I. The Awakening
I heard my first Rush album when I was thirteen. Staying at my grandmother’s house, looking through my uncle’s record collection, I was admiring the Molly Hatchet covers (all Frank Frazetta paintings) when I stumbled on a strange looking album cover. A woman in a ’50’s style dress, the skirt blown up by the wind. A street, flooded. I had no idea what to make of it. I had no idea what kind of band this could be. I gave the album a look over, pulled the inner sleeve out and saw only three people in the band: bass, guitar and drums.
Only three guys? How could that be any fun? But I saw the lyrics on the inner sleeve and started to read them. The first song, “The Spirit of Radio.” I started reading through and stumbled on a lyric that hit me harder than anything I had ever heard before. In just a few words, it summed up everything I felt about the radio.
Invisible airwaves crackle with life
Bright antennae bristle with the energy
Emotional feedback on timeless wavelength
Bearing a gift beyond price, almost free
“Bearing a gift beyond price… almost free.”
That last line… it stunned my little thirteen year old brain. I spent hours and hours listening to the radio, hearing all kinds of music. Back in the day (I’m old, I can say such things), I’d scan through the channels. There were no digital radios when I was thirteen—you had to do it manually. If one station played a song I didn’t like, I’d twist the knob to another channel, looking for something else. It was a wonderful way to discover music. Kind of like eating crab. You have to work to get the good stuff.
I immediately slipped the album out of the sleeve and put it on the turntable. I had to hear this song. I had to. I didn’t expect much, after all, it’s just three guys. How much sound can three guys make? The record player hissed and clicked for half a second, and suddenly, I was bombarded. A guitar riff that was more like a solo. An onslaught of sounds that I couldn’t quite understand. I had never heard anything like this before.
And I could hear everything. The bass, the drums, the guitar. A perfect alchemy of sounds. And the chorus swept up… and the singer sang the line I wanted to hear.
“Bearing a gift beyond price, almost free.”
And he sang it with such earnestness. Like he believed it. Not a performance, but a testimony.
I was getting into the grove of the song… and it switched. I mean, completely switched. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand what a time signature was at the time, but I could feel it. Something changed. And yet, the song kept going. Then, it happened again. And the song kept going. It was abrupt, but intuitive. I understood what had happened. Like the band had suddenly changed its mind in the middle of the song, started playing another song, and I… I…
I got it.
The song came to an abrupt, crashing end and I was left there, stunned. I looked at the inner sleeve again. And I distinctly remember my next thought.
There is no way this is only three guys.
I listened to the rest of the album. “Freewill” was next. Another sledgehammer to my face. But then, up in my grandma’s attic, listening to my uncle’s records, reading along to the lyric sheet, I read something that changed my life. Another moment where the lyrics spoke something that was deep in my heart. This time, something buried so deep, even I didn’t know it was there.
A planet of playthings
We dance on the strings
Of powers we cannot perceive
“The stars aren’t aligned,
Or the gods are malign”
Blame is better to give than receive
On that last syllable… I stopped listening to the song. Something clicked in my head. Because, I think, someone else had said it. After years of going to Catholic mass and listening to Lutheran sermons (my father, he was Orange and my mother, she was Green), sitting in the pews, trying to make sense of God… I suddenly realized…
… God didn’t make sense.
Yes, folks. The reason I am an atheist is a Rush lyric.
Just hearing it from someone else’s lips… I understood what all the doubt and confusion in my head was about. I had already started playing roleplaying games (the link between D&D and listening Rush further confirmed), already started to build my own mythologies, already studied Lovecraft… but here was someone else saying the thing that was in the back of my head, but I couldn’t hear. Pointing out the ridiculousness of a divine entity in charge of everyone’s destiny.
Blame is better to give than receive.
In just over ten minutes, my whole life had been changed. And by nothing more than music.
Needless to say, I had to start the album over again. Listen from the start. Listen to every word. Permanent Waves only has six songs: three on each side of the album. The shortest of those songs is 3:50. Far too long to get on mainstream radio. However, thanks to album-friendly radio stations—which I had not discovered yet—I was able to listen to all kinds of new music.
And it was still a year before Moving Pictures hit the streets.
I saw Rush in concert that year. I told my folks I was spending the night at a friend’s house and someone snuck me out and got me into the concert. And for the first time, I confirmed there were indeed only three guys playing all that music. It was my first concert. And I was surrounded by people (men, almost entirely) who were all there for the same purpose: to see the band they loved. We had great seats. I was sitting up close. Only about ten rows back. I had to stand on my chair to see. The guys ahead of me stood a little to the side so I could peek through their shoulders.
And I saw three men playing songs that were bombastic and intricate. Dynamic and subtle.
And I saw my first Neil Peart drum solo.
I don’t think I blinked once. The acrobatic pyrotechnics he performed that night made me doubt the limits of the human anatomy.
I left the show both deaf and dumb. I had no idea what to say and I couldn’t hear anything anyone else was saying. But I knew one thing.
I wanted to be a drummer. And I wanted to be in a band. And I wanted to write lyrics for the band like Neil Peart did.
My life, for better or worse, had changed completely that year. 1980. The Year of Rush. I was thirteen years old.
II. A Bittersweet Goodbye
2015. Thirty-five years later, and I’m at what may be the very last Rush concert I ever see. One of the first things I notice: there’s a lot more women here than the first time I saw them.
I mention that to Jessica and she says, “There’s a lot more women everywhere.” She’s got a point.
For thirty-five years, Rush has been a part of my life. I can remember where I was at every album release. What state, what city and what state of mind. I could trace them like chapter headings. Those three guys have made many musical choices as we all grew older. Sometimes, the choices clicked with me, sometimes, they were perfect counterparts, and sometimes, we were “planets to each other, drifting in our orbits to a brief eclipse.”
I still remember Counterparts—still one of my favorite albums—and how every single track on that album seemed to speak directly to me. I always describe that album as “wet.” It’s leading track, “Animate” resonates in ways that are deeply personal to me. I’ve always had a “ghost sister.” My mother had an awful loss—a miscarriage—before she had me. I had a dream once of waking up, looking in the mirror and seeing a woman a little older than me looking back at me.
Goddess in my garden
Sister in my soul
Angel in my armor
Actress in my role
Daughter of a demon lover
Empress of the hidden face
Priestess of the pagan mother
Ancient queen of inner space
I’ve never been uncomfortable playing women in RPGs, nor have I been uncomfortable writing from their viewpoints. Bayushi Kachiko, Queen Elaine, the dowmgas in Orkworld, Tamyn Taval in Wicked Fantasy… it’s almost as if there was a female voice inside me. A ghost sister. It’s a fantasy I’ve indulged for a long time and hearing “Animate” for the first time was almost spooky.
I still remember Vapor Trails—a hard album for me to listen to—because it came out just before Jennifer and I split. A dark time in my life that I’m not entirely sure how I survived. I know part of it was listening to that album. One Little Victory hit me hard, almost to my knees, but the song that really dug into my heart and kicked me in the teeth was How It Is. A song that articulated the hopelessness of depression so clearly and so cleanly, it’s all I can do to not break down every time I hear it.
It’s such a cloudy day
Seems we’ll never see the sun
Or feel the day has possibilities
Frozen in the moment…
The lack of imagination
Between how it is and how it ought to be
I rationally know what’s happening to me. I rationally know that my mind’s chemicals are out of whack. I rationally know that my perspective is skewed.
And it just doesn’t matter.
Hearing someone else say it launched me back to my grandmother’s house in 1980. Hearing someone else say the same thing…
The lack of imagination between how it is and how it ought to be. And the person who can change that is me. If I could just get off my ass and do it.
I’m responsible for me. I’m responsible for my own emotions. And I can change it. I CAN CHANGE IT.
Depression has been a constant enemy of mine. An enemy addressed perfectly in the song Double Agent. “The doubt and the fear/I know would all disappear/Anywhere but here.”
For the longest time, I used Rush songs as armor and shield against that enemy. Rush songs became “pep talks” to keep myself reminded of my own responsibilities. Songs like “Something For Nothing,” (You don’t get freedom for free.) “The Analog Kid” and “Marathon”…
Holy @#$%, “Marathon.”
It’s a test of ultimate will
The heartbreak climb uphill
Got to pick up the pace
If you want to stay in the race
More than just blind ambition
More than just simple greed
More than just a finish line
Must feed this burning need
In the long run…
Like I said, pep talks.
It wasn’t until I started reading Neil’s travelogues that I began to understand that I wasn’t the only one who used music to fight demons. And that was a revelation to me. In the same way that I learned how hard he worked to be as good as he was. Watching Peart play drums is like watching water fall over the side of a cliff. It seems so effortless. He makes it look so easy. But when I watched Anatomy of a Drum Solo and he talked about working on a particular part for a year before he started to get it right… I understood the devotion and dedication (and emotional endurance) he had. A dedication to doing it right. To making the impossible look easy.
And accompanying all those little pep talks was music… that same music that confounded me and inspired me the first time I heard it. Complicated, yet elegant. Musician’s music. Great riffs backed by arrangements suitable for an orchestra. Music that elevated the lyrics above simple poetry into something… sublime.
On the Snakes and Arrows tour, I won a contest that made me eligable to meet Geddy and Alex. Of course, Neil wouldn’t be there, and I didn’t expect him to be there. I was a little disappointed—I wanted to thank all of them—but I respect Neil too much to make an exception on my account.
Standing in line, waiting to have five seconds to shake their hands and say “Thank you for thirty years of music,” I was struggling for the words to say. Finally, it was our turn. We stepped up, shook their hands and I said, “I don’t know how to thank you for thirty years of music in five seconds.”
Alex laughed and said, “That sounds about right.”
I smiled and nodded. “Yeah,” I said.
They took the picture and we were ushered away.
See that big, dumb grin on my face? Yeah.
Thirty-five years after I heard my first Rush song, I was sitting in the US Airways Center, waiting for the lights to go down. I had memorized the setlists. I knew if they played “The Wreckers,” they’d be playing “How It Is.” And though I didn’t mind if they played something else, what I really wanted last night was that song. Hell, they could play polka music for the rest of the night (what would Rush playing polka sound like?) but if they played that song, I’d be happy.
The lights went down. The music started.
“The Anarchist.” Yep. That’s the opening track for the show. A great song. Not the one I’m waiting for.
The second song… “The Wreckers.”
I nodded and smiled.
As the set went forward, it also went backward. Backward in time.
The songs were in reverse chronological order, and as they went through albums, guys in red jump suits came on stage and began dissembling the props. The stage would reflect a Rush stage from that time period. Some bits removed, others added. Clockwork Angles to Snakes and Arrows to Vapor Trails.
(Just then, I wrote a typo. “Vapor Trials” rather than “Vapor Trails.” A Freudian slip.)
Geddy announced “How It Is.” And my eyes swelled up, my throat got thick and I couldn’t hold it back. My cheeks were wet in moments. They’d never played that song live before and…
… oh, did I mention I’ve seen every tour? Sometimes twice? Yeah, I’m that fan…
In short, I was a wreck. I knew every word, every note. And I sang it out loud, as loud as I could.
There’s a part of me that really appreciates the “let it loose” element of Japanese culture. Keeping all your emotions wrapped up, then finding a moment to let them all out in a controlled yet irresponsible way. Concerts are like that for me. And last night, I let out so much emotion in a controlled yet irresponsible way.
I was crying and I didn’t give a single damn who saw it. I just didn’t care.
As the concert progressed, the stage became more bare. Stuff moving away. Until finally, there was just the three guys and their instruments. (There was no keyboard on the stage, and I thought to myself, “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen Rush with no keyboard on the stage.”) There were two speakers hoisted up on chairs and a locker room projected on the back wall of the stage.
Just three guys making music.
Three friends who have been together for forty years.
The show ended. They all waved goodbye. Perhaps for the last time.
I stood up. I waved back. Perhaps for the last time.