Stick it Out: Reflections on Rush and Their 40 Year Journey to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Part One

By Dr. Jon Epstein

 

Part I: Working Men

Watching the Canadian band Rush being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this month was a very powerful moment for me. In the pantheon of rock music greats few have been so misunderstood, misaligned, ignored, or as was the case with one major music magazine (some would say THE music magazine….but I wouldn’t) shunned, and blacklisted Rush. Among other things they have been accused of being fascist, socialist, hyper-conservative, Satanists, liberals and Nazis. Rush is also the only band that I am aware of that was criticized for being “too good.” I don’t even know where to go with that…..

rush in cleveland 1975
rush in cleveland 1975

Only two of those things are true. The three members of Rush are each extraordinary musicians and each has been awarded what amounts to every possible achievement award in the music industry for their respective instruments. On more than a few occasions they have won specific awards so many times that they were given “lifetime achievement awards,” in most cases created specifically for them, in order to be removed from future consideration and thus giving other musicians a chance to actually win. Much of this, incidentally, happened well over 20 years and 10 or so albums ago. In the past 20 years the band has been nominated for 5 Grammy awards, won numerous Juno awards, been inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame, The Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, received a star on The Canadian Walk of Fame, and a corresponding one in Hollywood, and in the process earned the rank of “Third” from Billboard Magazine for consecutive Gold (500,000 sold) and/or Platinum (1 million or more sold) albums. The Beatles ranked number one, the Rolling Stones number two. The doors to the temple that is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, however, were apparently permanently shut to them.

There have been many different explanations for that, but all of them seem to follow a trail of heresy, rumor, and innuendo back to Rolling Stone Magazine, and specifically to publisher and founder Jan Wenner, whose dislike of progressive rock, heavy metal, and Rush specifically is well known. It was apparent, however, to the rest of the rock music community that Rush had more than earned a place among their peers in the Hall of Fame pantheon and to not induct them would be to question the integrity of the Rock Hall, the Nominations Committee, and by default all the previous nominees and inductees to the hall who cite Rush as a foundational influence in their career. There’s only so long you can ignore that sort of disconnect between the music industry elite and the rest of us ordinary folks who make up the market who make their elite status possible.

Rush are also well known for their support of what would be considered “liberal” causes here in the States such as their very generous support of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, UNICEF, and many local charitable, social welfare organizations in their hometown of Toronto, where two of the three band members still reside with their families. This doesn’t really make them “liberals,” though. What it makes them is Canadian, and proud of it. Canada is apparently proud of them as well and demonstrated that in 1996 by bestowing to three band members that Country’s highest civilian honor, the Order of Canada. The Order of Canada is similar to the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the United States and Rush were the first rock musicians in history to be so honored. To cinch the deal the Governor General of Canada, Vice-regal to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the II and representative of the Monarchy (whatever that means), made Rush 2012 winners of the Governor General’s Life Time Achievement Award in the Arts, our Neighbor to the North’s highest artistic honor. Pete Townsend was part of the evenings’ entertainment.

So it turns out that this weird little band from Canada, that Rolling Stone hated, and most pop music fans just didn’t get, became a very big deal. They make no secret in how they achieved their success, and claim that it is simply a matter of commitment to those things which are important; family, friends, community, honestly and integrity, coupled with hard work and dedication to their “craft.” A solidly blue collar/middle class philosophy based on honesty and a work ethic based in taking pride in your work, believing in yourself, always striving to be better at your job, and the expectation that hard work and sweat will pay off. In retrospect the song that started it all rolling had to be “Working Man.”

rush
rush

Because of the monumental number of fantastic “screw the pooch” moments in the cities history, rivers spontaneously combusting with some frequency for example, Cleveland, Ohio is often disparagingly referred to as “the mistake on the lake.” My hometown has definitely had a very tough time over the past 50 years leaving it a shadow of it’s golden age when Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller (and to a lesser, but still significant, extent Andrew Carnegie) turned Northeastern Ohio and North Western Pennsylvania into a global economic powerhouse with Cleveland and Pittsburgh at it’s center. The collapse of the petroleum industry, coupled with the discovery of vast amounts of oil in the Middle East, and the subsequent disintegration of the domestic steel industry due to heavy competition from Asia lead to what amounted to an economic recession in Cleveland which, almost 50 years later, is still in effect. Cleveland was, and is, despite the tremendous wealth that originated there, a blue collar, working class town, and the perpetual economic hardships caused by the disappearance of the majority of factory jobs there has taken a heavy toll on the city. While it was no longer possible for Clevelanders to find any sort of civic pride in their long dead industrial past, there was one thing that was still viable, one thing that was still important, and quintessentially American that Cleveland had to offer up as validation to the world. Cleveland was the “home of rock and roll.”

Cleveland was not the only city to make this claim. Arguments can be made for Memphis, St Louis, New York, Chicago, and Cincinnati as well. What these other cities didn’t have, that Cleveland did, was a huge, vocal, visible, and well known population of rock music fanatics. Cleveland Rocks. It has from the very beginning.
The very first major rock concert in history, The Moondog Coronation Ball, was in Cleveland in 1952. The concert was organized by Cleveland DJ Alan Freed, who is also credited with coining the phrase “rock and roll” to describe the Rhythm and Blues music he was promoting on his “Moondog Radio Show” on WJW Radio, a station that remains on the air today. This event was historically significant for two other reasons as well. Not only was it the first rock concert, it was also the first racially integrated “youth culture” event in American history featuring both a racially mixed line up of performers and an integrated audience. It was also, and in retrospect this isn’t at all surprising, the first rock concert to be shut down by the authorities, in this case after the very first song, by the very first performer, Paul Williams. While there has been speculation that the show was stopped on racist grounds, the fact was that because of the extraordinary demand for tickets which resulted in a problem with counterfeiting, and a print run error on the part of the printer, approximately 10,000 more ticket holding teenagers than there were actual seats to accommodate in the 10,000 seat arena showed up expecting to rock and roll. Ultimately the decision to close the show was made by the fire marshal in the interest of public safety and not because of the radical nature of the event itself.

Cleveland also became the first city in the country to have a rock music critic for a local paper when Jane Scott began writing her column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1962, a column that she wrote until her retirement in 2002, one of which was about me (sorry…ego moment). To solidify it’s place as the “home of rock and roll,” WMMS FM radio, Cleveland’s flagship rock radio station and among the first of it’s kind in the world going on air with the WMMS call letters in 1968, is widely considered one of the most influential rock radio stations in history, and In the 1970s, it WAS the most influential rock radio station on the planet.

In 1974 Donna Halper, then a DJ and music director at WMMS, received a copy of the independently released debut album by a virtually unknown band from Toronto with the uniquely weird name of “Rush” in pink balloon letters, that sort of font that only worked in the early Seventies before the Quaaludes wore off and we all realized you really couldn’t read them. Halper was struck with how the band’s song “Working Man” perfectly encapsulated the attitude of Cleveland’s working class vibe and put the album into rotation.

Halper was right. “Working Man” resonated with Cleveland’s working class rocker vibe in a BIG way and quickly came to dominate Cleveland airwaves. On the strength of the response of Cleveland listeners, and in no small part due to the privileged position of WMMS in the music industry at that time, Mercury Records signed Rush to their label and re-released the album, this time with the distribution network of a major record label. Almost immediately after the debut release the band’s original drummer John Rutsy, who had been expressing his displeasure with touring, and was not coincidentally suffering from diabetes (which was a major contributing factor to his death in 2008), left the band leaving them to search for a replacement who could take his place, and do it in a hurry, as concert contracts had already been signed, and dates were fast approaching. That “replacement,” Neil Peart, was not only an outstanding drummer, he was ridiculously cerebral, a voracious reader, and a writer.

by dr jon epstein
by dr jon epstein

Peart quickly became the band’s lyricist, with absolutely no complaints from bassist Geddy Lee who had written the lyrics for the debut album because “somebody had to do it,” and the band quickly recorded their sophomore effort, “Fly By Night.” It was clear that something had radically changed in the bands dynamic. “Fly By Night” signaled that the days of Rush playing British derivative Blues based hard rock were definitely over.

At around the same time, my parents, both the first generation children of Eastern European immigrants, seeing little opportunity in Cleveland, and being the early baby boomers that they were, became the first in their respective families to attend college and move away from the insulated world of Cleveland’s East Side, with my sister and I in tow, and settled in an affluent suburb on the near east side of Columbus. Looking back, I have to give it up to my parents, because I honestly don’t think there was a better place to grow up. Our streets were safe, the local businesses were thriving, neighborhoods and neighbors were not just words, and the “amenities” were outstanding, particularly “Kelveden”, the former 32 acre estate and palatial residence of Robert Jeffrey, the wealthy industrialist and early 20th century mayor of Columbus. Jeffrey “gifted” his home to the city of Bexley in 1941. The name was changed to the more descriptive “Jeffrey Mansion” and turned over to the city parks and recreation department who then turned around and opened the entire estate to the public creating what has got to be the most amazing city park on the planet.

Jeffrey Mansion features prominently in my adolescence. It was my “Lakeside Park.” Many, if not most, of my teenaged “firsts” happened there; Smoking in the woods, drinking by Alum Creek, or simply walking the paths that meandered around the house, and off into the woods, or tripping while laying somewhere on the ridiculously huge, and meticulously manicured field that sat 200 feet below the house itself, and had at one time been the Jeffrey family’s backyard. For me, and many of my peers, this park was a magical place of adolescent discovery and life defining firsts.

It was in Jeffrey Mansions parking lot, on summer evening in summer of 1976, when I first heard 2112 thanks to my friend Cherie and her then boyfriend Greg. I was already familiar with Rush, of course. Very few teen stoners in Ohio weren’t by 1976. I liked Rush, particularly several songs from their sophomore album, but was taken aback (still am, to be honest) by the Tolkeinesque nature of much of their lyrics, which made the band’s debt to Led Zeppelin obvious, if it wasn’t obvious enough already. The band’s third album, the “clunker” among the bands first four, “Caress of Steel” fairly reeked of Hobbitses. A fun enough subject when you’re a totally baked teenager, but cliché even then.

2112 was different. The subject matter, for starters, was light-years past Dwarves, and Elves and Orcs. The title track, for example, took up the entire first side of the album and was essentially a retooling of the book Anthem, by Ayn Rand, which told the story of a dystopian future where creativity and individualism had been replaced by totalitarianism and homogenization. Maybe it was the drugs, but 2112 really got my attention. It was bold, totally different, and really made you think. In a single stroke Rush became MY band, although I was willing to share.

It was with the release of 2112 that Rush first began to alienate the “oh so liberal-power to the people-share the land-everything is totally groovy” rock critic elite. Not that they really got it prior to 2112, but this album, and specifically their acknowledgement to Ayn Rand, really bugged them, and I am sure that the line “think about the average, what use have they for you” didn’t help.

The backlash from their admission that they had dared to read Ayn Rand, rejected socialism in favor of capitalism, and felt that radical liberal politics were just as dangerous as those from the right cumulated in an article in the British magazine New Music Express (NME) and took an extremely ugly turn when that publication labeled the band “fascists and Nazis.” I can’t help but feel for bassist Geddy Lee (nee’ Gary Lee Weinrib) whose parents were both Jewish and had been sent to Hitlers’ concentration camps as children during WWII but had miraculously survived. It’s hard to think of an insult that could be any more personal. The fact that he responded to these accusations with dignity, rationality, and patience speaks volumes about his character.

1975
1975

The outlandish accusations leveled by NME had little effect on the band’s American fans, who really didn’t care what some pompous English paper thought about, music, politics, or anything else. Rolling Stone magazine, however, apparently did, and began a 20 year long dismissal of the band and the denigration of their work most notably in their much heralded “Record Guide” which gave the band an average of 2.7 out of 5 stars. Gradually this appraisal has changed over the years, and that magazine now, grudgingly, and because they actually have no choice, acknowledges that Rush is, in fact, one of the most important rock bands in history. By recently naming Neil Peart the “Greatest Drummer of All Time” Rolling Stone essentially contradicted decades of dismissive and denigrating published appraisals of his drumming being “robotic,” “stiff,” and bombastic.

I think it’s important to note that most real rock music fans are not interested in Rolling Stone Magazine. Most rock music fans don’t really care what music critics think. I know this because I am one. This is as true today as it was in 1977 when my parents moved our family to Winston Salem, North Carolina. My reaction to this was fairly typical I suppose. I was not happy about leaving my friends, and even less happy about moving to the South. At that point about all I know about the Southern States came from what I had read by William Faulkner and Harper Lee, the movies Deliverance, Inherit the Wind and Smokey and the Bandit, and from information I had gathered in social studies classes and television about the horrible crap that happened during the civil rights era. Needless to say, all of that made me very uncomfortable. To my 16 year old sensibilities, it seemed like banishment.

I arrived in North Carolina with what was left of my identity all neatly boxed up and stacked in neat rows in my new bedroom. The first boxes I opened contained my prize Fisher stereo, and my substantial record collection, started when I was 9 with a stack of albums given to me by an older cousin who had recently discovered John Coltrane and decided that he no longer needed his Jimi Hendrix, Big Brother, or Velvet Underground and passed them along to me. The next box contained my guitar, an early seventies Fender Stratocaster, all the accompanying gear, and a baggie half full of Columbian Gold stuffed into my bong. My thinking was that if I was going to be banished to the hinterlands, it was best to be prepared.

About two weeks after our move, and the week I was to start my Junior year at R.J. Reynolds High School, Rush released their fifth studio album “A Farewell to Kings.” Because of the rather unexpected success of 2112, which the band’s record label, Mercury had placed enormous pressure on the band NOT to record, let alone release, “A Farewell to Kings” was the first album on which the band could afford to record outside of Canada, in this case in Wales, and experiment during the recording process. The results were telling. Tubular and Orchestra bells on a hard rock record? To my knowledge, that was a first. Rush had entered their Progressive rock period, hinted at on “Caress of Steel”, a time referred to as the Kimono period among Rush fans and taken to it’s logical and some would say “ridiculous” others “magnificent” conclusion on the bands next album “Hemispheres”. These two albums were both definitive progressive rock albums, with long involved compositions, odd time signatures, and heady, “epic” themes, in this case one of which begins as the last track on “A Farewell to Kings”, and is completed as the first song (originally an entire side of a LP record) on “Hemispheres.” What set them apart from the other Progressive rock bands of that era was that, despite the complex and multi-layered nature of the music itself, which by this point also contained a grab bag of instruments generally not found in a three piece hard rock band…glockenspiels, Moog synthesizers, classical guitars, timpani, woodblocks, wind chimes, temple gongs… they made the decision to both remain a three piece and not present anything in a live concert setting that they didn’t play themselves in real time. In other words, no prerecorded back up tapes, no back up musicians, no cheating, ever. The end result of that decision was to make Rush one of, if not THE, best live rock acts in history. When faced with those conditions you either rise to the occasion, always striving to learn more, play better, push yourself to always improve as a musician and performer, or you fail. The commitment the three members of Rush put into their work has become legendary and by the late 1970s Rush had become one of the most consistently successful arena rock bands in North America, and continue that success today, with an audience that has continued to grow on a global scale.

While it is unlikely that the nay-saying, finger-pointing journalists that first criticized the band on the grounds of their being readers of Ayn Rand, and therefore some kind of fascist collective even noticed, but answers to those accusations were the underlying theme of these albums. In songs such as “Closer to the Heart”, “The Trees”, and “A Farewell to Kings” the band expressed a politics of both robust individualism and social responsibility. Success comes from hard work and effort, and with the fruits of that success comes a responsibility to the world, because with out the world and the other people in it you couldn’t be successful in the first place. This simple philosophy, which Neil Peart has recently dubbed “bleeding heart libertarian,” and is the root metaphor of the “A Farewell to Kings” and “Hemispheres” albums.

I suspect I am not the only high school kid who, in 1977, discovered that a number of classic writings the literature teacher assigned us to read had the coolest “Cliff Notes” ever in Rush lyrics. Neil Peart, an avid reader since childhood, allowed his reading list free reign as he composed the bands lyrics, and often spoke about his literature inspired musings in interviews. In addition to his acknowledged (and abandoned well over 30 years ago) interest in Ayn Rand, Peart has spoken enthusiastically on his engagement with the works of writers such as Robert Frost, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins, William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and many, many others. His reputation as a critical and engaged reader has also caught the attention of the New York Public Library which has a section of their website devoted to his reading list, and the reviews he writes on what he has read. By any criteria it is an impressive and extensive list, which can be found here: http://www.nypl.org/blog/2012/11/05/neil-peart-reading-list

While I was growing up my mother’s favorite answer to any question I asked her was “I don’t know, go look it up.” While at the time I suspected that she was just trying to avoid having to answer my questions, I now know that she was actually helping me learn the necessity of being informed, the importance of drawing your own conclusions based on (and this was ultimately the most significant part) a clear, and unbiased reading of truthful information. She also taught me where to look and what to look for, which in the 1970s was at the library, in the nonfiction section. My mother was an intellectual, a liberal, and a PhD, and in retrospect it would seem that this was her plan for me as well, because what she really taught me was how to do research, how to evaluate information, and how I was to act on what I learned. “The point isn’t just to understand the world,” she once told me, echoing Marx, “the point is to help make it a better place.” I still haven’t figured out if I am doing that, but I am being very careful to ensure that I do not contribute to making it worse.

rush
rush

By the time I was in high school, I was a voracious reader, a major stoner, and a loyal Rush fan. Rock music in general and Rush in particular, had become the center of my adolescent existence. As a result I discovered that for the lyrics to the Song “Xanadu”, Peart had been taken and modified the classic poem “Kubla Kahn” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I also discovered that Coleridge had written his epic poem based on a dream he had experienced after passing out from ingesting a large dose of opium, The look of terror turned quickly to angry frustration on my English teacher Ms. Pittman’s face when I brought this fact up in class, and helpfully (I thought) provided a thought provoking question regarding the tranquil, epic quality of Coleridge as compared to the dark, gothic and troubling work of another great American opium eater, Edgar Allen Poe. Why, I asked, would the effect of this drug have such different end results as demonstrated by these two examples? After I was done explaining to the principal that I was not under the influence of narcotics as far as he knew, and that the question I had raised was completely reasonable and factually correct, I decided to ditch school the rest of the day and hang out to jam with my friend Arthur, another Rush admirer.

I met Arthur in algebra class, which as the first class of the day was one I usually managed to attend. R.J. Reynolds High School had only recently been integrated, and the tension between different groups of students was noticeable and pervasive. Having spent my formative years in a fully integrated neighborhood however, meant that for me everything was normal enough race-wise. My outsider status as both a “yankee” and a “jew,” however, gave me a great deal of insight into just how difficult it could be when you are “different.” Arthur was a quiet guy, with thick glasses and absolutely no interest in algebra, and his time in class was usually devoted to doodling on the cover of his notebook. One day, early that school year, I happened to look over to see what he was drawing and was surprised to see that he was putting the finishing touches on a Rush logo, which was taking a prominent place among the other band logos he had drawn: Thin Lizzy, Styx, and Be Bop Deluxe. While three of these four bands would become familiar to the majority of hard rock fans by the end of the decade, and one, Be Bop Deluxe who had recently released their third, and seminal album, “Sunburst Finish,” would fade into relative obscurity in the same period, in the fall of 1978 they were still relatively unknown to mainstream North Carolinians.

What made this moment so surreal, and why it remains so strong in my mind 35 years later, was that Arthur was only the second African American I had ever met who shared my musical preferences, and the first fellow musician I met in my new city. We played music together for the remainder of that year, performing barely passable covers of Rush, Queen, Montrose, and other soon to become classic rock songs at house parties and plotting our rise to stardom. Reality soon intruded, however, by the news that since I had chosen not to attend the required number of classes that school year the school had chosen to require that I repeat my Junior year, with the promise that I make it a point to attend the second time around. My parents were not convinced that I was sincere in my pledge to buckle down, however, and made the decision to ship me off to boarding school. It was a very good move, on their part, and I was able to refocus my attention and graduate with my class at the end of 1979 and had committed to attend college in Florida.

By decades end the popular music landscape had been changed by the punk rock, and only slightly later by British Techno-pop and many arena rock bands had fallen out of favor, been branded as dinosaurs, or worse as irrelevant. Somehow Rush had managed to not get caught up as a causality of that particular backlash, and to their credit it is now obvious that the band was not only well aware of their good fortune, but were engaged with these new musical styles themselves, both as fans, Neil Peart spoke very openly about his interest in The Police and their drummer Stewart Copeland for example, and as composers and musicians. They made it clear in interviews at the time that they were through with suites and concept albums, having taken it to the logical conclusion in a three piece format, and that they were in the process of exploring new ideas, and recreating themselves. Again.

The Next installment coming to CCD coming soon: : Part II: Living in the Limelight