BEFORE I discovered music beyond the pale, I was like most '70s suburban kids whose early rock'n'roll was delivered with the first bands they heard: The Beatles, Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Elvis, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and, if you were lucky, Bob Dylan, or even luckier, Neil Young.
Truth be told, it hardly ever got that good. The first record I ever bought was Heartbeat, It's A Love Beat by The DeFranco Family, a Hamilton group whose vague Italian-ness was a drawing point. From the DeFrancos, it was 10CC, Andrea True Connection, Terry Jacks and Jim Croce, and from there, those gaudy K-Tel records, which sold for 99 cents on Becker's convenience store record racks and featured bands like 1910 Fruitgum Company, Focus, the Incredible Bongo Band, Mouth and MacNeil, and Gallery. Becker's was once a fount for whatever was happening in rock'n'roll. My friends and I spent hours rifling through the racks, devouring album art while chewing licorice and drinking chocolate milk. One summer, I remember stopping at the plaza with my folks and coming away with 22 Explosive Hits, hearing James Brown, Parliament, and Loudon Wainwright III for the very first time.
After I'd passed through the K-Tel looking glass, I went straight to Rush, the first band with which I was truly obsessed. This was partly a case of wanting to appear older - most of the kids two grades above me were into them - and partly because, like shagging buses and watching The Beachcombers, to follow Rush was to quietly awaken one's nationhood and sense of place. Besides, if you weren't into Rush - they took their name from cheap vials of powdered amphetamine that occasionally got passed around the back desks of high schools - you were either into disco, or you were a "fag." Or both.
Separated along these lines, Rush was the one band every Etobicoke male cared about, at least as deeply as one's homophobia would allow. Other communities around the world had their aural equivalent. Ireland had Thin Lizzy, Scotland had Nazareth. In London, it was T Rex. The Guess Who were Winnipeg's own, and so on. With "Lakeside Park" (from Rush's All The World's A Stage live album, recorded over three nights at Massey Hall), it was the first time I identified a local place in a song - not just a song, mind you, but a friggin kick-ass chunk of moltenmetalprogrock, embellished with roller-coaster drum fills and Geddy Lee's Witchiepoo vocals.
In the past, I've stressed the effect that Stompin' Tom has had on my life, but it was Rush - and to a lesser extent, Max Webster - who first sang to me about my home.
From the time I started plinking around on my first guitar - a white, El Degas Stratocaster copy - Rush was the band whose songs I played, or rather, tried to play. Nothing was easy. I could handle the D and A in "Fly By Night," but when it came to Alex Lifeson's spangley solos and rich chords, I was lost. This was despite the efforts of a flower child named Greg, who gave lessons at Ken Jones' Music, the local guitar shop. Greg wore the same brown corduroy jacket and bell-bottoms every day, putting in long hours in that hot closet of a music room, tapping my fingers as I groped my way up and down the fretboard.
I was passed from Greg to other teachers, all of whom tried fitfully to show me the three essentials to lead guitar playing - the solo to "Stairway To Heaven," the riff in "Funk 49," and Deep Purple's "Space Truckin'" - but it wasn't until I met Ronnie that I was finally able to navigate the neck. I first encountered him while walking down the hallway of my high school in my RUSH 1 TORONTO t-shirt, which I'd had steam-pressed in white felt letters at the t-shirt stall in the Albion Mall.
"You like Rush?"
"Ya, man, I love Rush."
"Cool. Wanna hang out?"
Ronnie was a guitar player and he was way better than me. Not only could he play Lifeson's solos note for note, but he also looked the part: mangy and skinny-legged, with long blonde hair spilling over his shoulders. Though Ronnie and his brother, Rob, lived in a bungalow near Silvercreek Park with their mom and dad and two sedans, he looked like he'd woken up in a gulch. His face was moody and drawn without ever having touched dope or booze or speed, and the way he wore his guitar suggested that he'd had it strapped across his bony shoulder since birth. Ronnie was the real thing. I was envious of him from the beginning.
Ronnie and I jammed. We sat at the edge of each other's beds on numberless afternoons, watched over by Rush's Farewell To Kings poster, and strummed along to our favourite records. Actually, Ronnie did most of the playing. I studied him closely, copping riffs to "Bastille Day" and "Temples of Syrinx" and, of course, "Xanadu," Rush's monumental work of squelching synths, wind chimes, mystical poetry and hiccupping bass lines. Ronnie and I saw lots of shows together, but most importantly, we saw Rush twice, the last time at the Gardens on their Hemispheres tour. One of the best moments came during the flashpot blasts in "Closer To The Heart," where the whole crowd came alight, sixteen thousand faces hanging open as Lifeson kerranged a D major chord in his fringed monk's robe, his wild eyes obscured by a carwash curtain of hair, which whipped across his face as we yowled with pangs of delight.
Ronnie and Rob formed a band called Typhoid. It was the perfect name. I couldn't believe that no one had thought of it before. The first thing they did was splash their logo in paint across a bedsheet, which they hung behind them when they practised. Back in the '70s, it was very important to have a backdrop or a lighted sign. I'm not sure if you remember, but in the case of bands like Triumph and Taurus, it was their sign - siren-spinning and belching smoke - that separated them from the rest. A few years before Typhoid, I'd tried forming a group with my cousin, but when I suggested that we do a show, he said, "Naw, we can't do that, we don't have a sign. We'll just end up playing with some band that has a sign and get blown off the stage."
Typhoid staged concerts in their parents' basement, and the highlight of the show was their last number, the Rush song "Working Man," which featured Robbie's drum solo, sounding to me uncannily like the real thing. At solo's end, he threw his sticks into the crowd, which was made up of myself, a few cousins, and his parents. Maybe a grandmother. During the show, Ronnie introduced the songs with a vaguely American drawl (which I thought gave him instant rock credibility), but most of the time he just stood there in repose, looking messed up in front of homemade wooden cabinets - enormous blonde boxes with small speakers in the centre. For each concert, the brothers built more speakers, and while their sound more or less remained the same, their gear got bigger. It was like something out of The Wall. After a while, they encroached Robbie and his drum kit, which expanded, too, cymbals added to cymbals, tom rack over tom rack, and, finally, a double bass drum that, quite simply, blew my mind.
Time passed. In 1978, my idea about music changed. I cast off the power chords and glam candy of hard rock for defiance, rebellion, anger, dread: the sound and ethos of punk. Ronnie got into punk rock too, but he hadn't been hit as hard. This drove a wedge between us. It happens. With change, certain people represent what you used to be, and this was the case with Ron and Rob. After a while, I found myself looking at those speaker boxes and just shaking my head. I became pompous and self-righteous, driven. I believed that if you weren't into bands like X-Ray Specs, you were a conformist, and conformists were the enemies of punks. I made new friends, got into new bands, dressed differently. One weekend, I threw a party. I didn't invite Ronnie.
At the party, two friends, Tommy and Monk, crank-called Ronnie's home. For them, it was typical behaviour. Tommy, in particular, used to harass Kirk LaPointe - now senior vice president of CTV news - who hosted an open-line program on MacLean Hunter cable television. Tommy would call and say things like, "Hey, Kirk, I got a bag over my head" or "Kirk, I'm putting my head in the oven!" To a 17-year-old, it was hilarious stuff. The next day, Tommy was a real hero of the hallways.
When they made their call, I was in the basement, dancing. Ronnie's mom answered, and they uttered the first thing that came into their heads:
"Mrs. W, your sons have been killed in a car accident."
They hung up, laughing.
Hours later, there was a pounding on the door. When I opened it, Ronnie, Rob and about five of their friends charged in. Ronnie waved an X-acto knife, and he came at me. He slashed the air and screamed my name. He howled something about his mother, how upset she was. I fell backwards against the stairs, holding up my hand for Ronnie to stop. It was a bewildering scene. My friends rushed up from the basement, grabbed Ronnie, and pushed him out the front door. After a struggle on the driveway, he climbed back into his car. He had a twisted look on his face, and as the car pulled away, one of his friends shouted out the window that he was going to find me after school and break my fingers. It was a terrible night. A few days passed and Tommy and Monk finally fessed up to what they'd done. Five years later, Monk himself died in a car crash.
I thought of Ronnie and Robbie and Typhoid when the Rheostatics recorded with Rush's Neil Peart in 1992. He came down to Reaction Studios while we were making Whale Music and set up a little yellow jazz kit in the corner. The Barenaked Ladies were there, too; they'd laid in their background vocal to "California Dreamline" earlier in the day and together we watched Neil warm up, a chimeric figure in his beaded African hat under the low studio lights. Head lowered, torso centred, feet kicking, his hands glancing over the drums, Neil played all afternoon. His touch was soft when it had to be, but propulsive, too, like a distance runner tugging the flow of blood to his heart. It's one thing to see your hero perform from a distant seat in Maple Leaf Gardens, but it's something else to feel close to his work, as I did that day. At one time in my life, I'd dreamed of what it would be like to simply attend a Rush concert, and there I was at the studio, not 20 feet from where he was crafting a part for a song that would appear on our album.
Of course, while Neil played, I thought of Ronnie, how he used to bend the fat strings of his Les Paul to play the vibrato riff of "What You're Doing," his skinny wrists working the neck, his tongue curved over his lip trying to get the riff just right. I thought of Robbie's drum solo, all flailing arms and slumping meter, and I thought of the sound of the suburbs, the sound of Rush, and what it had taken for me to be where I was, living this rock'n'roll dream. As Neil commanded his kit, he painted my adolescence before me, evoking everything about it, and even though I sat alone, I imagined that Ronnie was there, too, watching our hero as he played and played and played, tapping out rhythms of the heart for a kid who was once best friends with another kid, and they loved Rush.
The Rheostatics' Dave Bidini is the author of Tropic Of Hockey.