The Reel Relation: Film About Rock Band Rush Screens At Arlington's Regent Theatre

Boston Native Tells Of Friendship With The Band

By Margaret Smith, GateHouse News Service, Arlington Advocate, June 3, 2010

Arlington, Mass. - In 1974, Dorchester native Donna Halper was a music director at a Cleveland rock station, WMMS, when she received a promotional album by Rush, a then-unknown bar band from Toronto.

The song, "Working Man" prompted calls from listeners clamoring to hear more - even if some thought the song was on the new Led Zeppelin album, owing to singer Geddy Lee's high vocals.

Since then, Halper, an author, music historian, media consultant and assistant professor of communications at Lesley University, has maintained a friendship with the band, which has sold an estimated 40 million albums worldwide.

Rush is now the subject of a documentary film, "Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage," by rock documentary filmmakers Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen.

The film will screen at the Regent Theatre in Arlington Sunday, June 6.

Halper, now a Quincy resident, will be on hand to introduce the film, as well as answer questions from audience members.

She talked recently about how her long association with Rush has played a role in her own life.


Q. Please tell me about your role in the film and the screening.

A. I'm very honored to do it... I have a long history with the band. Sometimes, I'm amazed that we are still friends. I'm in the music industry for many years, and I've done a lot of favors for a lot of bands - I was a music director, so my job was to get them airplay, and I did that for hundreds of bands - but this is the only occasion where the band continues to acknowledge me.

In my early days working with the band, I was like a big sister to them. But now, they have gold and platinum albums, and they are millionaires - and yet that link is still there.


Q. How did you become involved in the film?

A. When the documentary was proposed, the filmmakers got in touch with me, because it was to be a history of the band - their influences, people who like them. I'm a kid from Dorchester - I never thought I'd be in a rock and roll documentary film. I'm in it four times...the film, though, is mostly about the band, and how they see themselves.


Q. What was it about the band that was notable or special to you?

A. I had left the Boston public schools voluntarily. [Halper was a teacher.] I walked away before I was about to get tenure...I had an opportunity to work at [WMMS,] a rock radio station in Cleveland. A lot of people didn't understand my decision.


Q. What was it like, working at this station?

A. The truth is, this was one of the most difficult periods in my life - there was a lot of drug use at the station, and I don't do drugs.

Getting involved with Rush gave me credibility, and gave me some respect... .it was probably one of the most important things I did as a director.

Bob Roper, who was friends with me [when I worked at] WCAS radio station in Cambridge and in college radio, was working for a record company in Canada. He sent me a record - a homegrown record, and said, "It might be good for you."

I looked for a long song - FM radio played long songs, and AM radio played shorter ones - I found a couple of songs, "Finding My Way" and "Working Man." I thought "Working Man" was perfect for Cleveland, which was a working class city, a rock and roll city, and I thought it very much spoke to Cleveland.

I gave it to Denny Sanders[the station's program director] and he played it...suddenly, we were getting requests for it. I helped get a box of records into a record store that sold imports. I called the band's management and said, "Hey, you guys are a hit in Cleveland."

I became friendly with the band's co-manager at the time, Rick Wilson.


Q. When did you actually meet the band?

A. I met them at their first performance in Cleveland, in 1974. They were three very shy kids from Canada. [The band's lineup consisted of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and then-drummer John Rutsey.]

They were in awe of the whole thing. Here, people were calling out, "Hey, Alex."

But even then, these were really skilled professionals. They were raw - but the first album [the eponymous album, "Rush," which credits Halper for her help], showed flashes of brilliance.

In the early days, they were a bar band - there wasn't a place to write lyrics about philosophy. But even then, you can hear that they weren't content with just being this basic bar band.


Q. How did the arrival of [drummer and percussionist] Neil Peart change the band?

A. The documentary does a wonderful job of first, Geddy was a little intimidated, because Neil [who writes the majority of the band's lyrics] was very well read.

At the beginning, John, Alex and Geddy had been together for ages. [Rutsey left the band after the first album. He died in 2008; published reports cite possible complications related to his long battle with diabetes.]

Along comes Neil, and Geddy isn't quite sure he can relate to all the stuff Neil has read. Any change in a band brings new dynamics.

[Laughs.] Neil didn't know what do with me, either. Neil came over to my house, and we chatted...we got to know each other, and pretty soon everybody was working together really well.

At first, I'd say I had kind of a big sister role receded as the band got more cohesion. When they would come to Cleveland, they would talk me about things you'd talk to a big sister about. My role was no bigger than, for example, their management, and I was not the only one.


Q. Some would say, there were a lot of struggling female musicians, why not champion them?

A. I have stood up for female musicians. I have been quoted about speaking out on sexism in the [music] industry. I see sexism and anti-Semitism all around me, and I speak out where I can.

But, also, being a professional, I had to do my job, and market the right bands. I certainly could not ever promote a band whose lyrics were women hating. Fortunately, that is not Rush.


Q. Speaking of women - it's almost a recurring joke that the women go to Rush concerts with their boyfriends or husbands, and then fall asleep. My experience is that Rush actually has many female admirers, possibly because of the poetic and philosophical nature of the songs.

A. Yes, that's exactly it. This is something women fans have said to me on a regular basis.


Q. Many of their songs are not love songs as such, but definitely about relationships.

A. That's right - one song, in particular, "Entre Nous" [from the album, "Permanent Waves"] many women say this is their song.

Also, I think women appreciate that these are family men. Let's put in the fact that, unlike a lot of other rock and roll bands...I do know they are devoted to their families, and I think that is commendable.

Q. Do the band's fans seek you out?

A. I get two kinds of letters -- "Wow, you know a band, can you get backstage?" The answer is, "No."

And then the other kind is, "Thank you. Rush changed my life. If you hadn't 'discovered' them, I'd never be able to hear them, so I feel as if I owe you."

Some people talk about bands paying a finder's fee. My "finder's fee" was a 37-year friendship.


Q. Do you ever feel a challenge, though, in distinguishing your own identity - you mentioned how the band's fans always seek you out. Are there times you'd rather not deal with that?

A. I don't feel that way, and I tell you why not, Margaret, honestly - I feel this is an honor for me.

I have people who know me for something other than Rush - in the academic world, writing books, as a media historian - people who have never heard of Rush.

[Laughs.] I even have people who, when I say, I discovered Rush, they think, "Oh, you mean, the talk show host?" [Rush Limbaugh.]


Q. What difference has a friendship with Rush made in your life?

A. It's humbling, but it's awkward. I think, my God, how lucky I am. I was a poor kid from Dorchester, the first kid in my family to go to college. I got my name on albums... I am going to be with them when they get their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Conversely, I'm not the story. Rush is the story. They are the talented musicians.

I still look at it sometimes - I was in that generation when women were not expected or encouraged to go into the music business. Not only did I do that, but I made a major impact.

If you go

'Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage'

WHERE Regent Theatre, Medford St., Arlington

WHEN Sunday, June 6, 7:30 p.m. With appearance by Donna Halper.

Friday, June 11, 8 p.m. With performance by tribute band, Lotus Land.

COST June 6 event, $10 advance, $12.50 day of show; June 11, $14.50 advance, $18.50 day of show.


Margaret Smith is Arts and Calendar editor at GateHouse Media New England's Northwest Unit.