Alex Lifeson and Grace Under Pressure
[One of the first posts I wrote for this blog (a decade ago) was a defense of Rush, prompted by the premiere of the documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage at the TriBeCa film festival (“Not an Apology,” 6.8.10). “Epicness” (1.15.11) followed shortly after. As I begin to look into the sunset of this blog—that is, as I watch Helldriver ride into the evening redness in the west on his fire-breathing mare, and my eyeballs, following him, begin to steam, and bubble, and melt down my cheeks in bloody, vitreous tears—I think it high time to add one more. Don’t imagine it’s the last Rush post. But future ones will have to await the Resurrection.]
During the first decade and a half of their history, Rush released three live records, one after every four studio albums. The live records were intended as both milestones and measures of growth—pencil-marks on the wall of their development: that year we were THIS tall …
Somewhere along the way, these live-album milestones came to signify moments of transformation in their sound. There is some sense to this. Since the band has invited us to see each set of four studio albums as a chapter (e.g., the liner notes to All the World’s a Stage (1976) claim this first live record “mark[s] the close of chapter one in the annals of Rush”), they enter fan discourse as a shorthand way of referring to different periods in the band’s history, and to fans’ individual taste preferences.
The problem with the “chapter” idea is that it tends to overemphasize similarities among the four albums grouped together, and to obscure cross-chapter affinities. There is simply too much transformation within these chapters, and too many affinities across live-record milestones, to warrant a cohesive view of the band’s sound over any four records, however we try to group them. Caress of Steel, for example, has more in common with A Farewell to Kings than with Rush; the transformation from Hemispheres to Permanent Waves is at least as stark as anything the band did across live records; and so on.
That last comment might raise some eyebrows in the fan community. As every fan knows, 1982 was a watershed year. There is (the story goes) no chasm so wide as that between pre- and post-Signals Rush, which is supposed to denote the moment that keyboards overwhelmed the band’s sound, transforming them from a proggish power trio into something that sounded more like the New Wave. Word choice says everything: what to some ears sounds suffused in keyboards to others sounds smothered. But whether suffused or smothered, awash or overwhelmed, so stark is this purported division that the fan community is generally understood as divided into two irreconcilable camps: “old Rush” fans (i.e., pre-1982, with Moving Pictures as the culminating record, and covering almost the entire range of songs still played ad nauseum on classic rock radio); and those more ecumenical “Rush fans,” whose interest in the band has remained consistent up through their most recent efforts.* This tendency to see Signals as game-changer is further buttressed by the band’s subsequent decision to split with longtime producer Terry Brown, with whom they butted heads during the making of that record.
Conventional narratives have a seductive explanatory power. Given, however, that the meridian of objectivity is ever a dream, their illuminating light always casts shadows. Clarity comes at the expense of distortion; distance sacrifices details that only resolve on a closer view. Consider: keyboards were an integral part of Rush’s sound beginning with A Farewell to Kings (1977), when the Moog started to make its appearance in songs like “Xanadu” and “Madrigal.” Nor was the band a complete stranger to synths before this, as the spaced-out noises that open “2112” attest. Nor, given the bands that inspired them in 1975-6, like Floyd and Yes, would there have been much of an aesthetic hurdle to expanding the use of keys. (Interestingly, keyboards only began to form the contested border of Rush’s root genres of hard rock and heavy metal in the early ‘80s, and that likely in response to the very genres Rush embraced.) That said, keyboards in the four records pre-Signals were mostly ornamental, providing color and atmosphere for particular sections of songs (e.g., “Xanadu”), or texture to round out and enrich the trio’s overall sound (as happens throughout much of Permanent Waves and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Moving Pictures). We get hints of the broader role keyboards would come to play in “Jacob’s Ladder” (Permanent Waves), and then in “Camera Eye” and “Vital Signs” (Moving Pictures). Signals’s coup was to have the keys migrate out of bridges and transitional passages, into verses and choruses, though seldom both in the same song (see below); and much of the rest of the band’s eighties output would continue this trajectory toward a more expansive, central role, with the guitar more and more settling for the keyboards’ original role of providing ornament and color. Thus, rather than keying in on Signals as a moment of rupture, we might instead see the dozen years between Kings and 1988’s Hold Your Fire as a bumpy continuum, with the balance tilting ever more stage left.
Another reason Signals gets singled out as the band’s fall from grace is the well-documented infighting about the role of keyboards that clearly came to a head around this record. While Geddy Lee (bass, keys, vocals) spoke admiringly of Trevor Horn and Ultravox, and of the importance of the keyboards to create textures and “emotional colors,” and Neil Peart (drums) pointed to Peter Gabriel as an example of a musician “finding [his] feet” in the new musical moment (qtd. in Martin Popoff, Contents Under Pressure, ps. 102-3), Alex Lifeson—himself an admirer of many of the same bands and artists—seemed to be wondering what had happened to his guitar. He might even have been wondering what had happened to Lee, ensconced behind his wall of keyboards like a castled king, Lifeson himself a superannuated knight, tilting at sonic windmills. Signals also marked the beginning of Peart’s use of drum machines, though at this stage still behind the scenes; in the “diary” included in the Signals tour book, he writes about the humbling experience of having the Roland teach him new rhythmic patterns—shades of the chess master playing the computer. The electronic drums would only arrive with the next album, Grace Under Pressure (1984), and then only marginally; by Power Windows (1986), Peart’s kit was spinning around during performance, to reveal (quite literally) a whole other side of his playing, whose new sounds he incorporated into his through-composed drum solo. It was a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation in reverse … though, despite his moniker as “the professor on the drum kit,” some fans clearly wished Peart would play a little less Jekyll, a little more Hyde.
In stressing continuity over rupture, I don’t wish to be understood as engaging in some teleological fantasy about the band’s evolution.† As every biologist knows, evolution is a lot messier than the slow accretion of traits a cladogram would seem to suggest. But I do think evolutionary change is a useful lens through which to view Rush’s music. It is perhaps the most curious feature of their history: on the one hand they are viewed as paragons of musical integrity, enshrined in their anthem “The Spirit of Radio”; on the other hand, there is perhaps no band in the history of rock that responded more completely to the currents of the moment. (Indeed, I remember visiting the radio station at my sister’s college, pulling out their copy of Signals, and finding some DJ or other had left a nasty note (imagine!) taped to the cover, to the effect that the band had no identity at all.) Were they any other band, fans would have labeled them sell-outs. The tension is generally resolved by the idea that their change was based on free aesthetic choice rather than on market expectations, an idea which the band promoted in ancillary materials (“somehow we became popular!” they exclaim in the liner notes to Exit … Stage Left) and encoded in their lyrics (e.g., “Tom Sawyer”’s “Changes aren’t permanent/ But change is,” or “Digital Man”’s “Constant change is here to stay”). (It is also resolved by a tendency among fans to view the band in a sort of vacuum, fandom encouraging a certain deafness to context, particularly unjust where Rush is concerned.) The band’s penchant for leaving fans behind only confirms their integrity, as does their favoring of newer material in concert over “jukeboxing” (though the ubiquitous medleys of their later years complicate matters). Whether we choose to place the emphasis on outside influences or the band’s morphing these influences into their own sound, Rush were clearly involved in a continuous dynamic exchange with a changing environment—musical, cultural, technological. Viewed in this light, we might say that their first dozen years were marked by constant rupture, and thus a paradoxical continuity.
If conventional narratives shape our understanding, they do so by shaping how—and even what—we hear. Once the standard narrative is accepted, it becomes part of our framework for listening, and even whether we choose to listen at all. Anything that bumps up against this intellectual construct is essentially muted by the assumptions we bring to our listening. This is a particular injustice to Alex Lifeson. For what is generally lost in the narrative of the sacrificing of the power trio on the altar of pop and the guitar’s asphyxiation under pillows of synths—and what is muted as well when we imagine the band’s history as a continuum of slowly-accreting traits—is the mighty bump that was 1984’s Grace Under Pressure. Two years after Rush was supposed to have “smothered” their guitar in keyboards, the band released what I like to think of as their last great guitar album. Rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the sound the band had adopted with Signals—rather, that is, than break out the Gibson doubleneck and ES-355—Lifeson evolved—in fact, had already begun evolving on Signals—to accommodate the evolving sonic matrix of his bandmates, itself an adaptation to changes afoot in the broader environment of popular music. All these pressures, and all this close listening to the musical moment, combined to nudge him into some of the most graceful guitarwork of his career
I’ve often wondered about the extent to which Rush’s identity as a power trio and their ethos of trying to reproduce studio albums live (without hiring extra musicians to tour) impacted their aesthetic decisions about how to incorporate keyboards. Given that Lee was never quite able to do three things at once, oscillation between the bass and keys was a given; and this oscillation had the effect of creating a split between “newer” (prog-cum-New Wave) and “older” (hard rock/heavy metal) sounds.‡ On Signals, the split runs right down the middle of the songs, between verses and choruses, amplifying what Peart called their “dynamic contrast.” “Analog Kid” is a good example: rockin’, riff-dominated verses yield to (for all intents and purposes) guitarless choruses of church-organ synth and delay-heavy vocals. “Chemistry” operates in much the same way; “Subdivisions” does the reverse.
“Analog Kid” is also notable for being the last bona fide burner of a solo Lifeson recorded. There are a few shreds of this left on the second side of Pressure, but nothing like the extended scramble that had defined many a Lifeson solo up to this point. That guitarist was laid to rest on Signals. Perhaps the competition from Van Halen clones and Yngwie wannabes had simply become too stiff; if so, then this was another evolutionary pressure to which Lifeson responded. What comes to the fore on Signals, and even moreso on Grace Under Pressure, is another side of his playing—the one that had given us such gorgeously different solos as “Bacchus Plateau” and “Limelight,” “Different Strings” and “Cinderella Man,” “The Trees” and “Camera Eye,” all of which are distinguished less by technical skill than an ear for melody and structure, timbre and texture. In some cases—“Cinderella Man,” “Limelight”—the bass is busier than the guitar: Lifeson seems more interested in milking the life out every note he plays (and “note” is rather stretching it … like he does).
Lifeson has cited the solo on Signals’s “Chemistry” as a personal favorite, and with good reason: the oblique approach to the song’s progression and melody, the highly gestural sound, the searching phrases he uses to build tension as he finds his way back to and then embellishes the song’s chief melody, all speak to a master soloist at work. But there are a number of other tracks on this record which, both as accompaniest and soloist, demonstrate more clearly the emerging style that would come to dominate Grace Under Pressure. Listen to him, for example, on the bridge of “The Weapon”: his guitar surfaces from a cataclysm of electronica, first matching the noise, then slowly finding its voice with a bugle-call arpeggio that morphs into an accelerating phrase—every element of the music heightening every other—; and then holding center stage alone for a breathtaking moment before the band picks up around him and carries the song back into its groove, its main progression, and its final chorus. Here, the solo no longer stands apart from the song in traditional front-of-the-stage, above-the music virtuosity; nor is it a “break” for an all-band jam (e.g., “Freewill”): it is an integral part of a developing composition. One could remove the guitar solos from, say, “Natural Science” and little would be lost (it sounds like blasphemy to my ears, but it’s true). Not so with “The Weapon.” The solo is too tightly wedded to the song.
Even the solo on “Subdivisions,” which seems an afterthought, bears the marks of an emerging sound: it hardly departs from the melody; all its rather limp energy seems geared toward ushering in the closing chorus. What I would most point to in this solo, however, is the brief, concluding chord progression. It seems so innocuous in the context of this song; viewed from the vantage of Grace Under Pressure, it is nothing short of revolutionary. (NB: Is it the embedded solos, the truncated stage for virtuosity, more than the oft-cited production or abiding presence of keys, that led to the feeling the guitar is somehow “absent” on Signals? Or does the negative guitar judgment of Signals largely rest on “Subdivisions,” which, together with the solo-less “New World Man,” are the only tracks casual listeners seem to know, the only ones occasionally played on the radio? “Subdivisions” is the song that most lives up to those keyboard pejoratives. Even a synths-heavy song like “The Weapon” has a lot more guitar; the synths are there more for atmosphere. By turns, at least, the sound on this record is a lot more balanced than “Subdivisions” (or a miffed Lifeson) would suggest.)
And then there’s “Digital Man.” It’s not the solo I want to call attention to here, filled with Lifesonian noise and wah, the interplay with the bass and drums closer to a “Limelight,” with which it favorably compares. It’s the guitar sound as a whole. You can hear it most clearly on the section leading into the solo: twangy, vibrato-enhanced chords that settle and fade over Lee’s walking bassline and Peart’s fickle ride. We hear something similar in the powerful introduction to “Countdown” (much the best part of that song). If that burner of a solo on “Analog Kid” was a swansong for the Lifeson of old, “Digital Man” is the grown-up Lifeson, and the grown-up Rush: the one whose rebellion Terry Brown couldn’t put down.**
The overall approach to the guitar for color and texture rather than riffs and blistering solos; the heightened attention to dynamics and effects; the use of chords in solos, from which single note phrases emerge, or vice-versa; and the integration of these solos into the overall composition: these are the chief ways Lifeson’s sound began to transform on Signals, a transformation that would come to startling fruition on Grace Under Pressure. Many years ago on this blog I made the somewhat exaggerated claim that some of Voivod guitarist Denis “Piggy” L’amour’s best work sounds like “one long chordal solo” (see “Deulogy,” 1.4.11). One could make a similarly exaggerated claim about Lifeson on this record. Once again, it’s difficult not to view these shifts in terms of evolutionary pressures: Lifeson, now competing with a more obviously polyphonic instrument, began to think of his guitar more like a second keyboard, and to investigate more seriously its polyphonic possibilities. In his atrociously-titled Contents Under Pressure, Martin Popoff writes disparagingly about “guitar-emulating keyboards,” but the reverse is at least as true: Lifeson’s becomes a keyboard-emulating guitar. “Emulating” is really too strong a word, though. Grace is a guitar record to boot; the instrument simply asserts itself in a way to which Rush fans, at least at the time, were not accustomed.
One of the ways the guitar asserts itself on Grace is simply a matter of pitch: Lifeson spends a lot more time playing in the upper register, the skinny frets, the unwrapped strings. Many years ago I heard a beautiful lecture at Julliard by the great Gunther Schuller, about Duke Ellington. (Julliard was always having free music-oriented events, which, as a chronically-broke part-time teacher working just a few blocks away, I tried to take full advantage of.) Schuller noted that, in some Ellington compositions, the clarinet, trumpet, and trombone played in opposite registers to a traditional Dixieland arrangement. In other words, Ellington had purposely reversed the ranges in which we expect to hear these instruments, in order to arrive at something new to the ear. A similar thing happens, I think, on Grace Under Pressure. Rather than the guitar’s heavy power chords undergirding Lee’s achingly high voice, on Grace Lee’s voice, which (as Chris McDonald notes) from Permanent Waves forward had come more and more to occupy a middle register, the guitar floats over the top with high triads, squealing noise, and harmonics. It fills the range Lee’s voice used to occupy.
“Red Sector A” is perhaps Lifeson’s chief accomplishment on this record. The song has keys galore, true. But it’s impossible to imagine “Red Sector A” without the reefs of high triads Lifeson builds atop the throbbing electronic pulse and steady hi-hat beat. They dominate the choruses, extended versions of which appear in the song’s introduction and conclusion, and with which the mid-range arpeggios of the pre-choruses contrast. Even the verses, where the keys are most prevalent, work in call-and-response with the guitar (and, in turn, the drums). As for the solo—even the word sounds funny, what with the way the guitar participates in the movement through the song’s bridge—it is exemplary of Lifeson’s new sound. After the second chorus the song is almost driven to a halt—mostly by contrast; it is the first time the motoric electronic pulse drops out—and this in itself fills the moment with tension, which Lifeson capitalizes on with a series of chiming, widely-spaced harmonics. The solo develops into a sort of fanfare; drums up the ante, though without losing the tom-focused spareness that itself contrasts with the hi-hat-and-snare pattern that had dominated the song up to the break. Lifeson answers Peart with parallel chordal passages. And then the break returns, though the guitar’s approach shifts, mixing notes with delicately-strummed chords and arpeggios, alternating poignancy and anger, feeling out each moment, until a full bar of assertive strumming calls back the beat. In good pop form, the song climaxes here, and transitions back into the pre-chorus, but with a new urgency: Lifeson’s heavier attack, Peart’s fills, and above all Lee’s voice. The nuanced emotional tableau—the mix of horror, despair, resignation, and hope of life in the camps—is carried by Lifeson’s rich and evocative playing, and the way he both responds to and participates in creating the developing composition. Again, there are inklings of all this on Signals, but no real precedents. It was what needed to happen in the musical context of Grace Under Pressure.
Other songs on this record show a similar shift in approach, if a little less dramatically. In “Afterimage,” an upbeat rocker about loss, Lifeson’s solo emerges piecemeally from an extended bass-and-drum crescendo, which, for a time, the guitar does little more than rupture with splashing, reverberating chords that fade, as per “Digital Man,” inflected with vibrato. Whistling synths slowly rise in pitch and volume; Peart doubles up on the snare; the listener waits for the guitar to arrive and fill out the sonic space it has repeatedly approached and abandoned. When it does, it is almost anticlimactic: a rather resigned chord progression, played over a more fully fleshed-out beat. The second time through the chord voicings change, ornamented with added notes and rhythmic flourishes, slowly climbing the neck into “Red Sector A” territory until, on the third and final chorus (in the jazz sense of the term) the guitar emits one strangled, descending phrase—the only single notes in this “solo”—before a final chordal scream. The whole is little more than an embellishment of the underlying progression, a recycling of the musical materials at hand; its power is its restraint, its refusal to abandon the song’s modest framework. “Distant Early Warning” follows a similar pattern. In fact, both songs alternate between repeat-note riffs and traditional hard-rock chording, though “Warning” moves the reverberating chords into its reggae-infused verses. Here, the bridge opens with a transitional passage of ornamented chordwork much like “Afterimage”’s that, after one repetition, gives way to an eight-bar “break,” Lifeson playing a descending five-note, minor-key phrase punctuated by the bass and drums, repeated, transposed up the neck—and then another eight-bar section, cool to the former’s hot, where the full band “cruises” over the music of the verses, now driven along by a steady rock beat, the guitar playing a combination of single-note phrases and high triads. Much like “Red Sector A,” the section flows naturally into climactic pre-chorus, chorus, and finale.
There’s often a playfulness about Lifeson’s guitar that, in the midst of all this high seriousness—a high seriousness that often overcomes me when I try to write about music—I would be remiss not to mention. The wonderfully raucous solo of “The Body Electric,” for example, reminiscent of Jeff Beck’s second excursus on “Blue Wind”; “Kid Gloves”’s 5:4 campfire-song main riff, and solo as manic as anything Lifeson ever put on record—a running game of tag between self-comping and free-association-riffing; the moment where he leaps from a false-harmonics squiggle to a series of open-string harmonics that he lets ring together before stamping on the whammy bar is like the ethos of the whole song, condensed into a single bar. It’s miraculous, in part, for the way it manages to both do justice to and transcend the inherent limits of the material. For almost alone on this record, “Kid Gloves” has a stunted, preserved-in-amber feel. As much as “Subdivisions,” it is about the alienation and struggles of suburban teens. But how stark the difference in tone, and effect. “Subdivisions”’s power comes from simultaneously embedding us in the teen outcast’s drama and rising above it, to encompass the broader, suffocating Levittown pattern and “you are here” (and nowhere else) mall map: middle-class alientation as tragic fate. Despite “Kid Gloves”’s dark themes of scrums and bullying, the air of schoolyard naivete it captures so well never quite gives it space to breathe—except, that is, when Lifeson takes the gloves off to solo. Then again, maybe like “Analog Kid,” a more riff-centric rocker like “Kid Gloves” wants to take us back in another way: it feels weirdly nostalgic for “old Rush.” (Maybe Peart’s warning here was at least partly self-referential, about the bare-knuckle infighting that had left the band producerless, and unsure about where to put the new fulcrum for their sound.)
The importance of The Police to the band’s sound at this time can’t be overstated; it comes out particularly strong in the Police-inspired—almost Police-pastiche—“The Enemy Within.” But the whole record bears The Police’s fingerprints, and so it might be worth thinking a little about Lifeson’s style on Grace in relation to Andy Summers. It’s actually a pretty short step from “Vital Signs” to (leaping over Signals) the ska-infused “Enemy”: the staccato wank-wank-wank “Roxanne” chords punctuating a frenetic bass line and tight, static, Stewart Copeland-style beat. With Signals and Grace Lifeson had definitely moved in Summers’s direction of muted mid-range ostinatos, arpeggios, repeat-note phrases, and a combination of shimmering/sustained and stacatto chords. And yet, there is nothing in The Police’s oeuvre that sounds anything like “Red Sector A,” or the bridges and solos of any of the songs discussed—let alone the power-chord rocking that dominates sections of much of the material on Grace. Lifeson, more accustomed to playing a leading role (like everyone in this band), continued to give himself more liberty to move around; he was much more prone than Summers to announce his presence by altering his chord voicings and rhythmic patterns, to inflect his sustained chords with wah and flange, and, of course, to solo. (Even on the verses of “The Enemy Within,” each first chord Lifeson lets ring out; the other three he clips like a ska player. Would Summers have clipped all four chords? I think so.) In a 1984 interview with Free Music’s Andrew McNaughtan (retrieved from the website Power Windows), Lifeson cited Summers together with Midge and the Edge as guitarists he admired. His reason: “I think he [Summers] plays a really good role in that band. The guitar is just where it should be.” Fitting words to close with, this sense of Lifeson trying to find the place “where the guitar should be.” Perhaps that is what makes this period of his playing, and this period in the band’s history, so rich: as he (and really the whole band) retreated from the shoulder-jostling virtuosity on which they had cut their teeth and made their name, they were all working to find where they should be relative to each other; and this tension—this pressure—in Lifeson’s case between soloing and accompanying, and what that would sound like circa 1982-4, created a sort of musical estuary: the border between river and sea that teems with creation.
There is a wonderfully comic moment in Beyond the Lighted Stage where a woman recognizes Geddy Lee in a diner and asks him for his autograph. Lifeson is with him at the table; Lee stammers something like, “He’s in the band, too.” But the woman keeps gushing about Lee. The exchange speaks to something every fan sort of knows: Lifeson is the underdog. He is the least recognized, and (arguably) the least accomplished member of the band—the least likely to be voted onto one of those rock “best” lists. For bass and drums, the pantheons remained relatively stable, even stagnant. But rock, a guitar-driven genre for at least its first few decades, used to squeeze out a bushel of new guitar virtuosos every year, with every year marking new milestones in speed and technique. As a professor of mine once memorably imagined it, riffing on Emerson’s critique of talent: they pushed their elephantine testicles around in a wheelbarrow.
Lifeson was thus pressured to play the role of jester among kings; and, happily for him, it suited his personality. He may indeed be (as the band claims) the funniest man alive; he certainly comes across that way in interviews. It may be a reason the band’s chemistry worked for as long as it did. Another dour Peart, another workaholic Lee, would surely have broken them—never mind some testicles-in-the-wheelbarrow, arpeggio-perspiring Yngwieite. But from a technical standpoint, it also means that Lifeson was never taken as seriously as a musician. He’s written some marvelous songs, some wonderful chord progressions, some indelible riffs. But because it’s Rush, he’s expected to excel as a soloist as well, to be a putative virtuoso in his own right. It’s part of the band’s image and mystique, which McDonald suggestively compares to the integrated competitiveness of a string quartet. Of course, one can be a great guitarist without being a virtuoso in the narrow, classical sense.†† But not in a band like Rush.
Maybe a year or two after I started taking guitar lessons, I brought A Farewell to Kings to my lesson and played my teacher the solo from the title track. The lessons were always structured so that the first two-thirds or so we worked on sight reading, theory, chords, and so on, and the last ten minutes or so were dedicated to stuff we brought in—the sugar to the help the medicine go down. And so these poor martyrs to the Vanhalenization of the suburbs were reduced to trying to figure out crappy rock riffs and solos for their teenage would-be jukebox heroes, so that the parents paying for the lessons wouldn’t come in and give the studio’s proprietor an earful about how disappointed their kid was, the studio would remain solvent, and the teachers would remain gainfully employed, or at least as gainfully employed as was possible for those pursuing a career in music. Sad but true: when my original teacher left, my new teacher proved uninterested in helping me figure out the latest Iron Maiden solo, and I didn’t last very long after that. I thought he was sort of an asshole, but I probably should have spent more time looking in the mirror.
Anyway, I can’t say that Matt, my first teacher, had it all bad. He was the guy who introduced me to DiMeola and Holdsworth and McLaughlin (“You want fast?”). He introduced me to Jeff Beck, too, and he wrote out the chord progression to McLaughlin’s “Thousand Island Park.” We learned Steve Howe’s “The Clap” together—I can’t imagine that wasn’t fun for him—and DiMeola’s “Vertigo Shadow,” one of the master’s finest early-eighties acoustic compositions. He planted in me the seed of Wes Montgomery. He was the guy who pushed me, chided me, when I brought stuff in that I should be able to figure out myself. And he was right: it was easy, if I just leaned in and listened.
And when I played him the solo from “A Farewell to Kings,” he said just one word under his breath: “Sloppy.” I asked him what he had said. He said he hadn’t said anything. But we were both pretending. It’s what Mako says to Chuck Norris in An Eye for an Eye, after he knocks out some Bad Guy with a telephone. Sloppy.
If I’ve never forgotten that sotto voce takedown, it’s probably because I’ve always wondered if my lionizing of Lifeson was warranted; if what I really liked was the band, and my liking for the band prompted me to inflate his ability. And then maybe the fact that I liked the band so much prompted me to inflate all of them. And if it’s easy enough to harbor such doubts about our greatest infatuations, it is particularly easy with a band like Rush, about whom so many rock writers, and later so many of my peers, would tell me over and over that they (Rush) were among such childish things it would be best for me to put away. Of course, as Deena Weinstein wrote long ago about metal, the idea of being part of a beset minority is just the sort of thing that nurtures hardcore fandom. (Come to think of it, it might be this as much as musical affinities—the idea of being part of an oppressed, frenziedly devout minority—that accounts for the significant overlaps between the audiences for Rush and heavy metal.) If Rush is already a cultural underdog—and the band certainly cultivated this image with a virtuosity that outpaced even their musicianship—then Lifeson is the underdogs’ underdog, about whom I must double down on my devotion.
And so the constant argument with myself. No, Helldriver, Lifeson never quite reached the level of maturity as a composer that Summers did on that haunting, ethereal accompaniment to “Spirits in the Material World.” (But neither did Summers, before or again. Or was it Sting? Sometimes one song, like a short story, has an incandescence the author never touches again. This is cause for celebration, not despair.) Lifeson’s chording was never as sophisticated as Jimmy Page’s, nor was he so adventurous about exploring different styles and sounds. (But then why should breadth be the marker of greatness. I do not ask this of many of my favorite writers, like Genet or (Flannery) O’Connor or (Cormac) McCarthy. Their own voices are enough.) Lifeson never quite constructed a solo as beautiful as some of David Gilmour’s. (But then
It’s little silly, isn’t it, these who-is-greater rankings? Browser clickbait creeping into the workings of our aesthetic consciousness. Maybe this paean to the underdogs’ underdog is just another attempt to shore up my faith. But let me be at least a little charitable, with both Mr. Lifeson and myself: it is an attempt to give the underdog his due, by shedding a little light (I hope) on a moment in his career that, to my mind at least, has been inadequately considered, and too-scantly praised. There’s a lot more going on here than “he’s louder in the mix.” There is a full-scale reinvention of his playing. The distance Lifeson traveled, the ways he responded to the currents of his time and his fellow musicians, his bandmates first and foremost: these things seem to me the essence of conscious musicianship, of conscious artistry.
Anyway, if I can’t speak about this in aesthetic terms, I have little desire to speak about it at all. The frustrating thing about the social-science turn in the humanities is that it has constricted and even eroded our language for talking about aesthetic experience, or at least for doing so in ways that are not immediately judged as naïve, often in the mind of the very person going out on a linguistic limb to say them. It’s a good thing, of course, to be conscious of the limits and blindnesses of our ingrained language. Then again, as Scott Burnham as noted, we may simply not have a language adequate to really say what music does; the social sciences have simply rushed in to fill the discursive vacuum. In doing so they have tended to disenchant the experience. We second guess our response to everything; the very language we would use to try to describe it is continually pulled away from us; and all the while, the music remains that something “out there” our academic writing can’t touch. Somehow, our language to speak about music must re-enchant the experience. It cannot be the language of besotted fandom. But it has to, through a trick of consciousness, double back on that experience if we are to have any hope of understanding it, not in terms of the arid language of ever-proliferating mediation, but as the soul-enriching and transcendent experience of contact. There is a poetry out there somewhere that can do this; there is a language awaiting invention. Maybe this is why the language on this blog tends to go on and on, a continuing thrust and parry with—and perhaps dodging of—truth. I admire Coltrane for this very reason: he goes on and on and on because he can’t quite get there. I always listen to him with a slight but nagging disappointment which, in hindsight, becomes a weirdly hollow satisfaction. Then I want to listen again.
I never particularly resented the sound Rush adopted over the course of the ‘80s—I say this as a guitarist—though I do think their compositions lost quality toward the end of that decade. To my mind, as they tried so hard to color within the lines of the standard pop song (a worthy, though perhaps not noble, goal), the colors themselves lost vibrancy; the eccentricity of their sound, its rougher edges in all senses—time, timbre, melody—slowly disappeared. As their songwriting focus shifted from riff and instrumental counterpoint to vocal melodies and texture, the juxtapositions of their three voices, so much the meat of what I’d listened for—what, that is, I’d been culturally prepared to listen for—and the bizarre and wonderful vocal lines as Lee tried to wrap himself around Peart’s cerebralisms, mostly vanished. If I am an “old Rush” fan, I am so with this difference: I think some of the material on their poppiest, synth-heavy records stands comfortably with their best music up through Moving Pictures; it’s just fewer and farther between, a case of diminishing returns.
Such an assessment leads me back to the uncomfortable questions asked above. After all, one way to manage one’s fandom is to periodize it. I am the most statistically average Rush fan: a white, middle-class, male professional, and an amateur musician, born circa 1970 (1969, in my case). I was fifteen when Grace Under Pressure appeared. This steady disenchantment and sunsetting of my fandom over the latter half of the eighties: was it a coping mechanism? We seldom stop to think about the way our feelings for artists are caught up with our emotional responses at certain ages, let alone the way these responses are mediated, not just by the juggernaut of the pop-music industry, but by a variety of other factors. This band, which for a time was everything to me, has shrunk over the years to occupy a small but significant place in my musical pantheon. Sometimes I listen to them the way I might look at a Disneyworld ride: less swept up in the world than admiring the craftsmanship. Other times I am caught off guard. (A strange expression to use about listening to music; for what is music for, if not to catch us off guard?) A song that never spoke to me thirty years ago might take on an unexpected resonance based on the way my taste has shifted since, and vice-versa with those songs that become the equivalents of things we wrap in gauze and put in the back of a dresser drawer, the ones I can only view through the lens of craft or the haze of nostalgia. I suppose we look at all youthful loves in a similar way. Maybe all human endeavor looks paltry in the pitiless gaze of hindsight. I am comfortable with the illusion of contact, if illusion it is—and I can’t know—and nobody can—and this is a terrible thing, isn’t it, this—if we are to be honest with ourselves, I mean—absolute and total lack of certainty. I am on the one hand unable to convince myself that my continuing love is just nostalgia, and on the other equally unable to convince myself that it is not; and this is true, to a greater or lesser degree, of all the music from that period in my life, an uncertainty exacerbated by the changing attitudes of the surrounding culture. “He can neither believe,” Hawthorne famously wrote about Melville, “nor be comfortable in his unbelief.” I wonder if it has a name, this suspension between two equally-inaccessible peaks, both natural, inevitable, and yet unable to be joined, any more than two moments in time.
Maybe we each give it our own secret name. By writing it, I have decided to make mine public.
* See Chris McDonald, Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class, p. 182. McDonald himself focuses less on keyboards than on “Rush’s [declining] emphasis on its original heavy metal and progressive influences,” noting that, so long as “Lee was actually playing chords and melodic figures on synthesizers with his own fingers, fans generally accepted the instrument’s role”; he contrasts this with the rise of “pre-sequenced patterns” beginning with Power Windows (1986), which clashed with fans’ “conservative” definition of musicianship. I think McDonald would agree that it is difficult to separate the infusion of keyboards from the bands and genres that influenced Rush at the time. Anyway, his point is well-taken. In fact, his whole book is well-taken.
† That said, it is tempting to think teleologically: the band’s own well-publicized perception of its evolution, as well as Peart’s comments about their records working in cycles between “experimental” and “definitive” records, the “chapter” idea, with the fourth record in every set serving as a coalescing statement for the period (2112, Moving Pictures … Hold Your Fire?). Then again, while Peart saw Grace Under Pressure as definitive, at least at the time, Popoff sees it as preparatory, the first glimmerings of their later ‘80s sound. It’s difficult in hindsight to see any record as definitive. (N.B.: I’m aware that “evolution” is a fan buzz-word, or “discursive mantra.” The term belongs to Matt Hills, from Fan Cultures; McDonald adopts it for his monograph on Rush. Where Rush is concerned, these “well-worn discursive mantras” (158) cite “the band’s integrity, its willingness to change and evolve” and their “down-to-earth attitudes” (159). More on the last of these below.)
‡ John J. Scheinbaum once observed that, for all its classical pretensions, progressive rock “is still a subgenre of rock,” one that “highlight[s] the tensions, frictions, and incompatibilities among these very different musical value systems [i.e., of classical and rock music]. The progressive rock repertory does not construct a synthesis at all, but instead occupies the spaces between the value systems” (in Progressive Rock Reconsidered, ed. Kevin Holm-Hudson, ps. 29-30). His observation might be applied to Rush’s incorporation of keys in the 80s, less synthesis than “occupying the spaces between the value systems,” in this case mediating their roots in prog- and hard rock with the accretion (and perhaps layering) of later influences and styles.
** According to band history, or legend, inasmuch as we can distinguish one from the other, this is the song over which the band broke with longtime producer Terry Brown. It couldn’t have been the keys per se that got up Brown’s nose; “Digital Man” is one of the least keys-infused songs on the record. Was it the growing tendency toward a groove, which, for this band, had always been a bumpy, angular proposition? If it was the groove that threw Brown from the pommels of Rush’s horse, then why wasn’t the deal-breaker the eminently danceable “Weapon”? As Peart tells it, the band had been struggling with the song’s chorus, which they eventually resolved by hitting on a sequencer pattern everybody but Brown liked. Clearly the straw that broke the camel’s back, even if, as a rebellion against the band’s use of pre-recording, it can be seen as symbolic of a break with the whole direction the music was tending. Just as it is revealing to contrast Lifeson’s guitar on “Digital Man” with “Analog Kid,” so with sequencers as well: that wub-wub-wub moved from a brief transitional passage and outro to the very heart of the song.
The loss of their long-time producer after Signals, and then the trials of trying to find someone who would fit, was one of the “pressures” to which Grace Under Pressure alludes. From Lifeson’s perspective, we might say the band was looking for someone to restore the balance he felt had been lost—and “balance” is a term that weighs heavily in the band’s mythology (cf. the climactic lyric from “Hemispheres”: “We will call you Cygnus/ The god of balance you shall be”: who would this new Cygnus be?). It’s funny to contrast Peart’s writeup for the Grace Under Pressure tour book—in which Peter Henderson is lauded as the right man for the job—with later revelations that he was actually a disaster. The band was clearly used to a strong-willed producer, one who acted as a sort of fourth member; the long-term relationship with Brown had clearly enabled him to play that role. Henderson turned out to be a fine engineer but terrible producer, at least by these criteria, and the band was very much set adrift to make their own decisions. Lee was apparently as disappointed with Pressure and Lifeson was with Signals; he felt the guitar was too prevalent in the mix, which “smothered the record’s melodies” (qtd. in Popoff 112; my emphasis); and it may have been their experience with the singularly unhelpful Henderson that led to Lee’s long-range assessment of the band’s changing in the ‘80s from “players” to “producers.” (Somebody’s always smothering somebody; isn’t that the way of the world? Segue the lyrics to “The Trees.”) But if Henderson was a non-starter, I can’t help but thank him for the producerly vacuum that allowed Lifeson to come back to the fore, and blossom there. It reminds me a little of the production on P.J. Harvey’s first record, Dry: super bass-heavy; the drums sound like rattled cans; I can’t help but think some producers listen to it and think it sounds like shit. I mean, none of her later albums sound anything like that. But to my ear, it is absolutely, daringly perfect. Only such rare sonic catastrophes become masterpieces! By God, if it’s ever “remastered” I’ll storm the winter palace of Island Records. Fair warning.
†† I mean, isn’t that what those romantics-in-cynics’-clothes, the illuminati of the Rock Critical-Industrial Complex, are always telling us—that technique is a liability, a gag on the barbaric yawp? As has probably been clear from many a post on this blog, I have a bone to pick with the Rousseauvian school of rock criticism that equates authenticity and expressive capability with an absence of technique. I will desist from listing the Four Chief Fallacies of this position; this post has already gone on far, far, far, far, far too long. (Really, Helldriver? You? Really?) If you want to hear ‘em, post a comment that says, “Helldriver, DO share,” and I’ll be happy to oblige. Then we can argue about it. Or not.
By the way: “mantra” or no, I always found it refreshing that, in the teeth of an industry that valorizes self-promotion above all else, Rush always came across as pretty humble about their musicianship. I remember reading an interview with Lee many years ago where he said that if I wanted to hear a real bass player, I should listen to Jaco Pastorius. It wasn’t hard to take my guitar teacher’s advice about listening to fusion when he was echoing the bass player for my favorite band. It may leave a funny taste, coming from a rock star whose catalog is replete with look-at-me soloing. But at least it’s a positive message, one befitting the overall wholesomeness of the band’s image, so well captured in the controversial photo on the back of Grace Under Pressure: the conventional middle-class appeal, the themes of integrity and honesty and romantic individualism, the Protestant-work-ethic musicianship, the intellectual airs, the relative restraint of their proverbially rock-and-roll lifestyle. Maybe being a fan means an inability to fully divide that feeling of kinship from the rational understanding that it is part of a constructed public persona, the ability, that is, to bear that cognitive dissonance. The music should be enough, and yet it comes entangled in all these accessory media. Maybe this should be the goal of writing about music: to disentangle the one from the other, to undo this Gordian knot. No one has yet convinced me that, if we could undo the knot, there would be nothing else. And no one has yet convinced me the knot cannot be undone. The question is finding a language to help us cut through it, to the hidden heart.