Rush rocks the bourgeoisie, as I happily told ostensibly anti-bourgeois conservative Helen Rittelmeyer when she gave me the book (the most recent books I’ve given her being noirish crime novels and a book on the tragic century-ago Massachusetts molasses flood, given to me to give to her by Boston-area-dwelling Jake Harrison and Holly Caldwell, who lean more punkward than Rushward — and Rush did indeed feel threatened by the rise of punk, after all the hard work the band had done mastering precision and musicianship). Despite Rush’s emphatic embrace of modernity and capitalism, though, they are surprisingly conflicted about the predictability and blandness that these things can produce, at least as typified in their middle-class, North American, largely white surroundings. After all, the song “Subdivisions,” — which I would unashamedly argue is one of the best poems in rock history — is, despite its air of mathematical calm, as negative in its description of the suburbs as any angry punk screed (“Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone,” etc.).
Even the acceptable avenues of escape from the suburbs (to put it somewhat paradoxically) are often embarrassingly feeble (and ones well known to countless late twentieth-century nerds like me): fantasy and sci-fi, immersion in some arcane technical discipline, car rides to somewhere else, “the shopping malls,” etc. McDonald even anticipates the desperate escape gambit of conservatives of Helen’s sort: fantasizing about medieval-style aristocratic traditionalism or working-class/ethnic solidarity, things that do not come naturally to the white middle class.
Don’t get me wrong: In the end, I think the suburbs may be the greatest achievement in human history, and it is almost indecent ingratitude to lament their existence, after the millennia of toil and savagery humanity endured to be able to live in such predictable, comfortable conditions. “Subdivisions” now leaves me worried that Rush — like so many things — is in fact not capitalist and bourgeois enough (drummer-lyricist Neil Peart is quick to note that Rand is merely one of his many influences and that he does not necessarily embrace everything she does). Rush recommends the same avenue of escape that seemed natural to suburban youth like me, though: Don’t start a revolution but rather try to excel, and, when relaxing, retreat into fantasy about far less predictable and mundane environs.
For a Canadian academic, McDonald does a good job of avoiding the usual presumption in cultural studies that simply identifying a pattern of thought is synonymous with exposing and debunking it. He’s subtly impressed by and supportive of most of the elements of suburban ideology he identifies: individualism, a solid work ethic, emotional self-discipline, detachment, cleanliness, abstraction, etc. The book isn’t quite the celebration of suburbia that I now find myself thinking the world deserves (especially when you consider the sci-fi-like improvement in our lifestyles over the past two centuries that made the suburbs possible, industrial plenty tripling the population of Europe in the nineteenth century while America went from a land of freehold subsistence farmers to a land of big corporations), but the book is far from a Marxist lament. McDonald admits he is essentially a libertarian whose views have been somewhat complicated by years of ethnographic analysis and culture studies that lead him to see his values as rooted in a certain culture instead of objective abstraction (perhaps he’d get along well with libertarian multiculturalism-analyst — and former rock radio station manager — Jacob Levy at McGill). Suburban philosophy seems eminently possible, even while suburban radicalism seems a contradiction in terms.
Rand once said that she’d know her ideas were having an impact when they had trickled down even into comic books — and by the time she died, they had in fact found their way into comic books by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko and, thanks to Rush, into the lyrics of one of the most popular rock bands of all time — that epithet being based on album and concert ticket sales more than singles, since, despite having released numerous very memorable singles that dominated Album Oriented Radio stations in the 80s and continue to be played on classic rock stations, only one Rush single actually made it into the Top 40, believe it or not, that being “New World Man.”
As a reminder of how many great songs they had that were, so to speak, just under the radar back then, though, rewatch the videos for “Distant Early Warning” and the slightly more obscure “Red Sector A,” both ominous and perfectly suited to making audiences of mostly-male, mostly-white, sober-minded sci-fi fans swoon. An interesting trivia note about “Distant Early Warning”: the fuzzy noise that seems so clearly to be rocket exhaust at the beginning of the song, I recall the band once revealing in an interview, was actually a sound-mixing static error, but they decided to keep it in. That makes it one of my favorite serendipitous art accidents, right up there with the sudden series of jump cuts at the climactic moment of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, when David Bowie kisses the prison warden rather than succumb to anger, an effect caused by an unintended camera jam but approved on the spot by the director when he watched it back.
Little about Rush is serendipitous, though — not for nothing have they spawned imitators who call their subgenre “math rock.” Two other bands in a similar vein I’ve seen in concert are the even older (unintentionally hilarious yet brilliantly technically skilled) prog rock act Van der Graaf Generator and the fairly recent geeky-but-powerful guitar virtuosos Trans Am (I saw the former with J.R. Taylor and the latter with one of the only left-wing punks I ever went on a date with, Caroline Pozycki — I think she may have soured on me around the time she revealed both her parents worked for the government).
Geddy Lee is even quoted in this book expressing a nerdy, unhip, robotic sentiment that I recall feeling myself when I first went to concerts: disappointment that live bands don’t sound exactly like their albums. Rush basically does in concert. Live or recorded, long may they reign.
In fact, if they run out of material, I here offer a suggestion for a song literally taken from one of today’s nerdiest and most scientifically-baffling news stories, which they might consider recording:
Pluto is a-changing colors
Planet’s getting redder just like blood
Nitrogen ice sheets shifting, moving
Color of a molasses flood!
Can’t blame industrial gases –
So will the greens think it’s good?
Dwarf planet! Dwarf planet!
[shrieking] They cast you out of the Nine
[ominous] Cold but now you’re getting redder
Bold ’cause you won’t toe the line
Dwarf planet! Dwarf planet!
It’s a nitrogen-ice-sheet panic — yeah, rock on, rock on, rock on, rock on
(Twenty-minute drum solo)