The Girl Who Loved Rush: Donna Halper, April 6, 2011

Canadian power trio Rush will take the stage in Cleveland once again on April 15th, when the band swings by Quicken Loans Arena on its extended Time Machine 2011 tour. Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart are sure to "approach the unreal" during another three-hour set of pyrotechnical prog featuring their signature power pop ("Freewill," "Limelight," "Spirit of Radio") as well as some intellectual epics ("2112," "La Villa Strangiato").

The band is currently between studio albums; Snakes and Arrows dropped four years ago (has it been that long already?) and Clockwork Angels won't arrive for a few more months. But Rush aren't road-tripping just to fill spaces on their calendar. They're celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of one of its most critically-acclaimed and commercially successful albums. Moving Pictures contains several of the group's most widely-played FM staples-including "Tom Sawyer" and "Red Barchetta"-and helped break the band to a much wider audience. Many of those converts will turn out on Record Store Day (April 17th), when participating retailers will stock a 7" featuring new Rush songs "Caravan" and "BU2B."

Though repeatedly shunned by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (whose induction process ignores even the most influential acts if they demonstrate too much independence along the way), the Rush members were made Officers of the Order of Canada in 1996 and received stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2009. A documentary by fan filmmaker Sam Dunn-Beyond the Lighted Stage-premiered last year to widespread acclaim. Even folks who can't stand the band's brainy sci-fi rock admitted after watching the Juno Award-winning film that Rush are sorely overlooked music-industry veterans. Lee, Lifeson, and Peart have certainly earned their place in the lexicon, delivering over four decades of stunningly original music whose technical sophistication and uncompromising esthetic continues thrilling audiences everywhere.

On the occasion of the band's show at The Q-which will be filmed for later DVD release-The Cleveland Sound chatted with a longtime Rush confidante who has North Coast connections that go way back. Donna Halper-former music director at WMMS-is widely credited with having broke the band in 1974 (the trio thanks her on the sleeve notes for both Rush and Fly By Night). Halper, in previous tellings of her "Rush Discovery Story," admits perusing song titles on back of the group's self-released eponymous debut all those years ago mostly because she was searching for a "bathroom song" of adequate length to allow for a pit-stop.

A longtime Beantown resident-and respected media historian and professor at Lesley University-Halper successfully defended her thesis on April 1st and will receive a PhD in Communications this summer. She was glad to talk about her ties with the band and clear up some things about on-air potty breaks, old times at the Agora, "Limelight"...and King Lear.

THE CLEVELAND SOUND: Thanks for talking with us, and congratulations on your doctorate! That's got to be a load off. You also have a M. Ed. and M.A. in English, right?

DONNA HALPER: I have a Masters of Education in counseling, with an expertise in people with drug and alcohol problems. I have a Master of Arts in English. And the PhD, which will be awarded-God willing-in May, is in Communications. I did an analysis of early broadcasting. Like, the first two decades of broadcasting. Of how it affected and changed the culture.

TCS: You just did a book-Boston Radio: 1920-2010 for Arcadia Publishing.

HALPER: That's correct. Just did a book about Boston radio. In fact I was on WBUR, which is our public radio station [NPR affiliate] here on Monday talking about the book, and talking about how radio has changed, and I kind of got into the situation with Rush. People ask me all the time, 'I've got this band. Can you discover it the way you did with Rush?' And the answer is 'No,' because the industry has changed so much with media consolidation. You've got like, five giant conglomerates pretty much syndicating and voice-tracking and doing all this other stuff, and the individual announcers and individual music directors no longer have the autonomy they used to have. Which is sad.

TCS: Yeah, WMMS isn't quite the same today as back during the glory days.

HALPER: I got there in the Fall of 1973 and I left in the Spring of 1975.

TCS: And during that time-the story goes-you came by a copy of the first Rush LP. A copy they'd released on their own label, since the Canadian companies passed them by.

HALPER: On Moon Records, yes. Oh, God-the ugliest cover [laughs]. Oye, oye. It was red. I still have the thing-I never parted with it. People ask me all the time, 'Would you sell it?' I'm like, no! Absolutely not. If you look online there's a few pictures of me holding that cover. If you friend me on Facebook you can see it. You'll see me with a couple other fans, and I'm holding the original Rush cover. So yeah, it came in your basic plain brown envelope from a friend of mine-Bob Roper. The bottom line is, I was never expecting to receive it. I didn't know who the band was. And Roper-who I'm still in touch with now and then-was the record promoter of A&M in Canada. That's the label that was co-owned by Herb Alpert, who has had many hits for many years. And they passed on it. But Roper heard something and thought it was a good record, and I had a reputation for both playing new artists as music director, and also for playing Canadian artists. I'd played a number of Canadian artists over the years; I could give you names but I don't know if they'd mean anything to your audience. But he figured I'd be receptive to hearing another Canadian band. It wasn't just out of the blue he sent this record. He figured I would be a good person to send it to. Not like, wow, I'm so marvelous, but I'd already made a lot of friends with people in the Canadian music history. So I got it, and I listened, and I was like, 'My God-you're right!' And the rest, as they say, is history.

TCS: Your playing the record broke them in Cleveland, then in the Midwest-and you passed it along to Cliff Burnstein at Mercury.

HALPER: As I explained in the "Rush Discovery Story," the first thing I looked for-and this is widely misinterpreted, because some people took what I said in the documentary the wrong way-in radio, we had something back in those days called a bathroom song. Now, I did not have to go to the bathroom! But the fact is, with album rock, you looked for long songs. Particularly if you're on the air late at night and nature called. When you're on the air late at night you're alone in the studio, you're alone in the radio station. And when they designed radio stations, it's like the airport, the mens' room or ladies' room is like five miles from where your gate is!

TCS: Yeah, you've got a mad dash down the hall.

HALPER: So, the fear of every DJ, we have nightmares that the record runs out before we get back in to the studio. So as a music director I would look for two kinds of songs. One was, 'Wow, this is a great song,' and another kind was, 'This would make a good bathroom song.' "Stairway to Heaven." The long version of The Doors' "Light My Fire." Not the whittled-down Top 40 radio version, but the long version. "Freebird." There are certain songs that are both good and they're long. So I looked for the longest cut on the record just to see if it would make A) a good song to play, and B) if it would make a good bathroom song. So I listened to the first couple of chords of "Working Man," I listened to the first couple of verses, and I said, 'My God-this is a perfect Cleveland record.' At that point in time, Cleveland was still a factory town. Yeah, it had a symphony-blah, blah, blah-but you know. Republic Steel used to turn the sky orange every night. The pollution was horrible. But a lot of people worked in the factories and, yeah, they had no time for livin', they were workin' all the time. And I thought, this is going to speak to people in Cleveland. So I ran it downstairs to Denny Sanders and said, 'You've got to listen to this.' And like I said, the rest is history. But yes, originally it started off as I was looking for a long song-and it morphed into 'Bob-there's a lot of good songs on this record!'

TCS: It starts with "Finding My Way," a great song. Then you have "Here Again," "In the Mood...."

HALPER: You're not kidding. To this day, I still get the chills when I hear "Finding My Way." I cannot listen without remembering where I was. And when the guys played at the Agora and they did a shout out to me-wow. You've got to understand, when we started out, I never expected we would be friends. Just never expected it. I've been a music director for years. I've helped a lot of bands. John Gorman-who was music director-he and Kid Leo, and Denny Sanders and Steve Lushbaugh...we had autonomy. We could break a record in those days. We could make a record a hit. And we broke a number of artists. And, in most cases, never heard from them again. In a few cases we did, but by and large, you do your job...there were people who would come by and visit when they're in town. But I didn't expect that Rush would become friends with me. I just didn't. And when they did-when I became friends with their management-I was not only pleased, just spoke well to me of what kind of people these guys are. And thirty-seven years later we're still in touch. And I think that's amazing. And I still see them when they get to Boston, and I still keep in touch with their management-I just talked to the vice president of Anthem Records today. I just got my PhD today, so I shot an email to Pegi-we also are friends-and I just wanted to share with her, because Geddy's son is going for his PhD. And I spoke with Geddy's daughter when we did the Hollywood Walk of Fame, because she was talking about what college she wanted to go to. So yeah, I keep in touch with the guys and they keep in touch with me. We're not close pals; they're busy, and I'm busy. But yet we keep in touch. And when they were having the Tribeca Film Festival, they wanted me to be there. They wanted me to be in the documentary. They wanted me to be one of the presenters at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This is just how it is for these guys. And still to this day when they do interviews they'll mention what I did for the band. I mean, Pete-my God. I did that thirty-seven years ago. As part of my job. And yet, they still acknowledge it. Because this is the kind of people they are. Success has not spoiled them.

TCS: In between a couple of those Cleveland stops, in 1974-75, they put out the next record, Fly By Night, with new drummer Neil Peart.

HALPER: That's kind of a funny story. Neil came to my house. He was new to the band-and by the way, I'm very glad that the documentary qualified once and for all that, no, [original drummer] John Rutsey was not a drug addict. He didn't have to leave the band because of heroin or all of these horrible things that were being said about the guy. He had severe diabetes. Which today, you can test yourself in the morning. You can administer your own shot of insulin. But in 1974, not so much. You had to go to a hospital. And if you were in a rock band and you had to stop down every four hours while your guy went to the just wasn't working out. Whether you're a little band in Toronto-yeah sure, they'll wait around four hours while John goes and gets tested. But in the real world, they were kids. They had something on their mind. They wanted to plan. They wanted to dream. And when they got older, they needed the flexibility to be able to travel. And John couldn't do it. And I know how bitter he became. I know how sad he was. Not bitter at the guys; he understood what happened. But bitter at the hand he was dealt. And I think years later he would have been dealt an entirely different hand. There are diabetic musicians who are out there, and are very successful. But back then, he was kind of born too soon.

TCS: It's a shame that people are always too ready and willing to believe the worst.

HALPER: Oh, it just infuriates me. And I've spent a long time defending him. Because I met the guy. And he was no drug addict, okay? The fact remains, it was a sad situation. They had to move on. They had a different direction they wanted to go in, musically, and they also needed someone who was going to be healthy. And when Neil join the band, he was like, 'Who's this Donna person that they have this relationship with?' So he came over my house and we chatted. Fast-forward to September of last year, when I was at the concert in Boston and was backstage with Pegi, and I'd already seen Alex and Geddy-because they like to do the meet-and-greets, they're very sociable and Neil never shows up for those things-he just doesn't like to do them. Not like he's antisocial. From what I've seen, he's actually kind of shy. He's confident up on stage, but he's not the schmoozing type of person, you know what I mean? Alex and Geddy love doing that stuff. Neil, not so much. So I wasn't expecting to see Neil, and I'm sitting backstage with Pegi and the rock journalists who are covering the thing that night-the concert in Boston-and this big bruiser-looking guy comes over to me. 'You Donna Halper?' And I'm like, 'Oh crap.' I figure I haven't got my backstage pass in the right place; I look down at my leg and there it is-I'm old school, I don't have a lanyard so I just put the pass on my pants leg. Which is where you used to put them. But it was still there. So I look at Pegi, and I look at the backstage pass, and I'm like 'I'm really supposed to be here!' And he's like, 'Neil wants to see you.' And I'm like, 'No way.' And he's like, 'Way.' So I look at Pegi: 'Did you put Neil up to seeing me?' And she's like, 'Donna, you know Neil, you can't put him up to anything.' So I went backstage, and there was Neil, sitting in his own little room, just getting ready to go onstage. And it was like old times. Like, 'I haven't seen you since yesterday!' And we chatted at we kibitzed. And at the end he said, 'You remember I came over to your house that time? You lent me a book.' I said, 'Yeah-Shakespeare, as I recall.' He said, 'Yeah, it was King Lear. I still have it!' And I'm like, 'Really, you do?' And he said, 'Yeah—and you know what I learned from it? It's not enough to say you love somebody. You really have to show it.' Because we were talking about family. Because I was talking about my husband, and how I'm an advocate for an adult with autism, and we were talking about family, and he was talking about his daughter. And he brought up the story of King Lear, and how he had been impressed by-and influenced by-the interactions with King Lear and his daughter. How King Lear found out too late what love and what family really mean. And I thought that was just an incredible conversation. And not one you'd expect to be having with a rock star. But that's how it is for Neil. That's also how it is for Alex; they're both readers. I know Neil is jokingly called "The Professor," but Alex reads just as much. Alex is a big reader. And sometimes when we're together we'll talk politics, and sometimes we talk books. With Geddy, it's baseball.

TCS: Yeah, in the documentary he shows off his autographed baseball collection.

HALPER: Yes, big baseball fan. He turned me on to the Blue Jays. I became a Blue Jays fan because of him. I mean, I'm also a Red Sox fan-but I started following the Blue Jays. Which was very cool when they won the pennant in 1992-93, won the World Series. I was just vicariously, like, 'Wow-Geddy must be thrilled!' Because the Jays had be also-rans for a long time.

TCS: One other thing I wanted to ask about if you have an extra minute is Moving Pictures, since the band is celebrating the 30th anniversary of that album on this tour. Do you have any thoughts on that landmark record, given it followed maybe eight years after the debut? Any thoughts on the evolution that occurred during that time?

HALPER: 1981? That old, is it? Gosh. "Limelight" is one of my favorite Rush songs. I always thought that it was in the voice of Neil. Not just because, yeah-Neil writes the lyrics-but that song does express to some degree his feelings about going to the meet-and-greet and all. 'I can't pretend this stranger is a long-awaited friend.' Neil's not an actor. What you see is what you get. And it seems to me in that song he really articulated both the upside and downside of fame. The upside being, sure, there's a million people who want to be next to you and you get to be well known everywhere you go and-oh, by the way, that's also the downside as well. Because everybody does want to get next to you. They all want something, and you're not friendly to them they get mad at you! And he said he's just not good at playing that game. His gift-and I don't mean this in a bad way-I mean what he gives to the fans, is the three hours when he's up on stage as probably one of the best drummers in the world, and the love he has for his craft. The love he has for the art of drumming. That's what he wants to give to the fans. The small talk? Oh God, he's not good at it. He has a small group of people he's been friends with since childhood. And he likes to kind of go off with them and hang out. But it's very difficult for him to just be a "rock star." I mean, he likes being a rock star. It's certainly nice being a rock star. But he likes it more for that, 'Wow-now a lot of people get to see my drumming and understand the art of drumming, and they'll have more respect for drumming.' As far as the ego boost? I'm sure there is one. But he doesn't like to hang out and listen to, 'Oh, Mr. Peart, you're so wonderful! Oh, you're so marvelous!' It's not the world he's comfortable in. And I think that song expresses both the upside and the downside of fame.