This post has been floating around in my head for a while. Being reminded that today, 21-12, is International Rush Day, what better day to go ahead and write it?
The year 1979 was a defining year for yours truly. After my parents split up in 1978, my mother decided to pack up my sister and I and move us across the country. Thus, as the clock turned over from 1978 to 1979, I was somewhere between my former home of Lewiston, Idaho, and my soon-to-be new home of Lexington, Kentucky. On June 23rd of that same year, I became a life-long progressive rock fan at my first Yes concert (I would also see Rush on tour later that year). Two other pivotal occurrences that year were my purchase of Rush’s seminal 2112, and a number of long discussions with my maternal grandmother. My listening to 2112 and those discussions with my grandmother are related, and played a big part in forming part of my world view.
At this point, a little background on my mother’s family is in order. My mother and her family hail from Germany – in fact, what was once known as East Germany. My mother was born in Berlin during World War II, and when the shooting stopped, her family was in the part of Germany that became East Germany, which fell under the domination of a tyrannical government. My grandfather, a literature professor, was occasionally outspoken – a quality that is fraught with danger in a country ruled by an oppressive government. In 1953, he was warned by somebody (who I have never been able to find out) that he had better get the hell out of there. He gathered his family, my mother and grandmother included, and boarded a train for West Berlin. Had they been caught, my grandfather, and possibly his whole family, would have been shot by the authorities. Luckily they made it to West Berlin, connected with others dedicated to helping those who wanted to escape the tyranny of East Germany, and were airlifted to West Germany. They settled in Bonn, where they remained until coming to the U.S. in 1959.
Although the dormant prog gene wasn’t fully activated until that fateful night in June when I saw Yes, I had unknowingly during the spring of that year already purchased my first prog album, 2112. I just thought it was a cool heavy metal/hard rock album by some guys that wanted to sing about something other than chicks, booze, drugs, and so on. Certainly, the suite that gave the album its title got my attention, and not just the music but the lyrics. More than a few times I sat in my room listening to side 1, album gatefold open so I could follow along with the lyrics, which told a fantastic story of a dystopian science fiction universe in which a guy had found a guitar, realized its beauty, and presented his discovery to the authorities only to be slapped down hard by them for deviating from “the plan.” It seemed rather harsh and unfair to me. Upon the first few listens, I did not realize that there was a deeper meaning to the story.
In addition to listening to 2112, I also had a number of discussions with my grandmother during the spring of 1979. I hadn’t seen her for over 12 years prior to us moving to Lexington, and was only a toddler when we had initially moved out west. There was a lot of catching up to do. During our discussions, I asked my grandmother numerous questions about her previous life in Germany. Her answers painted in my mind a picture of life under both the Nazis and later the Communists. I learned of a society where certain books could not be read or published … a society where certain music could not be played … one in which certain ideas were not to be voiced publicly or written down. Moreover, I learned that one could go to jail for reading or writing the wrong types of books, for listening to the wrong kind of music, and for expressing ideas that were not approved by the powers that be. Freedom of movement was only a dream – you were told where you could and could not live. And you certainly couldn’t leave the country any time you want. Trying to do so without authorization could result in prison or death. Having grown up in a mostly free country, I was stunned at the realization that countries like East Germany, the USSR, and others that restricted people in this way existed. I knew of these countries and had a basic idea of their systems before that, but I had never fully realized how much the freedom of those that lived within them was restricted. It wasn’t just on the big things, it was right down to a lot of very small things.
Interleaved with these discussions were my repeated listens to 2112. At some point during this period, I started to make the connection between what was told to me by my grandmother and by the lyrics of 2112. It began to dawn on my that 2112 wasn’t just a science fiction story set in some distant future, but was also an allegory for something that was very real in the present. They may have had apparatchiks in politburos rather than priests in temples, but these distinctions were without difference. Such tyranny and oppression that could prohibit an individual from doing something as seemingly innocent as playing a guitar could and did exist. Governments that were threatened by the mere expression of certain ideas were the stuff of reality, not just lyrics for a side long rock suite set in a sci-fi future. People that would oppress, enslave, and even kill others for merely refusing to go along with “the plan” were as much a part of the present day as they had been in the past and would certainly be in the future. In effect, what Neal Peart was telling me through the lyrics of 2112 was the same thing that my grandmother was telling me during our discussions.
The impression that this album and the education from my grandmother left on me has never faded. It informed my thinking during much of my time in the Navy, during the 1980’s as the Cold War reached its final phase. I remember thinking about it again one night when I came home from work a year after leaving the Navy, turning on my TV set, and seeing that the Berlin Wall had come down. And to this day the impression is as strong as it ever was. Freedom is a precious thing, something never to be taken for granted and something that should be fought for at any and all costs. Governments that oppress their citizens, that refuse to let them express themselves, be it with a musical instrument, ideas spoken or written, or their desire to move about, are pure evil and are not to be respected or tolerated. Freedom, while often times hard, is a precious thing and something that should never be taken for granted. It’s something for which free people should fight (metaphorically if able, literally if necessary), and oppressed people should fight to achieve or regain. As for those who informed The Planets of the Solar Federation that they had “assumed control”, I hope they were the good guys, the forces of freedom.
This post is dedicated to those that enlightened me on such things, Rush, Neal Peart, and my grandmother, Ingeborg Stapf. Rest in peace, Oma.