You can do a lot in a lifetime, if you don’t burn out too fast. You can make the most of the distance. First you need endurance. First you need to last. – Neil Peart, from “Marathon”.
When people ask what my favorite band is, I rarely hesitate. When I say Rush, the answer is either met with an enthusiastic “Oh, I love that band!” , a tempered “I like the band but I can’t stand the singer’s voice,” or “I never got into Rush, their too heavy for me.”
Everyone has their reasons for liking or disliking a band or an artist and that’s just the way it is. Taste in music is as personal as taste for art, food or fashion. We choose what we like in music for no other reason than it somehow pleases us or not.
That said, I think it would be fun to describe why, since the age of fifteen or so I have always had a special place in my heart for this band from Toronto Canada. Because there are so many reasons, I think a bulleted list is in order.
1. Early Memories
We all attach music to memories. I was first introduced to the band by my girlfriend during my high school years (freshman year, 1976 to be exact). Just before I met her, she had gone to see a Kiss concert and Rush happened to be the opening act that night. One summer afternoon we were sitting outside listening to music and she told me I just had to hear this band. She put on an album called “2112” and gave me the album to look at.
It is rare (and special) to hear a band and be immediately taken by them; and in this case, I was hypnotized by what I was hearing coming out of those speakers and have remained so ever since.
Another early memory of Rush is of the time me and another friend would spend listening to the first live album “All the World’s a Stage” and jumping around his basement using hockey sticks and brooms as imaginary guitars. The album was raw, and full of just the right combination of imagination and energy to inspire me to pick up a real guitar and never put it down for the rest of my life.
My third memory comes from the time I fist saw Rush perform. It was 1977 and was my first major rock concert. The show was at the majestic Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. I have memories of waiting in a dark, somewhat creepy alley behind the ballroom because the ticket line was wrapped around the building. We eventually make our way to our seats, stage right, in the first row of the balcony. Along with several friends on that cold Chicago night, I saw a sound and light show that was burned forever into my mind. Especially vivid in my mind for some reason is that awesome moment in 2112 when the band suddenly quiets down and Geddy sings “And the meek shall inherit the earth,” before the band erupts again in to the signature riff from the song.
2. The Sound
Rush just sounded different than any other band did to me at that time. People love to compare them to Led Zeppelin, but the way I saw it, the bands were coming from two completely different places and sounded completely different too. I have always thought the Rush/Zeppelin comparison to be an understandable one given the band’s own admission of their influences, but it is a superficial observation and is usually made by people who like Zeppelin but hadn’t really listened to Rush much.
The sound of a band is primarily defined by the singer’s voice. Geddy Lee, Rush’s bassist and vocalist has one of the most distinctive voices around. On the early records, it was very high pitched (hence the comparison to Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin). It’s funny that the thing that turned off most listeners was the very thing that most attracted me to the band. Geddy’s voice has a mysterious and eerie quality to it and, combined with their often sci-fi lyrics, it was the perfect mix of voice, rhythm and music.
Beyond the vocals, the overall sound of the band was different too. Without going off into a deep analysis here, let’s just say that I loved the sound that these three guys could achieve with just the guitar, drums, bass and vocals. Neil Peart experimented with exotic percussion instruments like bells, blocks, chimes, and gongs, and it gave the music an otherworldly feel. In addition to his bass playing, Geddy Lee sprinkled in the Moog syntehsizer using both a keyboard while he wasn’t playing bass and footpedals when he was. Alex Lifeson colored his sounds wildly using the volume pedal the wah pedal and a healthy dose of delay, echo and chorus.
Ever since the second album, the primary lyricist for the band has been the drummer, Neil Peart. The lyrics were interesting, imaginative, smart, poetic, insightful (and sometimes naive – but not to a 15 year old me who didn’t even know the word “naive” existed). To this day I really enjoy Neil’s lyrics; they have gotten better and better with age due to the fact that Neil takes great pride in his role as lyricist. The subjects of Rush songs were always way deeper than most other rock bands. It isn’t just the depth of the lyrics however, it’s the poetry in them: carefully crafted words that always seem to get you thinking. Enough said for now. Neil Peart can write lyrics.
Rush has been together since 1973 with only one change (when Neil replaced the original drummer John Rutsey after the first album). That’s 38 years. Most bands are lucky to last through one record and one tour. Being able to keep things together says a lot about the character of the band members. In interviews with Geddy Alex and Neil the respect they have for each other is always very evident. (Neil usually avoids interviews but recently has been coming out of his shell I have noticed). I think the fact that the three have remained close friends over the years gives their music that extra something that pushes it just a little farther into the realm of communication. Rush has produced 20 studio and numerous live albums over the years. This is a startling number but it just goes to show what can be achieved if you can keep a band together for so long.
5. Beyond Critics
The music critics have never been kind to Rush. Rolling Stone magazine completely ignored the band for the entire span of their career, and have only recently begun to acknowledge their existence. It’s hard to ignore a band that’s been around for 38 years and has nearly sold as many albums as the Beatles and the Stones.
According to Wikipedia, Rush’s sales statistics place them third behind The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the most consecutive gold or platinum studio albums by a rock band.
Despite the lack of highbrow critical acclaim, the band has forged on doing exactly what it has wanted to do with it’s music and succeeding on it’s own terms just fine.
6. The Musicians
Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee, and Neil Peart are all masterful on their respective instruments. The musicianship on their albums is unmatched and their live shows are amazingly faithful renditions of their recorded work. This is no small feat given their level of complex compositions and song arrangements.
Each musician in the band has been dedicated to improving their art over the years and you can hear the evolution in their styles on the records. Neil is a serious student and teacher of all things rhythm, Geddy has refined his vocals and is now singing in a deeper, yet much expanded range, and Alex has continued to develop his guitar techniques.
Rush have never been the typical “party till you puke” type of rockstars. Because of this relative sobriety, they have avoided the poison that brings down most other successful rock acts. Neil Peart has lived through the trauma of the death of both his wife and daughter within the span of a single year. After a few years away from the studio, he picked up the pieces and began again, with all the spirit and energy he had as a kid.
Neil Peart is one of my favorite people on the planet. I don’t know him personally but I have a great respect not just for the musician, but for the man. He seems a big brother to me. I have grown up with his music, his lyrics and more recently his books (he has published several both related and unrelated to music). I have watched his philosophy on life shift and change as any thinking feeling human’s must. The embracing t o change is one of his greatest assets as a writer and drummer and another reason for the longevity of the band.
In fact, I might go as far as to say that these three musicians are three of my favorite people on the planet, all for different reasons but with many reasons in common: they have demonstrated to me that music is a lifelong excursion, that friendships can endure fame, fortune and tragedy, that musical expression can remain true to your soul and still feed a family, and that you can still completely rock well into your fifties!