RUSH GUITARIST ALEX LIFESON TO GUEST ON RENMAN MUSIC & BUSINESS WEB SHOW “RENMAN LIVE” NEXT WEEK
Tune in live Wednesday, April 22 to join the conversation!
LOS ANGELES – Renman Music & Business, the music industry mentoring website founded by longtime industry veteran, Steve Rennie (aka “Renman”), will broadcast another episode of its Renman Live web show next week, Wednesday, April 22, with special guest, legendary Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson. The show will air live starting at 5:00 p.m. PDT / 8:00 p.m. EDT on the Renman MB YouTube channel at: https://www.youtube.com/user/renmanmb. Head over to Renman Music & Business at: http://www.renmanmb.com/live/renman-live-w-rush-guitarist-alex-lifeson for more info and to submit questions in advance. Viewers can also ask questions live on air by calling the Renman Live hotline: 1-310-469-9067 during the show.
“People ask me all the time how you learn the music biz,” said Rennie. “Simple. Hang out with smart people.
“On my web show, Renman Live, I’ve been lucky to have had some of the smartest, most talented people in the music biz join me to share their stories, insights and advice with aspiring artists and music pros who are dreaming of doing something big on their own and need some inspiration and direction. If you are interested in the music biz, watching an episode of Renman Live is the next best thing to sitting on the couch with me and my guests.”
Guests who have appeared on Renman Live include Nate Reuss (FUN.), Pretty Lights, Brandon Boyd (Incubus), Andy Biersack (Black Veil Brides), Grouplove, Paul Tollett (Founder, Coachella), Charles Attal (Promoter, Lollapalooza), Kevin Lyman (Founder, Warped Tour), Troy Carter (Manager, John Mayer), Richard Griffiths (Manager, One Direction), Pat Magnarella (Manager, Green Day), Tom Corson (President, RCA), Mike Caren (President A&R, Warner Bros), Aaron Bay-Schuck (A&R Exec, Bruno Mars), Jeff Castelaz (President, Elektra Records) and many more.
Over the last 36 years, Renman Music & Business mastermind, Steve Rennie, has become one of the most successful and respected professionals in today’s music business. He has amassed a broad swath of experience as a concert promoter (Sr. VP Avalon Attractions now Live Nation 1984-1990), record company executive (Sr. VP GM Epic Records 1994-1998), internet entrepreneur (ArtistDirect 1998-2000) and artist manager (Incubus 1998-2014). Now, he is dedicating himself to mentoring this next generation of artists and music pros who will shape the music industry of the future.
Earlier this year, Rennie launched Renman U, an online course designed to be “an insider’s guide to today’s music business,” at: www.renmanu.com. Once enrolled, Renman U students receive an interactive set of online video lessons designed to teach aspiring artists and music business professionals what it takes to succeed in the music industry. Course lessons are based on Rennie’s more than 36 years of experience at the highest levels in the business, and include quizzes, written exams and more.
Time flies when you’re having fun listening to great music! 2014 brought in a bumper crop of excellent music in general, and prog in particular. Here are my favorites of the year:
10. Robert Plant: Lullaby And …The Ceaseless Roar
Mr. Plant returns to his folk roots of Britain, and delivers a thoroughly enjoyable set of songs. A couple rock out, but this is mostly an acoustic tour de force that transcends any musical trends of the day.
Lunatic Soul: Walking On A Flashlight Beam
This album didn’t garner the rave reviews of his first two, but I still think anything Mariusz Duda produces is far better than 90% of anything else out there. “Treehouse” may be my favorite song he’s ever recorded.
John Bassett: Unearth
This album opened my eyes to entirely different side of Mr. Bassett’s talent, and I love it. I hope he does more music in this vein – thoughtful, melodic, acoustic pearls.
John Wesley: Disconnect
Mr. Wesley has been Porcupine Tree’s secret weapon when they play live, and on the side he has been quietly making extraordinary music of his own. Disconnect is his best ever, and it features the inimitable Alex Lifeson on “Once A Warrior”.
It took me awhile to get into this album, but it was definitely worth the effort. It is a beautiful package, from the artwork and lyrics to the music itself. The subject matter is very dark, but listening to the entire album is a cathartic experience. It also has Jan-Henrik Ohme’s strongest vocals to date.
North Atlantic Oscillation: The Third Day
Their third album, and the third one to make one of my best-of-the-year lists. Soaring vocals, gorgeous string arrangements, a wall of sound that is indescribably exhilarating. If Brian Wilson produced Catherine Wheel, it might sound as good as this.
A marvelous steampunk trip through metaphysical dimensions. Robin Armstrong’s imagination knows no bounds, and his musical talent matches it.
Flying Colors: Second Nature
Wow. No “sophomore slump” for this band. One of the many Neal Morse/Mike Portnoy projects that are active these days, Second Nature is an outlet for the more melodic side of their talents. Throw in the genius guitar work of Steve Morse, and this is an irresistible set of songs.
Their Mountain album was my favorite of last year, and the only reason this isn’t number one is because it’s only 34 minutes long. I admit it – I’m greedy for more Haken music!
With Kaleidoscope, Stolt, Morse, Portnoy, Trewavas finally become a real group. On earlier works, you could tell which bits were Neal’s, which were Roine’s, etc. Every song on Kaleidoscope is stamped with Transatlantic’s distinctive sound, and it is a glorious one.
N.B. This post should be approached with caution. It is at least PG-13, if not NC17. Not for language, but for personal revelation and content. Additionally, I’ve written about one or two of these things before, especially about Peart as a big brother. Please don’t fear thinking—“hey, I’ve read this before.” But, even the few things I’ve mentioned before are here rewritten. Final note: for an exploration of Peart’s Stoicism, see Erik Heter’s excellent piece on the subject, here at progarchy.com.
As I’ve mentioned before in these pages and elsewhere, few persons, thinkers, or artists have shaped my own view of the world as strongly as has Neil Peart, Canadian drummer, lyricist, writer, and all-around Renaissance man. I’ve never met him, but I’ve read all of his words and listened to all of his songs. I’ve been following this man since the spring of 1981 when two fellow inmates of seventh-grade detention explained to me the “awesomeness” of Rush. My compatriots, Troy and Brad (a different Brad), were right. Thank God I got caught for doing some thing bad that day. Whatever I did, my punishment (detention) led to a whole new world for me, one that would more than once save my life.
Having grown up in a family that cherished music of all types, I was already a fan of mixing classical, jazz, and rock. Rush’s music, as it turned out, did this as well as any band.
While the music captivated me, the lyrics set me free. I say this with no hyperbole. I really have no idea how I would have made it out of high school and through the dysfunctional (my step father is serving a 13-year term in prison, if this gives you an idea how nasty the home was) home life without Peart. I certainly loved my mom and two older brothers, but life, frankly, was hell.
I know that Peart feels very uncomfortable when his fan project themselves on him, or imagine him to be something he is not. At age 13, I knew absolutely nothing about the man as man, only as drummer and lyricist. Thus, even in 1981, I absorbed his lyrics, not directly his personality. Though, I’m sure many of Peart’s words reflect his personality as much as they reflect his intellect.
Rush gave me so much of what I needed in my teen years. At 13, I had completely rejected the notion of a benevolent God. He existed, I was fairly sure, but He was a puppet master of the worst sort, a manipulative, Machiavellian tyrant who found glee in abuse and exploitation. As a kid, I was bright and restless, and I resented all forms of authority, sometimes with violent intent. Still, as we all do, I needed something greater than myself, a thing to cherish and to hold, a thing to believe in.
I immersed myself in science fiction, fantasy, and rock music. Not a tv watcher in the least, I would put the headphones on, turns off the lights in my bedroom, lock the door, and immerse myself in the musical stories of Genesis, the Moody Blues, ELO, ELP, Alan Parsons, Yes, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, and, especially, Rush. I could leave the horrors of my house for roughly 44 minutes at a time.
Scratch, scratch, side one. Zip, turn. Scratch, scratch, side two.
Rock music was the sanctuary of my world. But, not just any rock. ZZ Top and REO Speedwagon might be fun when out on a drive, but I needed a work of art that demanded full immersion. I needed prog. I was not only safe in these rhythmic worlds, I was intellectually and spiritually alive, exploring innumerable realms. Pure, unadulterated escape. But, escape into a maze of wonders.
The first time I heard the lyrics (at age 13, the spring of 1981) to “Tom Sawyer,” I knew Rush was MY band. It seemed as though Peart was talking specifically to me, Bradley Joseph Birzer. That’s right. To 13-year old Brad in Hutchinson, Kansas. Peart was 15 years older than I, and he must have gone through the same things I had. Or so I thought. Again, I knew him only through his lyrics. But, did I ever cherish those lyrics. I lingered over each word, contemplated not just the ideas, but the very structures of lyrics as a whole.
Though his mind is not for rent
Don’t put him down as arrogant
His reserve a quiet defense
Riding out the day’s events
No, his mind is not for rent to any God or Government
Always hopeful, yet discontent [corrected from my original typos]
He knows changes aren’t permanent, but change is
Though I’ve never given any aspect of my life to the Government (nor do I have plans to do so), I long ago surrendered much of myself to the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity and to His Mother. While I’m no modern Tom Sawyer at age 47, I still find the above lyrics rather comforting. And, I do so in a way that is far beyond mere nostalgia.
Armed with Peart’s words and convictions, I could convince myself to walk to Liberty Junior High and, more importantly, to traverse its halls without thinking myself the most objectified piece of meat in the history of the world. Maybe, just maybe, I could transcend, sidestep, or walk directly through what was happening back at home. I could still walk with dignity through the groves of the academy, though my step father had done everything short of killing me back while in our house.
[N.B. This is the PG13 part of the essay] And, given all that was going on with my step father, the thought of killing myself crossed my mind many, many times in junior high and high school. I had become rather obsessed with the notion, and the idea of a righteous suicide, an escape from on purposeless life hanged tenebrous across my soul. After all, if I only existed to be exploited, to be a means to end, what purpose did life have.
What stopped me from ending it all? I’m still not sure, though such desires seemed to fade away rather quickly when I escaped our house on Virginia Court in Kansas and began college in northern Indiana. Not surprisingly, my first real friendship in college—one I cherish and hold to this day—came from a mutual interest in all things Rush. In fact, if anything, my friend (who also writes for this site) was an even bigger Rush fan than myself! I’d never met such a person.
Regardless, from age 13 to 18, I can say with absolute certainty that some good people, some good books, and some good music saved my life, more than once. Neil Peart’s words of integrity and individualism and intellectual curiosity stood at the front and center of that hope.
Perhaps even more importantly to me than Moving Pictures (“Tom Sawyer,” quoted above) were Peart’s lyrics for the next Rush album, Signals. On the opening track, a song about resisting conformity, Peart wrote:
Growing up, it all seemed so one-sided
Opinions all provided, the future predecided
Detached and subdivided in the mass production zone
No where is the dreamer or misfit so alone
There are those who sell their dreams for small desires
And lose their race to rats
Even at 14, I knew I would not be one who sold my dreams for small desires. I wanted to be a writer—in whatever field I found myself—and I would do what it took to make it through the horrible home years to see my books on the shelves of a libraries and a bookstores. Resist and renew. Renew and resist. Again, such allowed me to escape the abyss of self annihilation.
Indeed, outside of family members (though, in my imagination, I often think of Peart as one of my older brothers—you know; he was the brilliant one with the goofy but cool friends, the guys who did their own thing regardless of what anyone thought). From any objective standpoint, as I look back over almost five decades of life, I can claim that Peart would rank with St. Augustine, St. Francis, John Adams, T.S. Eliot, Willa Cather, Ray Bradbury, Russell Kirk, and J.R.R. Tolkien as those I would like to claim as having saved me and shaped me. If I actually live up to the example of any of these folks, however, is a different question . . .
I also like to say that Peart would have been a great big brother not just because he was his own person, but, most importantly, because he introduced me as well as an entire generation of North Americans (mostly males) to the ideas of Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Cicero, Seneca, Petrarch, Erasmus, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others.
During my junior year of high school, I wrote an essay on the meaning of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, based on Peart’s interpretation. I earned some form of an A. In one of my core humanities courses, while at the University of Notre Dame, I wrote my major sophomore humanities term paper about the cultural criticisms of Neil Peart as found in his lyrics to the 1984 album, Grace Under Pressure. Again, I received an A.
I’m not alone in this love of Rush. The band is, of course, one of the highest selling rock acts of all time, and they are just now crossing the line into their fortieth anniversary. Arguably, no other band has had as loyal a following as had Rush. Thousands and thousands of men (and some women) faithfully attend sold-out concerts throughout North and South America to this day. This is especially true of North American men, ages 35 to 65. Now, as is obvious at concerts, an entirely new generation of Rush fans is emerging, the children of the original set.
Telling, critics have almost always despised Rush, seeing them as having betrayed the blues-based tradition of much of rock, exchanging it for a European (and directly African rather than African-American) tradition of long form, complexity, and bizarrely shifting time signatures. Such a direction and style became unbearable for the nasty writers of the largest music magazines. They have felt and expressed almost nothing but disdain for such an “intellectually-pretentious band,” especially a band that has openly challenged the conformist ideologues of the Left while embracing art and excellence in all of its forms. Elitist rags such as the horrid Rolling Stone and equally horrid NME have time and time again dismissed Rush as nothing but smug middle-class rightists.
That so many have hated them so powerfully has only added to my attraction to the band, especially those who came of age in 1980s, despising the conformist hippies who wanted to mould my generation in their deformed image. Rolling Stone and NME spoke for the oppressive leftist elite, and many of my generation happily made rude gestures toward their offices and their offal. I had no love of the ideologues of the right, either. But, they weren’t controlling the schools in the 1980s. Their leftist idiotic counterparts were in charge. They had no desire for excellence. They demanded conformity and mediocrity.
[The best visual representation of this widespread if ultimately ineffective student revolt in the 1980s can be found in “The Breakfast Club” by John Hughes (RIP).]
To make it even more real for me, the parents of Geddy Lee, the lead singer and bassist of Rush, had survived the Polish holocaust camps, and the parents of Alex Lifeson, the lead guitarist of the band, had escaped from the Yugoslavian gulag. Peart came from a Canadian farming community, his father an entrepreneur. No prima donnas were these men. They understood suffering, yet they chose to rise above it. And, of course, this makes the British music press even more reprehensible for labeling the members of Rush as rightest or fascist. Again, I offer the most dignified description for Rolling Stone and NME possible: “ideological fools and tools.”
Enter Rob Freedman
In his outstanding 2014 book, Rush: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (Algora Press), author, philosopher, and media specialist Rob Freedman has attempted to explain not just Peart’s popularity among his multitude of fans—some of the most dedicated in the music world—but also the Canuck drummer’s actual set of ideas and explored beliefs in his books and lyrics. Not surprisingly, Freedman finds the Canadian a man deeply rooted in the western tradition, specifically in the traditions of western humanism and individualism.
As Freedman notes, one can find three themes in all of Peart’s lyrics: individualism; classical liberalism; and humanism. It’s worth observing that Freedman has formal training in academic philosophy, and this shows in his penetrating discussion of the music as well as the words of Rush.
Relying on interviews with the band, the music journalism (much of it bogus and elitist idiocy) of the last forty years, and actually serious works of Rush criticism, such as that done admirably by Steve Horwitz in Rush and Philosophy (Open Court, 2011), Freedman offers not so much a biography of the band, but rather a map of their intellectual influences and expressions. Freedman possesses a great wit in his writing, and the book—relatively short at 164 pages—flows and flows, time standing still until the reader reaches the end. For all intents and purposes, Freedman’s book serves as an intellectual thriller, a page turner.
As a lover of Rush, I have a few (very few) quibbles with Freedman’s take. Mostly, from my not so humble perspective, Freedman gives way too much space to such charlatans as Barry Miles of the English New Music Express who claimed Rush promoted neo-fascism in the late 1970s. Freedman, while disagreeing with Miles, bends over backwards defending Miles’s point of view, as it did carry immense weight in the 1970s and wounded the band deeply. From my perspective, there is no excuse for Miles. He maliciously manipulated and twisted the words of Peart—using his lyrics and a personal interview—which were as deeply anti-fascistic as one could possibly imagine (paeans to creativity and individualism) and caused unnecessary damage to the reputation of three men, two of whom who had parents who had survived the horrors of the twentieth-century ideologues, as noted above. Miles’s take on Rush is simply inexcusable and no amount of justification explains his wickedness and cthluthic insensibilities toward three great artists. Dante best understood where such “men” spent eternity.
I also believe that Freedman underplays the role of Stoicism in his book. The venerable philosophy barely receives a mention. Yet, in almost every way, Peart is a full-blown Stoic. In his own life as well as his own actions, Peart has sought nothing but excellence as conformable to the eternal laws of nature. This is the Stoicism of the pagans, admittedly, and not of the Jews or Christians, but it is Stoicism nonetheless. Freedman rightly notes that Plato and, especially, Aristotle influenced Peart. But, so did Zeno, Virgil, Cicero, and Seneca. This comes across best in Peart’s lyrics for “Natural Science” (early Rush), “Prime Mover” (middle Rush), and in “The Way the Wind Blows” (recent Rush). In each of these songs, Peart presents a view of the world with resignation, recognizing that whatever his flaws, man perseveres. Erik Heter and I have each attempted to explore this aspect of Peart’s writings at progarchy. Heter has been quite successful at it.
As the risk of sounding cocky, I offer what I hope is high praise for Freedman. I wish I’d written this book.
Peart as Real Man
In the late 1990s, Peart experienced immense tragedy. A horrible set of events ended the life of his daughter and, quickly after, his wife. Devastated, Peart got on his motorcycle (he’s an avid cyclist and motorcyclist) and rode throughout the entirety of North America for a year. It was his year in the desert, so to speak.
Then, in 2002, Rush re-emerged and released its rockingly powerful album, Vapor Trails. The men were the same men (kind of), but the band was not the same band. This twenty-first century Rush, for all intents and purposes, is Rush 2.0. This is a much more mature as well as a much more righteously angry and yet also playful Rush. This is a Rush that has nothing to prove except to themselves. The last albums—Vapor Trails (2002); Snakes and Arrows (2007); and Clockwork Angels (2012)—have not only been among the best in the huge Rush catalogue, but they are some of the best albums made in the last sixty years. They soar with confidence, and they promote what Rush has always done best: excellence, art, creativity, distrust of authority, and dignity of the human person.
Peart is not quite the hard-core libertarian of his youth. In his most recent book, Far and Near, he explains,
The great Western writer Edward Abbey’s suggestion was to catch them [illegal immigrants], give them guns and ammunition, and send them back to fix the things that made them leave. But Edward Abbey was a conservative pragmatist, and I am a bleeding-heart libertarian==who also happens to be fond of Latin Americans. The ‘libertarian’ in me thinks people should be able to go where they want to go, and the ‘bleeding heart’ doesn’t want them to suffer needlessly” [Far and Near, 58]
If he has lost any of his former political fervor, he’s lost none of his zest for life and for art. “My first principle of art is ‘Art is the telling of stories.’ What might be called the First Amendment is ‘Art must transcend its subject’.” [Far and Near, 88]
These twenty-first century albums speak to me at age 47 as much as the early albums spoke to me at age 13. I’ve grown up, and so has Rush. Interestingly, this doesn’t make their early albums seem childish, only less wise.
After my wife and I lost our own daughter, Cecilia Rose, I wrote a long letter to Neil Peart, telling him how much the events of his life—no matter how tragic—had shaped my own response to life. I included a copy of my biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. Mr. Peart sent me back an autographed postcard as thanks.
I framed it, and it will be, until the end of my days, one of my greatest possessions.
After all, Neil Peart has not just told me about the good life, creativity, and integrity, he has shown me through his successes and his tragedies—and thousands and thousands of others—that each life holds a purpose beyond our own limited understandings. As with all things, Peart takes what life has given and explodes it to the level of revelation.
From Radio.com and their interview with Alex Lifeson:
The thing that Rush fans are probably going to be most excited about is the footage from the 1974 show at the Laura Secord Secondary School. What do you remember about that performance? Oh my god, that was such a long time ago. I can vaguely remember it, I remember being on the stage in that auditorium in that school, and how all of the kids were sitting in their seats — no one was standing! — and it was a little uncomfortable. But it’s a good example of the band we were at that time playing bars and high schools. What goes through your mind when you watch the footage of you and Geddy performing with John Rutsey? Um, it’s funny. The things that I really noticed about it — this might be odd — is that we played so fast, all the time. I do recall playing everything quickly. We used to have a mono tape recorder that we used to record some shows. In fact, I might even have some of those old tapes lying around somewhere, from earlier in the ’70s. Great! Stuff for the next box set! [Laughs] Of course! But we were 19 years old, 20 years old: how quickly it all goes by. For decades, Geddy has been the guy to speak to the audience at your shows, but he doesn’t do it a lot. After watching some of the footage from that performance, I realized that addressing the crowd used to be John’s role, and he seemed to enjoy it. Yeah, very much so. He had a very witty sense of humor, and he had such balls. He would talk to the audience and say stuff; sometimes, I thought he’d get us killed. He was comfortable talking to people, and being that guy, whereas Geddy really wasn’t, and I’m not even sure he is that comfortable with it today. But John, he would tell stories, and tell jokes, he would pick someone from the audience and do running jokes with that person all night. He was really great at that. It was fun: those days were really fun with him. We were with him for six years. You know, John sang one or two songs… I think. He really didn’t have a singing voice, it was like a Bob Dylan-ish monotone. But there were a couple of songs that he sang, and he and I also did some backing vocals. His on-stage mic wasn’t just reserved for talking. Tell me about the song “I’ve Been Runnin’”; not only had I never heard it, I’d never heard of it. John wrote the lyrics back then. Geddy and I would generally write the music. Sometimes we would have band rehearsals and it would be all three of us, but it was always difficult to work out songs like that. It was easier for us to work on the music together and then teach it to John and go from there. We still do that with Neil [Peart], in fact. John did write the lyrics in those days for the most part. It was so weird when he didn’t want us to use his lyrics on the first album when we started to record it. It was a very strange time for us, just before he left the band. But to be honest with you, I’d totally forgotten about “I’ve Been Runnin’” until I saw it come up for this box set. That one was really lost to me. But it was a shuffle-y, Delta bluesy kind of song that we were inspired by via Led Zeppelin. A lot of people think of Rush as a hard rock/progressive rock hybrid. But at that point, Rush was a garage rock band. I don’t think that our quote-unquote “progressive” influences came in until Neil joined the band. Geddy and I were both leaning towards that kind of music, we loved what Yes was doing, and Jethro Tull, and of course we were big Pink Floyd fans. But John was a strong influence in the band and he was a real basic rocker. That was part of the reason for him leaving. There were other reasons: his health. But really when it came right down to it, he was a sort of Bad Company kind of rocker, and Ged and I want to move into something that was a bit meatier in terms of arrangements and performance. Do you remember anything about “The Loser”? That’s the other original song from that set that never made it to an album. I’d have to listen to it again! We did have a song… it was one of the first songs we wrote. It could be that song. If it is that song, we would have wrote it back in 1968. Again, it was very basic and very straight ahead rock. You guys never really did “box sets,” because you never really had any “unreleased material.” But is there the potential for a collection of early unreleased stuff from the John Rutsey era? There’s never any extra stuff, we only record what we need for the album. From that early period, there might be some tapes lying around, but I can’t imagine what sort of shape they’re in, 40 plus years later. Now I have them in storage, and I want to review them, but in the past there weren’t any kind of live performances. Actually, there was one from a high school, we recorded on both sides of the reel. Well, y’know, it was mono! And it was basically one mic in the middle of the stage. I remember listening to that over and over; it was probably recorded in 1971. But unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to that tape. We never thought about hanging on to that stuff back then. You think of something new and you say, “Forget about that old crap.”
Just today, our own progarchist and professional classicist and philosopher, Chris Morrissey, challenged us to name our top ten Rush albums. Not alphabetically, but actually in the order we love them.
So, I feel up to the challenge.
As I hope I’ve been clear in my writings here and elsewhere—I love Rush, and I have without interruption since I first heard MOVING PICTURES back when I was in detention in 7th grade! Yes, that was the spring of 1981, only a month after the album came out.
I can never offer enough thanks to my fellow junior high detainees, Brad and Troy, for introducing me to this band. At the time, they were shocked I knew everything about Genesis and nothing about Rush. Thank God for their evangelism.
Now, thirty-three years later, I would give much to call Neil Peart my older brother. That said, I can state unequivocally that in my own life, Peart’s lyrics have shaped me as much as any other great artist and thinker. Really, he’s up there with St. Augustine for me. As a Catholic boy (well, middle-aged, graying, Catholic man), this is saying a lot!
Of course, such a list is subjective, and I might be tempted to follow up tomorrow with a slightly different list. Regardless, here it is: as of June 30, 2014.
Grace Under Pressure. Coming out in 1984, this album has ever since defined the meaning of excellence and seriousness for me. I love the music, the flow, and, especially, the lyrics. Not only have the lyrics prompted innumerable great conversations with friends, but I proudly wrote my major liberal-arts core paper (sophomore year in college, 1987-1988) using nothing but the lyrics from this album. I argued that Neil Peart was a modern stoic, a philosopher of antiquity born in the modern world. I earned an A!
Moving Pictures (1981). I’m sure this isn’t controversial, except that most Rush fans would probably rate it number one. It means a great deal to me, and it has formed me—for better or worse—in my own understanding of integrity.
Clockwork Angels (2012). What a feast for the mind and the ears. The flow of the album is gorgeous as are the lyrics. Really, a great story—more of a fairy tale than anything else. The story is essentially the story of Hemispheres, but it’s told with much greater finesse. That it came at 38 years into their career is astounding, and it proves that the desire of each member of Rush to improve himself and his skills has not been a pipe dream. Highlight, the single most un-Rush like song, is “The Garden,” a statement of republican liberty and individualism. And, “Wish Them Well,” is the closest Rush will ever get to hippie/Beatle lyrics. Let the air drumming commence!
Power Windows (1985). As someone who loves both prog and New Wave, I heartily approve of Power Windows. Lifeson’s guitar has much more in common with The Fixx than it does with Rush’s output in the 1970s, but it demonstrates and reveals a real willingness to explore new areas of music. It’s fusion of New Wave and Prog was rivaled only by Yes’s Drama. And, the lyrics. . . sheesh. Neil is at his best.
Signals (1982). I know a lot of old-time Rush fans think little of this album, as they see it as a betrayal of the “true Rush.” But, schnikees has it meant a great deal to me. The lyrics, especially, have given me great comfort. Even this spring as I had make a major life decision, Peart’s words, “there are those who sell their dreams for small desires.” The entire first side is masterful musically as well. I don’t think side two is as strong, but it’s still quite good.
Caress of Steel (1975). Man, is this album wacky or what? And, in large part, I love it for being so weird. Musically, it’s unlike almost anything else out there—by Rush or anyone else. There’s as much acid folk on this album as there is hard rock and prog. But, really, By-tor? Snowdog? The Necromancer? I have no idea what Geddy, Alex, and Neil were thinking or smoking when they made this, but, wow, does it all work.
Vapor Trails (2002). This album is nothing if not a pure statement of life. “I’m alive,” Neil screams in every beat and every lyric of this album, especially after the horrific tragedies he suffered. And, he most certainly is a live. From the opening drums to the massive swirl of guitars and Geddy’s vocals throughout, this is a work of artistic brilliance, meaning, and drive. I never tire of this album.
Snakes and Arrows (2007). Again, this is part of Rush 2.0, the band that remade itself after Neil’s double tragedies. Everything in Snakes and Arrows is perfect. Again, the flow of the album just works brilliantly. And, the fusions and various styles are just fascinating. Neil’s lyrics are a bit angrier than usual, but still quite a effective.
A Farewell to Kings (1977). What’s not to love? The entire album reeks of integrity. Kevin McCormick, on this site, has explained in loving and intricate detail the musical importance of the album in ways I never good. But from the first notes of the guitar to the dire plight of Cygnus, I’m in!
2112 (1976). As Drew commented on Chris’s original challenge, 2112 is a tough one to rank because side one is so radically different from side two. I agree. But, side one is so incredible that it makes up for any flaws in the album. Who can’t just start head-banging when the Overture begins? Who doesn’t want to just hate the priests? And, who isn’t disheartened when the Solar Federation reassumes control. Sigh. . . sci-fi loveliness.
Long to longish progarchist posts on Rush Hold your Fire -Rush’s finest? by Tad Wert (*progarchy’s single most popular post ever)
Foggy skies may have stood in the way of Rush’s Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson from receiving their honorary doctorates from Nipissing University yesterday (June 12th) in person, but it didn’t stop them from recording very insightful speeches for the graduating class.
Embedded below, Lee and Lifeson’s speeches reflect on their past experiences, both personal and as bandmates, and drove home to the graduates the value of hard work and perseverance.
Clocking in together at just over five minutes, their speeches are short and straight to the point but pack a heartfelt punch. If anyone in your family is set to graduate soon (or just needs a boost of inspiration), you’ll want to pass these videos on.
The best surf band in the world, The Madeira, is releasing their first live album, SONIC CATACLYSM, this week. It’s, in part, a celebration of the band’s tenth anniversary.
The brainchild behind the band, Ivan Pongracic, an economist by day, is also a fellow progger. Though Dick Dale informs the music than any other person, there’s certainly a lot of Alex Lifeson and Steve Hackett thrown in as well.
To celebrate their tenth anniversary, The Madeira will be playing a special show in Indianapolis on June 14.
On July 22, the band will open for Dick Dale, also in Indy.
I don’t know how many people can actually point to a single moment that changed their lives forever and for the better. Yes, many would point to traditional milestones such as a graduation, wedding day, the birth of their children, etc. All valid events and experiences, to be sure.
I’m talking about something different. Something that might be best termed, to quote Robert Fripp, a “point of seeing.” A singular experience that truly alters your life’s course, where you can look back on that point, that one moment in your life where “your earth” seemingly moved under you. Everything in your world, everything you know, the very lens in which you viewed the world forever changed because of that moment.
Many might cite a religious experience as fitting the bill described above. For me, it was a musical experience.
First, a little backstory…
As a pre-teen kid from around 1978 to 1980, my musical “sun” rose and set with KISS, a band I spent hours upon hours listening to, reading about and talking about. I drew their iconic logo on anything I could find, thumb-tacking any poster of them I could come across on my bedroom walls and ceiling, playing air guitar and drums to them, dressing up like one of them (Ace, circa “Dynasty”) for Halloween, and just staring at their album covers for hours on end. As a beginning drummer, I first picked up the basics of rhythmically separating both hands and feet playing along to “Strutter” while on a family vacation.
Despite this level of fandom, my level of music appreciation probably wasn’t too different from most kids growing up at that time. Having been born in the late 1960’s to parents who parents who kept a couple dozen albums – “Meet the Beatles” and “Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite” among others – in the record bin of their furniture-sized record player/stereo (yet didn’t really use it), I cut my musical teeth on late-70’s pop, AOR and disco that came across AM radio. Artists such as Styx, Foreigner, The Bee Gees, Cheap Trick, AC/DC, and a couple others were among my first active musical experiences as opposed to passive ones.
That all changed In the spring of 1981 in a Northern California suburb, when a kid two doors down from me invited me over one afternoon following school to hear some music from a band called Rush. I knew nothing of Rush save for an entry in a late-70’s World Almanac that showed a number of their albums going gold or platinum. That was it.
I walked into my friend’s parents’ family room, sat cross-legged on an off-white, plush carpet floor as he took out an album, placed on the turntable and sat down near me.
The next 4 minutes and 33 seconds changed me forever.
It was “Tom Sawyer,” the leadoff track from Rush’s new album, “Moving Pictures.”
The blend of instruments, how every instrument fit perfectly into this new (to me) music, the spacey sound that triggers throughout and, of course, a level of drumming I hadn’t heard before. It was rock and roll, yes, but the sound that spilled out of the stereo speakers was on a level of which I had no prior knowledge.
Without knowing anything about Rush, without knowing anything about the genre of music I was experiencing for the first time, I was hooked on this music.
I hadn’t even begun to decipher what was sung, but no matter; to paraphrase another quote of Fripp’s, “…music leaned over and took me into its confidence. I honestly can’t remember if my neighbor played it again after the first listen or not; for all I know, I probably went home in a daze.
Whenever I “came to,” I’m certain my first order of business was to ask my parents for some money so I could go to my small town’s record shop and see if they had “Tom Sawyer.” Despite it not quite being a Top 40 single in the U.S., it had been released as a single and the store had a copy in stock.
So, for the next month or so, I proceeded to listen to my “Tom Sawyer” 7-inch single over and over (not so much the B-side, “Witch Hunt,” at the time), never tiring of it and surely wearing out my family who heard the same song from my bedroom every weeknight and weekend.
Later, with school out and with some half-decent grades, I was rewarded with the opportunity to buy a couple albums and “Moving Pictures” was, of course, the only album I really cared about owning. The rest of my summer was mostly spent holed up in my bedroom, playing one side of “Moving Pictures” and then the other, over and over, every day.
With what was possibly my first album lyric sheet, I first memorized the lyrics to the six songs with vocals and later began to draw mental pictures of what Neil Peart wrote (with Pye Dubois’ help on “Tom Sawyer”) and what Geddy Lee sang, most of those pictures still vivid all these years later, available simply by playing any of the songs on the album…the “repeatable experience” that Peart has commented on.
I’ve never been able to recreate that first-listen experience, no matter how many hundreds times I played it again that year and the (likely) thousands of times I’ve heard it in the last 33 years. It was almost like the Nexus in “Star Trek Generations,” where Guinan explained to Captain Picard that being in the Nexus was like “being inside joy,” prompting one to do ANYTHING to get back to that place.
“Tom Sawyer” gave me my first exposure to a philosophy put to music:
“No his mind is not for rent…to any god or government.”
What a WAY of thinking for an impressionable teen! Only years of maturity keeps me from determinedly thrusting my fist into the air any time I hear that line sung.
“Red Barchetta” was the first telling of a short story put to music I had heard, “YYZ” was my first rock instrumental (rock bands PLAY instrumentals?) and “Limelight” seemed like the perfect side closer. Really, is there a better album side (of songs) in progressive rock? In all of rock?
“The Camera Eye” was the first epic I ever heard; the intro to it remains one of my all-time favorite intros. “Witch Hunt” initially served as a perfect soundtrack to drawing up AD&D adventures in my bedroom – yes, I was THAT kind of kid – and much later I came to really appreciate Alex Lifeson’s riffs on that track. Finally, while reggae was an unknown genre to me, I came to like “Vital Signs” as something different, more “digital” in the sequencers, shimmering chords and tight snare in the track – and boy, would we be treated to something different on their next album!
The front and back covers of “Moving Pictures” are legendary images to me, as are the sleeve notes, lyrics (down to the fonts) and the images of the band playing their instruments; until that point, the only pictures of them I saw were the ones from the “Tom Sawyer” single and I didn’t who played what!
Aside from being exposed to a couple Rush classics such as “Fly By Night” and “Working Man” – both doing almost nothing for me as they lacked the modern sounds and playing of “Moving Pictures,” my next Rush album was “Exit..Stage Left,” then I moved backwards to take in – in order – “2112,” “Permanent Waves,” “Hemispheres” and “A Farewell To Kings,” all before “Signals” came out in the fall of 1982.
“Moving Pictures” turned out to be the first of four albums that would define and dominate the soundtrack of my life: 1982 brought me “Asia,” in 1983, Yes’ “90125” was released and soon after I got my first listen to their previous masterwork, ‘Drama.” While these albums might not carry the same level of adoration for many that numerous progressive rock albums of the ’60’s and ’70’s do, they set me on a musical journey that continues today, pointing me towards a genre of music where MUSIC is valued above all else.
However, I can trace my love of music in general – which, to me, is like breathing – as well as anything I do musically, back to those 4 minutes and 33 seconds on a spring day in 1981, when I experienced “Tom Sawyer” for the first time…
At least so it seemed. The calendar said it was still February, so officially we were still in winter. But Winter 1981 in Lexington, KY, was unseasonably warm.
On that fateful afternoon, I met up with my friend Greg Sims at the end of the school day. We hopped into his Chevy Monza (or, ‘The Monza-rati’ as we called it) and he drove me over to the K-Mart on New Circle Road. I went in, quickly located a copy of the new Rush album, Moving Pictures, made my purchase, and headed back out to the car. Greg gave me a ride home, and then took off, as he had to work while I had the night off from my job.
I don’t remember the exact day it was when I made this purchase, but it likely was the same day the album was released. While that detail is fuzzy through the haze of thirty three years, I can say with confidence that I hadn’t heard so much as a single note of the record yet. At that time, listening to FM rock radio was a big part of my music consumption, and songs from Moving Pictures (especially Tom Sawyer) were in heavy rotation almost as soon as the album was released. Knowing that I had not heard any of the album before I listened to it on that fateful day tells me that it most likely was its release date.
I opened the window in my bedroom to get in some of that nice spring-like air and then quickly removed the cellophane from the album cover. The vinyl record was removed from its sleeve, and put on the turntable. I set it in motion to start playing before quickly but comfortably implanting myself into an oversized beanbag chair I had in my room. As I pulled out the liner to look at the lyrics, I heard the needle make contact with vinyl, hearing the first few cracks and pops that were so common to music lovers of that era. And then …
… the synthesizer intro to Tom Sawyer, the drums pacing things underneath. Oh my God.
Right then and there I knew I was listening to a great album – Rush’s masterwork. To some, it might have seemed like I was jumping the gun. But there are some things you just know. And based on nothing more than the first few seconds of Tom Sawyer, I knew. Oh man.This is going to be a great album.
I was soooooo hooked and I wasn’t even one minute into the first song. With every Alex Lifeson power chord, with every pluck of the Geddy Lee’s bass, every keyboard note, with every drum beat from Neil Peart, my conclusion of greatness was confirmed and reconfirmed.
Today’s Tom Sawyer
He gets high on you
And the space he invades
He gets by on you
And then came the synthesizer solo. There are no words that can describe my state of mind at this point. ‘Ecstatic’ … ‘thrilled’ … ‘mesmerized’ … all were inadequate. The rapture of a Rush fan.
Nevertheless, the rational part of my brain was still fully functioning. As I listened through the rest of Tom Sawyer, it was clear that Rush was in the process of making a quantum leap forward. This didn’t just sound like any other Rush album … it sounded like all the Rush albums. But I knew would have to distill that thought a bit to bring it into focus.
Red Barchetta was up next. I loved it immediately. It was more guitar driven than the previous song, but still had a certain refinement not heard on some of their earlier guitar-heavy works. And it didn’t take long to recognize the lyrical themes of freedom vs. tyranny, the individual vs. the collective, and the free man vs. the state that I had first encountered on 2112 (discussed here). One of the things I had loved about Rush when I first heard them was all right here in one neat little package.
Then came YYZ. Another instrumental, just as they had done on Hemispheres with La Villa Strangiato. However, this one was much more focused, much tighter. It certainly could not be called “an exercise in self-indulgence” as the band had referred to its previous instrumental. Full of great riffs and great playing, this one is still instantly recognizable all these years later, and still one of their live centerpieces.
Side one drew to a close with Limelight, and again I knew I was listening to an instant classic. The music included some thick power chords from Lifeson’s guitar, not unlike some of their earliest works. Yet, it still seemed very fresh and new. The whole feel of this song was great. Something new and yet something familiar. The song ended and the needle returned to the resting position, but my state of euphoric shock continued.
After flipping the vinyl record over and starting the turntable for side 2, I noticed that the first song, The Camera Eye, was a bit extended in length. Not a sidelong suite like 2112 or Hemispheres, but more comparable in length to the excellent Natural Science from their previous album, Permanent Waves.
I kicked back again to the comfort of the beanbag and listened to the city noises that preceded some random synth buzzing before some proper keyboard lines made their appearance. Eventually, Lifeson joined the party, as the song moved forward with some heavy grace. A brief pause intervened, and then a more frantic keyboard line announced “here we go!” And just like that, Lee, Lifeson, and Peart were off to the races.
Duuuuuuuun dun dun DAAAAAN dun dun
Duuuuuuuun dun dun DAAAAAN dun dun
DAAAN dun dun
DAAAN dun dun
DAAAN dun dun
DAAAN dun dun
(Yeah, we are cruisin’ now, baby!!)
It was as if we were being transported somewhere. We arrived when the instrumental section gave way to Geddy’s vocals. He delivered lyrical imagery of life in New York City from the point of a detached observer contemplating it all. I wasn’t sure what it all meant, but I loved it nonetheless.
After that, the cycle repeated, and off we were transported to London for some images and observations of that city, and a contrast with New York.
A more fantastic beginning to Side 2 would have been impossible. Five songs in, and my hastily drawn conclusion of the album’s greatness didn’t seem so hasty now. On the contrary, my initial gut feeling had been right on target.
The mood of the music definitely took a shift with Witch Hunt. With this song, I followed the lyrics more closely than I had with any other. While I was never one to be particularly rebellious, I have long had a skepticism for authority and for others who “knew what was best” for me. Thus, when Geddy delivered the line “those who know what’s best for us must rise and save us from ourselves,” it hit home.
I had some ideas of the particular intolerant a**holes to whom the lyrics referred at the time, but as I’ve learned over the years, the lyrics are broadly applicable to intolerance from all across the political spectrum.
Six tracks up, six tracks down. Every damn one of them incredible. Only one left to go.
Vital Signs made it seven for seven. A quirky synthesizer and guitar with a reggae beat? Who can pull that off? Well, Rush can. I laid back and enjoyed the music as the album I had dubbed a masterwork in its opening bar raced to its conclusion.
The familiar cracks and pops returned for a few seconds before I heard the needle lift and the arm move to its resting spot. I sat there and contemplated what I had just experienced, and drew a few more conclusions.
I knew this album was going to be huge. Every Rush fan and their grandmother was going to want a copy, and it would also bring in legions of new fans. While the hipster critics would hate it (but who cares about them, anyway?), the fans, both new and old, were going to love it. I knew Tom Sawyer would be their signature song. It was played at each of the four Rush concerts I witnessed subsequent to the release of Moving Pictures and appears on every video concert of Rush that I have watched. I knew that this would be the end of one era and the beginning of another for Rush. And I definitely knew that in my little bedroom on Marlboro Drive, on my modest stereo, this album was going to spend a lot of time on the turntable. Through the remainder of 1981, there was not another album that even came close.
Rush albums generally take a few listens before they truly sink in with me. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact, it’s something I like about Rush. Having the various layers revealed through multiple listens can be very rewarding it its own right. This album, on the other hand, did not. It strongly resonated with me right out of the gate. Just one listen, and I truly was blown away.
II. The Sum and The Whole
Moving Pictures was many things. For one, it was an album that took the best of everything Rush had done before then, combined it, and distilled it into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. It was a culmination of their previous work in the same way that Close to the Edge was for Yes; it was the album that made the statement “we have arrived” the same way Dark Side of the Moon did for Pink Floyd.
The music of the first few Rush albums were centered around heavy guitar. As the band honed their chops, they began writing extended pieces, first with The Fountain of Lamenth and then hitting big with 2112. In A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, the role of keyboards in Rush music changed from simply providing atmospheric background to a more prominent role in the melodic discourse, often times being a featured instrument for sections of songs. In the meantime, the band took a more experimental approach, both musically and lyrically. And on Permanent Waves, the band pared back some of the excesses of previous albums while tightening up their songwriting.
Moving Pictures takes something from all of the previous Rush albums and combines it into something new – and greater. Here, Rush took pieces from every one of their previous albums and put it together into something that sounded both fresh and familiar. On the outstanding documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage, Peart states “As I define it, that’s when be became us … I think Rush was born with Moving Pictures.” He further states “It represents so much that we learned up to that time about songwriting, about arrangement, that’s when we brought our band identity together.” Both statements – but especially the second – really hit home for me. Moving Pictures pulled it all together into one package that is both synergistic and perfect.
III. And Ending and a Beginning
Given that Moving Pictures is a culmination of everything the band had produced up to that time, it represented (at least to me) an ending to the first phase of Rush music. But as much as it was an ending, it was also a beginning. Moving Pictures also served as a segue to and a launching pad for Rush’s output in the 1980’s. Particularly notable on Moving Pictures was the integration of the keyboards into the music. To be sure, most Rush albums prior to Moving Pictures had included at least some keyboards. However, keyboards seemed to be featured primarily when the other instruments stopped, most notably evident in keyboard solos that appears in songs such as Xanadu, Circumstances, and Jacob’s Ladder. This has been the source of a significant amount of controversy among Rush fans, with Moving Pictures being the dividing line. Nevertheless, anecdotally anyway, most Rush fans I have known like this album, irrespective of where they stand on their prior or subsequent work.
For my money, Moving Pictures was the first in a sequence of four albums that marked a portion of Rush’s career that was creatively very fertile. Following with Signals, Grace Under Pressure, and Power Windows, the tighter integration of the keyboards that began with Moving Pictures continued even further, while the number of outside influences that made their way into the music continued to increased. This trend eventually played itself out in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Rush began to return to a more guitar-centric sound, with 1993’s Counterparts being most emblematic of that shift. However, in the twelve years leading up to that album, the echoes of Moving Pictures could be heard in every intervening release.
IV. Lasting Impact
I’ve heard every album of original Rush music (I have not heard Feedback, their album of remakes … but I’ll get to it). None of them are bad, most of them are at least good, and a number of them are truly great. I’ve been astonished at their ability to produce so much good music over the course of their career. I’m even more astonished that they have been able to produce such excellent music so late in their career (Clockwork Angels, anybody?) at a time when other bands are typically doing nothing more than rehashing their glory days or producing sub-par output.
Still, no Rush album has ever had an impact on me that is as lasting as Moving Pictures. If I had to choose only one Rush album to take to a desert island with me, this would be it and it wouldn’t even be a tough decision. Now as you can guess from what I’ve written above, that is not a criticism of any of their other albums. It’s just a simple recognition that not only did Moving Pictures have an immediate and powerful effect on me on that February day in 1981, it’s that the effect has never faded. Higher praise than that is simply not possible.