Rush: a fan’s notes

Colby Cosh goes beyond the new doc ‘Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage’

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.




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Rush: a fan’s notes

  1. 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.

    Oh yes we do, Colby. Does it start with the literary roots of "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Flight of Icarus" or the popular-fiction origins of "Where Eagles Dare" and "To Tame a Land"?

  2. Just watching Neil Peart bang the drums on the R30 DVD should be enough to convince anyone that he is one of the greatest drummers rock and roll has ever seen. His performance outshines just about any other drummer in the genre.

    http://viableopposition.blogspot.com/

    • I am also looking forward to the Iron Maiden lecture.

      And, in my view, you nailed it re: Rush. I am about the same age as you (38 for me) and am constantly amazed at how that seems to be the cutoff age for understanding and really appreciating this seminal band.

  3. This may sound like an insult but it's not really supposed to. I read this entire article, and I have no idea if it had a point, and I'm not sure I know anything I didn't already know, but I'm glad I read this entire article.

  4. As a long time fan I look forward to the documentary that is coming out about the band. I have to say I really enjoyed their last studio album Snakes and Arrows.

    Thanks for blogging this.

  5. Joyce's Ulysses is like Rush! People tell you how good it is, and you have no idea why, but nod anyway. (Rush – Moving Pictures was the 1st gig I ever saw)

    Speaking of Canadian Power Trio's, The Imagineers (Circa 1990) – The best Canadian band that seemed unable to write more than 6 songs.

  6. Currently, screw Canadian power trios and, for that matter, all trios, The Black Keys are the duo that matters

  7. Thanks Colby, I am a little older, (went to the same high school as Neil Peart a few year behind). I always felt Rush had a great Canadian essence. Not in the Gordon Lightfoot sort of way but rather the way they stayed grounded after success. Kinda like Bobby Orr compared to great baseball, basketball players.

  8. Triumph, who were (with due respect) Rush for Camaro owners

    Best definition of Triumph I have ever heard.

  9. Suggest PW and CC have a throw down over this. Great read, btw.

  10. With all the Rush revisionism happening now, I listened to All The World's A Stage last night for the first time in probably 25 years (I stopped listening to them when I switched my allegiance to Dylan in high school). While I agree with the point that I heard nuances that weren't apparent before — and also some astounding proto-speed metal wailing from Geddy I'd forgotten about — what struck me immediately is that Rush remains the least sexy band in the history of rock. Could that be why they've never been accepted by the Rolling Stone rock history cabal? What does that say about their audience? I laughed out loud hearing "By-Tor And The Snow Dog" again, as it immediately brought me back to reading Conan comics at age 12. Even the message of 2112 is hopelessly inane, grasping for some kind of Townshend-esque answer to the meaning of life. Rush did not begin to make real artistic strides until Peart started embracing reality with "Subdivisions" and Grace Under Pressure, the latter an album I despised at the time of its release, but which I have genuine admiration for now. Those escapists can continue to enjoy them all they want, but perfection is not a word that belongs in rock and roll's definition.

  11. Triumph as "Rush for Camaro owners." A great line I wish I had heard thirty years ago. I can't really say I disliked them, though the only time I paid to see them was because the opening acts were Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, and oddly enough, Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush.

    I'm late to the thread, but then I'm older and slower than you (though younger [yet slower] than the band.) As per Jason's comment about Grace Under Pressure, I've been amazed how often I've really disliked the "new album" only to have it grow on me in subsequent months and years. They have managed to keep me consistently engaged for nearly 35 years, and I've got a (nearly) front row seat for a late June show. I must be close to two dozen by now.

    It dawned on me while writing this that about the only acts I'll pay big money to see these days are Canadian: Rush and Cirque du Soleil. I don't quite know what to read into that. I am pleased that I've remained a fan long enough to afford the best seats.

    Thanks for the article, and pointing me towards the documentary. I look forward to seeing it.

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