Thanks to epic songs, fantastical lyrics and extravagant drum solos, the great nerd band of the Seventies rocks on through the 21st century.
On a warm April evening, the New Orleans Arena pulses with bong-infused cuts from the Seventies: Zeppelin's "Kashmir," Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick," Pink Floyd's "Us and Them" - the last a particularly apt choice for tonight's crowd. Under bright houselights, the 17,000-capacity venue is quickly filling with fans of the Canadian rock trio Rush - many resembling the two young men I find sitting 10 rows from the stage: brow-fringing hair, utilitarian glasses, sprouts of chin whisker. They look straight out of an '82 yearbook photo of the after-school D&D club - a suggestion neither finds insulting. "We fully embrace that," says Sam, 21, an electrical-engineering student with a Ziggy Stardust tee and Harry Potter tattoo. "That's definitely our lifestyle, the whole nerd thing. We play video games and listen to Rush, we play video games about Rush. That's what we did all last night in preparation for this." Do they read science-fiction and fantasy novels? "Oh, yeah," says Brad, a darker presence in black hair and an Alice in Chains tee. "Lord of the Rings, Sword of Truth," says Sam. Do they have girlfriends? -- "Aw, that's fucked up!" says Brad. "That's one stigma I'd like to change," says Sam. "But nothing could bother us right now."
The American-Nerd Age is nigh. Today, everyone from the bed-headed club promoter to the siliconed spokesmodel calls themselves a "nerd" because they play Sudoku or can operate an iPhone. But 34 years ago, when singer-bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart first emerged on the music scene, the n word had teeth. And if you were heavy into Rush - three skinny Canadians with a fixation for sprawling rock epics and Tolkien references - you had found your home.
"I've never thought of us as particularly cool," says Lifeson, now 54 but still in possession of much of his thick blond hair. Within Rush, Lifeson is known as "Lerxst" - a band in-joke from years ago, when the three members entertained themselves by inserting extra syllables and accents into proper nouns. But, "We were filling these places, and I noticed everybody knew all the lyrics, knew the drum fills and had that mentality like, 'This is my band. I found these guys,'" says Lifeson.
As a current tour attests, that connection remains firm. Music taste aside, the scope of Rush's achievement is undeniable - 18 studio albums, more than 35 million records sold worldwide, a legion of fans as loyal as Deadheads and the Kiss Army. Still, much of the world ranks Rush somewhere just north of the mullet. Their hypertrophic musician ship is mocked by critics, their lyrical pedantry spoofed by hipsters, their singer's voice a subject of churlish speculation, including a '97 Pavement song that asked, "What about the voice of Geddy Lee/How did it get so high?/I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy."
"Yeah, I heard that one," Lee says, like an ordinary guy. "I thought it was funny."
Tonight in New Orleans, there is no such snickering. As the clock approaches eight, smoke starts billowing from stage left. The crowd rumbles, then leaps to a roar as the arena goes black. The aroma of cannabis rises. Screens above the stage flicker to life. The heroes appear.
What follows is difficult to describe. It involves hysteria. It involves tears. It involves air-drumming of a brio rarely witnessed - not just the standard cymbal-snare pantomime, mind you, but a dizzying recital of torn, bell, cymbal, wind chime, all in perfect sync with the onstage movements of Peart, Rush's drum god and lyricist. It's a kinetic genuflection, variations of it occurring all around me. To my right an unaccompanied woman in camp shorts raises a thumbs-up sign every eight bars. A few rows up, a man is air-drumming, guitaring and bass-playing simultaneously (a spectacle resembling full-contact hacky sack). From behind, a forty-something man yanks my shoulder during a solo to yell, "That's an ES-355 guitar he's got there!" And for the next three hours, during songs about religion, suburbia, tidal pools and trees, most of this crowd will sing along with every word.
In a dim, soundproof rehearsal space on the shore of Lake Ontario, the men of Rush are in their last rehearsal before their tour. Each stands in a separate area surrounded by axes, pedals, knobs and modules. In the late Seventies, when Rush wanted to expand their sound without adding a fourth member, the band began multitasking with doublenecks, bass pedals, synths and other accoutrements. Today, the official Rush Website's gear list for each member is an array of Trace Elliot Quatra-VR power amps, SansAmp RPM bass preamps and Palmer PDI-05 speaker simulators. Here at the rehearsal space, such items are discreetly tucked away in cabinets that presumably house an Intergalactic Space Modulator and a Doctor Who TARDIS.
In the center of the room stands a red and gold octagonal box that looks like an Oriental prop from a magic show: It's the rotating riser that bears the drum set of Neil Peart. There are rows of toms, snares, bells and whistles, all customized down to the experimental black-nickel drum-shell plating and developed with Peart as part of Sabian and Drum Workshop's ROT) team. There are racks of Roland Brains, Glyph hard drives, MalletKat pedals - the triggers assigned not just to wood blocks and glockenspiels but guitars, keyboards, vocal effects and sound sequences from Rush's entire catalog. Since the early Eighties, Peart's growing percussion arsenal has included electronics. From the looks of it, it seems quite possible that Peart-who often displays total separation between his upper- and lower- limb patterns - could perform as Rush alone.
A ruddy 55-year-old with a Robert Mitchum-ish brow, Peart stands drinking bottled water, dressed head to toe in a ninjalike black suit topped by a black tarn bearing the logo from Rush's 2007 album, Snakes and Arrows. One pant leg is cinched by a bicycle clip. His feet are in dancing shoes. "This is to absorb the sweat," Peart says of his outfit, his sonorous baritone recalling Harry Shearer's folk bassist in A Mighty Wind. The dancing shoes come from his study with jazz musician and drum guru Freddie Gruber in the mid-Nineties. "They're so you get the dance and glide on the pedals like you get on a dance floor."
Today, the very phrase "Neil Peart" is shorthand for the kind of Olympian accomplishment rarely seen outside genres like classical music, a name synonymous with dizzying fills and stallion grooves, a rep that extends well beyond Rush fans. Even the man's personal history is a Nietzschean creation myth. Raised in the Ontario city of St. Catharines, Peart (pronounced "peert") skipped two grades in elementary school and began high school at age 12. He dropped out to pursue music and in '69 moved to London to get into a band.
As Peart sat down for one audition, the keyboardist said, "This first tune is in seven," prompting Peart to wonder, "Seven what?" He had never dealt with odd time signatures. He was humiliated. Peart returned to Canada and began studying, practicing, mutating. Then he took an audition for a Toronto band called Rush, whose founding members, Lifeson (born Alex Zivojinovich) and Lee (ne Gary Lee Weinrib), had met at North Toronto's Fisherville Junior High in 1967. Lifeson and Lee were two guys with long hair and parents who talked funny. Lifeson's were Serbian immigrants; Lee's were Holocaust survivors from Poland. (Lee's nickname, Geddy, was sparked by his mom's mispronunciation of "Gary.")
With drummer John Rutsey, the original lineup developed on the local bar scene, released a single (a cover of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away") and went on to record Rush, the band's 1974 debut album of generic heavy metal whose hard-rock single, "Working Man," won sufficient buzz to get the album re-released by Mercury Records. Rush developed a stateside niche as a Canadian Zeppelin manque. But just as the band was about to tour the States, Rutsey (who died in May) begged off- partially due to health problems associated with diabetes - and Lee and Lifeson began auditioning replacements.
"The car pulls up, and there's all kinds of drums tied down to it, and this real tall, skinny guy comes out with really short hair," Lifeson recalls of Peart's entrance. "And we were so cool in satin pants and platform shoes and long hair and all that stuff, so I was thinking, 'Oh, this isn't going to work out at all.'"
"Suddenly, he's playing all these triplets with his feet," says Lee. "And I looked at Alex, and Alex looked at me, and we're like, 'Uhhh.' You know in 30 seconds this is not a normal drummer here."
Nor a normal lyricist. When Peart signed on as Rush's drummer, he also took on the band's lyric-writing duties, beginning one of the most infamous oeuvres in the entire rock canon. Peart did not write like a lyricist. He wrote like a philosopher. A German one. In translation. "I was ambitious and had wide interests," says Peart. "So I kind of tried writing about everything: autobiography, science fiction, fantasy, social commentary and junior philosophy." In 1975, after their straight-ahead metal album, Fly by Night, Rush dived off the deep end of prog with Caress of Steel. The album, whose five songs contained the 12-minute "The Necromancer" (which drank deeply from the well of Tolkien) and the 19-minute "The Fountain of Lamneth" (about a search for the fountain of youth), tanked. The band went on an internally dubbed "Down the Tubes Tour." "We were living in a little Dodge Fun Craft van, playing 250 shows a year and getting no support for the record," says Lifeson. "'Nadir' is the right word," says Peart. "It's not just your career, it's you. Nobody likes us, nobody wants us." But at this rock bottom, Rush found their moment of clarity. "We just decided, 'Oh, fuck it, let's just make a good record,' " says Lee. "We really did think we were going out in flames."
The result was 2112, widely considered Rush's masterwork: a seven-part, dystopian fantasy complete with interplanetary war, robotic vocal effects, instrumental fireworks and clerical bureaucracies straight from the Dune trilogy. With a theatrical pitch somewhere between Jesus Christ Superstar and Pink Floyd's The Wall, 2112 portrays a galaxy controlled by one Red Star of the Solar Federation, whose Priests of the Temples of Syrinx dictate all cultural life. In the titular year, a young hero discovers an ancient, mind-freeing relic - yes, an electric guitar - and brings this Promethean gift to the Talibanic priests, who promptly wreck it and ground him, sending him off to his bedroom, where he presumably smokes bud, bums out and eventually kills himself. After which a coup brings a new galactic order and completes the most heroic rendition of the cranky-adolescent-male consciousness ever committed to vinyl.
2112 went multiplatinum and won Rush their independence. But it did more than find an audience. With philosophical touchstones in Orwell, Nietzsche and the band's acknowledged hero, Ayn Rand (whose politics got the band members labeled cryptofascists in the late Seventies), the album played a role analogous to that of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology-launching book, Dianetics - eventually amassing the most die-hard, detail-obsessed rock fans in history.
It's Saturday at Toronto's Rogers Centre ballpark, where the Toronto Blue Jays are taking on the Boston Red Sox. Lee and I are right behind home plate in his incomparable season-ticket seats, watching Boston's Manny Ramirez; take a practice swing straight out of Gladiator.
With his long hair, soul patch and round sunglasses, the 54-year-old Lee suggests either a French semiotics professor or an abstract expressionist. He's often noticed but frequently misplaced. "For some reason, Latino people think I'm Ozzy Osbourne," says Lee. "I don't know-big nose, long hair? Others say Bono."
When Rush emerged as a hard-rock power in the Seventies, Lee entered the history books as one of the genre's truly sui generis frontmen: gimlet eyes, ectomorph frame, noted proboscis. Robert Plant may have sung about Tolkien's mystic realm of Mordor; Lee looked like he'd been there.
"In the early days, it was tough," Lee says. "I used to sing really high and really screechy - early influences were guys like Plant and Steve Marriott, the soprano-ish screechers. So every live show we got reviewed, I was just hammered to death. 'He sounds like he's screaming after swallowing razor blades,' or 'the damned howling in Hades' was one of my favorites."
But Rush were always an acquired taste. With Kiss releasing Kiss and the Ramones debuting at CBGB, the band hit its stride just as punk's aftershocks had cohered into a few core standards for American rock. Three chords and the truth. Basic structures. Passionate lyrics. No drum solos. If rock had a Geneva Convention, Rush would be war criminals.
Their very existence defies most natural laws. Let's start with a real basic one: the sex, drugs and rock & roll triumvirate. Sitting under Toronto's former Sky-Dome, Lee recalls Rush's U.S. debut, at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena in 1974. "They asked us if we wanted anything in our dressing room, so I asked for some Southern Comfort," he says. "I read that rock singers drank that before they went on. So I had this little shot when we go on, and I'm like, 'Holy mackerel!' I've got all of 26 minutes to play, and I'm dizzy for half of it." Behold Rush's entire history of onstage intoxication.
Now for the sex. This wont take long either. Lifeson is married to his first girlfriend, Lee is married to his high school sweetheart, and Peart was with the same woman for 22 years until she passed away in 1997. Of Rush's 150-odd songs, not a single one concerns that rather popular rock & roll topic: chicks - which, when compared to the likes of Kiss, makes Rush more or less the AV Club of 20th-century rock.
Sitting with his score card, Lee prepares to record the at-bat of Blue Jay and Rush fan Gregg Zaun - who chose the band's '81 hit "Limelight" as his theme music. As the towering riff rings out in the arena, Lee's real-time image fills the jumbotron, prompting a radio announcer in Boston to ask, "Who's the guy behind home plate that looks like Bono?"
A young head-buzzed man in a Red Sox jersey appears by our seats. "Geddy!" he calls - then bows with his hands clasped before him. "Thanks for the music, man."
"Hi," says Lee. "Pfft," he asides, with a discreet grin. "Boston fan."
After the battle of "2112" came the punk revolution, to which the prog giants ably adapted, attuning to certain NewWave frequencies - synths, reggae beats, shorter songs, the Police - deploying them in the wryly titled 1980 record Permanent Waves, their first U.S. Top Five album. Then, in 1981, Rush released Moving Pictures, definitively marking a two-year breach in the space-time continuum: Rush became a pop act.
"Suddenly our audience doubled for that one year," recalls Peart. "We were suddenly twice as popular, twice as many demands, twice as many strange stalkers and all of that."
By then. Lee, Lifeson and Peart were nearly as celebrated as individual musicians as they were as Rush members, topping ax-mag polls, gluing legions of youngsters to home-instructional videos, sneaking in some of the most knotty rock music the Top 40 ever heard. Led by an ominous synth hiss and a low, swinging beat, the hit "Tom Sawyer" works a nearly perverse number of scene changes, time shifts and modulations into a song drafting Mark Twain's character for Rush's pantheon of thought rebels - a "modern-day warrior" whose "mind is not for rent" - painting an immersive video-game world for his adventures. After hacking their odd shape into the pop landscape. Rush simply kept on evolving. They leaned on synthesisers in the mid-Eighties, leaned off them in the late Eighties, releasing the '91 album Roll the Bones - most notorious for the debut of MC Geddy Lee. They even weathered the arrival of a new generation.
Having caught the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on Canada's MuchMusic, Peart reached out to Nirvana's management to offer the band a slot on a Rush tour. His offer was declined with a word that must have sounded quite odd to this author of "Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres." "They said, 'We're an alternative band,'" Peart recalls with a chuckle. "That was the first time I heard that word."
But Rush continued as a band right up until 1997. Then, on August 10th, Peart's 19-year-old daughter and only child, Selena Taylor, was killed in a car accident. Ten months later, his wife of 22 years, Jackie Taylor, died of cancer. In one year, Peart lost his entire family, Rush lost their drummer, and the band lost the will to continue. "I had no interest in it anymore," says Lifeson. "I couldn't play guitar. I couldn't even listen to music for a year."
Peart told his bandmates to consider him retired. Then he decided to go on a motorcycle ride. One rainy morning, his BMW strapped with supplies. Peart set out on a destinationless journey that would take him 14 months and cover 55,000 miles.
Peart will not discuss this period with journalists, but he did document it in the book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, filling it with travelogues, correspondence and frank, emotionally harrowing accounts of his time riding, stopping at roadside cafes and skirting the abyss. At one moment, he describes watching his own instructional drum video. "It was like the guy talking and playing on the screen wasn't me," he writes. Lee says he and Lifeson worried "constantly. We'd get these postcards from God knows where all of a sudden out of the blue. He was running and hoping. I just kept saying, 'Keep moving, keep breathing, and hopefully something will happen that will make you feel like yourself again.'"
"I think we were both feeling it was unlikely the band would get back together," says Lifeson.
During his travels. Peart stopped to visit longtime friend and Rush photographer Andrew MacNaughtan, who introduced him to a pretty brunette photographer named Carrie Nuttall. Nuttall had barely heard of Rush. She and Peart married on September 9th, 2000.
"I think that she was key in making him realize that he has a very unique talent and that it would be a pity to just lose that," says Lifeson. In a few months, Peart put out feelers to his former bandmates. "Some conversation started coming around that he wouldn't mind getting together with us to have a talk, so we got together and we talked and thought, 'Well, it's not the worst thing in the world to see if we can make some music again,'" says Lee.
When Rush reconvened, Peart hadn't played drums in four years. "This was not Neil Peart the drummer," says Lifeson. "This was a guy that was a long time away from that." In incremental steps over the next 14 months, the trio worked on what would be the first Rush record in six years, 2002's Vapor Trails. "The record was all about him and all about what he had gone through," Lifeson says. "It has a character and an energy unlike any that we've ever done."
When Rush went on tour to support Vapor Trails, they made their first live appearance in five years. The first date was June 28th, 2002, at Meadows Music Center in Hartford, Connecticut - an indelible memory for both the band and fans. Witnesses recall the moment when a tarp was pulled away to reveal Peart's drum set - prompting sobs from people who never thought they would see such a sight again. "That was such an emotional night," says Lifeson. "Those fans in the first rows that were crying. I'll never forget that."
On a chilly April night, Rush convene for one last crucial task before the tour: dinner. The site is the Starfish Oyster Bed and Grill, a Toronto restaurant with gold lighting, dark wood, lavishly framed food-porn of fleshy oysters. "Galways, Clarenbridges," Lifeson tells the waiter. "Whatever you have of the Kumos, whatever you have of the Olympias. What else sits great?"
"The Beausoleils are really nice," says the waiter.
"OK, so let's get five dozen of those."
I notice that a wineglass has mysteriously appeared before me, filled an oenophilic quarter full. "It's a white burgundy," says wine collector Lee, sailing over my palate with a single phrase. "It's a 2000 Dauvissat Chablis. The 2000s are doing quite well. This one is not oaked."
"Don't miss a word," says Peart, leaning into my recorder, "of this fascinating commentary."
Self-effacing poise may be rare to arena rockers, but like Green Party candidates and Nascar heroes, the members of Rush have adjusted to both idolatry and disregard. Just prior to tonight's dinner, they were once again snubbed by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which instead inducted no greater rock luminaries than the Dave dark Five. But Rush seem convincingly unfazed.
"I just keep saying we're too young to be in there," says Lee.
"Yeah," says Peart. "Unlike all those other people, we're still working."
"I think it really upsets our fans," allows Lifeson. "It's a big issue for them."
It's true that Rush doesn't mean today what it did in '76 or even '96. It may mean more. Back when Peart was lost in America, Lee remembers knowing that his friend's path back would be through music. "Because that's who he was," Lee says. "The quickest way to health is to be who you are and do that thing that you love to do." And if today's Rush stands for anything besides dazzling chops and heady abstractions, it may be that simple, oddly courageous conviction: doing what you love - whether it gets you called a nerd, spurned by your label or turned into an icon.
After an oyster course. Lee opens a third bottle: a nice Chateauneufdu Pape. He uncorks it, pours four glasses, and we raise them together.
"Happy times," says Lee.
Four things to know about Earth's hardest-rocking nerds
The Song to Download
What is it: "YYZ" Back story: This famous instrumental is named for the call letters of the Toronto airport (pronounced "why, why,zed") and recently performed by Lee, Lifeson and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins at a Foos concert in Toronto. Insanely Rush-y detail: The monstrous, single-note-repeating riff that begins the song is, literally, "Y,Y,Z" - in Morse code.
The Crazy Peart Avatar
What is it: YYZ Peart. Back story: Not long ago. Rush fiend/digital animator Bobby Standridge created a nerd-tastic video that shows Peart's avatar playing a perfectly synchronized performance of "YYZ" on a lone drum riser floating under stormy skies on Lake Ontario. How to get it: Go to YouTube and type in "YYZ Peart." Behold.
Their Great Eighties Video
What is it: "Subdivisions." Back story: Part Gossip Girl, part Koyaanisqatsi, this chilly vision of architecture's emotional savagery begins with aerial shots of the Toronto grid and shifts to images of "detached and subdivided" suburbia, where a kid in clunky glasses moves through high school and broods while watching a Rush video and finds his only joy in the 1980 arcade game Tempest. Get it on: YouTube
Finally, a Brief List of Words That Appear in Rush Songs
Necromancer, stratospheric, geometric, geological, temperamental, polarity, cacophony, unobtrusive, phosphorescent, panacea, oppression, gravitation, subdivisions, mechanized, computerized, underlying, alternating, incoherence, insulated, humanoid. Galapagos, superconductor