Legendary Rock Outfit Rush Owes Much To Cleveland

By Peter Chakerian, Yahoo! Local Cleveland, April 14, 2011

Folks in New York City, Nashville, Austin and Los Angeles still dispute the notion, but Cleveland will always be the "Home of Rock and Roll"- a city which coined the term "rock 'n' roll," held the first rock concert, and launched the careers of David Bowie, Roxy Music, Fleetwood Mac, and Bruce Springsteen.

For one iconic rock trio from Canada, Cleveland will always be special. With a four-decade career under their collective belts, Rush - bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart - still recognize how important Cleveland was (and is) to their rock 'n' roll accomplishments.

The band responsible for the songs "Tom Sawyer," "Limelight," "The Spirit of Radio," "Freewill," "Closer to the Heart," "New World Man," and other hits might not be the institution it is today without the fans from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame city.

"Hello, Cleveland!"

"Cleveland was hugely important for us, because up until we were embraced there, we were just basically a bar band in Toronto," said Lifeson during a phone interview with Yahoo! from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "We were on the Southern Ontario high school dance circuit and doing clubs.

"To come to America was such a huge deal, and to come to Cleveland - with its rich connections and rock music heritage and be embraced by the city and crowd there - it really was a really great experience for us. It all started for us in Cleveland and the city has a giant place in our hearts."

So much so, in fact, that Lifeson and his bandmates are bringing their current "Time Machine World Tour" to Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena this Friday, April 15 and will be filming the entire performance for a full-length DVD concert release .

The tour, which began last fall, features the band's seminal 1981 release Moving Pictures performed in its entirety, as well as greatest hits from many of Rush's 19 other studio albums.

"It couldn't be more appropriate to be doing the DVD in Cleveland. I can't tell you the number of gigs we played at the Agora when we were starting out," Lifeson said.

"I definitely remember those gigs! The genuine interest in the band was amazing, the place was always packed and we were on that little stage playing our hearts out. When I close my eyes as a guy who calls himself 'forty-seventeen' (57 years old) now, I can still see myself us there playing and miss the skinny, sweaty long-haired guitar guy who was up on stage!" he laughed.

"It was a raw, exciting time for us and we were so young-not even 21 yet."

In the Beginning...

After receiving a copy of Rush's debut album from a Canadian promoter in 1974, former WMMS-FM Music Director Donna Halper got the band's single "Working Man" onto Cleveland's airwaves-it served as the band's first-ever American airplay.

Cleveland's hard-rockin', blue-collar listeners thought it was a new Led Zeppelin single and began clamoring for the song, which then began sweeping into many Midwestern ears.

Quite frankly, Halper discovered Rush.

"One of the unique things about Rush is that they're singularly distinctive in so many ways," said Halper, a self-described "big sister" to the band during their 'salad days' from 1974-1977.

"Not just in their sound, or how they have continued to reinvent themselves when the critics and music industry insiders are stuck on the bands that don't, but in how unusual they are as people-they're not caught up in the myth of the rock star, those people who begin believe their own hype.

"Success hasn't spoiled them," Halper added in a recent call from her Massachusetts home.

"Here we are 37-plus years later, and the guys in Rush still acknowledge me. I've been summoned for the [Cleveland show]. I'm profoundly grateful for their friendship. It's something I never would have expected.

"It's really difficult to say if or when we might have broken out, or what it would have looked like without the help of Donna when we finally did," agreed Lifeson.

"We had a couple other American record companies at our bar gigs who were mildly interested, but having Donna in our corner - which really led us to our first contract with Mercury Records - was a really big deal for us."

A Hall of Fame Career By-the-Numbers...

Eligible for induction into the Cleveland-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1998, Rush has largely been marginalized by too-cool-for-school music critic voters who just considered the band too weird, obtuse, or pretentious.

Yet their fans have largely remained faithfully devoted. Many who gravitated to Rush's blend of proficient musical escapism, cultural theory, and philosophy are now in positions of authority in the mainstream media.

And they're speaking up.

Once "uncool kids" like Jason Segal and Paul Rudd (the film I Love You Man), Stephen Colbert (TV's "The Colbert Report"), Seth MacFarlane ("Family Guy"), and Trey Parker and Matt Stone ("South Park") became the cool kids and began admitting their love for a band.

Now, Rush is everywhere and these media "tastemakers" are turning a new generation onto the band.

Rush has earned a recent nod by Billboard magazine - the "Legend of Live" Touring Award and was also recently inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. They've also earned a star on California's well-known "Hollywood Walk of Fame" - presented by Halper to the group last year.

(Their star is just a short stroll from legendary dancer Fred Astaire's, if you're ever in Hollywood looking for it.)

Last year, the Tribeca Film Festival-premiered and "Audience Award"-winning documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage brought the band's story to the big screen. In it, filmmakers Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn explore the group's career influence.

Since their breakthrough in Cleveland, sales statistics place Rush third behind The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for most consecutive gold or platinum studio albums by a rock band (24 gold, 14 platinum) with over 40 million albums sold worldwide.

But No Rock Hall. What Gives?

Despite all of this and influencing of generations of hugely successful rock bands (see Metallica, Iron Maiden, Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Tool, The Mars Volta, Coheed & Cambria and many others) the group hasn't even made the final nominations list for the Rock Hall in their 12 years of eligibility.

With all the kudos Rush has received over the last couple years, fans see this as a bone of contention at best and great injustice at worst - but like the band, Lifeson is fairly pragmatic about it.

"I'm sure we're in that conversation every year. Of course we're relegated to the bargain bin at the end of that conversation," he laughed.

"We do have a long history and have remained intact in terms of personnel, along with seeming to fit the criteria. But this [Rock Hall] is a private little project and they're not really that interested in us, which is fine," he added.

"We're busier than ever, sometimes more than we all want to be... We'll just see what happens."

Halper is far less chivalrous is her dissertation of the band's exclusion.

"The first critics who went to Rush concerts were very critical of the band, called them Led Zeppelin clones and so on - and those same critics are now voters for the Rock Hall," Halper offered.

"These critics never changed their opinion of Rush as the '70s band they loved to hate. Rush has reinvented themselves a million times, but these same critics never have. I hope I live to see them get in, because while the guys are being gentlemen about it, I'm furious the Hall won't acknowledge them.

"This isn't about judges or elitism or anything," Halper added. "This is about three guys who have made millions of fans happy for 38 years and are, for all intents and purposes, the mostly original band. What more do they have to do to get in?

"If [Rolling Stone magazine publisher and Rock Hall co-founder] Jann Wenner was sitting in front of me, that's the question I would ask him... 'Seriously, what more do they have to do?'"

Let's Do the Time Warp Again

While the centerpiece of Rush's latest hi-tech time warp tour is Moving Pictures, the group is hardly stuck in the past. The trio will showcase two new songs from the upcoming album Clockwork Angels in the show - an album expected in 2012 followed by another concert tour.

All of which begs the question: how much longer can three guys pushing 60 years each carry on?

"Now that's the question!" Lifeson laughed. "If you'd asked me that question 30 years ago, I would have said 'maybe a couple more years, I hope.' And I think I would have said the same thing 20 years ago, and 10 years ago, and after the last date of the first leg of this tour.

"But here we are now, and with how things are going, I really don't see it ending anytime soon. We're more popular than we've ever have been, performing with more confidence and skill, having greater vision on how we build our shows, watching our audience relationship build to a place that is as large as it has ever been. We have so many things in the right place.

"The only thing that I see stopping us at this point would be the physicality of growing older... I figure we can play at the peak level we're at now for at least the next few years," Lifeson said.

Halper concurs, figuring that Rush will continue on - Rock Hall or not - as long as they can muster it.

"They're family men, love to play and know fans appreciate it, so they keep on doing it for their extended family," Halper offered.

"It's a mutual relationship, believe me - don't think the guys don't know how the fans feel about them. Rush will play their hearts out for the fans because of how much they mean to them. It's not about the money. The guys could have retired ages ago if not for the love of the music and the fans."