In 1987, CJ Kaplan saw Rush for the first time. Twenty-five years later, he brought his son along for the ride.
“When we are young
Wandering the face of the Earth
Wondering what our dreams might be worth
Learning that we’re only immortal
For a limited time.”
–Rush, from the song “Dreamline”
“Dad, Dad, Dad,” Alex fired, in the machine gun style of voice he uses when he really wants to get my attention.
“Yesss,” I replied languidly, smiling at my own vain attempt to slow him down.
“Dad, this year for my birthday, I want to go to a concert.”
“Not a kid concert. A real concert…at night…in the city. You know, a real concert.”
“I understand. I’ll see what I can do.”
It was June of this past year and Alex was about to turn 10. Under my influence (Brainwashing, my wife would say. But, let’s not split hairs.), he had become a hard rock fan. Where many of his friends are bopping around to One Direction, Ke$ha et al, Alex prefers the sonic styling of Ozzy Osbourne, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. Even before he asked, I had hoped to surprise him with tickets to the Black Sabbath reunion tour. But, to the shock of absolutely nobody, the lads couldn’t agree to terms and they only ended up playing one U.S. show out in Chicago.
Since Sabs was out I had to find another, equally mind-blowing, concert experience. And that was when Rush presented their own gift to me.
Two weeks before Alex’s birthday, they released their nineteenth studio album, Clockwork Angels, and announced a slew of North American tour dates to support it. Tickets for the October 24th show at the TD Garden in Boston went on sale the next day and I scored a pair for Alex and me.
Rush has always been one of my favorite bands. I discovered them, as many of my contemporaries did, when they had a huge hit with the trippy teen anthem “Tom Sawyer” back in 1981. At a time when laser light shows were becoming popular, Rush was an ideal soundtrack for those nights spent peering up at red and green beams painting pictures across the ceiling of the local planetarium.
When those laser shows failed to interest us anymore, most of my friends left Rush behind and went on to the Police, Devo, The Talking Heads and other New Wave music. While I liked a lot of those bands, I still couldn’t shake the effect Rush had on me. In my egocentric teenage world, it felt like they were talking directly to me. No more so than on their 1982 hit “Subdivisions” from the album Signals. These three soft-spoken, hard rocking Canadians understood me better than anyone. So, instead of going forward with my friends I delved backwards into Rush’s older catalog. There I discovered Fly By Night (now featured somewhat ironically in a Volkswagen commercial), the bizarre Caress of Steel with one song clocking in at over twelve minutes and another at nearly twenty and, of course, the seminal 2112 whose entire first side tells a story about a future dystopian society that is eventually saved by music.
It was like these guys had spent the first seven years of their career purposely trying not to have a radio hit. And I loved them for it.
Rush was the kind of music that I often listened to alone. Not in a sad or depressing sort of way, but more as a form of introspection. I’d put it on while I was doing my homework, especially if I was working on a writing assignment. I found that it inspired my creativity. Sometimes I’d listen to a Rush album from beginning to end while following the lyrics provided in the liner notes. As a budding writer, I was amazed by the dexterity of their language, the liquid images they created with a combination of words and music. Rush was heavy. Rush was deep.
When I entered my freshman year of college in 1987, Rush had just released Hold Your Fire. It wasn’t their best, nor their most successful album. But, it did have a few memorable songs (“Force Ten” and “Time Stand Still” come to mind) and they hit the road to support it. One of their first stops on the American leg of the tour was the Utica Auditorium, a mere twenty minutes from Colgate University where I was in the process of failing Economics.
Of the new friends I had made at school, three were like-minded Rush fans and we headed off into the snowy November night to join other upstate New Yorkers at the home of Utica’s minor league hockey team. Three things stand out from that night: The first was that the opening act, the McCauley-Schenker Group (featuring original Scorpions guitarist Michael Schenker), was awful. The second was that one of my friends drank a pint of vodka and orange juice before the show, lost his glasses under the seats, then passed out and slept through the entire concert. The third was that Rush absolutely killed it that night. They ripped through “The Big Money,” “Subdivisions” and “Limelight” before they even said hello to the audience. Then, they toggled back and forth between new stuff and old stuff highlighted by “Closer to the Heart,” one of the most elegant songs in their canon. And they finished with the scorching instrumental “YYZ,” “The Spirit of Radio” and the transcendent “Tom Sawyer.”
As we half-carried, half-dragged my near-sighted friend back to the car, I was still flush with the excitement of seeing my heroes in person. Over the next twenty-five years, I would see them on another half-dozen occasions. In that time, they have remained comfortably aloof from mainstream radio and ignored musical trends like thrash, grunge and rap metal (with the notable exception of “Roll the Bones”). Now, you’re more likely to hear them on Classic Rock radio than anywhere else. Which brings us to this past Wednesday.
After a couple of pepperoni and sausage slices at a tiny pizza joint in the North End, Alex and I made our way into the TD Garden. We were early, but there was already a pretty good-sized crowd.
“Hey, Dad. There are women here,” remarked Alex.
“I know. I’m just as surprised as you are,” I replied.
For those who have never been to a Rush concert, the crowd is overwhelmingly male and tends to be comprised of music geeks, metal heads and a few burnouts who come for the light show. Many women, my wife included, would rather attend a Monster Truck Rally/Professional Wrestling double bill than go to a Rush concert. But, tonight the fairer sex was well represented.
We were walking through the concourse on our way to the seats when we passed a makeshift kiosk selling Rush memorabilia.
“You know,” I said to Alex, “since this is your first concert you really ought to get a t-shirt.”
“Really?” he said.
“Sure. Pick one out.”
So, Alex selected a Clockwork Angels tour shirt while I resisted the strong temptation to buy a Rush bottle opener for ten bucks. The closest thing they had to his size was an Adult Small. When he put it on, it went down almost to his knees.
“Don’t worry,” said the guy behind us. “He’ll still be wearing it when they tour thirty years from now.”
The rest of the line laughed along with us. Rush fans love the fact that these guys still tour relentlessly even though they’re all pushing 60. Seeing them in another ten or twenty years is improbable, but not impossible.
We got to our seats and Alex took in the stage set-up. Most of it was draped in black cloth so as not to reveal any tricks the band had up their sleeves. As the crowd filled in the seats around us, Alex grew restless.
“Will they play ‘Tom Sawyer?’ he asked.
“Yeah, but probably not until later in the show,” I responded.
“How about ‘Limelight?’
“Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll see.”
At last, the lights went down and the crowd erupted. The show opened with a humorous video that borrowed from the Clockwork Angels theme and featured the three band members dressed as gnomes. (Rush loves broad comedy and take a lot of their video cues from The Three Stooges and Monty Python. Probably another reason why women avoid their concerts.) Then, suddenly, the stage lit up and Geddy prodded his keyboard into the opening notes of “Subdivisions.” They followed that up with a muscular version of “The Big Money” and I noted that they had opened with the same two songs twenty-five years ago, only in reverse order. I looked over at Alex and smiled.
The first set of ten songs consisted of deep cuts that weren’t among their mainstream hits. If you were a hardcore Rush fan, it was sheer bliss. If you were a casual fan or had been dragged to the concert by a hardcore fan, you were checking your e-mail.
After a brief intermission, they returned to the stage and did something I’ve only seen one other time. They played their entire new album in order from start to finish. Boston did the same thing on their Third Stage tour back in 1987. (Of course, it had been nearly ten years since Boston’s last album. So, they can be forgiven. Sort of.)
Accompanied by a nine-piece string orchestra, Rush took us through all of Clockwork Angels using carefully timed video to tell their musical story. Now, I like the new album, but I probably didn’t need to hear the whole thing at the expense of some of the classics.
“Dad, when are they gonna play ‘Tom Sawyer?’ Alex asked. He looked tired and I sensed the newer music wasn’t connecting with him.
“Soon,” I said, and directed his attention to the video screen and the light show.
When they finished the new album, they segued into a string of old favorites featuring a highpoint in any Rush show, the Neil Peart drum solo.
“Alex,” I gushed, “you are watching one of the top 3 drummers of all time.”
“What about the other two?” he asked.
And with that, Alex was completely engaged.
After a sing-a-long version of “The Spirit of Radio,” Geddy thanked the crowd and the band walked off stage.
“Where are they going?” asked Alex, panicked. “What about ‘Tom Sawyer.’”
“You’ll see,” I smiled.
The crowd thundered, lights flashed and the video screen came alive. The band returned to the stage and then boom! The crushing, watery opening to one of rock’s most familiar songs rang through the arena. Alex screamed the lyrics to “Tom Sawyer” along with every other fan, hardcore and otherwise. It didn’t matter that they played “Temples of Syrinx” to close the show. Alex had gotten what he came for.
As we made our way back to the car, I put my arm around him as we walked.
“What did you think?” I asked.
“It was great! Thanks!”
After a moment, he added, “It would have been great to hear ‘Limelight.’”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
We got in the car and flipped on the radio.
“This is for everyone just getting out of the Rush show,” the DJ growled. And from the car speakers came a live version of “Limelight.”
I looked at Alex in the rearview mirror. He was mouthing the words and smiling.
We may only be immortal for a limited time. But some nights will live forever.