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It’s been more than a bit of a Rush extravaganza for the last several months even in the mainstream media.

The band is on tour right now, playing in venues as massive as they have for over thirty-five years. Drummer Neil Peart turned 60 last week. Relatively rare in progressive rock history, a novel has appeared this month that intentionally complements and further explores the world introduced in an album. That album, Clockwork Angels, has justly received rave reviews, and the most prestigious magazine in the business, PROG, awarded Rush with “album of the year” earlier this month. Last May, the Canadian Council of the Arts awarded the three members of Rush with its highest honors, including a medal and $25,000 a piece.

Never shy about technological advances, Rush released an app with exclusive content on it this week.

By any measure, Rush is at the top of the profession, having created more “gold records” than only two other rock acts in the history of rock music, despite being mocked or ignored by Rolling Stone (until recently) and the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” in Cleveland as “terminally unhip.” They have sold over 40 million albums, and their fans are some of the most loyal in existence.

Rush is made up of three confident artists, having played together for a little under four decades, the closest of comrades, the most spirited of adventurers.

Even The Imaginative Conservative (this very wonderful website, run by our very own non-proggish but still wonderful Winston Elliott) has seen a huge number of readers appear to partake in Rush-related pieces. In particular, our review of the band’s 20th studio album, “Clockwork Angels” spoke to readers rather directly. Certainly, there remains a receptive and steady audience for Rush and a increasingly growing audience for progressive rock (rock as art, not as emotion, passion, and excess).

The story of Rush is a story of validation. When the band first started out, the mainstream music establishment largely ignored them. Geddy’s voice was the brunt of jokes, Alex’s guitar playing got no respect, Neil’s lyrics were pretentious and channeled a kooky Ayn Randian ideology, and he played too many drums, all of them with the passion of a mathematician. Meanwhile, musicians and music aficionados loved them, so you had this great narrative tension. Now they’re nearing their 40-year anniversary, their old critics are in nursing homes, their fans are in leadership positions in business, science, government, and the arts, and they’re looked to as elder statesmen of rock. —Rob Freedman, June 29, 2012

I’ve re-read and re-posted this quote a number of times over the last several months; it is one of the best quotes from the summer of 2012. Thank you, Rob, for expressing such a truth in a such a poignant way.

Last week (September 18, 2012), I had the great privilege of attending the Detroit/Auburn Hills concert with six friends. As I looked around the very crowded arena (it seats 24,276 total), it hit me–yet again–that Freedman is absolutely correct. While guys my age (ca. 45) predominated in the audience, there were a significant number of younger fans as well, including a 10-year old behind me, joyfully sitting with his father and grandfather.

I’m sure that not even the members of Rush have an idea about how much they’ve influenced an entire generation or two. As seriously as they take their art, they always express surprise when they are quoted or referenced in larger culture. Praise clearly makes them uncomfortable.

I can write free of hyperbole that thousands, if not millions, of young and middle aged men have turned to Rush’s drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, for answers in this fallen world. In the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s many of us lovingly thought of ourselves as the younger brothers of Peart. He was the genius kid with integrity, who always walked through the halls with two hilarious, equally smart (if not overtly intellectual) and infinitely loyal friends. One of his friends had parents who had survived the Holocaust camps of the Nazis. The other friend had folks who had escaped the prison camps of the Communists. Now, the three were free to express themselves in any way they so decided on this side of the Atlantic.

These three confidently confronted the world as a perfect trio, unbreakable and ever mutually re-enforcing and inspiring.

We looked up to all three as those who could understand our failures and successes, our desires and our alienation, our rejection of conformist culture and our drive to better ourselves. We would always remain the somewhat annoying kid brothers. Those three, though, a few years older, had demonstrated and proven that real men–intense, passionate and caring men–could make a difference in a world deeply skeptical and more in tune with equality than quality.

Neil was the big brother who introduced us to the literature our teachers seemed to have misplaced: classical myth, Voltaire, Coleridge, Twain, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Rand, Tolkien, Eliot, and others. He also explained the concepts of revolution, equality, and liberty in his music. These were heady things for us. In many ways, they still are. It was clear as Peart’s mother explained in the documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, he was “weird.” Without any real ability in athletics, he delved into books. “He just read everything,” his mom states. “He just read everything there was to read.” Though his parents did not understand him or his passions, they supported him completely.

[It should be noted that no matter how un-athletic Peart was once considered, he now reigns as the best drummer in the world. At age sixty, he’s in such good shape physically, that he could play the drums with perfection for over three hours on Tuesday night. Fifteen years younger and in decent shape, I get tired after three minutes of air drumming.]

Neil never drank or smoked pot (at least not that we saw; it turns out this wasn’t true!–but we believed it to be in high school). “None of the Rush guys” ever womanized or partied, Gene Simmons of KISS revealed in a documentary of the band. After a show, they went back to their rooms and read or watched movies while accompanying bands partied beyond the imaginations of ordinary men.

Rush’s restraints reminded us just exactly how confident they were. While Peart distrusted authority, he always did so in a cool, sideways manner, not in a confrontational chaotic manner that would attract undue attention. Neil taught us that most authorities are not worth considering, one way or the other. They were simply not worth our time. Better to rely on self, excellence, intelligence, and imagination than those who gave us the Brady Bunch, Vatican II, and Jimmy Carter. In the end, the mediocre would drive themselves to extinction, and those with integrity would eventually triumph over pop drivel and societal mediocrity.

As the socially awkward and educationally unchallenged, we made Peart our touchstone, our fountainhead and model of quiet rebellion. Some of us joked that we were “Peart’s Army” waiting our turn to change the world.

As adults, a vast number of us remain loyal, knowing that such wisdom as we received from Peart and such integrity and artistry we witnessed from Lee, Lifeson, and Peart is an all too-rare and precious thing in this world of sorrows. In a world that mocked heroes, we found ours in three Canadian musicians who refused to compromise. When the world went against them, they did their own thing. And now, to the surprise of so many but to none who have loved them for decades, the world has finally recognized them. Late, but still good. The three members of Rush have become meaningful citizens, the elder statesmen of our culture.

One element to Rush’s success has been their innate sense of humor and sincere self-deprecation. “The other thing that breaks up most bands is interpersonal relationships. We don’t have that problem either–most of the time the biggest concern we have is, who’s going to say something funnier?” [Geddy Lee, quoted Martin Kielty, “Geddy Lee’s Struggle with Rush Tour,” PROG (September 6, 2012)

[SPOILER ALERT: Concert set list below]

That humor made itself evident from the opening scenes of the concert in Auburn Hills. After an introductory film featuring the three members of the band–as “G-nomes”–mocking a federal revenue agent, Geddy played the opening dark chords of “Subdivisions” and the lights came up. I must admit, a deep thrill ran through me. I leaned over to my friend, Dom: “I’m not sure I would have survived ninth grade without this song.” Poor Dom. Of course, it was the truth. The album appeared September 9, 1982–the second week of my freshman year of high school.

Some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight
Somewhere out of a memory
Neil Peart, “Subdivisions,” Signals (1982)

For nearly the entirety of the first set, Rush played 80s tracks. The most controversial part of their career, at least for long-time fans, Rush’s music in the 80s sounded very. . . well, 80s, at least in terms of production. The lyrics were direct, the keyboards thick, and the guitar impressionistic.

Songs included “The Big Money,” “Force Ten,” “Grand Designs,” “Middletown Dreams,” “Territories,” “The Analog Kid,” “The Pass,” “Where’s My Thing,” and “Far Cry.” The themes deal with crony capitalism, irresistible actions, alienation, suicide, bigotry, and nationalism.

In his best Stoic voice, Peart asks in “Territories”:

They shoot without shame
In the name of a piece of dirt
For a change of accent
Or the colour of your shirt
Better the pride that resides
In a citizen of the world
than the pride that divides
when a colourful rag is unfurled
–Neil Peart, “Territories,” Power Windows (1985)

But, the romanticism of Peart always re-emerges, no matter how cynical he has become about the world:

The fawn-eyed girl with sun-browned legs
Dances on the edge of his dream
And her voice rings in his ears
Like the music of the spheres
–Neil Peart, “The Analog Kid,” Subdivisions (1982)

After an intermission, complete with even funnier film clips than the ones from the beginning of the show, Rush came back with even greater energy than they’d displayed in the first set. Eight string players joined them. This is the first time in their nearly-four decade long career that players other than Lifeson, Lee, and Peart performed on the stage with Rush, a band that has jealously guarded its status as a trio. The eleven musicians performed nearly the entirety of Clockwork Angels. Complete with stunning visuals in film and light, flying screens, and vast pyrotechnics, the musicians lovingly told the story of Owen Hardy, the young man with a too-perfect life who immerses himself in a world of myth and adventure.

Rush concluded the set with “Dreamline,” Red Sector A,” “YYZ,” and “Working Man.”

While I loved the entire 3 hour and 5 minute show, I found myself most taken with the second set. Most especially moving, though, was Rush’s performance of “Red Sector A.” As mentioned before, Lifeson’s and Lee’s parents each escaped the camps of the ideologues. “Red Sector A,” one of the most haunting songs Rush has ever written, deals with the liberation of a prison camp. Whether the liberators will be worse than the original captors hangs over the whole song.

Ragged lines of ragged grey
Skeletons, they shuffle away
–Neil Peart, “Red Sector A,” Grace Under Pressure (1984).

Throughout the song on Tuesday night, haunted shadows of men designed out of black and red lines and splotches moved like zombies on the screens behind the band. Frankly, Bono could have learned a thing or two about proclaiming social justice in art, but doing so with tact and power, not with superficial “over the top” preaching and shouting. In every way, Rush’s 1984 album, Grace Under Pressure, reveals the power of art to comment on the events of one’s day.

For an encore on Tuesday, Rush performed their most famous song, “Tom Sawyer,” as well as a shortened version of their 1976 epic, “2112.”

In every way, these guys, all near (or into) their seventh decade of life, pored themselves into the music as they’ve done since 1974.

From the beginning to the end of the Auburn Hills show, the thousands of us watching were invited to be not just mere spectators, but to be participants in the art, the integrity, and the genius that is Rush. We were invited into that “better, vanished time.”

I have stoked the fire on the big steel wheels
Steered the airships right across the stars
I learned to fight, I learned to love and learned to feel
Oh, I wish that I could live it all again.”
–Neil Peart, “Headlng Flight,” Clockwork Angels (2012).

[A huge thanks to Eric of Power Windows and Rob of Rush Vault. And, to Dom D. and James J., for listening to me wax nostalgic.

Further: Neil’s good friend, Kevin J. Anderson, worked with Peart to write the novel of the story of Clockwork Angels. Anderson has authored a number of serious works of science fiction as well as novelizations of movies and extensions of franchises. Not only can he tell a great story, but he has the ability to transcend ego and enter into and deepen the mythology others have begun. A review of the story–essentially a modern fairy tale–will be forthcoming here at The Imaginative Conservative.

For the best analysis on Peart’s lyrics, see Steve Horwitz, “Rush’s Libertarianism Never Fit the Plan,” Rush and Philosophy (2011).]

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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19 replies to this post
  1. … a good read as ever Brad, and well-written of course; though (as usual) I don't entirely agree with all your conclusions I take great pleasure in reading your words. Early Rush music was an important element of my teenage life, and although I drifted away from their music as they produced more synth-based, commercial-sounding shorter songs, their cerebral approach to music-making continued to be appealing. I think it's possible to over-analyse music – particularly the complex and engaging progressive rock that our shared heroes produce … but you manage not to fall into that trap!

  2. Brad, I wonder if we should thank Rolling Stone and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for marginalizing Rush. The former are excellent examples of what happens when a reaction against "the establishment" becomes another establishment. Rush is perhaps an example of what happens when deep distrust of the establishment nevertheless recognizes that another establishment would just be another establishment.

  3. As a fan of the band since around 1979, I'm glad they're not in the Rock and Roll hall of shame. That building houses what's "popular" and not what's influential. When you think about displays in there paying homage to a pedophile, a whore and a rap act (Michael Jackson, Madonna and Run-DMC) I don't think Rush should be in the same building as them because they deserve better. They deserve to be on the outside with the rest of us pointing and laughing at the jokes inside. Alex Lifeson said it best when he said "We kind of like the status quo where they don't want us there and we really don't want to be there." Let's just hope it stays that way.

  4. Hemi–always wonderful to hear from you. Thanks for appearing here as well. I must happily admit, you've become a rather large influence on the way I look at things as well. Thanks for being a good friend and telling when I get things right and when I don't. A mark of real friendship. Yours on this side of the Atlantic, Brad

  5. Pete, I had to read this twice to get the deep thoughts worked out in my head. Love it. Thanks. I'm glad my deep distrust of authority came when I needed it most, for what it's worth. Probably never left me entirely.

  6. Scott, I'm completely with you. A year or so ago, Steven Wilson posted on Twitter that he was disappointed not to win a Grammy. I responded (though, I heard nothing back from him) that he was way too good for a Grammy and to wear that as a badge of honor. I feel the same about Rush. The praise of their fans (us!) is deep and immense. I'd not heard that Alex quote. Perfect.

  7. "Neil never drank or smoked pot."

    You're kidding, right? First off, what does that have to do with anything?

    Secondly, he most definitely did. A lot. In fact, he was a connoisseur. You don't write "A Passage To Bankgok" without some serious knowledge/interest/experience. This has also been well documented in various Rush books, bios, etc.

  8. If you like Red Sector A, check out this you tube link above if you haven't seen it already. Red Sector A set to clips of Band of Brothers

  9. Tom Lamneth:
    Now I know I was sensing something (& wasn't crazy) listening to the String Quartet Tribute To RUSH's 2112 & a handful of others that starting coming out in 2002.
    Now CA tour features violins/cellos on stage to do what keyboards/samplers just can't do.

  10. Thank you, Anon, for the youtube link. Love that song, and that episode of BofB is, to me, the most powerful thing that has ever been broadcast in the history of television. I have watched it countless times, and it has the same effect on me every time. Weeping at man's cruelty and uplifted by the humility of the liberators and the love of the liberated.

  11. Great review and read, Prof. Birzer, as are all your writings of progressive rock. Hope I manage to get a chance to see Rush on this tour – it would make it five different decades in which I had seen them in concert (previously – 1979, 1984, 1990, and 2007).

  12. Hi Prof. Birzer – they were all very good, but they were simply on fire during the 1984 show. I don't remember the full set list (age … 48 now, 20 then!), but I remember them opening with 'The Spirit of Radio', and the performance of 'Red Sector A' was spectacular. I know you have an affinity for 'Grace Under Pressure', and they played most of that album – you would have loved it.

  13. What a great read! Just saw Rush at TD Gardens in Boston. Mass a few hours ago. 3rd row and I have waited many years to see them
    I have been to 100's of concerts ranging from Rob Zombie last week to Phish 15 years ago. In my 39 years I have never seen such an awesome show! Time has done nothing but perfect what was already perfect. I should be exhausted at 3am after a 4 hour drive, but I can't stop thinking about the show! Your article was great and I truly consider it an honor to have finally seen them!
    Kristen.magnuson@ gmail.com

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