Teenage Kurt is standing behind me again, as he sometimes does. His long hair is sweaty from winter track practice. He’s gnawing insouciantly on a microwave burrito. And once again, he’s not happy with me.
“Aw, what the hell!” he’s saying, around a mouthful of processed beans and cheese. “You’re writing about Neil Peart?”
Teenage Kurt didn’t much care for Rush.
He respected their abundant musical talent, and he liked it well enough when they deployed some radio-friendly hooks. “Tom Sawyer” was on one of the mix tapes he made off the radio, and “Freewill” may have been as well. He also owned one or two Rush albums he’d taken a flyer on from the dollar bin of the record store where he spent all his free cash.
But for the most part he found Rush far too cold, too clinical, too lacking in groove or evident passion.
If Toronto, as Peter Ustinov quipped, is “New York run by the Swiss,” then Toronto’s favo(u)rite power trio might have been Cream weaned in Geneva or Lausanne — that is, with a big dose of precision standing in for the raw power.
Teenage Kurt’s opinion was very much in the minority in Rochester in the Eighties and Nineties.
Rush were among the brightest stars in the rock world. Certainly, you couldn’t listen to the local classic-rock/hard-rock station, WCMF 96.5, for very long without getting a dose of Rush.
(Teenage Kurt suspected Rush was especially popular in Rochester because it was just across the lake from Toronto, more or less, and shared a certain chill, snowy, reserved atmosphere. He later came to realize that Rush was huge everywhere, selling out arenas in warm places like L.A. and Tampa Bay and Phoenix. But Rochester, so gray and cold, still seems like a great place to listen to Rush.)
Just how beloved were Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart in that place and time?
A few years ago, a whim led me to revisit the senior quotes in my senior-year Penfield High yearbook (Class of ’91). I observed at the time that Rush had been selected for more senior quotes than any other person or source.
I skimmed the book again today to verify that, and if it’s not true, it’s very close. It’s possible on further review that Rush actually tied with the Bible.
Yup, it was Rush and Jesus Christ ruling the subdivisions back in ’91.
I don’t correspond with my classmates, so I don’t know if their views of Rush have changed.
Mine has, a little bit.
I still tend to lean toward the numbnuts side of rock n’ roll — the Nuggets side; the “Surfin’ Bird” side; the side of the teenage garage band on Bandcamp that sounds like they recorded their four-song EP through a wet woolen sock. And I can only hear so many alternating bars of 13/8 and 15/8 time before I want to put on a record with Al Jackson Jr. on it.
That said, I respect Rush more now. While I don’t play them very often, I think I have a little more understanding of what they were trying to do. The MC5-style gut-punch was never one of their weapons, but they used their power in other ways that reward a close listen.
Neil Peart impresses me more as an adult than he did as a kid, too. The number of people who can express themselves so powerfully and elegantly through musical chops and words is pretty slim. He might have been a touch dry compared to whatever lyricists Teenage Kurt liked (Steven Tyler, maybe?), but he’s aged a lot better.
(He wasn’t too smart or high-flown to be epigrammatic, either, as witnessed by the number of my classmates who chose his words to represent them for eternity.)
Neil Peart is gone now. And, with a glance over my shoulder, so too is Teenage Kurt. He was opinionated, he was cocksure … and, while there’s no arguing with taste, it sure seems like he might have been wrong.
Back home in Rochester?
Well, the news of Neil Peart’s death started crossing social media shortly after 4 p.m. today. After some lag time, this snippet from WCMF’s playlist indicates Rochester’s Classic Rock was on the case.
One can almost imagine a ripple of recognition running out across the suburbs, through all the engineers, auto mechanics, payroll clerks and schoolteachers who grew up in Rochester with Rush as a companion.
And, just maybe, a few perceptive teenagers put their burritos down and felt it as well.