Last night, along with (it seems) every other Rush fan on the planet, I attended a screening of Cinema Strangiato at the Burlington Cineplex SilverCity. With Rush now retired as a band, the intent apparently is to hold these events on an annual basis as a way to continue to give fans a way to see the band in a communal setting with the kind of sound and screen available at a modern cinema. The show itself was close to 2 1/2 hours of footage, much of it from the DVD from the R40 tour (but apparently remixed for the big screen, as the sound was fabulous), but with about 20 minutes of new footage (most of it behind-the-scenes things or sound checks). For me, the feelings it induced were complicated by the fact that I actually was in the audience for most of the R40 footage, setting up an odd situation of literally reliving a performance over four years after it took place. It also made me question whether it was possible to recapture the joy of a very, very long history for me with this band after the main journey had ended –and what that would look like.
Rush, for those of you who may only know them tangentially, ended their career as a band in August of 2015. Their career had begun in 1968, but the lineup of bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer Neil Peart dates from 1974 (after their first album was released earlier that year). I first became aware of them in 1977 at the age of 10 while helping out with a Fourth of July float in my neighbourhood. The teens coordinating the float building had 2112 on near perpetual rotation while we worked to stuff chicken wire with coloured tissue paper. At the time, my nascent music interests ran more to ABBA and Barry Manilow than anything that could be considered rock, but I certainly remembered the album and its fierce sound. Seven years later, I started dating a Rush fan, and found myself very quickly deeply immersed in their music. In the interim, I kindled a passion for classical music (largely to the exclusion of other genres for at least a couple of those years), followed by an interest in new wave/MTV music like Duran Duran, then the Police, and finally, Yes. So while it may have looked to some extent like became a Rush fan because of my boyfriend, I was already poised in many ways to discover and love their music.
And I plunged deep. I purchased every album on vinyl, and then started buying bootleg recordings of concerts. I studied the lyrics, learned them by heart, treated them as poetry, chasing down literary references–I read both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as a result, and had special appreciation for Coleridge’s Xanadu when I studied it in my Brit Lit class. Subdivisions became the soundtrack song of my life at my suburban high school, where socially I was definitely a nerd–not a complete outcast, but definitely not part of the predominant party scene, more interested in music, books, and academics than in fashion or popularity. I found every in-joke on the liner notes and cover art, and in doing so I began to realize this was a band with a wicked sense of humour. I bought magazines with articles about the band (including at least one issue of Modern Drummer that had a Neil Peart track called Pieces of Eight on one of those “Flexi Disk” record inserts you could actually listen to). I began to aspire to play the bass, but particularly loved the one Rush song, Losing It, that featured my own instrument–the violin (at the time, the only guest performance on a Rush song).
And I discovered that being a hardcore Rush fan was a little like being in a secret society of initiates. We were everywhere, at least among musicians at my high school. Not only was there the group of friends I made through my boyfriend, but also another close friend who predated that relationship by a couple of years. We shared quite a few classes where we sat near each other–American History, Brit Lit, Calculus–and indulged our geekery through passed notes and notebook marginalia. I attended my first concert in 1984, at the Hare Arena in Dayton as part of the Grace Under Pressure tour. Five of us piled into a friend’s massive, ugly green late 60s Oldsmobuick and drove the hour’s drive from Columbus. We all bought matching concert shirts. After the concert, infused with music and the scents of cigarette smoke with hints of pot (oh, how I worried my parents would smell that) we all stuck our arms outside of the car and flapped them as we “flew by night” back home. We all rode in the same van during our spring break trip to New York City the following spring and played almost nothing but Rush on the way there and back, and all wore our matching shirts one day. It was glorious. But it couldn’t last.
My high school boyfriend and I broke up during my third year at Ohio State, the year I had moved into the dorms to get a better sense of university life. In terms of my passion for Rush, I had already begun to date other bands, as it were–Peter Gabriel and Genesis, the Talking Heads, REM. My roommates (and eventual boyfriend) at OSU had different musical interests, and my world began to expand to include jazz and a greater palette of classical, moving into the 20th century. None of them liked Rush, and that community of friends dwindled as the others grew, until it was limited to the guy who I’d shared classes with in high school. I attended my final Rush concert with him in the summer of 1990 in the cavernous old Cooper Stadium in Columbus, just a couple months ahead of my move to Toronto.
Oddly enough, my choice of Toronto for my graduate studies had its roots in my passion for Rush. It had been the reason why I had first visited back in 1985, wanting to see the place Rush was from, to find iconic locations in the city, and to become a knowledgeable geek. In doing so, I fell in love with the city, and when it became an option for graduate studies, my decision was easy. But graduate school for me meant a pull back from active interest in most modern music. I no longer had a lot of disposable income to attend concerts or even to buy new CDs, nor did I have a lot of disposable time to spend on anything unrelated to my studies. My community became my fellow graduate students and, increasingly, my SCA friends. The latter opened up yet more musical worlds–folk music, early music, and modern music infused with folk and early influences (such as Enya and Dead Can Dance). Music to me was intimately tied to community, and in this pre-Internet music era the ability to find and listen to new music outside of these circles was much more limited. I went through the 90s with almost no knowledge of the Rush albums produced during those years (although I continue to listen to my older Rush CDs). Even when the Internet began to open up possible horizons through Usenet discussion groups and mailing lists, I had drifted away from Rush fandom and had no remaining connections into that world.
But when I found it again, my deep passion was rekindled. What had made that possible? One word: The Internet. Not only had I begun to discover new music online, I began to discover the online communities that had grown up around it, first on message boards, and then on Facebook. And then I heard about the documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage, which lit the spark. I bought a ticket–nosebleed section–for Rush on their Time Machine tour, figuring it would be fun to hear Moving Pictures again. And it was. I rediscovered how incredible Rush is live, the energy of the crowd–and that I honestly did not mind attending a concert on my own. The reason for that? Also the Internet, along with the rise of iTunes. My music communities were now online. And I was now listening to more music than I ever had before, thanks to the iPod and eventually, the iPhone. I now had a train commute to work, during which I always listened to music. My love for music was now almost completely removed from the idea of face-to-face community. I had always listened introspectively on my own (particularly in my university and grad student years, where I was never without a Walkman or a portable CD player as I traversed campus); now this became the predominant mode. Interacting with community online consisted of reading posts, and thus was divorced from voices, visual cues, gestures, or a sense of human presence.
But attending RushCon was a chance to regain that human presence and community. I attended three of them, along with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame event this past January and the afterparty organized by the RushCon team. They were fun, but to quote Neil Peart, “I can’t pretend the stranger is the long-awaited friend.” These strangers shared a passion with me, a passion that united us enough for me to have a lot of fun, and I did make a couple of friends–but certainly nothing to compare to the community I had in high school, where we were united not only by our shared love of the band, but by so many other things. I could not simply invent that kind of history that I had had. Those attending had arrived there through many different paths. Many knew each other, had been attending the conventions for years. I hadn’t. And for all my flexibility, I am still, at the core, deeply introverted. The only thing that made it bearable, in fact, is that we did share that common love for Rush. Beyond that, beyond that lighted stage–we would go our separate ways.
I hadn’t realized until last night that in many ways, music is no longer something I expect to share with anyone–at least on a long-term basis–and other than online, I’ve stopped looking for those with shared passions to form community. I have attended the odd concert with an existing friend in recent years, and it’s fun, but it is clear that bonding over shared musical meaning is not something that I need any more to feel fulfilled when attending a performance. Attending a concert for me was once as much about the person or persons you attended with as it was the actual music. The musical intimacy I crave now is much more abstract, linked to the music itself and the performance, and perhaps to the energy of the faceless crowd joining together to experience it.
So as I sat in the theatre last night, I found myself speaking to no one; although I would have happily chatted with fellow Rush fans, I did not feel compelled to initiate discussion. I was alone in the crowd, much as I had been for the concert that formed the basis for much of the footage used in the film, the second of the two Toronto Rush shows during their final R40 tour. Famously, at the first show I had been vaulted up to a front-row seat by the RushCon folks, and for the first time, I had actually felt a little of the old magic again in attending a concert with friends. But on this second date, I was in the 13th row, by myself. Still, seeing the crowd (and knowing where I was in it), seeing the performance again, and knowing that I had witnessed it live brought back tremendous feelings for me. And afterwards, I got a little of that community feeling in Facebook groups, in conversations with a friend, chatting about what we’d seen after the fact, and what it meant to us.
Over four years have passed since that concert. I suspected at the time that it might be the last time I would get to see Rush play live, and in the ensuing years it has become more and more clear that my suspicious have been borne out. One of the certainties of life is that you can rarely known when you’ve done a thing for the last time, so it’s important to grab each opportunity when it arises. It’s never too late to do something for the first time, either, until it’s too late. Knowledge of this, along with my evolving introspective attitude towards music, is what has driven me to seek out and attend so many concerts in the past few years–especially those, like pretty much anything by Shostakovich, where I feel the drive to seize the chance to hear less-commonly-performed works live. You never know whether the opportunity will come again (if it ever does)–my one regret so far is not taking the opportunity to see Yes again before Chris Squire died. The other part of this is the knowledge that live performance is an experience in itself, bringing an energy and immediacy and an intimacy that recorded media lack. Yes, intimacy–even in the midst of a crowd, because, surrounded by strangers, I feel no need to engage with anything but the music. I find myself thinking more, feeling more, being more open to context and history and a particular time and place–which is why I’ve come to love writing about these experiences, when I process fact and feeling and their intersection.
I’m told this Rush cinematic event will become a yearly thing. I hope so. I realized once again last night just how deeply their music has permeated the rhythms of my own life.