It’s disorienting for a Rush fan—someone who was patronizing and defending them when it wasn’t just not cool, but the opposite of cool—to watch the bien-pensants struggle to cram them into the canon in the year 2010. Especially since it’s been twenty years since their finest work, and arguably more like thirty.
I started university at almost the exact moment Nirvana broke, and I still remember exactly where I was standing the first time I saw Kurt Cobain on the cover of a guitar magazine. I don’t play, but for years I’d been devouring the rhetoric of high-performance musical gear and modal theory as a fan, incapable of appreciating it as anything but a species of foreign-language poetry. In that world, the members of Rush were (and are) senior deities. It was instantly clear to me that Cobain, who had duct tape on his guitar neck and probably thought the Mixolydian was a brand of food processor, was going to annihilate the universe we had known. This was a lot like being Michael Corleone in Godfather II and watching that Cuban guerrilla blow himself and the cops to smithereens. “Uh-oh.”
But the last revolutionary flowering of romanticism in pop music ended up being the best possible thing for Rush’s reputation. Intellectuality and musicianship were purged from the radio, but this left the generations that followed hungry for a little classicism, a little ambition and ironic pretension. (How else do you account for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness?) Grunge provided an opportunity, as punk had before, for separating the wheat from the chaff—annihilating acts that had truly been predicated on nothing but hairstyles and codpieces, and allowing reconsideration and critical filtering of arena rock, metal, and prog that might have been burdened with excessive pompousness and trippy kozmik imagery, but still possessed enduring value. (You don’t want to hear my lecture on how Iron Maiden has introduced more teenagers to literature than anybody in Britain not named J.K. Rowling.)
Granted, I’m not actually sure that “classicism vs. romanticism” is the best metaphor for thinking about the tension between artfulness and sincerity in popular music. The three-chords-and-the-truth types are arguably the real classicists, self-restrained as they are by a musical version of the Aristotelian unities. But self-imposed limitations have been part of the fun of listening to Rush, too. It’s not really natural for a band to insist on doing what Rush has: being a three-piece outfit that will, as an inflexible rule, only make music in the studio that it can eventually replicate without additional help on stage.
One notices that all the other great virtuoso monsters of arena rock eventually accumulated peripheral performers who became half-members; players like Billy Preston, Ian Stewart, and Nicky Hopkins made entire careers out of being that guy. Rush has never had a “that guy”. They make music in an intimate, private manner that is compared incessantly, with good reason, to a marriage. The notable guest performances on Rush records can be counted on one hand, leaving you enough fingers left over to hold onto a coffee. Ben Mink’s drive-by electric-violin solo on “Losing It” (Signals, 1982) was and is, in the context of the discography, positively jarring. In some unspecifiable quasi-Freudian way, Rush’s resistance to installing a revolving door probably helps account for the fanaticism of its followers.
(And it probably helps explain how they’ve hung together for so long: they’re inherently Yoko-proof. Even as a Rush fan, I have to admit that simply continuing to exist accounts for more of the esteem in which they’re now held than any merit their music might have. It’s a law of nature. Do the same damn thing long enough and people will call you a genius.)
In the ’80s, lazy newspaper writers and rock scribes always used to refer to Rush as a “power trio”. Some probably still do. But this was a curious term of art. Although there are plenty of loud-and-fast three-piece outfits that loom large in rock history, from the Police to Motörhead, few of them have had this “power trio” epithet glued to their behinds as firmly as Rush did. As far as I know, the exceptions pretty much boil down to Cream, who were a major engineering model for early Rush, and Triumph, who were (with due respect) Rush for Camaro owners.
People couldn’t find anything else to call Rush because the term seemed vaguely meaningful and the band was hard to classify otherwise. I’m a fan on some level of 20 or more of the groups in the disturbingly comprehensive Wikipedia article on the “power trio”, but I don’t really think of the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Hüsker Dü or Buddy Holly and the Crickets or late Genesis as the same species of animal. Any descriptor that encompasses all these creatures can’t be much use to the pop taxonomist, can it?
Rush’s three-ness is crucial to their appeal, much as the four-ness of the Beatles and the Who was. What trios do normally have in common is the uphill struggle to make a noise as interesting and complex as you can with eight or more hands on the tiller. The really interesting tension in Rush’s music is between the musical ambitiousness and the paucity of the personnel. (The young Rush fan is immensely well-prepared, once he outgrows acne and bush parties, for understanding what’s going on in Sunday at the Village Vanguard.) As the saying goes, Rush is a band, not a showcase for a single creative personality.
When I think about what Rush meant to me in high school, it strikes me that Joyce’s Ulysses must have much the same significance for young literature nerds; the band’s supreme technical ability and the enormous musical vocabulary they were comfortable with represented a potential transcending of limits, created the possibility of doing and saying and commenting on anything with music. And it’s a dreadful cliché, but you could really discover something new in a track from the band’s heyday on the hundred-and-first listen. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an awesome experience, but it’s the same experience every time.
The more homogenized and focus-grouped contemporary music becomes, the more attention Rush is likely to get, even as it becomes more difficult, practically, for the aging threesome to function as a living unit. (I don’t hold it against them that they probably aren’t terrifically eager to play “Tom Sawyer” to an arena crowd for the 600th time, or that Neil Peart isn’t quite as likely to randomly tear off a good long strip in 11/8 time anymore.) I have no objection to a “factory” approach to making music; it would be an understatement to say that the term has an extremely honourable pedigree. But when I listen to the products of, say, that long-demolished heavy industrial facility known as Tamla/Motown, I sense that we are not quite building factories like we used to. In such a context, Rush appears as something of a small-scale communal enterprise, a closed, Shaker-like mini-cult that concentrated its energy on producing handmade objects that, at their finest, were of very high—and seemingly irreproducible—exquisiteness.