Bristle with the Energy

Chronicles of a Rush Fan
by Noah Kucij

My older brother introduced me to Rush around 1988.  A good big brother is a careful arbiter of musical taste, so the first thing he played for me was side two of the second cassette (it was all cassettes all the time back then), 1975’s Fly By Night.  The title track was the perfect entry point for a nine-year old novice, a super-hooky 3:25 in which by the time the slowed-down bridge wound back up for the final chorus, I was ready to help Geddy Lee shriek every word.  “This chick rocks,” I proclaimed.

Of course, that was no chick; it was a Canadian prog-rock demigod.  But what did I know?  (I’ve been fooled by gender-bending performers more times than a Globe Theatre groundling.  More recently, the first time I heard Karen O. from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Erika from Heartless Bastards, and Brittany from the Alabama Shakes, my first thought was thrice, “Wow, this dude’s digging deep.”  There’s something about those androgynous vocals that perks up my ears.)  After my first taste of Rush, it was off to the races: trying to get my nine-year old friends into “Bastille Day” and “A Passage to Bangkok,” cranking “Tom Sawyer” whenever it came on the radio, memorizing every riff and cymbal-crash of Moving Pictures.  And then it was suddenly 1992, and Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush” came through like a snowplow two lanes wide (no mistaking that dude was a dude), and kids I barely knew were handing me dubs of Ten and Nevermind like pamphlets for an uprising, and that was that.

I’ve recently taken a new shine to Rush after streaming their 1990 compilation, Chronicles, and the worth-your-time documentary that’s now streaming on Netflix, Beyond the Lighted Stage.  What I hear now is a band that married technique and exuberance as seamlessly as any; a trio of suburban soul-searchers who beat Arcade Fire and Real Estate to the punch by 30 years; and a raft across the bereft ‘80s on which many a ’90s rocker hitched a ride (the doc glows with tributes from Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan, Les Claypool, and others).

Critics on the whole have not been kind to Rush.  Their gripes clearly aren’t technical: Lee’s bass, Alex Lifeson’s guitar, and Neil Peart’s drums are well beyond technical reproach.  The vocals could be seen as a liability, I suppose – I’m not sure why Plant and Ozzy and Axl get the upper registers of the male rock voice all to themselves, but clearly there’s a secret knock that only they know.  I think the most likely culprit for Rush-hate, though, is to be found in Neil Peart’s heady lyrics.

Take a song like “The Trees” from 1978’s Hemispheres.  No really, I dare you to listen and not laugh.  I’ll wait.

In case you missed some of those lyrics, let me give you the highlights:  “There is trouble with the trees,” because, you see, “the maples want more sunlight,” so, you know the story, “the maples formed a union / And demanded equal rights,” yadda yadda, and 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.”  It’s not your typical arena-rock dreck about humping groupies in limousines; instead, it’s a very earnest allegory about class struggle, political ideology, and the ironies of unintended social consequences.  I can’t decide which is worse.

Of course, there is nothing this cheesy in Radiohead’s whole catalog, nothing so unintentionally funny in all of Elvis Costello or Talking Heads or Beck.  And clearly this kind of unselfconscious frolicking-forth into broad themes treated broadly will get you beat up in the high school halls and the pages of Rolling Stone.  But I do maintain that the unabashed qualities that sometimes make Rush unlistenable are the same qualities that make them brilliant.  Being a person who jokes about everything and finds seriousness overrated, I tend to like my art humor-forward as well.  But just as we might watch sports to see other humans do what we can’t do, I think I may listen to Rush to escape from my usual everything’s-funny sensibility.

In an age in which so many adults embrace primary-color nerdiness that isn’t even original (will Superman and the Wolverine fucking die already?), we should appreciate good, fantastical populist art when we hear it.  We should appreciate risk-taking, especially when it ends up with a killer product.  I’ve never listened to Belle and Sebastian and had to tell myself, “My God, someone made this.  This song didn’t exist before someone imagined it into being.”  But that’s the exact appropriate reaction to a song like “The Spirit of Radio.”  You probably haven’t heard it since you stopped listening to classic rock FM twenty years ago.  So here it is again:

Once you get past the hair, and the dancing that seems like the side effect of a trial-stage medication, a few things might be noticed.  The sick guitar, for one.  The genius rhythm section.  The whole band swooping between time signatures like a little flock of bionic pelicans.  The mouthfuls of latinate polysyllabics (“Glittering prizes and endless compromises / Shatter the illusion of integrity.”  Next thing you know they’ll be, as in “Limelight,” rhyming “alienation” with “fascination” and “real relation.”).  Some of these are features that a rock band is supposed to have, and some of them make Rush the odd birds out.  But I still think it’s pretty sweet.

Chronicles does a nice job of gathering much of the best of Rush between their inception and the dawn of the ’90s.  With the heavy wax of nostalgia in my ears, it’s hard to say what a neophyte will hear in these discs.  I believe they’ll hear three musicians who took their work seriously and thought of rock as a canvas for big, ambitious ideas; if sometimes that makes them easy targets, it’s a small price to pay.  The documentary does a nice job of addressing the problem of critical reception, but mostly it’s about their sound, their chemistry, their influence, and their global legions of fans.  It may make you think that it’s time to reexamine this band.  Next year on your way home from ComicCon or SXSW, when you can’t shake the feeling that a lot of what’s been sold to you as the coolest shit in the world may be so much warmed-over Spaghettios for your inner child, try something a bit more wailing, a bit more righteous, a bit more Canadian.  You may or may not dig it, but what could it hurt?

3 thoughts on “Bristle with the Energy

  1. All right Noah. Let’s mix it up a little. Let’s tangle.

    Here is my thing with Rush:

    My intro to Rush was the same as my intro to many bands, My father and I were in the car listening to PYX106 so loud that we couldn’t hear each other and a song came on and my father, though the radio was already turned up too loud, miraculously found a way to make the sound louder. “Rush,” he roared.

    The space he invades he gets by on you indeed.

    I think my dad, as a drummer, liked that Neil Peart was the centerpiece, and the brains of the band, penning almost all of their lyrics, and having more say than most drummers in the final product of the music. What I am saying is that he was biased.

    But I was down for a while.

    The synth and the pedal effects were like a juicebox form of LSD to my still developing brain. I did not know about how facile their lyrics, or how boring the solo after solo would become to me, or how cloying Geddy Lee’s voice would become. I held on for as long as I could. I particularly liked that my mom hated the pentagram that Peart had on his drum kit for a while. And I fought the good fight against punk rock / hardcore friends in college who hated the band because some piece of garbage Matthew Lillard film called SLC Punk told them to. But I knew in my heart that they were right, even if they had not come up with the notion on their own, Rush, like Jethro Tull, like Yes, were crushed under the weight of their own ambition.

    What it comes down to is that their melodies aren’t good enough to make up for their indulgences, and they don’t rock hard enough to make up for their idiosyncrasies. There is also something sexless about them. Something, dare I say, Christian-Rock like. I guess a lot of the proggers were like that. Articulate and gleaming. Ebullient and flaccid.

    At this point in my life, my favorite song by them is the flawed, but simple “Working Man” from their Neil Peart-les debut record.

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