F— That is, forget the Police. There’s another power trio making the rounds this summer that holds far more fascination for me. I have a confession to make that has already alienated me from everyone else I know whose musical tastes are far cooler and/or more refined than are mine: I’m a 47-year-old man who thinks Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neal Peart, aka Rush, are super-keen prog rockers nonpareil. Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before: the mechanistic, time-shifting, soulless anthems; the stupefying lyrics drawing from the most ponderous and lugubrious science fiction; Geddy Lee’s shrill, shrieking vocal style; drum solos that never die; blah blah blah.
First of all, for anyone who doesn’t find mathematically precise musicianship automatically bereft of the spark of life, corrupt due to its very precision, and who does find monstrously involving hard-rock chord progressions fascinating and (shudder) fun, then there is no reason not to love Rush. Then there is the subject matter of many of the songs (lyrics usually by Peart) which tend to deal with the implications of losing one’s soul and identity in a mechanistic society—apparently only in the Rush catalogue is examining a subject the same as embracing the suffocating detachment being examined (unless, of course, you’re examining the age-old question of sex, drugs or rock ‘n’ roll). As far as Geddy Lee’s vocals, I will grant that they are an acquired taste, but certainly not more so than Neil Young’s, or Jack White’s. Personally, I love the way Lee’s surfs the high octaves while Peart and Lifeson anchor the sonic booms and provide just the contrast the singer needs to stay airborne. Admittedly, Geddy isn’t exactly People’s Sexiest Man Alive material, although since he traded in the god-awful mullet for the more dignified straight long hair and dark granny glasses, I dare say he cuts a rather dashing figure for a 50-ish rocker. Isn’t it interesting that Geddy Lee’s voice seems much more palatable when it emanates from harajuku girl Gwen Stefani? As for Lifeson, he has a bit of Peter Finch about him these days, and I had to repeatedly remind myself, when I saw the band at the Hollywood Bowl this past Monday night, that it was Peart and not Michael Gambon behind the super-deluxe drum kit.
Seeing Rush for the first time this week was the last remaining gee-I’ve-always-wanted-to-see-them attraction left for this classically-rocked curmudgeon, and it was an unabashed thrill. The show opened up with a hilarious filmed bit in which Lifeson wakes up in a cold sweat, muttering about having a dream about snakes. (The summer tour is in support of their solid new album, Snakes and Arrows.) Peart pops up next to him in bed, expressing concern about his buddy’s distress. Then thunder and lightning, and a cut to a sinister-looking oversized baby carriage back-lit with bile-green rays of light a la It’s Alive. The camera moves in on the carriage, when suddenly a cranky Scotsman with a very familiar-sounding high-pitched burr begins berating the child inside the basket to wake up. And awaken he does—out pops Geddy Lee in baby bonnet and jammies. Then the first hammer chord of “Limelight,” live and unmistakable, exploded out from the giant Bowl and the trio took the stage for a three-hour show broken up only by one necessary intermission (“Because we’re ancient,” admitted Lee with customary humor.)
Humor, in fact, a quality often unacknowledged about Rush, was in full evidence throughout the show. (These guys are veterans of The Fishin' Musician, after all.) There were filmed cameos from Bob and Doug MacKenzie, apparently shot specifically for the Hollywood Bowl, as well as a hilarious appearance by the South Park kids—Li’l Rush—in which Cartman, bewigged Geddy-style, misinterprets and otherwise butchers “Tom Sawyer” before leading into a gloriously bombastic performance of the real thing. And the band itself, slowing down the final chords of their signature hit for the finale, tagged it not with the staccato flourish that most rock bands might choose, but with a heady quote from Cheech and Chong’s “Earache, My Eye.” (DAH-duh-duh, DAH-duh-duh, DAH-DAH-Duh!) Lee, Lifeson and Peart don’t take themselves nearly as seriously as do the tastemakers in the rock press and everyone else who can’t accept that it’s possible to like Rush and at the same time whoever is currently bearing the mantle of Rock’s Last Great Hope.
Though the median age of the crowd had to be about 40, there were four guys in their early ‘30s sitting directly in front of me who knew every beat of every old track. (“Circumstances” from the Hemispheres album was greeted as if it were, I don’t know, “Stairway to Heaven” or something). And to my left were five guys, ages 16-18, I’d guess, all of them decked out in $40 Snakes and Arrows tour T-shirts, who knew the new album backward and forward and thrilled to every power chord and diving, swerving time change. It made me feel good to be surrounded by such an uncool crowd who clearly didn’t give a rip about critical positioning or musical trends. Rush played the hits and the new stuff, made them sound like the albums and never apologized for it, never felt the need to noodle on or otherwise warp into unrecognizablity the classic riffs the fans had come to hear, and yet managed to avoid making it sound like the whole enterprise was draped in mothballs. Rush in 2007 is still vital, and on their own terms. And it was a genuine thrill to sing along with, and hear 50,000 others sing along with, “Distant Early Warning,” the terrifying, exhilarating anti-nuclear track from their 1985 Grace Under Pressure album as if it were Bono up there crooning “One” to a stadium full of lit cell phones. Monday night the Hollywood Hills rang out with lines like,
“The world weighs on my shoulders/But what am I to do?/You sometimes drive me crazy/But I worry about you/I know it makes no difference/To what you're going through/But I see the tip of the iceberg/And I worry about you.”
For three hours I could have cared less if anyone else liked the band or not. For three hours this odd assemblage of fans, ranging from folks in their 60s down to the kids and grandkids as young as eight or nine, were united by the cacophonous, twisted, whirring, gliding musical lines and dystopian (though not exactly hopeless) vision of three Canadian rockers who, by all odds and predictions, probably should have shuffled away three or four album ago. For three hours, Rush consistently transcended the gleaming, antiseptic, pretentious stereotype of “corporate rock” and forged a place for themselves in at least one sensibility (mine) as something much more honest and enjoyable and unapologetically prog-rockin’ than that. The Police are getting the big reunion press and selling out all over the world, and good for them. But for three hours last Monday night, Rush became the band to fulfill a geeky rock fan’s personal bliss, the real power trio to define the summer of 2007.
From the Atlanta tour stop, a taste of “Li’l Rush” (You can bail out after the opening film— this is a very good recording of the South Park interstitial segment, but a piss-poor cell-phone-grade recording of the music.)
Geddy Lee offers some sound advice on winter tobogganing.