Thanks to epic songs, fantastical lyrics and extravagant drum solos, the great nerd band of the Seventies rocks on through the 21st century
On a warm April evening, the New Orleans Arena pulses with bong-infused cuts from the Seventies: Zeppelin’s ”˜Kashmir,’ Jethro Tull’s ”˜Thick as a Brick,’ Pink Floyd’s ”˜Us and Them’ ”“ the last a particularly apt choice for tonight’s crowd. Under bright houselights, the 17,000-capacity venue is quickly filling with fans of the Canadian rock trio Rush ”“ many resembling the two young men I find sitting 10 rows from the stage: brow-fringing hair, utilitarian glasses, sprouts of chin whisker. They look straight out of an ’82 yearbook photo of the after-school D&D club ”“ a suggestion neither finds insulting. “We fully embrace that,” says Sam, 21, an electrical-
engineering student with a Ziggy Stardust tee and Harry Potter tattoo. “That’s definitely our lifestyle, the whole nerd thing. We play video games and listen to Rush, we play video games about Rush. That’s what we did all last night in preparation for this.” Do they read science-fiction and fantasy novels? “Oh, yeah,” says Brad, a darker presence in black hair and an Alice in Chains tee. “Lord of the Rings, Sword of Truth,” says Sam. Do they have girlfriends? “Aw, that’s fucked up!” says Brad. “That’s one stigma I’d like to change,” says Sam. “But nothing could bother us right now.”
The American-Nerd Age is nigh. Today, everyone from the bed-headed club promoter to the siliconed spokesmodel calls themselves a “nerd” because they play Sudoku or can operate an iPhone. But 34 years ago, when singer-bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart first emerged on the music scene, the ”˜N’ word had teeth. And if you were heavy into Rush ”“ three skinny Canadians with a fixation for sprawling rock epics and Tolkien references ”“ you had found your home.
“I’ve never thought of us as particularly cool,” says Lifeson, now 54 but still in possession of much of his thick blond hair. Within Rush, Lifeson is known as “Lerxst” ”“ a band in-joke from years ago, when the three members entertained themselves by inserting extra syllables and accents into proper nouns. But, “We were filling these places, and I noticed everybody knew all the lyrics, knew the drum fills and had that mentality like, ”˜This is my band. I found these guys,’ ” says Lifeson.
As a current tour attests, that connection remains firm. Music taste aside, the scope of Rush’s achievement is undeniable ”“ 18 studio albums, more than 35Â million records sold worldwide, a legion of fans as loyal as Deadheads and the Kiss Army. Still, much of the world ranks Rush somewhere just north of the mullet. Their hypertrophic musicianship is mocked by critics, their lyrical pedantry spoofed by hipsters, their singer’s voice a subject of churlish speculation, including a ’97 Pavement song that asked, “What about the voice of Geddy Lee/How did it get so high?/I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy.”
“Yeah, I heard that one,” Lee says, like an ordinary guy. “I thought it was funny.”
Tonight in New Orleans, there is no such snickering. As the clock approaches eight, smoke starts billowing from stage left. The crowd rumbles, then leaps to a roar as the arena goes black. The aroma of cannabis rises. Screens above the stage flicker to life. The heroes appear.
What follows is difficult to describe. It involves hysteria. It involves tears. It involves air-drumming of a brio rarely witnessed ”“ not just the standard cymbal-snare pantomime, mind you, but a dizzying recital of tom, bell, cymbal, wind chime, all in perfect sync with the onstage movements of Peart, Rush’s drum god and lyricist. It’s a kinetic genuflection, variations of it occurring all around me. To my right an unaccompanied woman in camp shorts raises a thumbs-up sign every eight bars. A few rows up, a man is air-drumming, guitaring and bass-playing simultaneously (a spectacle resembling full-contact hacky sack). From behind, a forty-something man yanks my shoulder during a solo to yell, “That’s an ES-355 guitar he’s got there!” And for the next three hours, during songs about religion, suburbia, tidal pools and trees, most of this crowd will sing along with every word.