Donna Halper is a 55-year-old author and critic who teaches media studies at Emory College in Boston. She has never smoked a cigarette, consumed alcohol or taken drugs. She is an avid baseball fan. She keeps a kosher household.
She is also a huge fan of veteran Toronto rock trio Rush. She has been for so long that when she swore allegiance to Rush for the first time, lyricist Neil Peart had yet to replace original drummer John Rutsey behind the kit.
"The people who follow Rush," she says, "follow them for a lifetime."
Now Halper and her fellow Rushophiles have fresh fuel for their passions with the release Tuesday of the band's 17th studio album, Vapor Trails, followed by a tour that kicks off June 28 in Hartford, Conn., and stops at the Molson Amphitheatre July 17.
Halper, it needs to be said, is not a typical Rush fan. In a former life as music director for Cleveland's WMNS in 1974, she was the first radio programmer in the U.S. to air Rush's eponymous debut album. For that she is credited with having been instrumental in landing the band its first U.S. record deal.
Not that there really is a typical Rush fan, judging by the profile of the 450 acolytes who attended last year's inaugural RushCon in Toronto, a three-day conference of all things having to do with Peart, guitarist Alex Lifeson and singer/bassist Geddy Lee.
"I consider us to be the world's most popular cult band," says Lee during an interview this week at the band's Carlton St. offices.
"We have a great fan base out there that has given us the confidence to carry on," he continues. "Without that I can't say that Rush would continue to exist. It's important to know that there's a waiting audience that's interested in what you're doing and makes you feel that you still have something vital to say."
On a signing tour to promote his solo album two years ago, Lee experienced first-hand the myriad faces of Rush reverence.
"I was fascinated by the variety of people who came out to see me," he recalls. "They were every shape and size - moms with their kids, some named after (Rush members), which really freaked me out. And there were a lot of 12- to 17-year-olds - young guys, musicians mostly.
"So many people made the comment that ours was the first show that they'd seen, or that something bad had happened in their lives and a Rush song had helped them through it."
Lee is a thoughtful, soft-spoken man not given to rock star braggadocio. And besides, the figures are impressive. Rush's 22 albums, including landmark studio efforts such as 2112, Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals, along with live discs and compilations, have sold more than 35 million copies worldwide, including in countries where the band has never played.
Imagine Rush's core demographic and a picture pops up of a middle-aged North American male with a head of long but thinning hair. But the actual mean age of those who attended the first RushCon was 35. The participants flew in from Italy, Brazil, Argentina, Japan and the U.K., as well as Texas and California.
"The only typical thing about the people who attended is their devotion to Rush," says Collingwood-based organizer Phred Wyrrd, 31, who has been a fan for 22 years. Like founder Eddy Maxwell of Texas, marketing director Jillian Maryonovich and several of RushCon's key figures, Wyrrd is a woman.
"Rush fans pride themselves on being individuals," says Halper, an invited speaker at last year's RushCon. "If you happen to have orange hair, that's okay. If you happen to teach Sunday school, that's okay too. As long as you are sincere and united in your love of the music of this band, Rush fans will accept you."
"Being a Rush fan is like being in a cult, but not in a bad sense. It doesn't hurt anybody."
Halper reaches for the Yiddish word mishigas, roughly translated as "harmless obsession," to characterize the Rush cult.
"What's the difference between being a Blue Jays fan, a Star Trek fan, a Rush fan or any other kind of fan?" she says. "It ain't dangerous. It ain't going to kill you."
Back in early '74, Halper was hooked by Rush's hard-rocking sound. But it was Peart's later, lyrical contributions, inspired at times by the individualism of author Ayn Rand, that has sustained her affection.
"They didn't just want to be the next three-chord bar band," she says. "They started doing lyrics about the situation in society, about conformity and non-conformity. Rush is a thinking person's band. It's not all 'moon, boon, spoon, croon.'
"This band touches people who feel that they are non-conformists and who don't feel understood by the majority of rock music. Rush offers a positive solution. Their lyrics aren't destructive."
Says Wyrrd: "At first I liked it because it was a heavy sound, with a good beat and lots of rhythm. But then as I got older, I really got into the lyrics and the whole thing just clicked."
Not for everyone, of course. The surging, power-prog pyrotechnics and lyrical grandiosity that fans love are the very aspects of Rush's music that critics have long decried. Lee's high-pitched singing, dramatically toned down on Vapor Trails and his preceding solo outing, was another source of ridicule.
Influential U.S. scribe Robert Christgau, in a 1977 review, described Rush as "the most obnoxious band currently making a killing on the zonked teen circuit." As assessments go, it was harsher than most, but not atypical.
"It's time for the critics to get off of their contempt for Rush," says Halper, "and accept a band that has been recording for 27 years and has two generations of fans. It's time for Rush to be in the (Cleveland) Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. And it's absolutely time for people to start thinking positively about their impact."
Lee appears unscarred by past critical drubbings.
"We were a band that had grand illusions or visions," he says, "so some critics wrote us off as pretentious or whatever. Fair enough. Guys that raved about the Ramones are not going to rave about us."
Besides, there is ample evidence that Rush is enjoying the last laugh. The hallways of the band's Toronto office chart a mesmerizing maze of gold and platinum records. Rush has also been inducted into the Juno Awards Hall of Fame and received the Order of Canada.
To its credit, the band has accepted its good fortune with grace. While Lee insists Rush has never tailored its music to suit the fans, he also says the trio makes an effort to reward its followers' loyalty.
"It makes you want to play that extra gig that you really don't want to play that's in a place you haven't been for 10 years and where the fans really want to see you."
So far, the upcoming Rush tour includes 50 North American dates. The band aims to add some European stops, as well as first-time visits to Mexico and Brazil, but endless touring is no longer a possibility.
"It's hard to have to let people down," Lee says. "We have a lot of fans in Italy, and we've never played in Italy. But, as a 48-year-old rocker, I can't go to every town. It's just not going to happen physically."
It almost didn't happen at all. Rush has been out of commission since the 1997 death of Peart's daughter, in a car accident, and wife, by cancer. And the road back, including the 18 months it took to record Vapor Trails, hasn't always been smooth.
"We got over a huge hurdle making this record," says Lee. "It was so emotional at first, and tentative. Alex and I almost built this protective wall around Neil to make sure that he could come back at his own pace."
Peart has not been involved in promoting the album because "he's not ready to deal with the inevitable questions," says Lee. But he is ready to hit the road.
"Obviously, he's got a bit of trepidation," Lee continues, "but the tone of his recent e-mails betrays a little excitement."
And, no doubt, that excitement is shared by the band's followers, who will be treated to three-hour concerts that lean heavily on favourite fan tunes. Left to its own devices, Lee says the band favours a heavier emphasis on the songs from Vapor Trails, but also understands that the fans want to hear the older stuff.
Lee has even been making frequent visits to a Web site, http://www.rushpetition.com, where fans are voting on the songs they want to hear. "The Camera Eye," "Hemispheres," "Cygnus X-1," "Jacob's Ladder" and "By-Tor & The Snow Dog" currently top the list.
"It's great," he says. "It's a big help to me to know what they want to hear. You have to make an effort to cover the favourites."