Truly Canadian

If you're Canadian, it's likely you own a Rush album. The world's most polite band is good in a different kind of way. Just like us, writes Joanne Laucius

By Joanne Laucius, Ottawa Citizen, June 29, 2012

There is nothing more Canadian than Rush.

It has been almost 40 years since the trio from the suburbs of Toronto started confounding some listeners and delighting others with complicated musical arrangements and the weirdest lyrics on the airwaves - dystopian fantasies, the stultifying effects of growing up in the suburbs and the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Rush was "always an acquired taste," said Rolling Stone in 2008, the one and only time the magazine deigned to devote a cover article to one of Canada's most significant cultural exports.

Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart have sold some 45 million al-bums, been nominated for seven Grammy Awards - but didn't win any - won eight Junos, were named Canada's "ambassadors of music" by the federal government in 1979 and awarded the Governor General's Performing Arts Award in May at the National Arts Centre.

Still, the band has been either derided or ignored by both Rolling Stone and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. These two slights are considered by fans to be, at the very least, a travesty. And possibly a conspiracy.

In an article published earlier this month in Rolling Stone - fans take this as a sign that the rock bible is finally warming up to Rush - Alex Lifeson shrugged off the perennial blather about the band being the Susan Lucci of rock.

"It's a bit different here in Canada," Lifeson said. "We've received awards that mean more to us than being in the Hall of Fame."

Would they show up if they were named? "I mean, you don't want to be rude, and we're Canadians, so we find it very difficult to be rude, as much as we would like to."

In an industry where rudeness is a badge of pride, there's something about this that is so Canadian. And it has gained Rush an international following.

Partly, it's because the band members fit in with the Canadian stereo-type - a trio of modest, polite, low-key guys with a lot of integrity and a solid work ethic.

"They are not exactly the party animals of rock," says Chris McDonald, a lecturer in ethnomusicology at Cape Breton University and author of the 2009 book Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class: Dreaming in Middletown.

The band members have never trashed a hotel room or self-destructed onstage. Fans say they enjoy Rush because they are non-conformists and good role models, because they work hard at their craft. Even people who don't like their music concede there is a virtuosity about their musicianship.

Karen McIntyre, 50, an executive with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, became a fan as a teenager growing up in Oshawa.

"There I was, the only kid in my class reading Ayn Rand," says McIntyre, who has a collection of Rush memorabilia and often wears selections from her collection of concert T-shirts while running errands.

"Anything that influenced them interested me. It all came together and resonated with me."

McIntryre's husband Mark Shewchuk and son Alex are also fans. Alex met Lee and Lifeson after his aunt got him concert backstage passes.

"They're really nice," says Alex, a 13-year-old with an encyclopedic know-ledge of Rush who tried, and failed, to convince the Grade 8 choir at Fisher Park Public School to perform Resist.

How is Rush Canadian? McIntyre and Alex rhyme off some examples: The band's members have appeared in Trailer Park Boys, sang O Canada in the South Park movie and appeared with Rick Mercer.

The McIntyre-Shewchuks like to try to figure out the meaning of the symbol-ism used by the band. Like the working washer and dryer onstage. Or the rotisserie that is relieved of roasting chickens and replenished with fresh ones as the band plays. They have a few theories, but have no definitive explanation for the rotisserie. With Rush, a rotisserie is never just a rotisserie.

You don't have to look hard to find Canadian references in Rush. The cover of Moving Pictures was photographed out-side Queen's Park and the cover of Test for Echo features a monstrous Inukshuk on a snow-swept landscape. There is a reference to "men of Willowdale" in The Necromancer.

The instrumental YYZ is a reference to Pearson International Airport, and Rush fans avidly collect the luggage tags. In the lyrics of Territories, Rush seems to reject the American in-your-face brand of nationalism: "Better the pride that resides in a citizen of the world/Than the pride that divides when a colourful rag is un-furled."

Yet Tom Sawyer, one of the band's biggest hits, alludes to an American literary icon. In Trees, Rush appears critic-al of Canada's resentment at living in the shade of the U.S.: "The trouble with the maples/ And they're quite convinced they're right/ They say the oaks are just too lofty/And they grab up all the light."

In the end, hatchets, axes and saws are employed to whittle down the oaks so they are the same height as the maples. Draw your own conclusions.

"It's hard to project Canadian-ness on rock," says McDonald who believes Rush fits into the Canadian poet-musician tradition of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.

Among Canadian artists, only Neil Young has had a career as long and varied, says McDonald. The Tragically Hip might write enigmatic songs about hockey cards and Bobcaygeon, but have never had much success outside Canada.

And while Rush often seems to flirt with self-parody, Lee, Lifeson and Peart have a sense of humour about them-selves. Lee provided the solo vocals for Take off on the 1981 Bob and Doug McKenzie comedy album. New World Man was the only Rush song to break the U.S. Top 40 at No. 21, but Take Off charted at No. 16.

The band played a cameo role in I Love You Man; Paul Rudd and Jason Segel play vigorous air guitar as the band plays Limelight. Rudd's fiancée, uninitiated in the nerdy antics of Rush fans, watches in bemusement.

Rush came out of the suburbs of Toronto, but avoided creating a sense of place in their lyrics, says McDonald, who knows of at least three academics who have written PhD dissertations on the band and its cultural context.

"Rush, musically and lyrically, has been sort of neutral when it comes to country, but more specific about the social con-text of middle-class suburbia," says Mc-Donald, who notes that the band members today are more likely to talk about Canada now than they did 25 years ago - and this may be a conscious choice to expand their market.

"Some of their appeal is that Canada is exotic and a little mysterious."

Durrell Bowman, a musicologist who wrote his PhD in musicology on Rush at UCLA, says there are more per capita Rush fans in Canada than the U.S. But when it comes to actual numbers, the band has sold far more albums in the U.S. and has a solid following in the U.K., Ger-many, Japan, Brazil and Mexico.

Rush is the long tail of rock. The audience might not be really big, comparatively speaking, but it is deep. In his dissertation, Bowman reported his fan surveys suggest that "hardcore" fans typically had 24 copies of various Rush albums, accounting for about two-thirds, or 27 million, of the band's total album sales by early 2003.

"This suggests the existence of at least one million hardcore Rush fans world-wide, three-quarters of them in the United States and one-eighth of them in Canada," says Bowman, who co-edited a compilation of essays on Rush called Rush and Philosophy: Heart and Mind United.

Until Nickelback, Rush was Canada's most internationally successful band. Still, many other Canadian artists, like Bryan Adams and Céline Dion, have been more successful in producing mega hits.

Bowman compares Rush to Margaret Atwood, whose work is broadly recognized in Canada, but is also a cultural ex-port to other markets.

"There's a complicated combination that makes them Canadian," he says. Canada is a cultural mosaic, and it's reflected in Rush: Lifeson is the son of Serbian immigrants, and the parents of Lee, born Gary Lee Weinrib, were Polish Holocaust survivors. "Geddy" was his mother's mispronunciation of "Gary."

The band's music is a hybrid of the progressive rock of Britain with American-style hard rock and an individualistic philosophy, says Bowman. It got its first big U.S. break in Cleveland when a DJ there played Working Man. American listeners were intrigued, thinking it was a Led Zeppelin song they had never heard before.

Like Nickelback, Rush is a band that some people love to hate. On the other hand, a steadfast minority love them very much indeed.

"I don't know if people have been hiding for years and just come out of the Rush closet or if they just opened their ears to the music. Rush is going through a renaissance," says Jim Berti, co-editor of Rush and Philosophy and a middle-school social studies teacher in the suburbs of Albany, New York.

Berti, then 16, heard Free Will on the radio around 1993 as he was driving home from football practice with a friend.

"I could relate to them. I was a jock in school and I played sports and hung out with the popular kids. But there was a quirky part of me."

Berti started to listen to more and more obscure songs. "With Rush, I felt I had three friends with me. I wasn't afraid to be different."

The band members' pride in being Canadian shines through, says Berti. A few years ago while on tour, Lee aimed a camcorder at the audiences and asked them to say hello to Canada - which they did raucously. The clips were stitched together and used in concerts.

"It was awesome to see America say hello to Canada," says Berti. "If he was trying to say that America is all one brother-hood, he did it."

People respect the musicianship of Rush, even if they think the lyrics are weird or impenetrable, says Berti.

"It's like a 12-piece orchestra played by three men. It makes me proud. The Rush we love is like opening this awesome text-book, and having this awesome music to go along with it. These three guys, whether they intended to or not, have made us all better people," he says.

"I'm proud to say I'm an American who loves a Canadian band."