Rush isn’t your average rock band. They sidestepped critical barbs and temptations on tour to develop a unique sound and voice. Though scarred by personal tragedy, the trio stuck together for over 40 years and never stopped pushing their limits. Their success comes as much from key choices made along the way as it does from talent or passion.
Built on a Strong Foundation
If your goal is lifetime success, it never hurts to start early. Geddy Lee (vocals, bass guitar, and keyboards) and Alex Lifeson (lead guitar) were already fast friends by high school. Together with drummer John Rutsey, they began playing church basements around their hometown of Willowdale, Canada. Rutsey was replaced by Neil Peart just a few years into the band’s career. Even after thirty years in the band, Neil still regards himself as “the new guy.” And whereas Alex and Geddy tended to be more gregarious and sociable, Neil presented as quieter and moodier. By recognizing and accommodating the differences between band-mates, Rush solidified their professional and personal bonds.
Although the crowds were small and the pay smaller, this young band launched with supportive parents who were willing to buy some of the group’s first instruments. Even though they did not always understand or agree with every decision their children made, it was clear that Rush was built on a stable familial base.
Hitting the Wall, then Breaking Through
Escaping from a cycle of small, low-paying gigs did not come easily to this Canadian band. Hampered by the lack of major record companies in their homeland, they wanted to strike a deal with a United States firm. At first they found they could not make a record in the U.S.even if they gave their material away. Once Rush did start making records, critics responded brutally to the band’s unfamiliar sound. Their unusually long arrangements made it hard to get songs played on commercial radio. The group was pressured by the record companies to make their material more mainstream and therefore more marketable.
Instead of bowing under pressure, the band rebelled and recorded the album 2112, which included an A-side with a single science-fiction-inspired rock ballad more than 20 minutes in length. At the time, the trio feared that this would be their last record, but they at least wanted to go out with a bang. The unexpected commercial success of 2112 silenced the corporate call for conformity. Never again would Rush be challenged for creative control.
The Nerd Rock Stars
In their early years, Rush opened for a great number of more influential bands. While many featured acts were drinking, drugging and womanizing on the road, Rush developed a reputation for quiet evenings after gigs and avoiding the groupies. The one exception was Rush’s first drummer, John Rutsey. While on the road, John drank heavily despite suffering from diabetes. It was for health reasons that John was dismissed from the band and Neil Peart took his place in 1974. Neil read extensively while on tour and there is little doubt his studies contributed to Rush’s complex lyrics and themes. Neil also grew fond of cycling and would sometimes hop off the tour bus 100 miles out of town to bike the rest of the way to the show. Alex became an avid golfer and reported that playing up to five days a week helped keep him physically healthy and manage his stress levels. Meanwhile, Geddy immersed himself in baseball and collecting. All three men are married and have children. Although Rush developed a reputation for stellar musicianship which came only at the expense of intensive work, they know when and how to pull back from their grueling schedule when necessary.
It would be more pleasant to end the story here with Rush seemingly at the top of their game, but no one is immune to life’s cruel twists of fate. The happily-married Neil Peart lost his daughter suddenly in an auto accident in 1997. Only 10 months later, his wife died of cancer. It took the combined wisdom and courage of the band to help Neil work through his grief. For his own part, Neil was self-aware enough to know what would soothe him: travel, nature, and solitude. And so he set off on a 55,000-mile trek on motorcycle throughout the Americas. While Alex and Geddy feared for Neil’s safety on the road — not just from external hazards, but also from self-harm — they gave him the time and space he needed. After returning from his journey, Neil remarried in 2000 and began to reintegrate himself with his bandmates who had waited patiently for him. Literate as ever, Neil wrote of his tragedies and travels in the travelogue Ghost Rider [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?).
Creativity Comes from Creative Differences
Those in search of the one distinctive sound of Rush will come away disappointed, for Rush has continuously reinvented itself across the space of 40 years. Starting from the roots of hard rock and heavy metal, they evolved into a synth-heavy progressive rock band in the 80s and then fused the hard-rocking energy with refined musicianship in the 90s and 2000s. They have never been afraid to incorporate other musical styles, instruments, or technologies in their music. On tour, they now incorporate drama and humor into their musical offerings. Rush’s changing sound has not always come easily. Alex Lifeson was openly dismayed at the band’s turn towards keyboards, while the same move was championed by Geddy Lee. However, these differences pale before the decades of touring and the strong bond between all three men. In 2010, they’ve gone on tour once again and have announced the release of their next album in 2011. Having built not just a band, but a musical family, there is every reason to believe that Rush will be adding to their gigantic musical repertoire for years to come.
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