Rush Day 2-1-12: Metal Historian Jeff Wagner on the Canadian Legends
With this column we welcome Jeff Wagner to the Noisecreep realm.
In celebration of Rush Day day today (2-1-12), Wagner digs into the history, and also shares his personal anecdotes, on one of the forefathers of progressive hard rock and metal.
2/1/12 – Nerds Unite
2112 is here! Forget the Mayan paranoia and any other doomsday prediction for 2012, because 2112 arrives before that. And it's got nothing to do with apocalypse and Armageddon. It has to do with celebrating the band that defined what happens when you mix progressive rock's chocolate with heavy metal's peanut butter. February 1, 2012 is a chance to get all geeky and celebrate 2/1/12 in honor of Rush and, of course, their magnum opus, 2112. It's what I'm calling "Rush Day." I know, the band deserves a more creative name, but Bastille Day was already taken.
Funny how Rush, the perennially uncool underdogs, have finally become an accepted force. Despite great popularity since the mid '70s, they were for decades the exclusive domain of budding teenaged male musicians and pocket-protector rockers. Very popular, but never exactly mainstream. Yet the tide is changing in some way. Rush, through sheer persistence and "we're never going away" attitude, is no longer the bad word it used to be. They're no longer just our band. They're referenced in pop culture shockingly often, as seen on TV series' such as 'Aqua Teen Hunger Force' and 'Family Guy;' they've appeared on 'The Colbert Report;' guitarist Alex Lifeson played a kidnapped Alex Lifeson on an episode of 'Trailer Park Boys;' "Geddy Lee" and "Neil Peart" are names of almost household recognition; and Rush plays bigger venues than ever when they make the tour rounds, which they've been doing fairly regularly these days. You even see girls at their shows now. It's all so strange.
My own personal tribute to Rush in honor of Rush Day 2/1/12 will be to play '2112' very, very loud. To supplement that, I thought I'd dig deep into Rushstory and focus on various points of interest that might be otherwise overlooked. Much has been written and said about the band's great achievements, but I'm sidestepping the obvious things people might associate with the band – key albums like 'Moving Pictures' and its "in its entirety" airing as centerpiece of last year's Time Machine tour; Neil Peart's status as world's greatest drummer; Geddy's squeaky voice; or even the notorious stuff, like the horrible "rap part" in 'Roll the Bones.' Instead, I thought it would be fun to present a mish-mash of this-and-that, stuff that makes Rushworld one of the more fascinating places to get lost in for hopeless geeks like me.
Max Webster vs. Rush: the Battle
I had two friends over about 10 years ago, also Rush fans. I knew they had never heard this little nugget of Rush-iness I was about to spring on them – this was right on the cusp of Youtube being the go-to place for sampling once-rare music. I sat them down, slapped an album on the turntable and placed the needle on song five, side one. Its bass-led lurch opens like an alternate version of Spinal Tap's 'Big Bottom' and evolves into a doom-laden proto-metal dirge. It's an imposing little ditty. At 1:26, the witchy, otherworldly voice of Geddy Lee soars in: "trying to understand the white man's fears." He screeches like a man possessed through the rest, and even vamps it up near the end. One of his best vocal performances ever. My pals were freaking out that there was a Rush song out there they didn't know, and it was this good! But not exactly. It's 'Battle Scar,' from Max Webster's 1980 album, 'Universal Juveniles.' It not only features Geddy sparring with head Webster Kim Mitchell, but Lifeson and Peart also do what they do best throughout the song. It's freaking great, a must-hear for anyone who treasures the potency of darker Rush songs like 'Jacob's Ladder' and 'Witch Hunt.' But because it's a Max Webster song, it's got their usual tongue-in-cheek quirk too.
Jeff Jones & "You Can't Fight It"
In 1968, Rush was Alex Lifeson, drummer John Rutsey, and bassist/vocalist Jeff Jones.
Jeff Jones is the Pete Best of Rush. Or, if you're a trainspotting death metal fan, the John Hand of Rush. You know, the guys who didn't hang around long enough to ride the gravy train. But then Rush wouldn't be Rush without Geddy Lee, while the Beatles might have still made a go of it with Pete Best. You've surely heard people say "I like Rush's music, but those vocals..." It makes you wonder if Rush would be even huger if Jeff Jones had stuck around. More accessible vocals and all that. I've wondered that too...for about four seconds. Nah, Rush without Geddy's otherworldly vocal strangeness is an unfathomable Bizarro-world alternate universe that I don't even want to ponder. Besides, this Jeff Jones guy and Neil Peart would have had some serious spiritual differences when avowed "linear thinking agnostic" and general skeptic Peart joined the band a few years later. Jones is the bass player in the following clip, the dude in the striped suit, and he apparently loves some Jesus. I'm sure Jones is cool as hell, but aren't we all super-glad Geddy Lee muscled his way into Alex's new band Rush in 1968? But, as heard in the second clip, the super-rare 1973 b-side 'You Can't Fight It,' Rush weren't always the gods of all space, time and dimension. It really was Peart's joining a year later that would seal that particular deal.
Watch Ocean's 'Put Your Hand in the Hand' Video
Rush still never get enough credit from their critics for their sharp sense of humor. It seems like a pressure valve to balance the seriousness of their music-and something that just develops when guys spend decades growing and changing together the way Alex, Geddy and Neil have (see how we're on a first-name basis with the boys now?). Look on the liner notes of various albums, or interview footage, or some of the visuals that are part of their stage shows. They're a funny bunch! They've been together nearly 40 years, and you know how the "in-joke" thing develops between longtime friends. And I think my favorite thing about Rush's lighter side is their communal sharing of soup backstage before every concert. Yeah, soup! How un-rock and roll is that? Ever the rebels...
Nerd-time, serious nerd-time...
Some Rush songs are unheralded for a reason ('I Think I'm Going Bald'), but some are unheralded for reasons I can't quite comprehend. 1977's 'Cinderella Man' is one of those. It's got a comfortable swing to it, yet there's serious melancholy tucked in there. And the middle instrumental section is one of clearest examples of why the Rush ensemble is one of the hottest trios to ever touch musical instruments. They soar with gods in this section. I'm serious. Check out 2:27-3:18 in the clip. I could go on about Geddy's tight-as-a-nut staccato bass lines, Peart's funk/jazz nimbleness, and Lifeson's lead-guitar-from-Mars weirdness, but I won't. Just listen.
Listen to Rush's 'Cinderella Man'
My Least Favorite Headache
I didn't say this was all going to be the Worship 'n' Praise Rush Hour. And here we land on something not-so-talked-about because, well, it's not much worth talking about. Some opinions will tell you otherwise, but I think Geddy Lee's one and only solo album, 'My Favorite Headache,' misses the mark. It came out in 2000, and despite Geddy having the good taste of hiring guitarist/violinist Ben Mink (from Canadian prog-meets-synth pop band FM) and uber-drummer Matt Cameron (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden), the material is as flat as a strip of Nebraska Interstate. It's not that it's not progressive; it's not that it doesn't have Peart and Lifeson on it; it's not that it's not a Rush album...no, the songs simply have no stick. Kinda bland. Kinda uninspired. Kinda like watered down Roll the Bones songs (many of which are already pretty diluted sounding). I've tried, damn how I've tried, to like this album. I did finally come around to Rush's own 'Hold Your Fire' 20 years after its release, so maybe someday 'My Favorite Headache' will appeal to me too. Which reminds me, I should probably get Alex Lifeson's 'Victor' album so I can put it on the shelf next to 'My Favorite Headache' and also never listen to that.
Starman meets the JC Penney's catalog
Okay, this little story has nothing to do with anything Rush themselves did, although they did put it in motion by offering a t-shirt with the Starman image on it, a wardrobe mainstay for snot-nosed junior high nerds everywhere in the late '70s and early '80s. I wore mine a lot, and got in a little trouble for it once...
I went to school in smalltown Iowa, and have fond memories of my junior high days. By this time I'd discovered rock and roll and heavy metal, so wearing all kinds of rock and metal t-shirts to school naturally followed suit. One of my favorite shirts was a Rush T, featuring the "Starman," that figure first seen on the '2112' album, a naked man standing opposed to a big red star. It had to do with the whole concept of the epic '2112' song, where the man is the hero of the story ("the meek shall inherit the Earth"), a person of pureness and creativity, fighting against authority in the form of the Federation (the star, and the bastards who announce "We have assumed control" at the end of the song. Spoiler alert!).
This whole man vs. authority thing (in my case, "boy") played out on a smaller scale one day during school lunch. After lunch students would shuffle onto the bleachers until it was time to go back to class, and my friends and I would conspire up there, harmless stuff, just talking about music, or girls, or making fun of various students eating down there below us. On my way to the bleachers one day, the Principal accosted me, grabbing my arm tightly: "You're going to have to go home and change your shirt, Mr. Wagner." Apparently the shaded buttocks of Starman were unacceptable to him and various other teachers who were, as I would find out later, complaining to him throughout the day. I asked if I could instead turn the shirt inside out, rather than being hassled to go home and change. He thought that would be okay, so I did.
But I felt weird about it, like it was a betrayal of my love for Rush, like Geddy, Alex and Neil were saying from somewhere on high "Do not be ashamed of your fashion choice, son." So a friend and I cooked up a solution. Once our bell rang to go back to class, we took a quick detour up to the library. We found a clothing catalog in the magazine area and proceeded to cut a pair of shorts off a male model using my pal's jackknife. We managed to bum a safety pin off the librarian, and in no time Starman was clothed in a spiffy pair of paper shorts. It got a lot of laughs for the next few hours, and I actually bumped into the principal just before leaving for the day. He looked at what I had done, shook his head and laughed. I felt like he was conceding that I'd won. I, the lone young Starman, had defeated the Principal's Uptight Federation.
The meek inherited the earth. I had assumed control. I lived those lyrics in some very, very tiny way that day. And as Rush would later sing, "the greatest act can be one little victory." Now go out there and crank up '2112,' on vinyl, preferably while wearing a Starman shirt – butt-covering shorts optional.