legitimately wanted to pay tribute to you?
That was our fear, so we inquired about that. Well, that inquiry got blown so out of proportion. Fans were on the Net talking about why we were so insulted that these musicians were trying to do our songs. To them, it was great that someone was recognizing our band. So it got taken really in a weird way, and there was all this talk that we were going to sue them and have an injunction to try and stop the record, which of course was not true at all.
How did you put a stop to the rumors?
Just by doing interviews saying, "Hello? No. Nobody's suing anybody here. Yes, we're complimented that someone's doing a record, but we just wanted to make sure that you guys weren't being exploited." That's all.
It seems that the concert business in general has been on a downswing over the past few years, but you continue to be a strong draw despite the fact that the way radio formats have changed, there doesn't seem to be a lot of airplay coming your way. Do you have a guess as to why that is?
I would like to think that when fans walk away from our shows, they feel like they got their money's worth, and that creates over the years a certain amount of goodwill. If people are wondering what they're going to spend their money on, and they know a Rush show is coming to town, I think that they feel it's good value for them because of shows they've seen in the past.
One last question. When I told people that I would be talking with you, I got a very interesting range of reactions. About half of them reacted as if I were going to have an audience with the Pope. [Lee responds with an extended guffaw.] And the other half were like, "I just have never gotten that band." So I was wondering: If you were going to introduce someone to Rush--to give a primer--what album would you suggest they pick up to help them figure out where you're coming from?
Wow, that's really hard. That's a real stumper. To pick one album from any one period really only represents the period.
Then don't pick one. Pick several.
I would say, then, that if somebody really wanted to figure us out, they must pick up 2112, Moving Pictures, Power Windows and probably this album. I think that's our best work, really. But no guarantee that they're going to like it.
Rush. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 22, Fiddler's Green, $18.50-$27.50, 830-