Rush: music for men

I became a Rush fan 25 years ago in early 1991. I was still in the Navy and was introduced to the band by a co-worker. The first CD I ever listened to was A Show of Hands, a live recording that had come out two years prior. I was amazed by the sound. There was so much going on I thought there were about 8 musicians in the group. But Rush is only a trio. A compilation double CD had also just come out called Chronicles that I quickly purchased and started listening to. After that, I went to the CD store at the NATO base in Naples, Italy where I was stationed at the time — they had a large selection of CD’s at the NATO base — and bought every Rush CD they had. For the next several weeks, I had a veritable listening party in my room whenever I had spare time.
I have been a Rush fan ever since. I have seen them live six times. Rush is what I would call a “guy band.” Their fan base has traditionally been mostly male. Of course, there are plenty of female Rush fans, too, and they tend to be just as passionate as the male Rush fans. But I am writing this from a male’s perspective. The beauty of Rush is that they offer what I consider a special listening place where a man can go and just be himself. For example, I do a lot of running, and I always listen to music when I run, and the majority of music I run to is Rush. I have churned out many hard miles over the years plugged into Rush as loud as I can stand it. The right Rush song at the right time can literally carry me an extra mile when I really just wanted to stop.I’ve thought a lot about what makes Rush a “guy band” — other than the fact that Rush is made up of three guys. There is a long list. And this is going to be a long post. I have put the primary reasons in bold so you can just skim through if you like. If you aren’t familiar with their music, I suppose some of the descriptions could be rather boring. But I simply cannot be terse when describing Rush.

1. Rush functions on its own terms. It seems like there’s always someone waiting to tell us guys how to do something, or how we’re doing it wrong, or how we could do it better, etc. Really what we’d like most is to just be left to our own devices to sink or swim on our own. Sure, we can always ask advice when we want it. But far too much advice is unsolicited.

Back in 1975, Rush had released its third album, Caress of Steel. It’s a strange album, I have to admit. Much of the subject matter is Tolkienesque fantasy. There are five songs, and the fifth song takes up the entire second side of an LP. It sold poorly, and Rush was reduced to playing to small crowds in nightclubs and such. It’s not what the band members had envisioned, I am sure. It goes without saying that the band was on thin ice and was on the verge of losing its recording contract, as I understand it. So they went against conventional wisdom when they recorded their next album, 2112. The title song takes up the entire first side of an LP. That song, 2112, is an Ayn Rand-inspired epic that takes place in a futuristic dystopia where music is forbidden. The protagonist tries to bring music to the masses but is harshly dismissed by the priests of the Temples of Syrinx. To hear guitarist Alex Lifeson describe it years later, if they were going to fail, they were at least going to fail on their own terms and “go down in a blaze of glory.”

Except they didn’t go down in a blaze of glory. The record sold surprisingly well and went gold a short time after its release. To date, 40 years later, 2112 has sold more than 3 million copies and is considered a staple in progressive rock circles. So 2112 wasn’t the end of Rush, after all. It was really just the beginning.

2. Rush does not do drippy ballads or sappy love songs. And thank goodness they don’t. Ballads and love songs are made primarily for female listeners. They have no appeal to me. Again paraphrasing Alex Lifeson, Rush doesn’t do love songs because love songs typically portray idealized relationships that do not exist in real life. Relationships aren’t perfect because people aren’t perfect, and so Rush doesn’t do love songs.

3. Rush triumphs individual autonomy. No song better embodies the autonomy of the individual than my favorite Rush song of all-time: Red Barchetta. In this six-minute classic, the protagonist fantasizes about a time in the future when combustible engines are banned and he travels to his uncle’s farm in the country to dust off a hidden sports car and race it through the countryside. He is eventually discovered during his joy ride and finds himself chased by two alloy air cars two lanes wide. He escapes the authorities after finding a one-lane bridge and then races back to the farm. I love themes where man thumbs his nose at authoritarians and seeks his own pleasure.

4. Several Rush songs carry a “coming of age” theme. Coming of age is important to a man. It marks the transition from adolescence into manhood and is an integral part of life. Two of Rush’s albums — Signals (1982) and Clockwork Angels (2012) revolve almost wholly around coming of age themes. Signals begins with an absolute Rush classic, Subdivisions, which is sort of a high school outcast’s lament about not being able to fit in. (“Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone.”) Subsequent songs, like Analog Kid, New World Man and Digital Man follow the young man into adulthood where he feels the weight of his obligations. (“He’s old enough to know what’s right/And young enough not to choose it/He’s noble enough to win the world/But weak enough to lose it.”) In Losing It, the next-to-last track on the album, we find an older person whose best years are in the past. (“Some are born to move the world/To live their fantasies/But most of us just dream about/The things we’d like to be/Sadder still to watch it die/Than never to have known it.”)

Thirty years later, Rush recorded another coming-of-age record, Clockwork Angels, this one set in the 19th century (“in a world lit only by fire”). The album opens with a young man filled with adventure and wanderlust. (“The caravan thunders onward/To the distant dream of the city/The caravan carries me onward/On my way at last/On my way at last.”) But it’s not a perfect world, and the young man has to navigate various pitfalls, often of his own making (The Anarchist and Halo Effect), but is alternately filled with wonder and amazement (Carnies and Seven Cities of Gold). In the next-to-last song, Wish Them Well, the protagonist finds himself older and wiser and very adept at dealing with difficult people (“Thank your stars you’re not that way/Turn your back and walk away/Don’t even pause and ask them why/Turn around and say goodbye.”) In the final track, The Garden, he is nearing the end of life and concludes, “The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect/The way you live, the gifts that you give.”

5. Rush is the embodiment of consistency. The current members of Rush — Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee & Neil Peart — have been together for 42 years. The only former member, John Rutsey (Neil’s predecessor) was dismissed from the band shortly after its first album was released in 1974. The trio has plied its craft steadily all these years since and they have become the best at what they do. Their success is not by accident. I would tell any young man today to do something he loves to do and just stick with it.

6. Rush inspires its listeners to self-improvement. Let me preface this by saying Rush hasn’t really done any songs dedicated to self-improvement. They don’t have to. They could have easily stopped recording new music 20 years ago and continued to perform shows on the strength of their existing catalog. But they haven’t done that. Rush has continued to make new music — new music that is also really, really good. Their most recent studio album, Clockwork Angels, was released in 2012. By then, the oldest member of Rush was 60 years old and the other two were 59. A great deal of effort went into Clockwork Angels. I consider it their finest work ever. It sort of culminated, at the time, nearly 40 years of making music together. Who knows if they will ever record another album? Who knows if they will ever tour again? Last year’s R40 tour saw them at their peak musically, even though two of the trio were playing through physical ailments. They have continued to improve with age, and if they can avoid complacency and keep getting better now that they are in their early 60’s, why can’t I?

7. Rush operates outside of popular culture and flavor-of-the-day topics. Despite having exactly one top 40 hit in the U.S. (and a few more in their native Canada), Rush has enjoyed great commercial success through album sales and sold-out shows, and also frequent air play on classic rock radio stations. But they have never been mainstream. They have never gotten caught up in fads or trends because they are always focused on larger, more lasting themes.

8. Rush makes you think…if you are willing to. Lyricist Neil Peart isn’t only one of the greatest drummers of all time. He’s a genuine wordsmith, and has penned some rather thought-provoking lyrics covering a variety of topics, only a smattering of which have been discussed here. But you have to be willing to meet Rush where it is. The band isn’t going to come to you. You have to go to where it is and on its terms.

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