Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage

I owe it all to a guy named Michael Brunson, a childhood friend who lived down the street. Circa 1981, I sat with him in front of his stereo, experiencing for the first time the musical majesty that is Rush. The album: Moving Pictures. I had not heard anything like it before. The shock and joy of something new; I can still remember how I felt. Prior, I was listening to novelty songs, Disney and Sesame Street records, church hymns, and (Lord help me), Norwegian accordion albums that were absolutely interminable. All was forgotten once I heard the first notes of "Tom Sawyer." Thanks, Mike!

A few days later I bought my own copy of Moving Pictures at the local Spec's record store. I slipped on my gigantic headphones every day after school. It was like a religion. The music was hard and rockin', which I definitely appreciated (I had also recently discovered AC/DC and Van Halen, much to my parents' horror and dismay), but there was much more. Something I could not quite explain. The lyrics were different, thoughtful even. The music was so, accomplished. My young ears didn't know how to pick out time signatures or the denseness and meaning of the words, but I knew something about it all was very special. "The Camera Eye" became the first tune that ran over 3 minutes that I would appreciate. To this day I get chills when I hear the final guitar solo in it. It's one of my favorites.

Thus began well over a decade of dedicated Rush fanship. At that time, the band was heading into another stylistic phase of their career. I knew that they had been around for a while, but did not delve into the older albums like 2112 and A Farewell to Kings right away. Not long after my initial listens to Rush, another guy at my elementary school let me borrow a cassette of Hemispheres but it was way too much for me to process at the time.

But I easily got into the keyboard heavy compositions of Signals, Grace Under Pressure, and Power Windows as the 80s continued. I was obssessed. The older fans were not enamored of the new sound. "Rush was," stated one of my co-workers at the fast food joint in which I slaved during high school. But a few years on, I went back and absorbed the older albums. I was again stunned, blown away by something so different sounding once I heard the sidelong tracks from the 70s such as "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" and "Cygnus X-1". Intricate sci-fi tales with profound lyrics, some of them inspired by the writings of Ayn Rand. Rush was not your typical rock group.

The 2010 documetary RUSH: BEYOND THE LIGHTED STAGE is a long overdue telling of the history of the power trio from the Great White North: bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and lyricist/drummer Neil Peart, from their schoolboy days to the present. Fellow Canadians Sam Dunn and Scot McFayden directed the film; their previous films had focused on heavy metal culture. Rush has sometimes been lumped in with the likes of Iron Maiden and Dokken, but they're nothing like them, really.

BEYOND THE LIGHTED STAGE features valuable home movie clips of friends-since-grade- school Lee and Lifeson, particularly of an 18-year-old Alex as he sits around the dinner table, explaining that he does not want to go on to college to get "a big degree". He was far more interested in playing guitar with Geddy, as explained by the principals themselves and, amusingly, their parents, who recall many loud nights in their respective basements.

The film traces Rush's early gigs in Toronto gymnasiums and church rec rooms, the lack of funds, and briefly profiles early members of the band. Namely, John Rutsey, the original drummer, who had to leave the band in 1974 (due to diabetes) just before their first big tour, promoting their first eponymous album. Of course, a guy named Neil Peart would replace him and suburban boys all over North America and beyond would soon be air drumming within an inch of their lives imitating him.

The early albums and tours get a thorough overview. The debut was a bluesy, Zeppelinesque batch of tunes that went virtually unnoticed until a program director in Cleveland heard "Working Man", correctly predicting it would be popular with many blue collar listeners. Rush would sign to Mercury and begin touring, opening for Uriah Heep and even Kiss (Gene Simmons recalls how straight arrow and serious those Canadian boys were, unlike himself and his cronies, who pretty much bedded anything that wore heels). After 1976's landmark concept LP, 2112, Rush was granted the freedom to create the opuses they wanted without record company interference, including 1978's Hemispheres, an album all band memebers recall being extremely difficult to perform and record. It is illustrative of how driven and ambitious Lee, Lifeson, and Peart were/are. Geniuses, in my opinion.

As we cruise into the 80s (when the songs were less guitar laden) and 90s (when the axes returned front and center)periods, BEYOND THE LIGHTED STAGE's coverage becomes broader, sketchier, but overall the film hits most of the band's personal and artistic highlights. Some time is given to discuss the double tragedy of the death of Peart's daughter and wife within a year in the late 1990s. The band went on a lengthy hiatus as the drummer took to the roads on a motorcycle (some 55,000 miles from start to finish) to heal. Out of that time came a few books and a renewed perspective for Peart. The lyrics on the new albums Vapor Trails (2002) and Snakes and Arrows(2007) reflected these experiences. Any serious fan of Rush knows how insightful Peart's lyrics can be, and I've been especially impressed at how increasingly human and heartfelt they've grown over nearly 40 years. Life'll do that to you.

RUSH: BEYOND THE LIGHTED STAGE would be many hours long if it covered everything in the sort of detail a rabid Rush fan like myself would desire. But what we have is quite good. It is absolutely essential viewing for any Rush devotee. Interviews with all 3 band members are interspersed, as are discussions with musicians who were big fans and influenced by Rush, including, Billy Corgan, Sebastian Bach, Les Claypool, Trent Reznor, Jack Black, and many others. Corgan especially is insightful as to how the musicians inspired him. Perhaps Black says it best, though: "Rush is just one of those bands that has a deep reservoir of rocket sauce. A lot of bands - they've only got so much in the bottle. They use it up sometimes in one song. These guys were the real deal. Their bottle was so big and so filled to the brim, they were shaking it literally for decades. And still there was sauce coming out"

The bonus DVD contains outtakes from the film, as well as longer segments on Rush "fashions" over the years (these guys are great self-deprecators), the sometimes scary fans (who have Rush conventions, complete with karaoke), and a seat at dinner with the guys as they get intoxicated and silly and cajole comfortably like 3 old friends would. There are also some concert clips from the recent "Rush in Rio" video and a mesmerizing record of a live 1979 performance of "La Villa Strangiato".
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