“Did you guys ever write a song so epic that, by the end of it, you found you were influencing yourselves?” – Steve Colbert, interviewing the members of the band Rush
The other day I listened to Rush’s “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” from their second album, Fly By Night (1975). This was the first song where the band showed an interest in moving beyond the straight-ahead rock they had been playing around Toronto bars for the previous half-decade, and into the proggier style that would come to dominate their sound for the next half-decade: from the first concept side (remember sides?) “The Fountain of Lamneth” on Caress of Steel later the same year (not to mention the 13-minute suite “The Necromancer” on the same album), to the last one, “Hemispheres,” in 1978, and the two half-side masterpieces “Natural Science” and “Camera Eye” in 1980 and ’81. “By-Tor” is a hair under nine minutes long—only a minute and a half longer than either the ballad to restlessness “Here Again” or the pipefitter anthem “Working Man,” both on the debut album Rush (1974)—yet utterly different in tone, structure, and subject matter. The lyrics are a Tolkienesque fantasy narrative; and rather than an extended jam, the song is a suite, divided into four subtitled sections, the last two of which do things with time and timbre that the band would not have attempted a year earlier, and which crop up on some of the shorter songs on Fly By Night as well.
Listening to “By-Tor” today makes me think of the ribbon of woods running behind the houses along the street where I grew up. The actual wooded area was never more than 50 yards wide; in some places, it petered to a row of trees along someone’s split-rail fence; it was a quarter-mile long at most. None of this mattered; we (the kids on the street) called the network of footpaths traversing them “The Trails,” and gave different sections epic names according to their geography, like “Spider Mountain” for a hill that was covered with brambles. The Trails were a sliver that fell, somehow, between property lines—as if anything in our society actually could—and so we appropriated them: they became our property, in the same way rock ‘n’ roll was our property, if only because our parents disclaimed it.
Going back there today is like going back to your old grammar school and looking your first-grade teacher in the eye. There’s noplace where you can’t see the back of somebody’s house … noplace where “The Trails” don’t reveal themselves for anything but what they actually are. So it is with “By-Tor”: Across the Styx. Of the Battle. Bombastic names for bits of a nine-minute piece of pretty simple music. Even the “suite” just masks an elongated verse-chorus-bridge structure.
Yet, there is a difference, and it’s part of the magic of music that I can still so easily fall into a more youthful view. I can’t see The Trails anymore the way I saw them when I was ten, but I can hear music at least something like how I used to. My ear is easier to trick than my eye, and my memories—as well as my imagination—lie much closer to the surface in sounds, scratching, hammering at my eardrums from the inside.
Which is not to say I don’t listen differently than I used to. I do. “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” is a song I never much cared for when I was younger. Today, it charms me like an old music box. The easy romping chords of the verses, the youthful energy, the directness of approach, the naïve faith with which the music approaches the story (“Of the Battle” features a duel between a growling bass (“By-Tor,” according to a note under the picture of Geddy Lee) and a squealing guitar (“Snow Dog”))—all these things resonate with me today in a way that the elements of the song that are supposed to signify art-rock complexity (e.g., the time-screwy riff from which the band subtracts one note at a time to end “Of the Battle”; it could have come right out of a Bartok quartet) don’t. For all its pretense, “By-Tor” is indeed just a long rock song, the kind of song a very young band writes when they’re dreaming of epics-to-be.
But then perhaps all epics are relative. And if so, then it should be conversely noted that the grandest symphonies can sometimes seem paltry, the work of children playing at the sublime, as much as an art-rock “opera” or “concept album” can sound like kids who think that, by mussing their hair a little, they’ll sound like Beethoven. If the essence of music is (as E.T.A. Hoffmann so forcefully contended) that Romantic yearning for the infinite, then by definition music comes up short. “By-Tor” may be like the woods behind the house where I grew up, but Beethoven’s Fifth is hardly the Alps in fog, no matter how many of those old Kultur videos I watch. (They were, and perhaps still are, notorious for interspersing performance footage with either pastoral or sublime landscapes.)
Epics are always also retrospective: they exist to inflate events from the distant (and sometimes not-so-distant) past, to “realize” them in mythologically-pristine form, and so loom large in cultural memory, in the same way the woods behind my old house do in individual memory. Epics, then, are a particular mode of looking backwards, and as such it’s only fitting that they themselves should be outgrown, should themselves be looked back upon from a vantage unimaginable to the time in which they were composed. I remember staring at a map of the action of the Argonautica and marveling inwardly at the way the narrative had magnified a trip from the Greek isles up the Hellespont and along the southern coast of the Black Sea. Perhaps Apollonius thought the same of Odysseus’s travels; and the explorers of the sixteenth century surely thought it about Jason, and the men on the moon, too, about Vasco de Gama, each old cosmos folded inside a newer one, like Russian dolls. And yet, just as quickly as we outgrow epics, we happily shrink ourselves to fit inside them again. It’s one promise music makes, and occasionally keeps: that we can return to inhabit the epic imagination, in a way we can’t really return to the woods behind the houses where we grew up, except in dreams.