In advance of the June 12 release of Rush's new Clockwork Angels, punk-rock stalwart Ted Leo shares his tale of a life touched by the prog-rock cult heroes.
"Plus c'est la change, Plus c'est la meme chose": A life with Rush in six scenes...
Scene One: Summer 1981
One year, my dad bought a van. Apocryphally, there's a section of my family that comes from somewhere up around Machias, Maine - possibly descended from the Pirate John Kelley. If you knew the Irish side of my family, this would not shock you in the slightest. (Neither that it could be true, nor that it might be an apocryphal story they've woven around themselves over the centuries). Regardless, I had a great aunt from Staten Island who, in her later but still very vibrant years, went to live and work, for a while, with some old friends and relations who had eventually migrated from Way Down East to Kennebunkport, and the van was our way of getting from urban New Jersey to this sleepy (relative to its current state of post-Bush presidency tourism boom), beautiful place.
The van was maroon and silver, with four gray-and-black captain's chairs and a gray bench in back. I was older than my siblings, and so commandeered the bench to spread out, in my tweenish need for space, with my books and my tapes and my Walkman. Very soon, that Walkman would start playing Run-DMC, the Crash Crew, Divine Sounds, etc. Then mostly the Misfits, Flipper, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, etc. But for now (and for some time before and after), I would sit there, amid the maroon and gray, and stare out at the six hours of alternating city and country, and that Walkman would play one thing and one thing only: Rush's Moving Pictures, and specifically, "Red Barchetta."
As we rolled through the greener parts of New England, I'd shoot out from the highway down half-hidden, mostly imagined country lanes, chased by the gleaming alloy air cars trying to enforce the Motor Laws until we got to the tumble-down motel near Goose Rocks Beach we'd always return to; and in the twilight, looking up at the big red barn by the tetherball court, knowing that the brilliant red Barchetta was once again safely hidden within, I'd keep my own company for a while, shutting out the noise of family and other tourists, and wish that I, too, had been born in a better, vanished time.
Scene Two: Spring 1984
Lucky was he who found a full refrigerator box, freshly left on the curb for pick-up! It could last for months if you really took care of it. (Kept it away from moisture, duct-taped the edges, didn't let it drag behind you as you made your way to wherever you were going to set up that afternoon, etc.) I was lucky that May, as 14-year-old hormones were going haywire responding to 14-year-old pheromones, and needing an outlet that wasn't somehow self-destructive. ('Cause as Catholic school kids, self-destruction was pretty much the only option on the menu other than sports, which, one could make the case, falls under the heading of "self-destruction.") So myself, the twins Darren and Daryl West, Billy Jones, Billy LeGates, and maybe Steven Todd or someone else were making hard use of this particular piece of cardboard. We weren't shrinking violets - the asphalt parking lot didn't stop failed attempts at headspins of more than 360 degrees, and bruised shoulders and hips were part of what you got for working on your windmills. (Self-destruction always finds a way in.)
But we weren't in gangs, and we didn't fight. We took the spirit of hip-hop and breakdancing to heart and as bad-good little Catholic boys, I think the quixotic nature of the quest to squash beef with dancing appealed to our collective martyrdom fetish. So when the hesher kids from Fairview came walking by to gawk and laugh at us, we didn't care. We just kept dancing. Until one of them came over and kicked Billy LeGates while he crab-walked to the Rockers Revenge playing from my small and not very boom-y Sanyo boombox. This kid was exactly the wrong kind of the right kind of kid we all should've been friends with. His look was amazing: Four-foot-five, the perfect slightly greasy but still feathered butt-cut, denim vest with Maiden and Floyd patches on it, zits, cracking voice, big comb sticking out of the back pocket, but still ready to fight. Like, you couldn't write this kid into a story if you wanted to because he'd be too much of a composite, too much an ideal form.
But, that said, fuck that kid for being a dick and kicking Billy LeGates, right? So we all stand up on one side of my exploded cardboard box, and his friends (who all look equally awesome, I have to say) stand around the other, and the first kid grabs my box and changes the radio from 98.7 KISS FM (RIP) to 102.7 WNEW, which was, of course, a rock station. I'm like, "Yo, gimme my box, jerk!" He naturally calls me a homophobic pejorative that was common to the area parlance at the time (no surprise there) and says he'll give it back if I can dance to the next song that comes on.
Now, as those who have seen me sometimes too angrily rebuff requests to play "Since U Been Gone" over the last decade might be able to attest, I don't really like being treated like a trained animal or just generally (outside of the context of job hierarchy) being asked to do things I don't want to do. (Something I'm still working on, I admit, but at least I'm working on it, okay?) So initially, I get that "Psssss, you must be trippin, yo" look on my face, but then, the rock gods smiled on my hip-hop friends and I as that sweet, sweet descending keyboard drone and headbanging beat from Rush's "Tom Sawyer" that I'm still surprised no one ever sampled (especially back then when it was less common to live in the isolated genre prisons that people do now) kicked in, and before the first line of the song was over, "Modern day warrior, mean mean stride / Today's Tom Sawyer...," I'd done some flashy handspring into your basic ground work, backspin, freeze into a bridge, flip back onto my feet, into some up-rock that probably ended with one hand on my crotch and the other pointing at the hesher's face, as Billy LeGates grabbed the box back and we waved them on their way; my only regret being that I never got to tell them I actually liked a lot of the same music that they did.
Scene Three: Winter 1995
When I say I don't really get "star struck," it doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the gravity of being in the presence of certain people, even when I've known some of those people for years. You can still be congenial and "yourself" while giving someone else the respect due his or her position in your life. I had a tough time remembering that, sitting at one head of a long banquet table in the back room of some Italian restaurant in Minneapolis on this frigid winter night. My band at the time, Chisel, was on tour with both Lungfish and Fugazi. Pause here. See what I'm saying? Some of you out there, may now need to take a second to catch your breath. 1995. Lungfish. Fugazi. Think about it. Add to that the fact that we were all invited to this restaurant by Todd and Bob from Shellac, and you might begin to understand just how red-faced I got when, in the midst of what I thought was quiet conversation about music with people at my end of the long, long table, someone says to me (a little too loudly, I guess), "You like Rush!?!?" Cue needle-sliding-across-record-sound-effect, maybe a dropped fork or two as the silence descends, my blood pressure rises, and all faces turn toward me. And the face at the other end of the long long, long, long table, who shall remain nameless, points his knife at me, repeats the question indignantly, and when I don't answer, says, "Man, 'Working Man,' I can dig, but songs about talking trees? No thanks."
I was, for all intents and purposes, still a kid in so many ways, and very cowed by being called out in such a manner, but I was not gonna take this lying down. I spat back other song titles, bits of other lyrics, explanations of the talking trees song itself, dissertations on how their youthful take on Ayn Rand came more out of a leftist libertarian distrust of authority than an espousal of Capitalism and selfishness. I went on and on about their embrace of new trends in music as evidence not of their "trendiness," but of their love of music; I pointed out how "proto-punk" Caress of Steel was, I hammered them with the example of "Spirit of Radio" over and over and over again. I think I ended just defending myself, along the lines of, "I don't believe in guilty pleasures, and even if I did, this wouldn't be one of them."
In all honesty, the rest of the night is such a blur to me, I don't even remember how it all turned out. I did wind up becoming better friends with pretty much everyone at the table, so I suppose I have Rush to thank for that, but I fear I didn't change many minds that night. "That night" still goes on though, and I'm not done trying.
Scene Four: Autumn 1997
Just enough older at this point to have lost most of that nervousness around people I admire and respect so much, I wanted to dive right in with Brian from U.K. punk band Doom, who was driving my then band, the Sin Eaters, around his homeland for a couple of weeks. But between jet lag, and the business of picking up gear and getting to the first show, and blah blah blah no cellphones (and him just being a really sweet and kind of quiet guy) we didn't get much of a chance to go deep until the night after the second show, when were driving from Blahbeyecantremembstonshire to Whogivesacrapston-on-Rye. Quiet in the van, quiet on the moors. (Yes, we were driving through the moors somewhere. That much I remember.) Then the clicking as he pops in a tape, and the clang of my fist hitting the metal ceiling as the opening riff to "Bastille Day" comes through the tinny speakers, all midrange and growl. Then me looking at Brian in a new light, and he at me, as we talked Rush all the rest of the way to, um, Bramptsongreensfordshireorwhaeverhampton. (Then me apologizing to everyone else in the van for punching the metal ceiling and startling them out of their reverie).
Scene Five: Spring 2004
This was the Pharmacists' first really bouncing off the walls great show in Vancouver, B.C. We were playing with new friends Juice and Misty and their band the Yoko Casionos, and it just seemed the whole place, which meant our whole life, was buzzing and brimming with energy and possibility. By this time, TL/Rx was a three-piece - a "power trio," if you will. It was myself, Dave Lerner, and Chris Wilson; all people who were not unhappy to goof around on Rush songs in practice. And so, how could we not pay this tribute to the people in the other bands who were so excited and treated us so kindly, to the crowd who was going crazy beyond all our wildest hopes, to the country that was kind of like our country but was not our country, but who had been so welcoming to us on this trip despite the fact that many people from other countries were really hating on anyone from the country that is our country (and not for no reason), and to the band that had just become a 25-year constant presence in my life?
As we closed the set on the end of "Timorous Me," that big open E that rings until it's a single feedback tone, going on forever, or maybe getting cut short, or maybe just petering out, I ripped into my rough (really rough) approximation of the ridiculous bit of shredding Alex Lifeson signals the change with, and we, collectively, spontaneously, ripped into the full ending of "Spirit of Radio." Pretty presumptuous in retrospect, to do this for a Canadian crowd, but I think they knew where we were coming from, and in my personal history of our band, I will say with 99 percent conviction that I'm not sure I've ever felt as free, as weightless, or that there ever was a better time, may it never vanish.
Scene Six: The Twitter Years
I'm @tedleo. I like Rush. #ComeAtMeBro