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Thanks to epic songs, fantastical lyrics and extravagant drum solos, the great nerd band of the Seventies rocks on through the 21st century

Chris Norris Aug 09, 2008
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In a dim, soundproof rehearsal space on the shore of Lake Ontario, the men of Rush are in their last rehearsal before their tour. Each stands in a separate area surrounded by axes, pedals, knobs and modules. In the late Seventies, when Rush wanted to expand their sound without adding a fourth member, the band began multitasking with doublenecks, bass pedals, synths and other accoutrements. Today, the official Rush Website’s gear list for each member is an array of Trace Elliot Quatra-VR power amps, SansAmp RPM bass preamps and Palmer PDI-05 speaker simulators. Here at the rehearsal space, such items are discreetly tucked away in cabinets that presumably house an Intergalactic Space Modulator and a Doctor Who TARDIS.

In the centre of the room stands a red and gold octagonal box that looks like an Oriental prop from a magic show: It’s the rotating riser that bears the drum set of Neil Peart. There are rows of toms, snares, bells and whistles, all customised down to the experimental black-nickel drum-shell plating and developed with Peart as part of Sabian and Drum Workshop’s R&D team. There are racks of Roland Brains, Glyph hard drives, MalletKat pedals ”“ the triggers assigned not just to wood blocks and glockenspiels but guitars, keyboards, vocal effects and sound sequences from Rush’s entire catalogue. Since the early Eighties, Peart’s growing percussion arsenal has included electronics. From the looks of it, it seems quite possible that Peart ”“ who often displays total separation between his upper- and lower-limb patterns ”“ could perform as Rush alone.

A ruddy 55-year-old with a Robert Mitchum-ish brow, Peart stands drinking bottled water, dressed head to toe in a ninja-like black suit topped by a black tam bearing the logo from Rush’s 2007 album, Snakes and Arrows. One pant leg is cinched by a bicycle clip. His feet are in dancing shoes. “This is to absorb the sweat,” Peart says of his outfit, his sonorous baritone recalling Harry Shearer’s folk bassist in A Mighty Wind. The dancing shoes come from his study with jazz musician and drum guru Freddie Gruber in the mid-Nineties. “They’re so you get the dance and glide on the pedals like you get on a dance floor.”

Today, the very phrase “Neil Peart” is shorthand for the kind of Olympian accomplishment rarely seen outside genres like classical music, a name synonymous with dizzying fills and stallion grooves, a rep that extends well beyond Rush fans. Even the man’s personal history is a Nietzschean creation myth. Raised in the Ontario city of St. Catharines, Peart (pronounced “peert”) skipped two grades in elementary school and began high school at age 12. He dropped out to pursue music and in ’69 moved to London to get into a band.

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As Peart sat down for one audition, the keyboardist said, “This first tune is in seven,” prompting Peart to wonder, “Seven what?” He had never dealt with odd time signatures. He was humiliated. Peart returned to Canada and began studying, practising, mutating. Then he took an audition for a Toronto band called Rush, whose founding members, Lifeson (born Alex Zivojinovich) and Lee (né Gary Lee Weinrib), had met at North Toronto’s Fisherville Junior High in 1967. Lifeson and Lee were two guys with long hair and parents who talked funny. Lifeson’s were Serbian immigrants; Lee’s were Holocaust survivors from Poland. (Lee’s nickname, Geddy, was sparked by his mom’s mispronunciation of “Gary.”)

With drummer John Rutsey, the original lineup developed on the local bar scene, released a single (a cover of Buddy Holly’s ”˜Not Fade Away’) and went on to record Rush, the band’s 1974 debut album of generic heavy metal whose hard-rock single, ”˜Working Man,’ won sufficient buzz to get the album re-released by Mercury Records. Rush developed a stateside niche as a Canadian Zeppelin manqué. But just as the band was about to tour the States, Rutsey (who died in May) begged off ”“ partially due to health problems associated with diabetes ”“ and Lee and Lifeson began auditioning replacements.

“The car pulls up, and there’s all kinds of drums tied down to it, and this real tall, skinny guy comes out with really short hair,” Lifeson recalls of Peart’s entrance. “And we were so cool in satin pants and platform shoes and long hair and all that stuff, so I was thinking, ”˜Oh, this isn’t going to work out at all.’ ”

“Suddenly, he’s playing all these triplets with his feet,” says Lee. “And I looked at Alex, and Alex looked at me, and we’re like, ”˜Uhhh.’ You know in 30 seconds this is not a normal drummer here.”

Nor a normal lyricist. When Peart signed on as Rush’s drummer, he also took on the band’s lyric-writing duties, beginning one of the most infamous oeuvres in the entire rock canon. Peart did not write like a lyricist. He wrote like a philosopher. A German one. In translation. “I was ambitious and had wide interests,” says Peart. “So I kind of tried writing about everything: autobiography, science fiction, fantasy, social commentary and junior philosophy.” In 1975, after their straight-ahead metal album, Fly by Night, Rush dived off the deep end of prog with Caress of Steel. The album, whose five songs contained the 12-minute ”˜The Necromancer’ (which drank deeply from the well of Tolkien) and the 19-minute ”˜The Fountain of Lamenth’ (about a search for the fountain of youth), tanked. The band went on an internally dubbed “Down the Tubes Tour.” “We were living in a little Dodge Fun Craft van, playing 250 shows a year and getting no support for the record,” says Lifeson. “ ”˜Nadir’ is the right word,” says Peart. “It’s not just your career, it’s you. Nobody likes us, nobody wants us.” But at this rock bottom, Rush found their moment of clarity. “We just decided, ”˜Oh, fuck it, let’s just make a good record,’ ” says Lee. “We really did think we were going out in flames.”

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The result was 2112, widely considered Rush’s masterwork: a seven-part, dystopian fantasy complete with interplanetary war, robotic vocal effects, instrumental fireworks and clerical bureaucracies straight from the Dune trilogy. With a theatrical pitch somewhere between Jesus Christ Superstar and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, 2112 portrays a galaxy controlled by one Red Star of the Solar Federation, whose Priests of the Temples of Syrinx dictate all cultural life. In the titular year, a young hero discovers an ancient, mind-freeing relic ”“ yes, an electric guitar ”“ and brings this Promethean gift to the Talibanic priests, who promptly wreck it and ground him, sending him off to his bedroom, where he presumably smokes bud, bums out and eventually kills himself. After which a coup brings a new galactic order and completes the most heroic rendition of the cranky-adolescent-male consciousness ever committed to vinyl.

2112 went multi-platinum and won Rush their independence. But it did more than find an audience. With philosophical touchstones in Orwell, Nietzsche and the band’s acknowledged hero, Ayn Rand (whose politics got the band members labelled cryptofascists in the late Seventies), the album played a role analogous to that of L Ron Hubbard’s Scientology-launching book, Dianetics ”“ eventually amassing the most die-hard, detail-obsessed rock fans in history.

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