“Rolling Stone” Finally Embraces Rush

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Once again, we present Rock-Critically Correct, a feature in which the most recent issues of Rolling Stone, Blender, Vibe, and Spin are given a once-over by a writer who’s contributed to many of those magazines, as well as a few others! In this installment, he looks at the new issue of Rolling Stone:

And so, Rolling Stone devotes its July 10/17 issue to an interview with the all-but-presumptive Democratic candidate for the President of the United States of America, just four months after the mag’s endorsement. The MSM pricked up their ears when the mag hit the stands last week: “Ooh, no cover lines for this issue, just like the 1980 Annie Leibovitz-shot image of John Lennon suckling Yoko Ono.” We learn, from answers elicited by editor and publisher Jann Wenner’s first two questions, that Obama is pleased by the endorsements of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, that Blood on the Tracks graces his iPod, and not much else.

(BTW: This week, a sale of Wenner’s Us Magazine to Condé Nast was mooted; the consensus opinion seems to be that he’s mystified by that mag’s game-changing success and doesn’t have much interest in the celebrity culture upon which it feeds. But it’s clear that Wenner’d sooner a bear gnaw off one of his feet than part with Rolling Stone, what with it being the instrument with which he administers tongue baths to his longtime heroes and new crushes.)

Mention was also made of another article therein, which concerns another persistent meme of the past two years: Amy Winehouse leads her life in a heedless manner.

But no one in a position to trumpet the contents of any entertainment magazine noted the truly big news. So, with full knowledge that he has been much easier on Mr. Wenner’s mag since he revealed his identity and his prior associations with RS, it is Your Correspondent’s pleasure to laud the fact that Rolling Stone has published a feature on the Canadian progressive rock trio Rush in this very issue.

YC reckons he’s on pretty firm footing when he suggests that Rolling Stone‘s past and present staffers regard the band the same way as every American woman and non-nerd male: as an abomination. Writer Chris Norris enumerates the qualities that damned Rush in RS‘ purview, although he describes them as commonplace complaints: “Their hypertrophic musicianship is mocked by critics, ” he writes, “their lyrical pedantry spoofed by hipsters, their singer’s voice a subject of churlish speculation…” As such, RS has been a bete noire to the trio’s fans not only due to the mag ignoring the band for three decades, but also because Jann Wenner’s other plaything, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has steadily declined to nominate Rush for induction. Since the 1980s, Rush coverage has been left to the likes of Guitar World, Bass Player, and Modern Drummer.

So YC wonders how this piece came to pass. Did the departure of Joe Levy and the ascension of Eric Bates and Jason Fine as co-executive editors clear the way? Is one of those two a fan of the band? Is Mr. Wenner so cuckoo for Obama that he didn’t pay much attention to what else was in the issue? Or did he turn in his interview from wherever it is that he summers, allowing his employees to sneak the Rush piece in? Was the piece intended as an acknowledgment of Canada Day? Or does Norris have mystical ability to pitch the unpitchable? Whatever it may be, drummer Neil Peart generally consents only to speak to the drum press, so it’s refreshing to read him interviewed by a journalist who’s not invested in the sycophancy of the snare set.

Norris was a staff writer at Spin in the 1990s and early 2000s, and “Rush Never Sleeps” is his first piece for Rolling Stone. His conceit is that the band has created a world with as much immersive detail as the Grand Theft Auto diaspora, the Marvel Comics universe, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Which is to say that a certain kind of nerd digs the fuck out of the band. So, between the MSM’s recent interest in geek culture and Rolling Stone‘s agenda to laud any band that has stood the test of time, Rush can now receive the mag’s imprimatur.

And when that imprimatur doesn’t involve supplicating to many tropes beloved to Mr. Wenner, this can be a very fine thing indeed. A Rolling Stone writer obviously tends to get a lot of access to interviewees, and indeed Norris gets loads of color: he goes to a Toronto Blue Jays home game with bassist-singer Geddy Lee; he attends a rehearsal for the current tour; and he goes to dinner with the three. We learn that guitarist Alex Lifeson is an oyster enthusiast and that Lee is an oenophile. (YC must confess that he knew that factoid previously.) It is at this time Norris and the band discuss the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s persistent snubbing, a passage YC is frankly stunned was allowed to see print.

But Norris particularly excels at describing common knowledge in engaging language and thus avoiding cliche. To wit: “the very phrase ‘Neil Peart’ is shorthand for the kind of Olympian accomplishment rarely seen outside genres like classical music.” “Lee entered the history books as one of (hard rock’s) truly sui generis frontmen: gimlet eyes, ectomorph noted proboscis. Robert Plant may have sung about Mordor: Lee looked like he’d been there.” YC believes that what you write about is not nearly as key as how you write, and he would bet that Norris agrees.

As a veteran of five Rush shows, experienced in each New York area venue that can accommodate the band (Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, Jones Beach, Garden State Arts Center), YC can say that Norris’ contention that most attendees sing along with every word to every song from every album, even from last year’s Snakes and Arrows, is true: Rush fans are the Trekkies trekkers of rock. Since the issue came out last week, there has been much debate on fora dedicated to the band, wherein fans have tended to be defensive w/r/t Norris’ characterization along these lines. And yet, YC is surprised that Norris does not make the point that the Rush model–a band that does everything its own ruggedly, individualist way– has found recent adherents in the band’s Canadian countrymen like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Wolf Parade and the Arcade Fire.

A few notes:

1. Norris notes only one of the nicknames the Rush dudes have given one another: Lifeson is “Lerxst.” YC can reveal that Peart is the “Professor,” and Lee is known as “Dirk.”

2. Norris also does not mention Lifeson’s New Year’s Eve 2004 arrest for assaulting two sheriff’s deputies, which is the one of the very few “rawk” occurrences to have involved a Rush dude.

3. He alludes briefly to Peart’s interest in weirdo philosopher/ponderous prose stylist/right-wing nerd icon Ayn Rand, which manifested itself in many of his lyrics from the 1970s and prompted the band to be tarred as “fascists.” YC believes that Peart’s worldview has evolved since then, but he would have liked for Norris to get Peart to address this specifically.

4. But Peart’s annus horribilis, which found his daughter and wife dying within ten months of each other a decade ago, is accounted for. He went on a motorcycle and biking odyssey, which is recounted in Peart’s book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, which YC read a bit of and found it quite moving.

In any case, Norris has done a superb job, and YC–who, it should be sufficiently clear by now, really really digs Rush, and has watched Peart’s instructional videos–is jealous of the quality time he got with the band. His somewhat arch tone, typical of everything YC has read of his work, can occasionally read as if he’s condescending to the band and their fans on behalf of RS. But more often, his take on what makes the band unique seems genuine and admiring.

Let’s have some more like this, RS! And to you what don’t like Rush: reading Norris’ article will begin the process by which you will acknowledge how very very wrong you are.