Why We Love/Hate RUSH

Peter Simpson considers our complicated and enduring relationship with one of Canada's most successful bands

By Peter Simpson, Ottawa Citizen, July 11, 2010


One night during the mid-1970s, a bunch of small-town kids streamed into a city rink to see something rare: a live rock and roll band that was more than a one-hit wonder.

We'd had our share of awful flashes-in-the-AM-radio-pan -- Blue Swede singing Hooked on a Feeling and leaving out the "hooga-shaka" part remains a pungently unrewarding memory. Oh, to see a real band that actually had staying power, and yet inexplicably would travel to perform for the teenagers of Charlottetown, P.E.I.

Enter Rush, onstage in the acoustic hell of Simmons Sports Center, where the sound bounced around like that neighbour kid who ate too many mushrooms.

The details have faded, but Geddy Lee, Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson played In the Mood and Fly by Night. Well, kids, right there are two hits, so we're into uncharted territory. "Fly by night away from here," Lee sang, and we sang along, trapped as we were in a suburban prison we knew to be unimaginably uncool.

Rush travelled to us when no other real bands would, just as they travelled to small towns like Minden, Bala, Peterborough, Dundas, Cornwall, Moncton or Fredericton.

That's why my small-town heart has always had a soft spot for Rush, and I'll bet a lot of other people feel the same, even if they haven't listened much in their adult years. I haven't, yet I was surprised to discover, when I started to write this story, that not one of 12,267 songs on my iPod was by Rush. Why did we drift apart, and what have they been doing all this time?

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There's no neat answer to why some people love a band and others don't, but with Rush it's obvious that what attracts some and repels others is the same -- the band's unshakeable commitment to mystical imagery, and to epic, prog-ish rock that some see as overblown and others see as awesome.

Rush sings about Kubla Khan and priests in temples and radio waves and trees -- and not trees as a romantic reference, la U2's Joshua Tree. "There is unrest in the forest," goes the 1978 song The Trees, "there is trouble with the trees/ for the maples want more sunlight/ and the oaks ignore their pleas."

The lyrics came to some as juvenile, or to at least bear an embarrassing earnestness.

Worse, for some, the words flowed through music built on "modal patterns, asymmetrical meters, polyrhythms and bass harmonics," as described in a new book about the band, Rush, Rock Music and the Middle Class: Dreaming in Middletown. "Rush's oeuvre was never dedicated exclusively to epic science-fiction and fantasy songs," writes author Chris McDonald, an ethnomusicologist from Cape Breton University, "but these stood out to the point that rock critics frequently remarked upon this aspect of the group's repertoire, even after the early 1980s when it abandoned such themes."

Most of the early reviews were brutal. Some from the mid-'70s quoted in a new documentary about the band, titled Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, are just this side of "Shit sandwich," the immortal, two-word review of Spinal Tap's fictitious album Shark Sandwich.

Rush has been sniffily dismissed by "serious" rock fans and anyone else who buffs their own patina of coolness, including all rock critics, yet the band always had a vast and loyal audience. "I always like to consider us the world's most popular cult band," says Lee, contentedly, in the film.

They're also a serious topic for academic study, treated with the chin-rubbing sobriety accorded to the most influential and literate artists -- The Beatles, Springsteen, Tom Waits, etc. Typically professorial titles include Mystic Rhythms: The Philosophical Vision of Rush, and A Simple Kind of Mirror: The Lyrical Vision of Rush.

McDonald's new book is dense and by times arcane, whereas the feature documentary, produced by Scott McFadyen and Sam Dunn, is a lighter and less opaque celebration. The contrast between book and film gives an illuminating look at Rush in full, possibly the most successful rock band to ever come out of Canada, nerdy or not.

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That concert in Charlottetown was on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 1976. I know because I googled "Rush concert history" and, sure enough, some impressively thorough fans have posted show dates clear back to the early days. I know that the second time I saw Rush live, at Max Bell Arena in Calgary, was during a two-night stand on March 24 and 25, 1980.

The opening act, as I recall, was Saga, though I can't confirm that. My friend Chris and I stood at the back, doing our best to look alienated in a cool way. Two cute girls offered us a snort of cocaine, and though I've never had a nose for coke, I felt sophisticated and a little dangerous. I thought about it so much that too late I noticed the cute girls were gone. Rush was more faithful, and rocked hard and long.

A room-mate in Calgary had a copy of Rush's 2112, the seminal 1976 album that firmly established the band's signature post-prog/post-blues sound -- the music most of us hear when we think of the band. "We are the priests/ of the temple of Syrinx," Lee wailed, in that oddly high-pitched voice that has spawned a thousand tortured adjectives, e.g., "a voice like a rat caught in a wringer." That's harsh. To me, Geddy has the voice of any adult male, during a prostate exam.

Like Rush fans cared what a bunch of self-inflating critics thought. The concerts were already hot tickets in Canada and the United States, and when that robotic, Big Brother voice at the end of the 2112 suite intoned, "We have assumed control/ we have assumed control," it seemed obvious enough that's just what Rush had done. The "secret society," as a fan labelled it in a survey reported in McDonald's book, was established.

McDonald excavates the middle class to find the roots of Rush's appeal, principally a profound sense of alienation and a hunger for individualism that haunt the suburbs of the continent. It is, of course, a most privileged disaffection -- most every human alive today or in the past could only dream of the banal luxury of middle-class North America -- but it remains rich musical soil for those who can till with skill.

"Though his mind is not for rent/ don't put him down as arrogant," wrote Peart, the band's oft-mocked lyricist, in the song Tom Sawyer, released in 1981 and a fan favourite ever since. Tom Sawyer reveals another tenet of Rush philosophy, when in the documentary film Peart confides that he'll "never get tired of playing Tom Sawyer, because it's always difficult to play right." Lesson learned: achievement is its own reward.

Here's another Rush lesson, from a 2009 interview in Blender magazine. Asked if the band will ever again play The Fountain of Lamneth -- a grandiose, 20-minute, conceptual piece from 1975 -- Lee said, "No, I don't think we will. ... That was our first attempt at a big concept that covered a whole side and we didn't think we really nailed it. I don't think it stands up very well." Lesson: Admit your mistakes and learn from them.

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Here's another quote from that Blender piece: "Oddly, 35 years after their first album, this is Rush's moment." Indeed, the prospects couldn't be better for Rush, for two reasons.

First, the Internet allows any underground community to coalesce into something even bigger, and Rush's "underground" was already so vast that it was never really an underground at all.

Second, fans often cite Rush as "headphone music." In the film, Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford recalls falling asleep at night listening to Rush on headphones and waking up hours later with the tape still rolling. Today, music is portable: this is the headphone age.

You can already see Rush's reputation changing to cool. They've been portrayed on South Park, and performed on The Colbert Report. "In one fell swoop, Stephen Colbert puts them on his show and gives him that hand of coolness," says Les Claypool, of Primus, in the film.

Many rockers in the film out themselves as Rush fans. "The level of musicianship was insane," says the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan. Peterborough-born screamer Sebastian Bach recalls being led to the band's own inspirations. "Not many bands make a 12-year-old go out and buy The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand," Bach says.

A fan quoted in McDonald's book nails the most concise summary of Rush's philosophy: "Think for yourself, get off your ass, and stand up for what you believe in." You could say the same about, for example, James Brown's sizzling 1971 call to action Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved. Rush didn't invent this stuff, but for a lot of people they do it better than anybody else.

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In 1982 I sat in my bedroom in my parent's house, to where I had returned in temporary idleness to both my parents' quiet dismay. I remember putting a new cassette tape on my crappy stereo and reveling in the heavy synth chords that open Subdivisions, that song that perhaps remains the purest distillation of Rush's three-decade long chorus of suburban angst. How could that song not be on my iPod today? As of two weeks ago, it is.

I don't know why Rush and I grew apart, but I know that the small-town soft spot, sparked on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 1976, remains. Yet as I write this I wonder if I've done Rush wrong, if I've been unfaithful, like those cute coke-head girls in Calgary who so quietly slipped away.