In 2011 right here at The Nervous Breakdown, Duke Haney commented the following about an essay of mine on, among other things, the pop group ABBA:

“I always thought of Agnetha and Frida [the female members of ABBA] as affectless, to the point where I made a joke about them in [Haney’s novel] Banned for Life, something about a German girl having a fixed expression that reminds the narrator of Raggedy Ann or ‘one of those girls in ABBA.’ I remember seeing them on TV when I was a kid, barely moving while lip-syncing their latest chart-buster, as if they were battery-operated mannequins; yet they don’t come across that way to me now. On the contrary, I see emotion flickering in their faces, Agnetha in particular.”

As a kid in the 70s, the women of ABBA struck me the same way. Despite loving their music—listening to it was like pouring sugar down my eight-year-old throat—there was something weirdly sterile about them. But since rediscovering ABBA’s vintage performances via YouTube, I now find the ladies captivating, even fun-loving. They actually seem to enjoy themselves. How can I feel one way about them back then and completely the opposite now?

First of all, I’m older, so I might now find appeal where I used to find fault. Second, the musical culture around my viewing of an ABBA video today has changed. No more does the foursome have to compete so directly with more freewheeling tunes of the likes of, say, James Brown or the Sex Pistols. Remember the band’s mega-hit “Dancing Queen?” Can you imagine that song played at a club in the 70s between “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” and “Anarchy for the U.K.? Third and maybe most importantly, our current era is far more computer-oriented, which seems to make us less funky. Like it or not, we’ve sacrificed a good portion of our mojo to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, perhaps making us more receptive to the “ice queens” of ABBA than in the past. (That we need computers to re-experience this past is an irony not lost on me.)

In other words, we’re older and more uptight now, and we were younger and less uptight then.

I think a similar thing is happening to a favorite band of mine from my adolescence: Rush.

During their heyday in the 70s and 80s, despite selling out stadiums and their albums debuting in the top ten of the album charts, Rush were seen as, well, geeky. I didn’t see them that way. As a Midwestern teenager who played bass and dreamed of one day playing something that could be written out as 64th notes, the three members of Rush were just short of superheroes: Geddy Lee, the long-nosed guy with the otherworldly voice, who played ridiculously quick bass lines along with playing keyboards and something called the Mini Moog; drummer and lyricist Neil Peart—did you get that? drummer and lyricist—the super-brain of the band, who played drum patterns so intricate and precise I could picture scientists watching him as he performed, their hands on their chins, shaking their heads; and guitarist Alex Lifeson, the most mortal and likeable of the three, with his dazzling array of guitars, minutes-long solos, and a Puck-like insouciance onstage. All this and Canadians to boot! I wanted to be just like them. All of them.

I remember driving three hours to Chicago to see Rush in 1986 on their Power Windows tour. My friend Randy and I got there several hours before the show, the only car in the gigantic Rosemont Horizon parking lot. We had to turn the engine on periodically to use the heater to keep from freezing. When a limousine pulled in and drove up to the arena, Randy’s eyes grew big, no doubt mirroring mine. We scrambled out of the car and sprinted to the limo. A bob of blond hair—Alex Lifeson!—and someone else emerged and ducked into the arena. We were too late. “Why didn’t we park closer?” Randy lamented. I don’t know what we would’ve done if we’d caught them. Nervous handshake? Exclamations of affection? Digging around for a pen? I’m thankful we didn’t.

But to most of the rest of the world back then, Rush were somewhere between barely tolerated and unlistenable. The prevailing attitude seemed to be: Let the dorks have their computer rock, and maybe they’ll go away and play Tron soon.

As the decade flipped to the 90s, this public aversion to all things Rush only seemed to grow. Even I swore off my high school allegiance. I can remember drinking at a party and making fun of Rush’s “The Trees,” a song in which “the maples want more sunlight, but the oaks ignore their pleas.” Various pro-oak and pro-maple arguments are posited, and eventually:

The maples formed a union and demanded equal rights.

The oaks are just to greedy, we will make them give us light.

But now there’s no more oak oppression, for they passed a noble law.

And the trees are all kept equal by hatchet, axe and saw.

Kind of funny, and low-hanging fruit for a guy in 1991 wearing a Replacements T-shirt. Still, it felt deceitful to turn on my heroes from just a few years ago. They’d given me so much to aspire to. I remember sitting in my basement bedroom, my Yamaha bass strapped on, my turntable spinning “Tom Sawyer,” trying like crazy to keep up with Geddy’s spritely lines. For some reason it had become important for me to separate myself from the band. I now preferred my singers’ voices more angst-ridden, my guitarists less openly talented, and for Christ’s sake, enough with the drum solos, Mr. Peart.

But the truth was, even in the Nirvana-90s, I still loved the band. I didn’t own their records anymore, but I remembered their music fondly, and I would crank up “Limelight” or some other Rush track whenever it came on the radio. Deep under the sway of post-punk bands like REM, I disqualified anything that might violate that formula, even a little. I was too young to understand the heart doesn’t lie. I was a fool.

People who don’t like Rush have their valid points. Geddy’s voice is of a reedy variety that could never be universally loved. The band doesn’t write much about interpersonal relationships, or in rah-rah platitudes that could land them on pop radio. They’ve written songs that take up entire sides of albums. They often play in odd times signatures. They’re the only band in the history of the world that can play a reggae beat and have it be un-danceable. In short, they have the nerve to create rock music as though the Beatles or P-Funk never existed.

Still, other more celebrated bands from their era also were un-danceable (Led Zeppelin) and played in odd time signatures (Zeppelin) and wrote about Norse gods and wood sprites (yep, Zep). Rush were no doubt prog rock, but there were plenty of hooks (“Working Man”, “The Spirit of Radio”, “New World Man”), and at least one great melody (“Closer to the Heart”). Come on, it’s not like they were Marillion.

Once the 21st century got rolling and computers started ruling the roust, Rush’s frenetic rhythms and idiosyncratic approach started sounding fresh again, and many Rush fans found their way back into the fold. The trio has lately played packed arenas all over the world, and—if the YouTube videos of those concerts can be trusted—their audience is filled with mostly white males with receding hairlines playing very precise air drums. I suspect many of them were like me, abandoning the band during the 90s in favor of the cultural emphasis on song and coming back in the 00s, hoping no one noticed they left.

And the band seems to be responding to this rejuvenated attention by being more approachable. No more avoiding guys in Rosemont Horizon parking lot! In their DVD Bio Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, the members are seen out and about, shaking hands with fans, joking around. (All except Neil Peart, who, God love him, might be the least gregarious guy in rock.) Geddy seems to have finally warmed to the idea of being “Geddy,” and Alex is downright charming. Their stage set-ups over the past few years have featured such down-to-earth elements as multiple clothes dryers spinning and multiple chicken rotisseries roasting. The video element of their show includes the characters of South Park mutilating their biggest hit “Tom Sawyer.” The band finally seems to get how funny—to go along with how talented—it is. They even shared laughs at their own expense as guests on The Colbert Report.

Rush is on tour in America again, their first date this past week in Manchester, New Hampshire, and I will continue to watch in awe as one of my favorite bands from my youth has become, for the first time in its forty-year history, cool.

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ART EDWARDS's third novel, Badge (2014), was named a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's Literary Contest for 2011. His second novel, Ghost Notes, released on his own imprint Defunct Press in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, has been made into a feature film. His writing has or will appear in The Writer, Writers' Journal and Pear Noir!, and online at Salon, The Los Angeles Review, Word Riot, The Collagist, PANK, JMWW, Bartleby Snopes, The Rumpus and The Weeklings. In the 1990s he was co-founder, co-songwriter and bass player with the Refreshments.

32 responses to “Conform or be Cast Out: My Life 
in Rush”

  1. Greg Olear says:

    Rush rocks. Period, end of discussion.

    But then, I have dined on honeydew and drunk the milk of paradise…

  2. Jim Gerke says:

    Well done.
    I personally never gave up on Rush, although I will admit to keeping it secret, like a guilty pleasure in my Alt-Rock days.

    And I’m hoping those radio station freebie RUSH tickets will find their way into my hands soon.

    I’m thinking of using the following RUSH lyrics when I run for President:

    And the men who hold high places
    Must be the ones who start
    To mould a new reality
    Closer to the Heart

    • Art Edwards says:

      There was a shedding going on when I arrived in Phoenix. No more Rush, no more chewing tobacco, etc.

      I do recall us having some pretty good conversations about Rik Emmett.

      • Jim says:

        Rik Emmett. Although a talented guitarist, his band Triumph was not even good at being a poor man’s RUSH.

        Long live Lee, Lifeson and Peart.

        • Art Edwards says:

          Wow, harsh words for the man you met backstage!

          There’s a whole ‘nother essay on Triumph that needs to be written. All of their songs were weirdly anthemic, which shouldn’t be a problem, but it gets a little tedious after a time. “Come on, fellas. Could you write a filler chorus every once in a while?”

          And outside of Emmett, the other two weren’t quite up to Rush’s level of musicianship.

          But then again, what other band was?

  3. I wear my Hold Your Fire t-shirt proudly every Canada Day. I am not, nor have I ever been, Canadian.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      The best thing about going to Canada, if you fly into Toronto, is that your bags get covered in ‘YYZ’ tags.

      • Art Edwards says:

        Finally, after thirty years, I learn what YYZ refers to. James, thank you.

        Who knew there were so many Rush-heads at TNB?

        • James D. Irwin says:

          I can’t remember where I learnt it, but I imagine it was probably google.

          I used to hate Rush, but somehow they won me over. I think it was after I heard ‘Far Cry’ on the radio.

          Certainly didn’t realize quite so many Rush fans inhabit TNB, but it doesn’t really surprise me.

          Incidentally, Rush was the last thing I wrote about at TNB just over a year ago.

      • I learned what YYZ is just two days ago, by complete coincidence – I was reading something about the Canadian paralympic team. Giv’er!

    • Art Edwards says:

      I saw the Hold Your Fire tour too, although I faded not long afterwards. I blame REM’s Document.

      • I originally had the Hold Your Fire tour t-shirt with the guy juggling flames. I wore that (and my two King’s X shirts) to death. The red t-shirt was bought in 2007, when I decided to invent the non-ironic vintage rock shirt.

        There was a very precise moment when I ceased being a Rush fan. It was in 1993, when a friend walked into my room in the university hall of residence (dorm) and said “What are you listening to?”

        I think it was Fly by Night. Definitely taped from someone else’s CD; anyway, I listened for a few more seconds, said “It’s fucking awful isn’t it?”, ejected the tape and threw it in the bin. These days…well, I like to watch them on YouTube.

  4. D.R. Haney says:

    Wow, I’ve been quoted. And it’s a quote from a message board, no less, thus proving that people occasionally, amazingly, take note of comments on message boards. I once had proof in the form of an angry note from a Playboy centerfold I’d insulted, jokingly, on a message board here at TNB. Also, David Wills and I once went back and forth about a certain Kerouac biographer who suddenly materialized to retaliate.

    I see that Greg has declared an end of discussion in the matter of Rush, but if I may move past Greg’s period, I’ll just say that the one thing that held me back with Smashing Pumpkins was the way Billy Corgan’s voice evoked Geddy Lee’s. Billy Corgan probably meant to evoke Geddy Lee, but anyway, I could never stand Rush. I’ve reconsidered a lot of music from my childhood — for example, I now think “More Than a Feeling” is sublime where it used to strike me as stoopid, and I can actually listen to songs from Frampton Comes Alive! without laughing at the “talking” guitar, and I think “Feel Like Making Love” is one of the all-time great dive-bar anthems, now that I’ve heard it on the jukeboxes of countless dive bars, which is where it needs to be heard in order to be appreciated — but I’m unable to reconsider Rush in the same way that I’m unable to reconsider Yes and Chicago and James Taylor and America and any movie score by John Williams, except for the opening bit from Jaws.

    But I probably shouldn’t even say the little I do, since I think it’s pointless to argue taste, though I’m not arguing or trying to provoke argument; I’m just stating the facts as they are for me.

    By the way, Rush has been the subject of previous discussion at TNB: http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/rjromero/2009/07/thousand-words-lost-in-hollywood/

    I thought Rich Ferguson had also written about Rush, but I’m unable to find it.

    Quite apart from the mention of me, and my feelings about Rush, I like this piece, Art.

  5. Art Edwards says:

    Your comments are always insightful, Duke.

    The singer’s voice. There’s really no way past it. For me, Tom Verlaine, though I like everything else about Television.

    I know Sean Beaudoin hates Michael Stipe’s.

  6. jmblaine says:

    The other night I was watching
    Exit, Stage Left
    & there’s this eleven minute song
    in which the drummer, who looks like a
    MIT grad student, is playing paradiddles
    on a glockenspiel, the bassist and lead guitarist
    are BOTH wearing double guitars
    & the bass player, who warbles lyrics about existentialism,
    is also playing a synthesizer with his feet.

    By sum, this should be the dorkiest thing ever.

    But you know what? It completely rocks.

    Count me amongst the faithful.

    • Art Edwards says:

      I had no doubt, JM.

      They got away with so much, and I can only credit it to just how talented they were. We just went along with i,t as though every rock band broke out the glockenspiel at some point.

  7. Carly Kimmel says:

    Hey Art,
    This is your new managing editor at TNB, just jumping on to say hello and let you know that I once spent a summer as the lead singer of a Rush cover band circa 1990… right after Presto came out. We opened with Freewill, made our way through Red Barchetta and Limelight and eventually the boys (I was the only girl in the band) finished up with YYZ. Our debut performance was at the Troubadour on the strip. Good times. I was thirteen. Anyway, obviously, your piece made me smile.

    • Art Edwards says:

      So glad you dug, Carly, and good to have you aboard.

      It’s funny how so many of us have paths that lead us back to Rush. No doubt you remember those dorky guys playing air bass while you busted out “Working Man.” C’est moi!

    • I can’t believe nobody’s asked – what was your band called?

      • Carly Kimmel says:

        Dare I type this? The band was called Visions. Ha. It was a short lived project, and oddly enough put together by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s son, Mike. At the end of the summer he moved back to Boston, I moved to Idaho, and that was that. Oh and we also sang Roxanne by The Police and one original song called Stop and Shop (an homage to a Boston based mini mart), but mostly Rush. I must have more self-confidence than I realize, being brave enough to share this with a bunch of strangers on the internet no less. Oye.

  8. Oh, and today (September 12th 2012) is Neil Peart’s 60th birthday.

  9. Marcia says:

    I cut my rock fan teeth in the 70s and I have somewhat different memories of Rush from back then. I remember them as being huge, people loved their hooky chart-toppers. For only being three guys (and having the lead singer be pretty much tied to one spot to play keyboards as well as bass), their shows always seemed to the epitome of live rock.

    (Although I did enjoy Blue Oyster Cult’s Godzilla figure, complete with glowing red eyes and smoke!)

    Although, theirs was an odd kind of popularity. Despite how many people went to the shows and bought their albums, the band seemed to have missed the sort of status afforded to others like Zep and the Stones. Their core of fans, as solid and faithful as ever you’ll find, has I think expanded. And Rush deserves it. These guys have stayed relevant and have not lost an ounce of their overall musical power.

    My favorite memory is actually when me and my sister, after the show, ran around to the back of the auditorium with a few dozen other fans, with vague hopes of seeing the band. Of course we didn’t, but some 30 years later I remember seeing their tour bus with the front sign that read Nobody You Know. Somehow, that just said a lot, for the times.

    Say what you will about Clapton being a guitar god or pick any vocalist you think can’t be topped, Neil is my hero: he writes killer lyrics, he writes evocatively about life on the road in non-fiction books, he’s come through personal tragedy to keep putting himself out there for the fans, and *nobody* works a kit like him! Rush does not have supplemental musicians onstage, all that glorious sound comes from the same three guys who recorded it in the studio. To listen to Neil without seeing him you’d never guess his age.

    I have tickets for their late October show in my town and to say I’m pumped doesn’t even come close.

  10. Jeff Blanks says:

    So now that Rush–and by extension other ’70s rawk-star music–is being rehabilitated, can we at least get a mea culpa for the sake of all of us longsuffering fans who could just never get with the neo-retro post-punk hip consensus? What are we supposed to do now??

    (DISCLAIMER: I play bass and keys in a very-part-time Rush tribute band in ATL. But we’ll play “Xanadu” if you want us to.)

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