"When a band lasts as long as we have, people begin to ask the question: 'What is it about this band that enables it to stay around for four decades?'"
In a downtown hotel suite, Geddy Lee, with Alex Lifeson at his side, speaks about the career of Rush. A documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, is set for limited screenings across the country beginning June 10, followed by a DVD release on June 29. The film is the work of filmmakers Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn, who collaborated on the Gemini-winning Metal: A Headbanger's Journey.
As well, a new book is out. Rush: Rock Music, and the Middle Class was written by Chris McDonald, an ethnomusicologist at Cape Breton University who assesses the progressive rockers' place in popular music and its impact on its suburban North American fan base.
Both the book and the film attempt to come to grips with a band that has had the most unusual career trajectory, defying age and the loathing of critics to fly high for decades, with no end in sight.
"We just do what we do," shrugs guitarist Lifeson. "We've been doing it since we were 15 years old. It's a way of life – it's not a great mystery to us."
Asked why pop culture has recently (and finally) taken a shine to Rush, Lee also shrugs: "We're the last to know why."
Rush is tough to figure. While some get the band, others don't – at all. In the documentary, which is rich with archival goodies, a yellowed old unattributed concert review is introduced as evidence of the band's complicated relationship with its critics and followers. It reads: "Their quasi-political lyrics are an unusual feature, but it was difficult to hear them with Geddy Lee's high-pitched shriek. [The concert] was a routine celebration of deafening anglicized rock and I found it dull, depressing and dated. But they did ignite the two-and-a-half thousand denim-clad youngsters into head-shaking frenzy and physical distortion."
It's not in the film, but a line from Rolling Stone magazine's David Fricke, in his review of the Rush album Permanent Waves, is often used to explain the band's spiteful critics. "It's easy to criticize what you don't understand," Fricke wrote in 1980, "which at least partly explains why Canadian power trio Rush have suffered so much at the hands of rock journalists since the band's debut album in 1974. Critics find bassist-lead singer Geddy Lee's stratospheric wails and drummer Neil Peart's lyrical excursions into philosophy, science fiction and fantasy easy targets, and usually dismiss Rush as a head-banger's Genesis.…"
Fear leads to hate – an old and recurring story.
I once owned a cat, Boopers, who was the least neurotic animal I've ever come across. He was strikingly untroubled, except when it came to airships. One afternoon a dirigible floated high above us. Boopers slouched low to the ground as he skeptically watched the sky. The thing was at least 2,000 feet away, and yet the cat felt the need to put three more inches between himself and that floating monstrosity.
My point? Rush is the mother airship of rock music.
Like my cat with that dirigible, there are those who just can't get far enough away from the veteran Canadian trio. Airships are unwieldy relics – polite but impractical, and full of hot air. And when they crash – I'm looking at you Hindenburg! – all humanity breaks loose.
Yet they still operate, against all reason and physical laws.
McDonald's book dispels as myth the idea that Rush is abhorred by music writers, an assertion that Martin Popoff, the author of 2004's Contents Under Pressure: 30 Years of Rush at Home and Away, is only in partial agreement with. "In the early days, with magazines like Hit Parade and Circus, the reviews were good and the features were complimentary," said Popoff in an interview, who also worked on the new documentary. "But, then again, the more mainstream you go, as you go up the ladder, Rush has been disliked by critics more often than liked."
Using a simple chronological narrative – beginning with the band's suburban-Toronto formation in 1968, through its breakthrough decade of the seventies, to its synth-driven eighties makeover, its tragedy-inspired hiatus in the late nineties, and its current active-duty status – Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage explores a fascinatingly weird band of three unfascinating fellows as it attempts to find reasons for the group's admirable longevity.
The trio's shared nerdy sense of humour, we learn, is one reason for the group's permanence. A similar background and upbringing counts too, as does a profound mutual respect for each other's musicianship. And, quite simply, "the three of us like making the same kind of music together," says Lee.
The actor and metal-music fiend Jack Black, one of the film's talking heads (along with the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan), makes his own intriguing case, vouching for the band's "deep reservoir of rocket sauce."
Don't laugh – he's right. Rush, with its members aged 56, 56 and 57, still rocks. The band is set to work North America this summer and fall, playing arenas and amphitheatres. And although the Time Machine Tour is to feature full renditions of 1981's Moving Pictures LP, the 39-date jaunt is no trip of nostalgia. Fans will hear new material from Rush's forthcoming 19th full-length studio album, Clockwork Angels.
Touring is nothing new for the Fly by Night band, but Rush now travels in a different atmosphere. It was a big deal in 2008 when Rolling Stone, never much of a fan, lavished a four-page article upon them. The same year, on The Colbert Report, the band made a rare appearance on U.S. television.
The hearting of Rush continued with a significant cameo in last year's I Love You, Man, a bromantic comedy directed by Rush fan John Hamburg.
When asked about Rush's late-career mainstream acceptance, Lee suggests it likely took root years ago. "Some of our fans have been profoundly affected by what we do," says the soft-spoken singer. "You hear about people who have been comforted by our music. And maybe, after a period of time, that fan base is growing up and coming to grips with their own experiences, and wanting to write books about them, and saying thank-you in movies."
Do hard-core fans much care about their band's new status? Probably not. It's possible that they may even reject the late-in-coming love. As portrayed in the film, the mostly male Rush audience is composed of those who grew up as alienated suburb-dwellers. They identify with fellow outsiders Peart, Lee and Lifeson, who offered a particularly human and populist brand of ostentatious rock. Look no further than the song Subdivisions – "be cool or be cast out" – as a battle cry for the awkward.
Rush's fandom is fiercely loyal; they've had the band's back for decades, and they aren't about to relax now that it's cool to dig Grace Under Pressure or Vapor Trails. "When you get crap thrown at you with regularity, like we have for most of our career, our fans feel like they've been done a great disservice," surmises Lee, no outsider in an arena full of Rushians. "They feel obligated to raise the flag – the Rush flag."