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"Finding My Way (a Rush fan writes …)" / By Callum Reid

Added 15 October 2021, 9:50 AM
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"Finding My Way (a Rush fan writes …)"
By Callum Reid


 
My mate said I don’t understand the concept of irony. Which was ironic because we were standing at a bus stop at the time …

My mate said I don’t understand Rush, and we were standing at a bus stop at the time …

The first line (two alone) is funny - the second (looking for a way back) is less funny, but also true. And it set me off …

So, I’m a Rush fan. How big a fan? Why - is this a competition?!

I haven’t (yet) made a pilgrimage to the legendary rock trio’s city of Toronto, good ol’ YYZ - which, dontcha know?, is the three-letter code designated by the International Air Transport Association for Toronto Pearson International Airport, as well as the title of one of Rush’s most beloved, powerhouse instrumentals.

I’ve seen Rush live in concert three times. Three? Nothing compared to “real” fans, I hear you snigger. And no, I haven’t actually met anyone from the band, or the “extended family”, or communicated with any of them in a meaningful way.

Not that I’m a stranger to rock pilgrimages - my best friend Kenny and I left Inverness on an absolutely gorgeous, supremely autumn day and meandered along the banks of the loch, nonchalantly looking out for the monster (never turn your back) and systematically draining our carry-out so there was, progressively, less of a load, to Boleskine House, owned at one time or another, we were told, by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and, before that, the lair of notorious occultist Aleister “White Stains” Crowley.
 
 
It took us (two alone) all of the available Highland daylight to get from Inverness to Boleskine, which we couldn’t see from the road anyway. We can’t claim even a glimpse of the monster and, more disappointingly, there were no writhing, naked, Cutty-Sarked Satanists in the lochside graveyard.

Downing the carry-out remnants (looking for a way back) and giving up on the aforementioned bus stop, we instead thumbed a lift and were home in time for Top Of The Pops - so it must have been a Thursday.

Inverness, by the by, was also where I met the celebrated Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Marathon Man). Goldman was a hero of mine (“there is magic at your fingers”) so, in my scribe guise of a movie critic in the early 1990s, I set off on a fantastical foray to “interview” the great man.

My memory of the occasion is that Billy was a complete and utterly accommodating gentleman, as you would expect (he signed my/ his book), and in the course of it all I made a complete and utter doofus of myself, not for the first or last time.

So, I’ve met some heroes - but not Rush. And yes, I only saw Rush live (“… concert hall!”) three times. If it’s a competition, and if my mate at the bus stop (I Love You Man!) and other otherwise sane people really, really, truly believe they “understand” Rush “better” than I do, if they’ve been to the gigs many, many, many more times, if they’ve actually met them face to three faces, or even in a one-on-one, they would “win” hands down. But Rush are still my band.

When the touring Canadians - they were prolific tourers, a dedicated exercise that flexed itself out over the years into three-hour plus shows, no support - went on the road in the 1970s with hedonistic behemoths Kiss, the latter face-painted outfit’s self-proclaimed God Of Thunder, Gene Simmons, insisted he and the rest of his mob were partying and frolicking and generally excessing it with groupies as the boys from Rush stayed safely in their hotel rooms, communally reading books or watching TV.

A certain guilt-by-association picture of a “Rush fan” may be emerging, and you probably know the one - missing out, wanderers, drinkers and thinkers, searching for monsters, overawed by “heroes”. Studious doofuses, dutiful but dubious. We proudly bore the sniggers and harsh words, wore our hearts on our sleeves, our patches on our denim jackets and, in time, moved on - we progressed. And the soundtrack to that progress was provided by Rush - Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart.

If you’ve heard of the “Canadian power trio”, “prog Gods” or the “hard rock heroes”, and if you’re not into power, prog or hard rock, don’t be so easily put off. What do musical pigeonholes mean anyway?

Jazz critic Gary Giddins said of first seeing and hearing “avant garde’s high priest” John Coltrane (1926-67): “He was asking a lot of the audience, some people were just offended. It was noisy and loud and relentless, and they ran from it. But there was something about the force and the sincerity and the drive.”

Converge, anyone? Godflesh? Swans? Yes, perhaps - and Rush truly qualify in terms of the force, the sincerity, the drive. But, in all cases, there’s more to the story than “noisy and loud and relentless”.

Rush drummer and lyricist-in-chief Peart lost his daughter (road traffic accident, 1997) and first wife (cancer, 1998) in the space of 10 months. The band were more or less inactive until the album Vapor Trails (2002) and the subsequent tour.
 
 
When Peart’s kit was uncovered on stage for the first time since the reunion, it’s said grown men wept at the sight of it. Mike Portnoy (sticks man with prog titans Dream Theater and now of supergroup Flying Colors) spoke of Peart’s set-up as “drum porn”, adding: “While others my age would get hot and drool over the centrespread in Playboy, I would get the same reaction from centrespreads of Neil’s kit in drum magazines.”

Peart died in 2020, aged 67, after a battle with brain cancer (even Superman sleeps in the crypt tonight). It was a brutal end and, such is the way of tragedy, framed things in perspective - bringing together in a reflective mood fans who had long debated (ie out and out violently argued) the merits of each Rush album, the highlights and lowlights, where and how it all fitted into the canon, in their opinion.

Looking back, Permanent Waves (1980) and Moving Pictures (1981) in particular brought a sea change and if there were periods when the synths seemed too much to the fore we struggled to show grace under pressure and hold our fire even as we gushed at the virtuosity, the ambition, the legacy while Peart steadied  the ship, rocking, swinging and even spinning his kit … vocalist Lee popped and rumbled his bass, driving all things before him … and Lifeson’s riffs chopped and jagged their way through space and time, his lead guitar parts sublimely soaring and coruscating over the water.

We enjoyed/ endured the boys’ musical experiments, respected their forages into reggae (fuck The Police!) and yes, even rap, as eyes were rolled at Roll The Bones. But, always, Rush would get it right in the end.

Peart’s lyrics were full of natural science, science fiction, fictional sages and philosophers. He wrote about sympathy and empathy, white-haired uncles and modern-day warriors, the past and the future, as the trio furrowed their collective brows over the troubles of the present, its politics, (sub)divisions and prime responsibilities. The songs took us to Bangkok and Xanadu, the Styx and Hades, to Lakeside Park, Middletown and Seven Cities Of Gold.

They didn’t call Peart “The Professor” for nothing, and they mystically called him “Ghost Rider” for other reasons, but he, Lee and Lifeson retained an Everyman appeal. Despite the occasional kimono or cape-clad, intricately-coiffured wind machine photoshoot, Rush grafted and endured as working men, avoiding the limelight, championing the spirit of radio, insisting they were nobody’s hero, holding fast to the zeitgeist and always with integrity - a word Peart knew well, its true meaning and pure, crystal clarity honed to a penetrating point by frequent usage as he put the universe under the microscope, scrutinising and analysing worlds in microcosm, from modest tide pools to too-heady trees.

Along the way, there were notable victories - just ask The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. And much respected music periodical Prog recently celebrated The Greatest Prog Musicians Of All Time, following a readers’ vote. After the big countdown, Peart was declared Number One.

The mag asked other musicians, other drummers, to say “How Neil Peart affected me …” and the praise came thick and fast - “He changed the way in which the drums are approached … writing the drum parts specifically for the song.” “Meticulous attention to the detail of his fills.” “A musician in the most progressive way … finding new ways of doing things or simply doing them better.” “I can’t think of anyone else who combined the precise technicality with passionate musicality in the way he did.” “Neil’s inspiration and his legacy as a drummer, musician and lyricist is peerless …”
 
 
PEERLESS. And that was just Peart. Prog’s poll, which listed 200 names in all, culminated in a Top 10 which included ALL of Rush - Lee was at number four, Lifeson nine. I would concur, of course, ‘coz I’m a fan - I reckon since 1978, which makes it 42 years and counting (is it a competition?!).

I worked for the same company for 30 years and walked away with a gold watch. After 34 years as a Rush fan I was gifted not a watch but Clockwork Angels, a triumphant signing off if ever there was one (not that anyone knew at the time Angels would be the last album and tour).

In my time with Rush, I have been a restless young romantic and a New World Man, but always worried about The Weapon and The Witch Hunt (Part III Of Fear). I ran many miles with Marathon in my ears, drove many more to Red Barchetta (surely the ultimate driving song - apart from Driven, maybe?).

I sang along, ached and yearned along, to Closer To The Heart, hoped for the best (Prime Mover) and feared the worst (Losing It). I was moved by a song called Analog Kid (we’ve all laid on that grass, “longing to depart”) and I chose Freewill as I absorbed then questioned priests’ homilies and strode out to vote (“If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice”).  I tried to handle EVERYTHING with Kid Gloves, because “then you learn the lesson” …

As delusional as it may seem now, I reassured myself with the thought I was even part of Rush’s extended “family”, along with album cover artist Hugh Syme and producers like Terry “Broon’s Bane” Brown and, latterly, Nick Raskulinecz. And then there’s multi-instrumentalist Ben Mink - after Mink’s studio and live collaborations with Rush, I fervently and absolutely believed if I ever did go on that pilgrimage to the land of the maple leaf, good ’ol Ben would put me up for the duration. We could sit up late, talking about the boys, Boleskine and William Goldman, and how all the little moments of magic somehow fit together into the jigsaw of a “story”.

Walking, plodding along daily to a dead-end job in 1989, I was looking, yearning for a lifechanging intervention (“If I could wave my magic wand” …) as I listened to the song Presto on my old Sony Walkman (the same device I had used when jogging along to Marathon).

Peart said of Presto in Rolling Stone in 2012: “We just loved playing it last tour, and we played it in a way that we couldn’t when we were touring in 1989. I remember discussing it with the guys one night over dinner and just saying, ‘That song is so much better than it ever was, and it has a feel that it should have had on the record.’ Geddy said: ‘Well, we have a different clock now.’ That’s true, and such an important, fundamental observation.”

Things change through time, of course. I faded out, I must confess, ’round about Roll The Bones, Counterparts and Test For Echo. My life had taken a funny turn - I might not be here now, honestly, blah blah blah. But while I had that gap, I always, always played the old stuff and rhapsodically rediscovered the tracks from Bones, Counterparts and Echo when they appeared on Different Stages, Live In Rio and the later DVDs and Blurays.

“Real” Rush dudes out there will have already guillotined me for saying I’ve been a fan since 1978 - the year I turned 16, the year of Hemispheres, but after Rush, Fly By Night, Caress Of Steel, 2112 and A Farewell To Kings. What was I thinking at ages zero to 16?! I promise you, I do not know the whole story. But I promise you too, I know and love all the early stuff now (2112 especially). And that love endured past Snakes & Arrows, particularly The Main Monkey Business. Why, why, why are their instrumentals always so good? Leave that thing alone, because the words are so important …
 


 
I can’t stop thinking big … I can’t stop thinking big …

And the music? Somehow, so much better than it ever was …

Some days were dark
I wish that I could live it all again
Some nights were bright
I wish that I could live it all again

All the highlights of that headlong flight
Holding on with all my might …


Two alone, looking for a way back …
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