|January 27, 2002
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Rush fans are a fiercely dedicated and somewhat obsessive lot. I last
wrote about the band in January 1998, offering the apparently controversial
observation that, despite the streamlined charms of its '80s material, it
has basically been downhill for the Canadian trio since 1978's
"Hemispheres," the last of its grand concept albums, and the beginning of
the end of bassist Geddy Lee's original "Donald Duck on helium" vocal style.
I still get hate-filled e-mails (one or two a month!) for that one. But I
remain unrepentant: My favorite Rush was the one of grand statements, where
the lyrical ambition was matched by the musical muscle, and this Rush was
never better than on "2112."
Though the band formed in Toronto in the late '60s, treading a unique
path somewhere between heavy metal and progressive rock, it came into its
own when Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson replaced original drummer John
Rutsey with Neal Peart, an Ontario native with amazing technical chops and a
sharp intellect honed by voracious reading (though he was a high-school
dropout). The trio made a huge leap forward musically and conceptually, with
Peart stepping in as lyricist.
Along with a fondness for science fiction and fantasy ("By-Tor and the
Snow Dog"), the drummer immediately emphasized his two favorite themes:
individualism and the glory of the creative spirit. These are the values at
the heart of the 20-minutes-plus, seven-part title suite "2112," which took
up all of one vinyl LP side when it first appeared in April 1976 on Rush's
fourth album (its third with Peart).
Here is an exquisitely well-written parable about a society on another
planet in the future where the spiritual/political rulers (the Priests who
reside in the computerized temples of Syrinx) subjugate the masses by
tending to their physical needs and providing all the cultural distractions
they could ever want ("We've taken care of everything/The words you hear,
the songs you sing/The pictures that give pleasure to your eyes"). The only
catch is that the masses are denied the right of self-expression and, by
extension, free will or thought.
One day, an anonymous individual appears before the Priests with a "toy"
that he has discovered behind a waterfall--a guitar, a dangerous artifact
that contributed to the destruction of "the elder race" (that would be us,
back on earth). He's a little naive, our hero, initially thinking that the
Big Boys will hail his discovery and the incredible sounds he can make with
it. ("I can't wait to share this new wonder/The people will all see its
light/Let them all make their own music/The Priests praise my name on this
night!") Of course, they quickly disabuse him of this notion, berating him
during a public debate, and crushing his ax to splinters.
Anonymous flees to his cave by the waterfall, despondent that he will
never again know the joys of making music. Having tasted freedom, he cannot
return to slavery, and he kills himself. ("I can no longer live under the
control of the Federation, but there is no other place to go/My last hope is
that with my death, I may pass into the world of my dream, and know peace at
last.") The tune ends with the malicious authorities smugly voicing their
victory via the electronically altered voice of Peart: "Attention all
Planets of the Solar Federation, we have assumed control. We have assumed
Alright, I'll admit it: It's all pretty melodramatic. So is a lot of
great literature! Go mock Homer for "The Odyssey," why don't ya? The
underlying message is gripping nonetheless, and it's made all the more
powerful because it's meant to be heard , not read on the page, where
it's separated from the incredibly moving music.
From a sweeping introductory overture that touches upon all of the
different moods and musical themes, the song swings into the hard-rocking
introduction of the Priests, and then the beautiful, idyllic passage where
Anonymous discovers the guitar. A Zeppelinesque contrast between light/dark
and lilting/heavy prevails during the debate with the Priests before we
enjoy a meditative soliloquy by our crushed hero. Finally, it all wraps up
with the aptly titled "Grand Finale."
Throughout, Lee's vocals are full of passion (though they're admittedly
an acquired taste), and the interaction of his melodic bass and Peart's busy
but propulsive drumming is astounding (think Keith Moon meets John Bonham
while jamming with Charlie Mingus on speed). Meanwhile, Lifeson merges the
musical invention of Yes' Steve Howe with the hard-riffing gusto of Zep's
Because the Priests get what is undeniably the coolest riff (the bad guys
always do; witness the Pharisees in "Jesus Christ Superstar"), some fans
mistakenly assume that the band is siding with the oppressors (i.e., the
Priests are the heroes). They fail to recognize that Lee's opening crooning
of the line, "And the meek shall inherit the earth" isn't the point of the
tale, but the exact philosophy that the band disputes. Some also
misinterpret the red pentagram on the cover as a celebration of
Satanism/hedonism. "All it means is the abstract man against the masses,"
Peart told Creem magazine in 1982. "The red star symbolizes any collectivist
"Collectivism" is the key word there. The liner notes to the album read,
"With acknowledgement to the genius of Ayn Rand." Often misinterpreted (just
like Rush), the controversial philosopher's basic tenet was that
collectivism (a la "The Brotherhood of Man" portrayed in "2112") requires
the most talented individuals to put themselves down and live not for
themselves but for the lowest common denominator of the "average" man. Rush,
like a lot of great rock bands, comes down on the side of the individual
being all that he can be (to steal a good slogan from a completely
As rock scholar and DePaul University professor Deena Weinstein writes in
Serious Rock, "Having experienced a 'different way of life,' of
taking responsibility for his emotions and expressing his real feelings, the
person who discovered the guitar is unwilling to resume the 'meaningless,'
'cold and empty' life under the Priests' domination. Death is preferable."
But the band doesn't celebrate or romanticize this death. I've always
thought that Peart condemns Anonymous for failing to fight on (as Rush
itself fought on), instead taking the "easy way out" a la Kurt Cobain and so
many other rock stars.
Though the five songs on the second half of the album (all of them under
four minutes long) do not match the accomplishments of the title track, they
have some worthwhile musical moments. Lyrically, they shed more light on
Peart's other then-current obsessions, especially "The Twilight Zone" and "A
Passage to Bangkok," a song about the marijuana trade. But to tell you the
truth, I'm usually so sated after the epic suite that I never flip the LP
over, or listen to the rest of the CD.
Musical snobs continue to scoff at the hubris of Rush's brand of
progressive metal, and the band itself has voiced mixed feelings about its
work in this era. "Certainly there are a lot of people who hate all of our
early records, and I would count myself among them," Peart told me in 1993.
(The group has been on hiatus since 1997, following the death of Peart's
daughter in a car crash and the loss of his wife to cancer, but it recently
began recording a new album.)
Nevertheless, "2112" has a classic rock 'n' roll message and an emotional
honesty that later Rush has never surpassed. The album stands as one rock's
greatest for anyone willing to put aside their preconceptions long enough to
listen. As Lee-as-Anonymous sings with his newly discovered instrument in
hand: "Listen to my music/And hear what it can do/There's something here as
strong as life/I know that it will reach you."
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