July/August 2010
Skylaire Alfvegren

Grokking Rush

Among their many unheralded accomplishments, Geddy Lee et al are the only rock band cited in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

Discussed: Trash Cans, The Stealth of True Cool, L-U-V, The Large Hadron Collider, Morse Code, The Exploited Lyrical Motif of Us v. Them, New Age Soccer Moms, Honeydew

In 1968, bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer John Rutsey began performing in the church basements and high-school auditoriums of suburban Toronto. Heavily influenced by Cream, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple, they released a self-titled debut in March 1974, marked as much by Lee’s four-string dexterity as  by his vocals—which Rolling Stone would later refer to as a “dog-calling falsetto.” Two weeks before the group’s first U.S. tour, Rutsey fell ill. A soft-spoken farm-equipment salesman by the name of Neil Peart auditioned for the spot, his drums transported in trash cans. He turned out to be the most maniacal percussionist this side of Keith Moon, and a poet to boot, thus helping to create a musical unit that would go on to polarize rock aficionados like no other.

Largely snubbed by the mainstream rock press, Rush is a complete aural anomaly. Jurassic rock radio keeps them in light rotation alongside the corpses of AC/DC, the Who, and the Stones. They received only a sputter of ’80s MTV attention, even with a collection of epic, high-concept videos.[1]And yet the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, and Primus all claim them as a major influence. Members of Tool, Korn, Sepultura, and Iron Maiden have also paid them tribute.

To their fans, Rush is the Spock-tastic, demonically proficient father of progressive metal, harbinger of a singular musical philosophy. To their detractors, Rush is soulless, quasi-existential, as sexy as pocket protectors, and about as scandalous as a trio of Amish farmers. One isn’t seduced by their rhythms over time. One immediately groks Rush, or one doesn’t. I’ve made no apologies for being a Rush fan, but I have never tried to make converts.

KISS has their Army, the Dead have their Heads, and although I once called them “a sea of IT,” I have come to realize that nothing unifies Rush fans as much as being Rush fans. Reviewing the band’s ’96 Test for Echo stop at the LA Forum, I noted that “tattered tour shirts abounded, from Yes to Rage Against the Machine, the Residents to Miles Davis.” A casual poll among Rush fans would more likely find Fripp and Eno, John Wetton–era King Crimson, Gentle Giant and Hawkwind on the hi-fi than modern practitioners of the “progressive” genre (a misnomer to describe what is, in fact, rigidly conservative). Bands who, on paper, boast the most striking influences—Coheed and Cambria, Dream Theater—are less likely to be embraced by Rush fans than, say, the Dead Kennedys and the Kronos Quartet. 

Yet it is enthusiasm, and not passion, which Rush fans exude. Rock, by all accounts, is accessorized by sweat and soul, centered in the heart and the crotch. But not one of the 150-plus entries in the Rush songbook concerns l-u-v outright; there is the contemplative (“Entre Nous”): “We are planets to each other / Drifting in our orbits to a brief eclipse / Each of us a world apart / Alone and yet together / Like two passing ships”; and there is the tenuously optimistic (“Ghost of a Chance”): “I don’t believe in the stars or the planets / or angels watching from above / but I believe there’s a ghost of a chance / that we can find someone to love.” Rush fans find romance and passion in the abstract, approaching love like cryptographers.[2]

This stanza, from “Chemistry,” seems to express Peart’s general opinion of the human condition (perhaps as it is peculiarly experienced by Rush’s alien nation fan base):

Signal transmitted—message received
Reaction making impact—invisibly
Elemental telepathy—exchange of energy
Reaction making contact—mysteriously
Eye to I
Reaction burning hotter
Two to one
Reflection on the water
H to O
No flow without the other
Oh, but how do they make contact with one another?
  1. These include the eerie, Jan Švankmajer–esque “Mystic Rhythms,” the lavish, Monopoly-themed sets, and the (at the time) state-of-the-art computer graphics of “The Big Money,” the atomic-age parable replete with Dr. Strangelove allusions in “Distant Early Warning,” and the high-tech, machinated world of “The Body Electric,” wherein sheep-people “give praise to the mother of all machines” during “100 years of routine.” Yet our hero, “one humanoid escaping,” breaks free. (Word has it the images come from a film called Incident at Channel Q.)
  2. The only other female Rush fan I’ve spoken to–a physicist—agreed entirely. Which is to say, I may be a Rush fanatic, but I doubt I’d ever date one.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Skylaire Alfvegren is the founder of the League of Western Fortean Intermediatists (forteanswest.com), which explores the mysteries and peculiarities of the American West. She lives in Los Angeles. Further dementia can be accessed at Skylaire.com.


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