Anthem: Rush in the ‘70s offers an interesting look at Rush’s formative years but is not a particularly well-written read. Author and music critic Martin Popoff doesn’t necessarily write this book, rather transcribes unused dialogue from the magnificent 2010 Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage documentary as well as reprints interviews gleaned across the years. The end result is bad grammar, run-on sentences, and more repetition than Neil Peart has hi-hat fills. Through all those massive shortcomings, the book is about Rush – one that arrives all too soon following Neil’s heartbreaking death – and does offer insight to their early touring days. Popoff’s opinionated liner notes makes up for the pasted-together narrative.
You want to hear about Rush? Let me tell you some fun Rush stories. I guarantee these make a better read than Anthem.
Rush is the Holy Spirit of my personal Rock trinity. With Bruce as the Father and the Talking Heads as those punk-ass Sons (and Daughter), Rush is that all-encompassing, ever-powering spirit of the radio that fed my geek soul as a teen and remains a reliable foundation of pop-culture relief. I have seen their concerts consistently since 1987. Own their entire physical discography across the mediums of vinyl, cassette, CD, VHS, DVD, and probably even a laser disc. Was blown into silence on 7 January 2020.
In the Spring of 1981 this Gen-Xer was more involved with comic books, the Star Blazers animated show (everyday at 3:30!), and simply trying to survive within the social order known as the third grade. Keeping up with all things rock-n-roll was simply outside my nine-year-old cultural context. My parents listened to Tammy Wynette and Johnny Cash. I didn’t know what my musical taste was outside of John Williams’ score to Star Wars. Fortunately my closest friend had older siblings who, along with my cousins, schooled me in The Who. Journey. Michael Jackson. When my entire class was awarded an afternoon outside of school at a nearby county park, a call-to-arms was issued. Students were permitted to bring along a radio. My nascent musical tastes would be put to the test.
As would my radio.
To use the vernacular of the day, no one had a mere radio. The real feel handle was a boombox. A ghetto blaster. An AM/FM cassette player with large speakers that could be hoisted onto a pair of shoulders, or above your head as Lloyd Dobler would triumphantly do at the decade’s end, capable of slamming out rock, pop, dance-hall disco, and show tunes for all I knew. Listening to Philly radio meant either Hot Hits 98 (with the Motor Mouth Terry Young) or the King of Rock 93.3 WMMR. Each competitively spinning Blondie’s “Call Me”, “You May Be Right” by perennial Philly favorite Billy Joel, or Journey’s commanding “Any Way You Want It.” Spring 1981 also had radio play from a completely different band that was drastically outside of Philly’s hard lovin’ hard rock. One whose synths and drums would make a lasting introduction.
Nothing from Philly FM was blasting out my radio, which was more like a suburban doohickey than a ghetto blaster. Single speaker. Single cassette. Single dream. I had my pride broadcasting out of that monaural speaker. Pride that was silently muted when placed up against some of its double-cassette, quad-speaker, hi-speed dubbing competitors being dragged along like weapons of war by my Cro-magnon classmates. You know, even in the third grade I didn’t feel the need to overcompensate.
Once the showing of the goods had passed and the march to the park commenced, classmates actually enjoyed the music coming from the Little Radio That Could. They kept pace. They listened. Perhaps even strutted as disco wasn’t completely dead yet. Honestly, I don’t know what was playing. I was enjoying the vibe.
Until Mike Vascola commandeered my radio. He of dimpled cheeks and twinkling eyes. and perfect hair. We were friends throughout our primary and secondary education, I do take the slightest sense of arrogant joy with the knowledge that swagger, style, and, oh yes, perfect hair, does not last.
At least, not for everyone. Just saying.
However, annoyance that my radio was so easily swiped aside, I must give Mike credit for the reason on why he took my radio and for the eventual discovery.
“Hey! They are playing that new song… ‘Tom Sawyer’!” he rejoiced. His head of perfect hair – that in 1981 was plentiful – bopping along in time to that jangly guitar rhythm.
Tom Sawyer? I thought. Did Mark Twain write a rock song? Ah, the innocence of youth.
Martin Popoff’s Anthem doesn’t make it to Moving Pictures (1981) abruptly cutting off like a Spinal Tap show following Hemispheres (1978). The subtitle for the book is Rush in the ‘70s after all. And there is some meat on those bones after the fat is sliced away. Drummer Neil Peart, bass player Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson all have keen insight and fun stories to share. Those same stories are then retold – over and over – by their management, their parents, their roadies, other bands, By-Tor, Snow Dog, and the entire Solar Federation. Gene Simmons, bass player for KISS, breaks the repetition with his own style of amusing tales. His introduction to the band. His memories. Funny asides. As usual, Simmons’ antics are worth the price of admission.
Other than listening to “Tom Sawyer” on a third grade march, my true introduction to the band, like that of Gene Simmons, came with its own sort of pyrotechnics.
The Fall of 1985 brought along high school, girls, and access to more comic books. Other than dealing with the devastating departure of David Lee from Van Halen, and decoding that “Born In the USA” was not the flag-waving parade stomper Ronnie wanted it to be, I was skewing to the pop-side of FM. Duran Duran’s “A View To A Kill” was bad-ass synth pop (kinda like Roger Moore’s entire run as Bond) and Madonna whispered that she was crazy for me. Or you, I guess.
I was a crucifix-carrying Catholic in those days but the allure of the Methodist youth group from the next town over was a Protestant siren song of mini golf afternoons, Friday movie nights, and teen girls outside of my main social network who bathed themselves in aphrodisiac quantities of Aqua Net. I again found myself circumnavigating unknown social castes without a Star Map of Hollywood. Again I found myself congregating with the group of guys who had a boombox.
“This is Rush,” the big guy with dark mullet announced as if introducing a title card contender.
“Rush?” I asked, flipping through my mental cassette tray. “The ‘Tom Sawyer’ guys?”
“Aw, dude!” the big guy with the ginger mullet painfully interjected. “Rush is so much more than ‘Tom Sawyer’! This is newer stuff. Listen!”
And I did.
The few tracks I heard from Signals proved that this was certainly not “Tom Sawyer,” which was a song I had heard since with Geddy’s high vocals and Neil’s cloudy lyrics. Nor were these songs really like anything I had heard. Journey’s sappy love ballads. Duran Duran’s dirty sex riffs. VH’s balls-out rock numbers. Songs all about love and relationships and yearning and, in one instance, James Bond. Rush’s were a universe of difference. The lyrics to “The Analog Kid” calls out a boy pulling down a baseball cap while staring at the sky. “Subdivisions” is all about outcast kids at a mall. This is stuff I get. Real world situations I could relate to.
The one thing Martin Popoff perfectly gets right is breaking down Rush’s relation to their music. Rush are consummate professionals who feed off doing their brand of music their way. Coming off Fly By Night, perhaps Rush’s last true foray into pure hard rock/metal they began to do their own thing… and continued doing that for the next 40 years. Popoff might be far from the world’s greatest music journalist but he does display his geek cred in hyperbolic zeal.
“I forgot my ticket.”
John’s announcement deflated my triumphant proclamation of We made it! My first Rush concert! spoken seconds earlier. And suddenly the Spectrum seemed further away than ever. The sounds of 2112 and “Xanadu” blasting out of, naturally, boomboxes littered throughout the parking lot full of tailgaters destined to be the only way I’d ever hear this music.
Hold Your Fire (1987) was the first Rush album that I truly made my own. The first I bought as an early release. The album I’d be able to see as my first tour. Hold Your Fire remains among my personal favorites; I feel it is one of their most complete albums.
I was there with my own power trio: myself, John, Scott. Whoever once said you can choose friends but you’re stuck with family only got it half right. The three of us remain closer than most families I know. Our bond of friendship remains as fresh today as it did thirty-three-and-third years ago.
Except for that time in the Spectrum parking lot.
When I was about to deny John’s existence.
Condemn him to wander among the broken bottles and Philly rats as a tormented soul while Scott and I air drummed away to “Force Ten” and “Time Stand Still” along with twenty thousand other fans. Fans who remembered their tickets.
The December sun beat down on that asphalt lot. On our backs. Our furrowed brows. I had driven over the bridge and into the lots of the South Philly arena complex in my beater of a Mercury. I was contemplating giving the keys over to John. Letting him drive home and back again.
“Take her,” I said. Keys dangling.
For a trio of South Jersey teens, Philly was an urban fortress of sin and crime. And a gleaming promised land. Skyscrapers that beckoned from beyond the bridge. Also a prison of sorts. Once on the other side of the Delaware River a quick return to Suburbia was not so easily justified.
Inspiration hit. John snapped his fingers
“I’ll buy a ticket from a scalper!”
Astonishment and amazement hit. As if the evil forces of Philadelphia had truly and quickly corrupted us. We were set to purchase an illegal ticket.
“Yeah. Who cares. I’ll buy a cheap ticket and sit with you guys anyway.”
With the authority of Tom Sawyer himself, John marched across the lot. Seeking out that lowest of lifeforms, the Illegal Ticket Scalper.
Then he returned. Moments later. Ridiculously easy. Albeit $25 lighter.
And the concert started.
We jammed. We jumped. We air drummed. We screamed for an encore. We never wanted the night to end.
After the encore. Humming with electricity from the spectacle. Singing along with thousands others to the “Temples of Syrinx” in those long-demolished grimy halls. That’s when I asked.
“Where was the seat? From the scalped ticket?”
“Oh,” John replied as matter of factly as they come. “On the floor. Like, the eighteenth row.”
“Eighteen rows from the stage?” A far cry from our first level up against the wall placement.
Friendship man. More stronger than the allure of an eighteenth row seat.
Popoff’s scribed interviews truly accomplish the innate friendship of the band. The passions they shared. The stories they told. Even though Anthem is a slog of read at times, the magic of the band vibrates out of those pages.
This has inspired me to revisit Rush’s early releases. In their entirety. For the first time in years. If anything this is my personal tribute to Neil who tragically died from brain cancer in January.
Anthem is truly for diehard and completists, which is ironic considering the openness of Rush’s music. Their legacy is a binding force that has certainly contributed to keeping my sanity intact over the years. Sadly, their previously-announced retirement now appears concrete without the Professor behind the drum kit. Their collected music will continue.
“All the world’s a stage and we are merely players,” someone once sang. Probably heard on a boombox. A snare drum popping in the background. Somewhere a boy lies in the grass, unmoving, staring at the sky. Listening to the words. Feeling the music. Moving. Grooving. Don’t know what I’m hoping to find. Totally knowing what it is Neil has left behind.