YYZ

College Street in central Toronto cuts through the neighborhood known locally as Little Italy (the big one is a ways up north). Oh yeah, it has its share of mouth-watering Italian foodie alcoves scattered along it, but now the hipsters have encroached. Of late it has turned trendy with martini bars and retro dance clubs jostling with chi-chi bistros. One evening some years ago, I had walked up the natty thoroughfare. No, not to sample any ooh-la-la lychee martinis or organic tiramisu – I had just music on my mind.

I located the non-descript door squeezed in between the pizzerias and trattorias and climbed the narrow steps leading up to the second floor. The place was just as plain as the door itself. Long and narrow like a caboose with a band-stage at one end. I perched myself at the bar counter at the rear. I was early and the place was almost empty. Yeah, there was nothing too exciting about the joint, but I was a tad stoked. For I was sitting on a bar-stool at the Orbit Room.

And the Orbit Room is owned by Alex Lifeson, guitarist for the band Rush.

I sipped my beer and shot the shit with the friendly frat boy behind the bar. Asked him about the electro-funk band I was there to see: “Wicked stand-up bass player and a mean horn section, man” he informed me. At some point, I must have blurted something out about how crazy it was that I was sitting in a bar owned by someone from a band I had wasted way too much of my time on. “So you like Rush, huh?” he asked. He interrupted the rambling I had launched into after a few minutes and asked, “You are from India? And a Rush fan? Really? Now, that is so cool!” So I blabbered on and on about Rush. Told him of the endless nights I had spent back home in India listening to Rush and the insane Rush fanatics I used to hang out with.

He was visibly intrigued and tickled by all this. I could see that he found it fascinating that I had gotten hooked on Rush while in school in India. Seemed genuinely amazed when I insisted that he had no clue how much of a rabid following the band had back home. “They would sell out stadiums in an instant” I said, as he shook his head at me like I was nuts. Somewhere around this time, he wiped his hand on a towel and extended it to me – and introduced himself as Alex Lifeson’s son. “The old man will get a kick out of our chat” he said.

Later that night the bar was stuffed to the gills and the band was sizzling. Alex Jr. was right – the bass player was wicked and the horn section was indeed kick-ass. I stood in the middle of the thick crowd drinking my beer and soaking in the funk – when I spotted my pal from behind the bar weaving his way through the throng. As he reached me, he turned – to his dad, Alex Lifeson (!) who was trailing right behind him – and said, “There he is! Your fan from India!”

I somehow managed to pick my jaw up from the floor and took the hand extended by a grinning Alex.

Probably grinned back at him like an idiot too.

******

When I moved to Toronto to take up a job, I knew practically no one in the city. Correct that – I did know three people in the whole darned town – their names were Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart. So yeah, I knew that Toronto was home to the Canadian power trio who had a religious following all over the world. They certainly did back in Bangalore, India, as I was a member of the local chapter of the cult there.

It was there that I had first stumbled upon 2112, Fly by Night and Caress of Steel thanks to a friend who had pestered me to listen to them. And I was hooked. Hooked on Geddy’s perplexing voice, a voice trained in a classical banshee choir and the freaky otherworldly drumming of Neil. And Alex – the most conventional of the three musically – who I believed even then was one of the most under-rated guitarists in rock music.

I was now in their hood.

My flight to Toronto from Phoenix, Arizona had provided an omen in itself – when a long lasting mystery got solved. It was an epiphany that hit me like a thump from Neil’s bass drum. My baggage tags had read YYZ and it dawned on me then that the cryptically named number on Moving Pictures was not some weird Ayn Rand shit that Neil had concocted (as he was prone to do) but only the airport code for Toronto! I had spent years scratching my head trying to unravel a non-existent acronym as I listened to that blistering instrumental powered by Neil’s drumming – and it had just been a nod to Toronto after all!

All of a sudden, it seemed like they were everywhere! Just days after landing in town, a walk around the snow blanketed campus of the University of Toronto had suddenly thrown up that oh so familiar sight from the cover of Moving Pictures. There was snow and there were no men lugging big paintings in front of the steps. But there it was, Queen’s Park, the stone structure that is the seat of Ontario’s legislature and more importantly, the backdrop on the cover of that landmark album!

Just a few months later, they were there in front of me in the flesh – on stage in front of their adoring hometown fans at the Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto. Well, to be more accurate, Alex appeared in the flesh first that night. As the lights dimmed in the stadium, a lone spotlight picked him out as he walked up the edge of the stage and sank to his knees, head bowed. The historic arena was the home of Toronto’s hockey team, the Maple Leafs then (before they moved on to fancier digs) and the team were in San Jose that very night, facing an elimination game in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Alex looked up to the rafters, clasped his hands in front of him and beseeched “Please God, let there be hockey here in two days!” as his city brethren roared in unison. (The Maple Leafs did win that night!)

**************

By the time I moved to the US of A for graduate studies, Rush had receded into the closets of my mind – jostled out by ever evolving music tastes. Oh, I owned all their CDs and did play them once in a while, but I had long outgrown my school-days obsessions with the band. In fact had long begun to look at Neil’s lyrics with a bemused smile whenever I listened to Rush. Their mastery of their instruments and their dazzling and intricate arrangements still fascinated, but it was the preachy lyrics that got to me by then in all their egalitarian ruminations and exhortations of the individual versus society.

Or as Chuck Klosterman, with his tongue boring a hole through his cheek, wrote about Rush as the “biggest Christian rock band” in the world:

Aren’t pretty much all their songs about Jesus? It certainly seems like it. At the least, Rush albums promote some sort of bass-heavy Christian value system. “He’s trying to save the world for the Old World man” proclaim the soaring vocals of Canadian spiritualist Geddy Lee. “He’s trying to pave the way for the Third World man”. Isn’t that the entire New Testament encapsulated in two lines? Didn’t Jesus teach us to bid “A Farewell to Kings” and to watch the humble “Working Man” inherit the earth? And I am sure God likes “Trees” and hates racism as much as Neil Peart does.

Not to mention Ayn Rand.

Oh come on! One is supposed to get over any fascination one has for Ms. Rand by the time you are done with high-school. If you are sane, that is. Given Neil’s penchant for her brand of philosophy and worldview (for fuck’s sake, Rush is the only band to dedicate an album to her in their liner notes), I could only suppress my snickers listening to the words of many of the songs. For by then, I was more prone to read Das Kapital and Noam Chomsky than indulge myself in Ms. Rand’s objectivist bollockery. I may not have gone as far as Chomsky in calling her “one of the most evil figures of modern intellectual history” but certainly believed that the U.S.A was well and truly buggered since Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, was not only an Ayn Rand nut, but also her protégé.

Ah Neil!

But even now it is hard to muster up any kind of derision or snarkiness towards his songwriting – for he was always so goddamned solemn and earnest in his convictions and theories. There have been endless other lyricists of rock-bands who indulged in proselytizing but he was the one I was always willing to forgive. You would never take Black Sabbath seriously in their tales of foreboding gloom and evil for you knew Ozzie was batshit crazy, knew it and was chuckling to himself all along. Or Iron Maiden, who always had a sardonic smart-assness about them even when singing stupid lyrics like “666-the number of the beast / 666-the number for you and me” and “Bring your daughter… to the slaughter”. These bands knew that their appeal was in their supreme musicianship and seemed to be winking at you all the time even if their fan-base thought otherwise.

Not Neil. Neil don’t wink. The man was always so serious and such a keener when it came to his lyrics that every other song seemed to be a pamphlet distributed for leading a better life or for navigating our horrid societal malaises as individuals. He would point fingers and offer polite advice in his simple style and adolescents and college kids the world over lapped it up like puppies. I can never hear the words “If you choose not to decide / You still have made a choice” on Freewill (“Freewill also implies something about agnostics going to hell.” – CK) without imagining head-banging mullet-heads in their parents’ basements screaming it out convinced they had been levitated onto a higher plane to lead their lives. Teary eyed and choked up in their love for their dream woman Kira Argunova all the while!

Yeah, Rush had settled into that easy familiarity ensconced in nostalgia. The soft corner I had for them would always be a happy place, but a corner it remained.

Then something happened. I saw them live.

*******

From the moment Force Ten thundered out that night in Phoenix to the sellout crowd, something really changed. Though I was intimately familiar with their songs and had even listened to live recordings, I don’t think I was ready for what I witnessed. The first thought that occurred to me was how in hell were three guys creating this mesmerizing wall of sound which was still clinical in its musical virtuosity and expressiveness and loud (goddamned loud), still managing to sound crystal clear? It was spooky how tight they were. I remember spending the entire show in a state of blissful awe at their astonishing musicianship as they ripped through one classic tune after the other – each sounding more dramatic and ominous than they were on record.

Long before Neil’s drum solo that night, as he hovered over the stage like the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind emanating his other-worldly rhythms, one thing was clear: this was one incredibly hard-working band and they were laying it all out bare in front of us. And their virtuosity over their instruments came screaming through – even on songs I didn’t give a rat’s ass about. I was in awe at Roll the bones, a song I have never cared for (“Why are we here? / Because we’re here” – what was Neil smoking?) which was astonishing live as Alex just shredded his guitar and Neil his skins.  And I even bobbed my head to Freewill, a tacit salute to those basement mullet-heads, as Geddy snarled out the lyrics.

Every Rush concert since then has just reinforced this in my mind – they are an incredible band to see live. I haven’t bought an album of theirs since Roll the Bones, but six concerts later, they have essentially turned into just a live band in my mind. And I just take it for granted now that they will never disappoint – and they never have. Especially when they reach far back into their catalog. The 2010 tour (where they performed Moving Pictures in its entirety) provided some exceptional moments – a 10 minute blast through La Villa Strangiato (la moniker very strangiato, Neil) that was just exhilarating. Now I know why Kirk Hammett and Lars Ulrich  go incoherent talking about how obsessed they were with that song and still are. It is vicious when you hear it performed live!

And the ubiquitous Neil solo. To be honest, I have completely gotten over any awe I had over his solos – sometimes extending to 15 minutes long. The man’s sick talent on the drums is obvious but I’ll commit Rush sacrilege and admit that his solos leave me cold. Maybe it is just his drum kit – with enough drums and metal in it to equip fifty bands. Maybe it is just me and my preference for more of an in-your-face approach of say, John Bonham on a minimal kit. Perhaps it is just the religious awe that descends over the arena when he starts that turns me off – I almost expect 20,000 people to kneel down for communion every time I see it.

I just lap up his uncanny rhythms and time signatures on other tunes, but I spend the entire time during his solos looking at thousands of people playing air-drums in a frenzy. Just give me YYZ, Neil – which is just awe inspiring when Alex and you rip into it. It never fails to get me. Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater (if there ever was a real Rush tribute band – that’s the one) admits that it was the song that actually inspired him and his friends to start a band and Majestic, the name they chose for it, was from the adjective they always used to describe YYZ. I just call it bewildering. If you see it live, you’ll know why.

******

It had been a few years since I moved to Toronto when I got the biggest Rush surprise my city could have offered. A close friend and a colleague at work – an ex- musician of a pretty darned well-known Canadian band of the 70s – gave me a shout asking if I wanted to join him and his pal for a drink after work. And that was the day I had walked down to the lobby of my office and saw him waiting there for me with Terry Brown.

Terry Brown! In a way the George Martin for Rush! The man who produced nine of their albums, from Fly by Night all the way to Subdivisions. All their classics! A man who has also worked on the music of a glittering list of musicians – including the Rolling Stones, The Who and Hendrix. There I was, shaking hands with the man who was behind the console even for Freewill – that Terry!

It is surreal when you meet someone like Terry in real life. After having seen his name in the liner notes of all those albums that had been so big in my life back in India, sitting at a pub and shooting the shit with him should have been unnerving. But Terry turned out to be one of the most down to earth, unassuming and friendly guys you could hope to know. Just a terrific bloke, who over the last ten years has become a just a good friend. We rarely even speak about Rush whenever we meet and any discussions of music with him usually are about the bands and musicians he is currently working with.

Yeah, Toronto is Rush country, all right. Toronto is also a pretty unassuming city in its character and seems like a perfect match for the boys of Rush. For they do lead a completely invisible existence here. Years go by sometimes without a peep from them or about them in the press or media. Oh, there was that time Alex got busted by the cops in Florida after a bar-brawl and the time Geddy, an avid collector of baseball memorabilia, donated his entire collection of rare artifacts of the Negro Baseball League to a museum. But they were exceptions. We know they are around (and we do hear of the odd sighting at a restaurant or theater) but they have always relished their privacy and anonymity. Other than spotting Geddy at pretty much every home game of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team, and the odd sighting of Alex at his bar, the city just considers them regular guys who have a normal life outside of their music.

They have always had this laid-back forthrightness to their demeanors right through their career. On the odd occasions when they do surface (perhaps when they have a new album out, like now), they present a refreshing sight with their cultured normalcy. And an air of not taking themselves or the cult of celebrity even remotely seriously. The media and the music world at large have never been able to figure out how they feel about Rush and have never come to grips with the mammoth successes of the band. Metal fans have always pooh-poohed them as just a rock band while rock fans have always discarded them into the heavy metal bin – both groups scratching their heads all the while about the tens of millions in album sales worldwide. But the band has always dealt with this with a great deal of equanimity and assuredness. Geddy, the talker and the frontman of the trio seems to have a perpetually bemused expression on his face during interviews – all the while remaining articulate and thoughtful in his responses. And Alex always sports a lopsided grin on his genial face which makes you think the first words out of his mouth are surely going to be “Get outta here…”. And Neil, the shy and quiet one is flat out invisible.

I have always admired them in how they have conducted themselves, for there has been something classy in it. This was most evident in the aftermath of the back-to-back tragedies in Neil’s family in 1997 and 1998 that devastated the man and sent him into seclusion on the road on his motorcycle for years. Geddy and Alex, feeling for their mate, just receded into the background to allow him to grieve and I distinctly remember them not saying a word in public about the future of the band. Geddy did busy himself after a few years and put out a solo album called My favorite Headache and perhaps the title was as far as he would go to express his feelings about the band in hiatus – but that was it. Silence. And when Neil did come back, ready to make music with them again, Geddy and Alex dealt with it with great sensitivity and care. On their Vapor Trails tour in 2002, they religiously shielded Neil from the press and the media to allow him the time to ease back into the music scene again.

*****

Now they are back in town again. Back in their YYZ where it all started. The city whose suburbs they grew up in and started playing at high school dances at an age when they weren’t old enough to be served alcohol. Where Geddy and Alex recruited Neil (“He is strange, he reads books” they had observed). The city they call home.

I’ll hop onto the subway on Sunday, October 14 and head to downtown YYZ for yet another get together with them. This will be the seventh time. Terry will be there to check on his old pals. And I fully expect to come back with an Alex-like grin on my face. And my ears ringing.

Neil’s spaceship will descend, the faithful may even kneel during his solo and Geddy, like in the past, may prance around in a Toronto Blue Jays shirt singing “One likes to believe in the freedom of baseball” as they belt out The Spirit of Radio.

I just hope they play Xanadu. It has been a while.

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3 thoughts on “YYZ

  1. as always, completely and utterly mesmerised at how you write. so gifted. if i had half your talent and scholarly discipline in building a piece like this, i’d consider myself fortunate!

    okok i’ll stop the fawning 🙂

  2. Never heard Rush before but boy can you sell a band! Very well written Sriram.

    PS: Recognized the name Geddy Lee from a Pavement lyric, definitely must find out now 🙂

  3. Sriram

    Just had to re- read this post of yours before I head to see them live tomorrow at Sheffield. It’s a 2.5 hour show and I for one can’t wait to see them live. Not a cat’s chance in hell will I be able to capture the feelings like you’ve done in this splendid post !

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