Self-identifying as a Rush fan has often felt like admitting that I used to play Dungeons & Dragons or, as I recently proclaimed to the folks at Geekend 2010, that I used to solve the Rubik’s Cube… competitively. Well, I’m coming out of the nerd closet: Rush is one of my all-time favorite bands, and Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010) finally tells their story.
Contrary to what some might tell you, Rush is not a legacy band. Sure, they have some old, dusty hits that people still want to hear when they see them play live (e.g., “Tom Sawyer”), but they’ve maintained the same high level of craftpersonship throughout their thirty-plus years together. With that said, most Rush fans have a favorite era. Some like the really early Zepplin-inspired proto-Rush of the the late 60s-early 70s. Some like the epic, über-prog late-70s Rush. Most like the shorter, airwave-friendly prog of the Permanent Waves (1980) / Moving Pictures (1981) era and hate the keyboard-riddled period just after that (the rest of the 80s). As Geddy Lee puts it in the movie, “There are certain periods of Rush that are more universal than other periods.” I can honestly say that my favorite Rush songs span their four decades.
Growing up, my uncle Lynn had made me aware of Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd, and prog rock in general, so though I was always aware of Rush, I didn’t become a fan in earnest until my first record store job. My boss there, Jay Cobb, played them incessantly. Not only was his rabid fandom contagious and the music intricate and interesting, but it made me think as well. Like my favorite band at that time (Oingo Boingo), Neil Peart’s lyrics challenged me like few bands did. Presto (1989) had just come out, and it was a return to form for a band whose previous several years had left them without a formidable part of their edge and a noticeable part of their fan-base. Presto sidestepped the synths and brought Alex Lifeson’s guitars back to center stage. It remains one of my most listened-to Rush records.
Beyond the Lighted Stage was directed by Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn, both devout Rush nerds, and it shows. Through original interviews, archival footage and photos, and special guests, their documentary follows the band from their upbringing, through their chronic obscurity and flirtations with the mainstream, to their current goings-on. The special guests include celebrity fans — everyone from the willfully annoying Jack Black, Tim Commerford, and Jason McGerr, to the always articulate Trent Reznor, Gene Simmons, Kirk Hammett, and Les Claypool, as well as the surprisingly brilliant Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin, and Sebastian Bach. The latter of whom says he was inspired to read by 2112 (1976). “I was into the story,” Bach says, “I read the back and it was dedicated to The Fountainhead, the book, and I went right out and bought The Fountainhead and read it. Not too many bands make a twelve-year-old go out and buy The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand! Goddammit, this rock band’s got me all fired-up about literature!” And so it goes with Rush and Rush fans.
I finally saw Rush on the 2003 Vapor Trails tour in Las Vegas, and yes, their career-spanning setlist included “Tom Sawyer.” It was when I told my friends about seeing the “world’s most popular cult band” (as Geddy put it) that I realized how nerdy it is to like Rush. It’s not quite like admitting that you solved the Rubik’s Cube competitively, but it’s not far off either.