Second Note: This is actually the 38th installment of this series, but I realized that I had mis-numbered and skipped the 34th installment, so I am back-filling here.
Who They Are: Canada’s finest smart/hard-rock trio, formed in 1968 by guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer John Rutsey, and (after a period with various other early members), stabilizing as a trio with bassist-vocalist Geddy Lee around 1971. Rutsey departed after the group’s self-titled 1974 debut album, to be replaced by drummer-lyricist Neil Peart. The Peart-Lifeson-Lee trio went on to release 18 studio albums over the ensuing four decades. The group were officially retired in 2020 after Peart died from brain cancer; they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.
When I First Heard Them: 1976/1977-ish, undoubtedly on the radio on Long Island’s amazing WLIR (92.7 FM), where I first heard many of my still favorite groups and artists in that era’s free-form radio milieu. I saw them live at Nassau Coliseum a couple of years later, but I wasn’t really there for them, having purchased my tickets because The Good Rats were opening the show. True to advance expectations, The Rats blew them off the stage in front of their hometown Island audience, but I still enjoyed seeing Neil, Ged and Alex do their thing, and began to happily explore their catalog more fully. The group peaked for me, and earned their place as a favorite group in my personal pantheon, in the early ’80s, when their synth-fortified, muscular power trio rock was a relative constant in both my self-programmed listening at home, and on the radio when out and about. I saw them live again in Albany in 1996, and it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. I also had the chance to interview Neil Peart around that time, and he was just delightful; it was one of the best experiences I had as a music critic in talking to musicians I admired and respected, and where the normal paradigm is “Don’t dare talk to your heroes, they will disappoint you.” I stayed abreast of the Rush catalog in the years that followed, and I had tickets to see their 40th Anniversary show in Kansas City, but was unable to get to it as the gig fell right on top of our move to Chicago. Unfortunately, missing that gig meant that I missed the chance to see them again, as Peart retired (and then died) soon thereafter. Big bummer.
Why I Love Them: When I last saw Rush in 1996, it was something of a special show for me. My full newspaper review of the show is here, but when discussing what most made the show magical in another article on my own website, I explained it thusly:
October 1996, Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, New York
The first time I saw Rush was at Nassau Coliseum in the 1979 to 1980 range, when they made the tragic mistake of letting Good Rats open for them, and got well and thoroughly dusted by the home team. I wasn’t as much of a Rush fan at that point, as it was their early ’80s albums that worked best for me, and then got me to go back and listen to the back catalog again, more appreciatively. Fast forward to 1996, when, after years of dutifully dragging opening bands around the country, paying back karmic debt to the bands that dragged Rush around in the ’70s, Peart, Lee and Lifeson finally decided to undertake an “evening with” type tour, where they filled the whole evening with two, long sets. The first show of the tour was here in Albany. I interviewed Neil Peart a couple of weeks before the gig for Metroland, and he noted that the longer format was going to allow the group to do things they’d never done live before, like playing the entire 2112 suite as it was recorded for vinyl, not as it had been truncated for the concert stage over the years. I called my Rush-fanboy college room mate, Jamie, to let him know what was going on, and he cashed in some frequent flyer miles to come up to Albany to see 2112 played live in its entirety for the first time ever. It was a gloriously over-the-top show, and the sound of 16,000 people screaming “salesmen!” at the appropriate moment was giggle-inducing grand. Years later, watching the protagonists in I Love You, Man building their bromance over a shared fondness for Rush, I could totally relate. But I will punch you if you tell anyone.
Rush made great music, for sure, but there was something about them that went deeper than that with the fan base, inspiring a degree of affection and connection that always seemed more earnest and deep than the relationships listeners often have with the artists who move them. Maybe it was a Canadian thing: they were just nice, and seemed to be approachable as regular dudes and appreciative of their fans in ways that most rock stars never are. The group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is priceless, as their fans packed the hall for the event, and it was perhaps the most “regular dude” fan boy moment in that organization’s history; you can check it out here, it’s worth watching in its heart-warming goofiness. Peart’s lyrics were always clever and literate (yes, his youthful dalliances with interpreting the works of Ayn Rand can feel problematic these days, though to his credit, he outgrew that phase), and he was an utterly killer drummer, technically and visually. Lee and Lifeson always did yeoman work on the front-line, adamantly hewing live to the concept that people paid to see the trio, and not a bunch of supporting players, so that they always worked hard to reproduce their album tracks without supplement, which was fun to watch and hear. Peart experienced a deep set of personal tragedies just after I talked to and saw him last, losing both his wife and daughter within a very short time span, then walking away from the band, taking to the road on his motorcycle, and documenting his travels and travails in a series of excellent books. When he returned to the group, it somehow made everything they did thereafter feel most special, like we fans were getting a precious bonus gift that could be taken away at any time, and so deserved our warm regard and appreciation for as long as it lasted. That sense, of course, made Peart’s early death and the band’s dissolution all that more poignant. I’m grateful for what he, and they, left behind for us. It’s a worthy canon, from worthy dudes. And that can be precious rare in the often-awful music business, where good guys winning is not the normal trope.
#10. “Working Man,” from Rush (1974)
#9. “Freewill,” from Permanent Waves (1980)
#8. “New World Man,” from Signals (1982)
#7. “Test For Echo,” from Test For Echo (1996)
#6. “Digital Man,” from Signals (1982)
#5. “Limelight,” from Moving Pictures (1981)
#4. “One Little Victory,” from Vapor Trails (2002)
#3. “Subdivisions,” from Signals (1982)
#2. “Tom Sawyer,” from Moving Pictures (1981)
#1. “The Spirit of Radio,” from Permanent Waves (1980)