Saturday, June 27, 2015

Just Another Mad, Mad Day on the Road: Some Thoughts About Seeing Rush in Concert

Annie, a journalist friend of mine from Cleveland, tweeted last night that she was listening to "Moonlight Mile" by the Rolling Stones, a song I hadn't thought about in years (and one I used to play when I was a disc jockey). It's a song that was inspired by a musician being out on the road performing, far away from home, far away from the people he loves.  In late 1973, I moved from Boston to Cleveland to follow my dream of being in radio, and suddenly, I too was far away from everything and everyone I knew. It wasn't easy for me to make friends and I often felt I didn't belong there ("...the sound of strangers sending nothing to my mind/ just another mad, mad day on the road...").  But there was no way I could just turn around and go back to Boston. This was my chance, and I had to make it work.  I especially identified with the line in "Moonlight Mile" that said, "oh, I am sleeping under strange, strange skies..."  No offense, but Cleveland always felt strange to me.  It never felt like home... until I met Rush.

You already know the story of how I was the music director at WMMS-FM and I received their home-grown album on Moon Records from Bob Roper, then a record promoter at A&M of Canada.  You already know how I fell in love with the song "Working Man" and gave it to Denny Sanders to play. And you already know how the audience responded almost immediately. Rush came to Cleveland in August of 1974, as I recall, and there's a photo of that online in a number of places. (Neil had only recently joined the band, and we all looked so much younger...) I had no idea at the time that I would begin a 40+ year friendship with the guys in the band, as well as with their management, and with several members of their road crew.  I never expected that we'd stay in touch over the decades, nor did I expect that they'd acknowledge me on two of their albums, give me a shout-out at one of their early concerts, continue to remember me when being interviewed about their career, or ask me to introduce them at the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and I didn't expect to see them inducted (finally) into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. (In fact, there was no Rock & Roll Hall of Fame yet in 1974.)

But while I was in Cleveland, Rush gave me something really valuable-- they gave me acceptance. Thanks to my association with them, suddenly people who had never wanted to talk to me decided I was okay after all.  Thanks to being Rush's unofficial Big Sister, record executives who wanted to sign them treated me as if I mattered.  Suddenly, I wasn't just some music director at some radio station, and the fact that I didn't smoke or drink or do drugs (at a time when all three were common activities in both the radio and record industries) was no longer a problem.  I was a friend of Rush.  People I didn't even know began to treat me with courtesy. Of course, many of those people quickly lost interest as soon as I could no longer give them access to the band; Rush signed with a record label (Mercury Records in the US); the Moon album was re-released on Mercury, followed by a new album with new material, Fly By Night.

In mid-April 1975, I left Cleveland to work in New York and then in Washington DC, before going back to Boston.  Rush and I kept in touch periodically:  they no longer needed a Big Sister, and we were all much busier with our careers.  But they never forgot what I had done to advocate for them in those early years.  To this day, even though the band has gained world-wide (and well-deserved) fame, the guys in Rush and the people who work for them still treat me with kindness and affection; it is deeply appreciated.

I had the privilege of seeing Rush in concert on Wednesday June 23, along with Annie, who flew in from Cleveland to watch them perform. She had already seen them in Columbus (she's a rock journalist), but she told me this show was even better. Based on what fans told me (including some who have also seen multiple shows on this tour), she was right:  the Boston show far surpassed everyone's expectations.   There were so many high points:  the visual retrospective with images from the many years of Rush's performances; hearing songs they hadn't performed in a while or rarely performed (fans told me that "Jacob's Ladder" was especially impressive for them, as were "Xanadu" and "How It Is"); and witnessing the energy and enthusiasm that Rush brings to every concert.  The newspaper critics were effusive in their praise for Rush's performance, and the fans took to social media to express their appreciation for such an amazing evening of music.  I did too:  the fact that Geddy is able to achieve the same vocal range year after year, and the fact that the band's musicianship remains so consistent and precise-- this is something unusual in the universe of rock bands.  Too many older rock stars become parodies of themselves, but that has never been the case with Rush.

And yet... despite such a great show, many of us have mixed feelings. When I revisited that Rolling Stones song, I couldn't help but think of Neil, who almost didn't want to go out on tour because he didn't want to miss a moment away from his wife and little daughter.  Yes, he was his usual outstanding self playing the drums:  Neil is a total professional, and if you didn't know that he feels ambivalent about this tour, he did not give it away.  (Nobody in Rush has ever "mailed it in." They always give 100% to the fans.) But now more than ever, Neil is "sleeping under strange, strange skies," rather than where he wants to be, near his family.

I had a chance to spend some time with Alex before the show.  He too has his own mixed emotions-- while his health is better now, and he is pleased with how well the guys are playing, he too misses his family, especially his grand-kids. I totally understand. The guys have been living the hectic life of rock musicians for more than forty years; it can be gratifying, but it can also wear a person down.  And while I am rarely at a loss for words, this time, I admit I didn't know what to say to Alex-- for one thing, he had several friends waiting backstage and I didn't want to intrude, but for another, I don't know if this is the last time I'll see him in concert. We hugged a lot.  Sometimes, words get in the way.

I sat in the mixing booth during the show, watching Howard Ungerleider (whom I've known for as long as I've known the band) doing his magic with the lights and effects.  And at the end of the show, Howard and I hugged too-- neither of us knows what the next thing is, and at this point, it's all very uncertain.  Maybe there will be more live concerts.  Maybe not.  Only the band knows for sure.  But for me, once again, I remain overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude for all the years of great music, for the devotion the guys show to the fans, and for the friendship Rush has continued to give me.  And in the end, whether there are more tours or not, I have a lot of great memories, and a lot of love for three guys from Toronto whose songs have been the soundtrack for so many people's lives... including mine.              


  1. Thank you for your part in bringing Rush to prominence, Donna. I saw them Wednesday night and thought before the show that this could indeed be the last time I'd see them live. A friend of mine suffered the loss of her 14 year old daughter and throughout it she seemed so brave. She texted me that one thing that helped her through it was, of all things, a quote attributed to Dr. Seuss: "Don't be sad it's over. Be glad it happened." So that is what I will think when I go through my ticket stubs and my concert programs from the 17 shows I've seen Rush perform. Gratitude, humility, and thanks. Rush will always live on in my memory. I was 17 when I first heard "2112" and my life has been richer ever since.

  2. Until the band utters the words "Farewell Tour" or "Last Album", I am going to remain optimistic that the Rush machine will continue in some form or fashion. Slowing down isn't necessarily the same thing as retiring, and as long as they're all six feet ABOVE ground...."anything can happen" (to quote .Prime Mover from Hold Your Fire).

  3. Kim, I echo your sentiments. I know Geddy had spoken about performances in some fashion. I have taken this from the Rolling Stone interview. Geddy:

    "But it doesn't mean we don't want to work together still, it doesn't mean we won't do another creative project, and I've got ideas for shows we could do that don't involve a tour."

    I believe that optimism, perhaps somewhat tempered, is a good thing. Circumstances might look and feel different for them after a nice, long rest at home with children and grandchildren.

  4. I agree with Kim. I'm not buying into the media's farewell tour hype. I'm a firm believer that when Rush decides what they're going to do next, they will put this on their website as a Dear Loyal Fans announcement before saying a word about it to the media because they respect their fans too much to do otherwise.

    Rush came close to breaking up when Neil took his hiatus. We didn't know about it until they got back together. But this time, the ambiguity of the band's future is front and center for this tour. I get the impression that they will decide after the tour is over what they're going to do next. And this is what is the hardest part to swallow -- since they don't know, we don't know either.

    So what I'm reading from your blog post and from many other writings of fans online is it's time to start preparing ourselves for what may be the inevitable.

    I'm not. Yet.

  5. In the end, I account my life to these boys. On two separate occasions when i was in a low point in my life, I was going to end things the wrong way. On each occasion I was listening to music and the boys came on. On the radio mind you.. so by mere happenstance they happened to be on and the lyrics that I listened to prompted me to change my mind. It is so hard to understand how they were playing on the radio at just the right time on both occasions. i'm not completely out of the woods. I'm forever grateful for them as well as Donna H.

  6. Thank you for such a thoughtful piece. I discovered Rush in 1975 at the age of 10. I love the diversity of their music. I can always find something to suit my mood. I feel blessed to have found them so young and still able to enjoy them live after 40 years. It is nice to know that are as kind as they seem.

  7. Neil has commented at times that he sees himself as a normal guy who hits things with sticks. He has also written lyrics that I come back to visit five or ten or fifteen years later and see a different angle, or a nice bit of wordplay. I have come to realize that the three of them have been a union that came together by chance and things worked out perfectly. Rush is a rarity in anyone's book. I would daresay they have kept many of us out of some very dark places. Thank you, Anonymous, for sharing all that you have.

  8. Thanks for the enjoyable read Donna, and thanks again, for opening the worldwide window to the beauty of Rush. Having seen several shows on this tour, I too, share the mixed feelings that many others, and presumably Rush themselves are feeling as each show passes. They are so joyously on top of their game, playing arguably as well as they ever have, yet this feeling that the end is approaching keeps creeping toward the forefront. "Sleeping under strange skies" for me will be when the reality sinks in that there will be no more Rush concerts to celebrate. I don't cry all that often, but I expect some tears (of mixed emotions) to fill my eyes throughout the evening on August 1 in Los Angeles.

  9. Donna - glad you had the opportunity to catch up with them. I had mixed feelings watching them during their second Toronto show, but just kept thinking "If this is the last time I do get to see them play, what a great show to go out on." I find I've been listening to them more lately, and remembering when/where I heard songs the first time, what they sounded like to me the first time I heard them, being star struck as a naïve teenager the first time I saw them. I remember an interview with Geddy one time where he said he couldn't understand all the fuss, because they were just songs. That was probably 25 or 30 years ago, but I think we all gain an appreciation for the importance music plays in our lives as time goes by. In this case, we've had the opportunity to see a band consistently producing a level of material, and maintaining a level of creativity and capability that we are not likely to see again (based on the music being churned out today). Glad we had the opportunity. If this IS it, and I really do think this is it as far as watching them play live as Rush, I can be satisfied with it. And I suspect the boys can too.