Living on a Lighted Stage

Are we finally ready to take Rush seriously?

Rush in concert (1978) / Photograph by Fin Costello, courtesy of Anthem Records

Recorded sometime in 1974, the earliest known moving pictures of the rock band Rush are set against a decidedly unglamorous backdrop: the auditorium of Laura Secord Secondary School in St. Catharines, Ontario. Two of the three musicians who take the stage do their best to look the part. Dressed in a black sweater plastered with big silver musical notes, the young Alex Lifeson looks like a timid version of the humble guitar hero he will become. As for Geddy Lee, he’s unmistakable; if the weird high voice isn’t a giveaway, the billowing precursor of the “prophetic robes” the group would adopt as standard stagewear for the rest of the ’70s surely is.

If the drummer seems strange, that’s because he’s not who you’d expect. Seen not long before he departed the band, John Rutsey is the longhair who thunders his way through a greasy, Zeppelinesque rocker typical of Rush’s first album. A few months later, Neil Peart, a Hamilton native who grew up in the St. Catharines area, would become the crucial final member of Can-rock’s holy trinity.

Captured in what turns out to be the only surviving footage of Rush’s paleolithic pre-Peart era, the Laura Secord gig was one of countless high school concerts the band played during its long rise up the rock ’n’ roll ladder. “I’ve played a lot of Sadie Hawkins dances,” Geddy Lee remarks in a forthcoming documentary about the group. “We’ve probably bummed out a lot of people in their high school memories.”

But given the abundant and diverse tributes the band has received in recent years, it seems the majority of Rush-related memories must be considerably happier. Movie cameos, a hefty academic study, their very own episode of The Colbert Report—it’s all indicative of a mass veneration that has long eluded a group for whom multi-platinum sales and full arenas have done little to erase an underdog reputation. They may still be denied induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which fans have been demanding for years, but a greater understanding of Rush’s place in musical history—and in the lives of air drummers around the world—may finally be emerging.

The St. Catharines footage was discovered during research for the latest entry in this body of celebratory work, a new documentary by Toronto’s Banger Films. Creators Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen, the team behind such hard-rocking docs as Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and Iron Maiden: Flight 666, began the project in 2007 and may release it as early as this spring. Tentatively titled Rush: The Documentary, it is the first in-depth film about the group and its history. Besides never-before-seen footage like the Laura Secord show and photographs culled from the members’ personal collections, the movie will include testimonials about Rush’s greatness from members of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Metallica, and others inspired by the band over the past four decades.

During that span, Rush has transformed itself several times over, from the Zep and Cream wannabes of their early days to the fantasy-spinning, Ayn Rand–referencing prog rockers of the 2112 era, to a skinny-tie-wearing, new wave–influenced power trio, to the modern-day kings of classic rock radio. While such stylistic shifts have cost other bands their audiences, most Rush fans grow ever more ardent. And now those devotees have the opportunity to express that loyalty in surprising ways, fostering a trend that may be best described by the tentative title for a chapter in the Banger Films doc: “Revenge of the Nerds.”

As filmmaker Sam Dunn notes, “The kids who grew up on Rush are now in positions where they are writing for magazines, they’re running record labels, they’re producing hit animation shows, they’re producers on The Colbert Report. It’s almost as if the fans who stuck with the band through this whole time are finally getting their moment where they’re kind of like, ‘We told you so!’”

Or, as Lee told me, “It just goes to show you that if you hang around long enough, strange things happen.”

Late last year, Indiana University Press published the first book-length academic study of the band and its music. Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class was written by Chris McDonald, an ethnomusicologist who teaches at Cape Breton University. (He also worked as a researcher for Banger Films after finishing his dissertation.)

Using interviews with fans he met through, as well as his own analysis of lyrics and articles about the group, McDonald argues that Rush’s success is largely due to its embodiment of the values, aspirations, and anxieties of the middle class.

Rock music, McDonald suggests, has traditionally been about culturally trading up or down, about being anywhere but in the middle. The Stones are a perfect example: “They’re white middle-class kids trying to be like black working-class guys, at least musically,” he says. The typical route for the middle-class artist, he suggests, has been either to look to the underclass for musical direction or to become more avant-garde. “Rush did not do those things. They took hard rock, gentrified it, and left it that way. They didn’t become truly avant-garde in the acceptable sense. It really was a matter of these bookish middle-class kids doing this hard rock thing, being very reflective with it, making it virtuosic, and having this entrepreneurial, upward mobility aspect to their career. It’s a strange niche they chose.”

By espousing what McDonald terms “pro-active self-reliance,” Rush connected with middle-class kids much like themselves. The primary lyricist since he joined the band in 1974, Peart has used various means to articulate themes of individualism and perseverance, ranging from the mock-Tolkien medieval empowerment fantasies of “The Fountain of Lamneth,” to the direct language of “Subdivisions,” a 1982 radio hit that emboldened countless teens who worried that life in the suburbs was sapping their vital life force. As Lee sang, “Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth / But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth.”

Peart’s early Randian enthusiasm got the band branded as crypto-fascists in the British rock press. But like many fans, the teenage McDonald admired Rush both for its musical virtuosity and for the emboldening nature of the narratives in songs like “Xanadu.” “I remember my mom being scared by the sound coming out of my bedroom, this shrieking voice and these heavy guitars,” he recalls now. “But what were the songs about? They were about the kinds of values they wanted me to have anyway!”

According to Dunn and McFadyen, the moment when Rush began to forge its unique fan base came during the band’s first spell of disappointment, when the poor reception of their third album, 1975’s Caress of Steel, threatened to wipe out what meagre progress they’d made. While they were pressured by their American record company to head in a more commercially acceptable direction, they refused to let anyone dictate what they’d make. The fruit of their stubborn labours was 2112.

“When the record company heard it, they thought they were screwed,” Dunn says. Yet the elaborate narrative in the suite that comprised side one (loosely based on Ayn Rand’s novella, Anthem) and the band’s increasing musical dexterity captured the imagination of Rush’s growing following. For so strong a declaration of artistic autonomy to be greeted with such enthusiasm essentially meant the group never had to deal with anyone telling them what to do again. Says Dunn, “That set them up for the rest of their lives. They realized, ‘We have a fan base that’s loyal and open to our experimentation, and we can do what we want.’”

But recent years have tested that loyalty in surprising new ways. For fans, few sights were stranger than seeing Rush in a Hollywood movie. But there they were, performing onscreen in I Love You, Man, the 2009 comedy in which the friendship between characters played by Paul Rudd and Jason Segel intensifies when the duo discovers their mutual love of the band. Neil Peart appeared as himself in 2008’s Adventures of Power, an American indie comedy about an air-drumming Rush fanatic, and in cartoon form in the 2007 big-screen version of the animated series Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Not to be outdone, Alex Lifeson performed roles in both Trailer Park Boys movies, as well as the classic TV episode in which Ricky kidnaps him and mistakenly orders him to play “Diane Sawyer.”

Then there’s their appearance on The Colbert Report in July 2008, when they were touring to promote their most recent album, Snakes and Arrows. The trio looked on as host Stephen Colbert read the lyrics of “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” off his teleprompter and pretended to bed down while the band played an apparently interminable version of “Tom Sawyer.”

Geddy Lee says that some of these very public tributes have polarized the faithful. “Some fans love that we’re suddenly getting mainstream attention,” he says. “Others don’t. They like that we were their private Idaho.”

Apparently, certain fans felt that he and Peart attending the premiere of I Love You, Man “was not a Rush thing to do.” The Colbert Report appearance provoked a similar reaction. “Some fans loved it, and some were upset that Stephen interrupted our performance with comedy,” says Lee. “We were putting on this joke where we’re playing this song that’s so long it really can’t fit on a thirty-minute show. It was us who suggested, ‘Why don’t you just interrupt us and do some shtick? ’ A lot of fans got the joke and thought it was great, and some were upset that he dared to besmirch the song with his interruption. It was blasphemous behaviour, let’s face it!”

The band members have developed the habit of blaspheming themselves, the seriousness they exuded in the ’70s having eroded to the point where they now include rotisserie chicken ovens in their onstage gear. (Lee has claimed they give him “a hotter and tastier sound.”) Yet Lee suggests that many fans may have less of a sense of humour about Rush than its members do.

“That’s easier for us,” he says. “Some of these fans, they’ve found something in our music that has given them some sort of positive reinforcement or comfort. And that’s a serious thing in their lives, so to make it into a joke belittles what they’ve gotten out of it, in their view. I understand that; it’s completely in the eye of the beholder.”

Nowhere is that fan base more communal than at Rush Con, an annual gathering held in Toronto since 2001. Conference activities include pilgrimages to Queen’s Park (the location for the cover photo of 1981’s Moving Pictures) and Lakeside Park (which lends its name to a track on Caress of Steel ), as well as Rush trivia contests and concerts by tribute acts such as Limelight, of Brewster, New York.

Rush Con executive director Judy Staley discovered the group as a twelve-year-old, after being confused and captivated by the stop-start intro to “2112” as performed by a neighbour’s garage band. Now every time a new Rush album comes out, she and a friend celebrate by spending a day in the backyard, working through a case of beer and a pack of cigars while dissecting every track. “We sit there and analyze it,” she says. “It becomes a bonding thing.”

According to Staley, most fans value the band’s integrity above all other qualities. “You might think, ‘Oh, Neil’s a great drummer,’ or ‘Geddy’s a fantastic bass player,’ and that’s all important, but the bottom line is they’ve stuck to what they believe in,” she says.

She floats an analogy that equates the band with a well-loved restaurant: “It may not be the trendiest new thing on the block, but it’s been there for thirty-five years, and that place is full every night. And you know what you’re going to get, and you know that they only buy top-quality ingredients and that they spend a lot of time on their menu and make sure it’s exactly right. All of that boils down to the integrity of the people involved.”

Sam Dunn would likely agree with this tasty metaphor. “One thing I found fascinating about Rush,” he says, “is that fans are into them not just because of the music they create; they represent something that has integrity and authenticity.”

Which jibes with McDonald’s argument about how Rush’s work has served as a reflection and validation of a certain middle-class ethos. “My suburban colleagues would listen to stuff like Mötley Crüe, not because that was the lifestyle they led or the values they had, but because it was so opposite to what they were,” he notes. “Rush was being honest about who they were and, ultimately, who I was.”

Needless to say, the highly nuanced portrait of Rush that emerges from the pages of Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class can seem very different from the band’s incarnation as bemused straight men to Stephen Colbert. Yet this latest era in the group’s history may be defined by the proliferation of Rush representations. For Geddy Lee, it feels as if there’s the version of the band that belongs to others, and then the version that is relevant to him and his creative partners.

“We have so many different fans from so many different walks of life, and their music means something slightly different to each of them,” he says. “They have a common ground among them on what they like about our music. That’s amazing to me, and it’s wonderful; it’s enabled us to keep going, their support. But if we were to compare notes between a fan’s vision of what we are and my own vision or Alex’s vision or Neil’s, they’d probably be quite different.”

Nor is the experience of reliving Rush’s four-decade history for the documentary necessarily a welcome one. “It’s unwieldy, frankly—I don’t like to think so much about the passage of time. To be involved in the documentary has been hard from that point of view, because they’re making so much of things we’ve done in the past, and asking questions about details twenty-five, thirty years ago—a lot of them have just gone out of my head. It’s a bit uncomfortable dwelling so much on what has happened. I’m more comfortable looking forward and not being constantly aware of how long I’ve been in the same rock band.”

The very business of looking back—through archival footage and photographs—can feel “self-indulgent,” Lee says. “You want to spend your time thinking about things other than your own face.”

Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson teaches film criticism at the University of Toronto, and is the director of programming for the Kingston Canadian Film Festival in Ontario.