Reason in Rock

In the annals of rock history, no band has championed reason and heroism in words and action with as much consistency and longevity as the Canadian power trio, Rush.

Superior ability is a key quality of heroism. Exemplifying this as musicians’ musicians, bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and percussionist Neil Peart all fit the bill. Widely recognized as leaders of their craft, they are regularly featured in musical publications. Add to this the prolific lyric writing of Neil Peart and you have a tightly knit unit of virtuosos.

Great moral stature is another vital aspect of heroism, and they stand atop that spectrum. In a profession where drugs, groupies, trashed hotel rooms, superficial poseurs, and compromisers are rampant, these gentlemen read books, study French and play classical guitar before going on stage. They are rational, productive, responsible family men who guard their privacy. In 1997 they became officers of the Order of Canada, which was created to recognize significant achievement in important fields of human endeavor.

Pursuing one’s values in the face of great opposition is another essential feature of heroism. These Great White Northerners have done this steadily since the mid-’70s, when the commercial failure of their third album, Caress of Steel, caused their record company almost to abandon them. They fired back with the futuristic epic 2112, which gave them a life extension and which to this day, 28 years later, still brings down the house when they perform it. The liner notes of the album credits “acknowledgement to the genius of Ayn Rand” and inspired me to read her works some 26 years ago. (The song’s theme of man against the state is similar to that of Rand’s Anthem, and is perfectly symbolized by the famous logo of the man facing the star.)

Triumph (particularly in spirit) is the fourth ingredient of heroism. The fact that Rush has sold over 35 million records and steadily sells out concert performances, in the absence of mainstream support, makes them qualify. The musical press has largely shunned them, which is why they will probably never go into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (The two main reasons are distaste for Lee’s vocals and Peart’s concept-oriented lyrics.) Don’t look for them to be featured on Saturday Night Live, VH-1’s Behind the Music, or on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Perhaps it is because Peart says, “they are not cool enough for us.” Fortunately they have been recognized in their homeland of Canada as they’ve won numerous prestigious awards. Equally important as their commercial success is the fact that they maintain their integrity—musically and personally.

The group has certainly had its share of tragedy. Geddy Lee’s parents are Holocaust survivors, and not long ago Neil Peart lost both his only child and his wife in successive years. (Peart wrote a book entitled Ghost Rider, which describes his recovery.) Nevertheless, the band’s positive sense of life permeates their records, concerts and interviews.

Rush Snakes

Musically, their instrumental pieces are exercises in virtuosity—particularly La Villa Strangiato (which could also be named “Concerto for Guitar”) and YYZ. However, their songs are celebrations of greatness: whether the subject is man’s mind “I see the works of gifted hands—Grace this strange and wondrous land—I see the hands of man arise—With hungry mind and open eyes” (Oracle: The Dream), or if it is technology (they were invited to witness NASA’s Columbia space shuttle takeoff in 1981) as described in the song Countdown, or even the skyline of New York, “The buildings are lost in their limitless rise—My feet catch the pulse and the purposeful stride” (The Camera Eye). Demonstrating integration between thought and action, these individuals are also pro-technology in their lives. Lifeson is a licensed pilot, Peart an avid motorcyclist, and Lee composes on the latest computerized equipment. All of their instruments have state=of- the-art electronics utilized for maximum efficiency. (I could never understand how rock bands would denounce technology in their songs and interviews, but use microphones, amplifiers, CDs, television, and radio in order to be heard in the first place.)

Only at a Rush concert would one find fifteen thousand fans singing about honesty and integrity (The Spirit of Radio) or pride and independence “No, his mind is not for rent—To any god or government” (Tom Sawyer) or choosing a path that’s clear (Free Will).

A Rush concert is a visual treat as much as an aural one. The high quality video graphics screen displays humorous images (The Three Stooges footage often introduces the band onto the stage) as well as serious ones, which are reflected in the words and music. They also incorporate lasers and pyrotechnics for added effect. A few years ago, while they performed The Big Money, which shows images of U.S. currency, I remember seeing Benjamin Franklin on the screen, then (from Camden, NJ) I gazed to my left and smiled with a note of pride as I saw the skyline of Franklin’s beloved city, Philadelphia. The first time I saw them in concert, back in 1979, there was an image of the right and left brain merging in perfect synchronicity as they ended the 18-minute epic Hemispheres, which supports heart and mind integration. (The lyrics portray Apollo and Dionysus as representatives of each aspect.)

If one were to analyze the group in terms of the classic Greek trinity, one would call Geddy Lee the soul, as he is usually the spokesman for interviews and addresses the audience, plays numerous instruments and sings the songs. He is truly a jack-of-all-trades. Alex Lifeson represents the body, as he blends physical comedy of guitar playing with witty humor and is often lovingly referred to as the band’s party animal. Neil Peart is clearly classified as the mind, as it is his words that are a large draw for the fans. Even his drum style has a jazz oriented cerebral part about it. Lee calls him a normal guy with a really big brain. Aptly put. All in all, there is a superb division of labor among the three.

In my favorite verse about heroes, “The voice of reason against the howling mob—The pride of purpose in the unrewarding job” (Nobody’s Hero), we see the tie between reason and heroism that is virtually absent in our culture. Personally, this is the sense of life that has gripped me for over two decades and has been the soundtrack of my life, drawing me like a magnet to see them about 50 times in concert, including perhaps their greatest performance (available on DVD), Rush in Rio. They have helped to transform me from a teenager with mixed premises into a confident man of reason. I am eternally grateful for this.

Lee, Lifeson, and Peart are truly somebody’s hero.

© 2004 Robert Begley

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