Music and identity are often inextricably linked, each informing the other until they form something some called the self. Most begin to realize this in early adolescence. For me, this meant scribbling “LINKIN PARK” in my sketch book next to my drawings of peace sign flashing aliens being circled by California condors or clipping buttons on my shirt because I saw a picture of Kurt Cobain doing it.
If you’re lucky, music influences you long before you reach Erikson’s adolescent search for identity, surrounding you on weekend afternoons or car rides to school. In my childhood, two stacks of CDs sound tracked my homebound hours more than others: my mom’s Beatles CDs and my dad’s Rush CDs. Through elementary school, I was always drawn to the slick simplicity and melodies of The Beatles, singing “She Loves You” in the shower and hearing “Rocky Raccoon” as a single entendre about a cowboy raccoon. Saturday cleaning sessions with Rush on the stereo were fine, but there was something my young mind couldn’t access in it. I knew what “How could I dance with a another (wooo!)/when I saw her standing there?” meant in all its conceivable forms, but I didn’t understand why my dad sang along with lyrics like, “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” while scrubbing the counter. I could nod my head along with some of the songs if they had a pronounced enough guitar riff or bassline, but mostly I just wanted to put on Please Please Me.
That changed the summer before sixth grade when I saw my first concert: Rush at Tweeter Center in Tinley Park. I was 11 and excited, not because I wanted to see the show but rather because I got to do something with my dad that he wanted me to do with him. I undoubtedly would have seen a Rush concert before that July if it they hadn’t been on hiatus since I was six after the death of drummer/lyricist Neil Peart’s daughter and wife within 10 months of each other. Many fans (my dad included) thought they’d never play together again, but the release 2002’s Vapor Trails and the subsequent tour marked the end to five years of silence from a band that had been recording and/or touring almost incessantly since 1974 before tragedy had seemingly stopped the music forever in 1997. The lyrics on the record, specifically tracks like “One Little Victory” and “Ghost Rider,” sounded like a sort therapy as well as a declaration of hope for the future from Peart. Of course, I didn’t know any of this as a kid ogling the merch stations and marveling at the rows of people at the Tweeter on the day of the concert. I just knew I got to do something with my dad that I knew he liked, and that was good enough for me.
At the suggestion of the long-haired guys behind us, I stood on the spring-loaded seat in the open air of the amphitheater before the show, watching men move mysteriously stuff around on the stage and listening to the formless flow of conversation splash around me like a soft wind blowing over Lake Michigan. And then the roar of the crowd when the auxiliary pre-show music stopped and something unexpected tried to drown the cheers of thousands of people: the Three Stooges theme. The Three Stooges had been another fixture of my childhood and I hardly had time to process their customary greetings before their hellos were replaced by something different entirely: the big booming bliss of Rush playing live and these three guys sounded HUGE. I was in love. I nodded my head and watched Geddy Lee sing on the huge screens because our seats, while not in the lawn, were too far away for the men on stage to seem anything other than action figures with toy instruments. My dad sang along with some songs. I noticed grown men pretending to playing Peart’s drum parts or mimicking Alex Lifeson’s mind-melting guitarwork with nothing but the air around them. Guys my dad’s age or older smiled and high-fived each other during songs I’d only heard on the speakers at home, and it started to make sense why my dad liked this better than The Beatles. This rocked.
Still, there was an element to the band that I was missing out on in middle school. My dad had a habit of saying, “Rush is the thinking man’s band,” and I could sense hints of pride in the statement. By the transitive property, this made my father a thinking man. Of course, that’s the band’s cultural calling card to some extent: nerdy rock music made by nerds, for nerds. Rush is never going to be playing in the jock’s Mustang convertible in a movie, but it might serve as an appropriate backdrop for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Even just this past week, Rolling Stone put the band on the cover of the magazine for the first time after decades of dismissal despite ranking third all-time for consecutive gold or platinum studio albums by a rock band, consistent placement on year-end tour gross lists, and undeniable influence on rock musicians; still they could not resist the urge to reduce Rush to this geeked-out stereotype. This view of Rush’s music permeates as I learned quickly from Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd fans at school (which in itself is problematic because Rush should not be pigeonholed into “classic rock” since, unlike most other bands of the genre, they have grown together for over 40 years) who were quick to make fun of Lee’s wailing voice and Peart’s lyrics about space priests, fictional characters, and foliage. I could understand some of the criticism, however I couldn’t reconcile one major problem: My dad wasn’t a geek. My dad was a blue collar guy who I knew had a hard job even if I didn’t know exactly what he did. He hated computers. He was strict yet sensitive. He loved to laugh and my friends liked him, which I was pretty sure was the opposite of being geeky. Plus, my dad didn’t even really play those songs that always got made fun of by other hard rockers and, eventually, punks at school. If he did, he liked the ones with lyrics that seemed less fantasy and more feeling, softly singing lyrics like, “Just think of what my life might be in a world like I have seen/I don’t think I could carry on/this cold and empty life,” and, “A warming trend/a gentle friend/a man must build a fortress to defend,” while standing at the kitchen counter or at the basement table.
As I grew older, my love for Rush grew independently from my father’s fandom. I’ve now reached the age where I’m beginning to experience the band as my dad may have at my age, forming an identity parallel to his, similar while separate. I’m now the working man and I’ll always be the analog kid just as I know he was, and is. I’m starting to understand why Rush is the thinking man’s band and it seems as though the cultural consciousness is beginning to agree.
A little over a week back, we went to our seventh Rush concert together at the United Center and as I walked past the merch stations and beer vendors, I realized I felt something familiar: I was getting to do something with my dad that he liked and that was good enough for me. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.