Monday, April 13, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No. 6: In defense of Test for Echo and rehabilitating Grace Under Pressure

Our countdown to the Chicago R40 concert continues, as we work our way from the "least-glorious" Rush album to Moving Pictures. 

No. 6: Test for Echo
Released in 1996

Highlights: “Totem,” “The Color of Right,” “Half the World.”
Least-glorious moment: “Virtuality.”

Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:

“I’ve got idols and icons, unspoken holy vows
Thoughts to keep well-hidden
Sacred and forbidden
Free to browse among the holy cows”
-- "Totem."

I’ve always liked Test for Echo. Reading some of the comments in Rush forums and noticing that the band rarely plays anything from the album, I think Will and I might be the only ones.

I’m not sure why this is. Will detailed why it might be a struggle for the band, but I never understood the fans piling on. It’s a solid album, building on the heavier feel the band returned to with Counterparts. I thought maybe I was missing something.

So I went through it again, listening intently for otherwise missed flaws.

The title track focuses on the rise of the big televised trials – it was a released a year after the O.J. Simpson fiasco – with calm sections erupting into angry, jagged outbursts. It’s really cool.

“Driven” is another charging rocker that showcases Geddy’s bass. It’s followed by “Half the World,” which has an unusual lyrical structure for Neil, lots of parallel lines, with “half the world” doing something while the other half does not.

Here's a live version of "Driven."

“The Color of Right” contains a line that I think about a lot – “I’m so full of what is right that I can’t see what is good.” It’s been said that I struggle with gray areas and get locked into various positions.

“Time and Motion” is another aggressive song. Not one of my favorites. But I love the first four, so we can afford one that’s not quite as good.

But that brings us to “Totem,” which is my favorite song on the album. Not as heavy and with more melody, I actually used the song for a lesson in the high-school Sunday school class I taught about comparative religions. I liked that after looking at aspects of other religions, Neil ended with “Sweet chariot, swing low, coming for me,” the Christian spiritual. If the band wanted to play this as their obscure, from-the-vault pick for the concert, I know there would be at least one very happy fan.

“Dog Years” seems to get a lot of abuse. Neil’s a little more playful in the lyrics, but the overall message is – like in “Time Stand Still” – that life goes by so fast. I like the line “I’d rather be a tortoise from Galapagos or a span of geological time than be living in these dog years.”

“Virtuality” sounds dated, but remember that the Internet was still in its AOL early days and the idea of throwing your opinions out there for the world to see was new. I never cared for it too much then, and the dated aspect now doesn’t help. But that’s only the second song that I don’t love.

It’s followed by “Resist,” and like “Half the World” and maybe even “Totem” focuses on contradictions. It’s one of the two songs to make it to the stage on later tours.

“Limbo” is a solid instrumental, though I don’t know why the “Monster Mash” samples are inserted.

The album wraps up with “Carve Away the Stone” another introspective rocker that fits in with “Resist,” “Color of Right,” and “Half the World.” Neil’s pointing to Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it continually roll back to the bottom for him to push again.

Neil’s looking at the baggage we all drag behind us, saying to let some of it go – carving away at the stone to make it lighter as we push ahead.

So that’s just two songs – maybe three depending on “Limbo” – that I don’t love and a bunch I think are great. A little more introspection that we normally get from Rush, and certainly another step with a heavier sound. I don’t know what’s not to love.

And Will jumps in.

I agree. I could have ranked this higher but didn't. For what it's worth, I like "Time and Motion." Also, I didn't tell this story earlier, so I'll do it now: Totems are big in Canada. When Laurie and I visited Nova Scotia last fall, we found this stone beach on Cape Breton Island where literally dozens of tiny totems like the one on the cover of Test For Echo lined the beach out of reach of the Gulf of St. Lawrence . Laurie and I dutifully built our own. I don't think I had Totem in mind, but I definitely was thinking of the album itself.

Anyway, on to my choice ...

No. 6: Grace Under Pressure
Released in 1984

Now here's some irony for you: The album that turned me against Rush now stands above all but five other albums. That's what a little time and different perspective will do for you. My coming to embrace Grace Under Pressure has been decades in the making.

The rehabilitation of the album began with A Show of Hands to a certain extent. I recalled that "Distant Early Warning," the first--and big--hit on the album, was OK, and having a live version of it reminded me that I liked it. (I still was--and remain--lukewarm to "Red Sector A.") Then my brother, who was the king of the bootlegs back before Napster made it easy for everyone to be so, opened my eyes further.

As my Rush love reblossomed in the early Nineties, he made me a copy of a bootleg that would be released more than a decade later as Grace Under Pressure Live. The thing that jumped off the tape--and I would give Dave's eye teeth for the boys to play just once more--was all of Fear, in order. The first part of Fear, of course, which was the last to be released, of course, was "The Enemy Within." I jumped more into "The Weapon," with its totally awesome Count Floyd intro, and "Witch Hunt," but "The Enemy Within" stayed with me.

Grace Under Pressure is one of the few albums that Dave and I have a large disagreement about (the other being Hold Your Fire, which I have near the bottom and Dave still hasn't ranked yet, so it's near the top for him). Dave says it's a dark album. I wouldn't rank it with, say, Tonight's the Night by Neil Young or Dirt by Alice in Chains, but I can see his point. It just so happens that I'm a fan of dark music, particularly when I'm going through a dark period myself.

Such a period began in the spring of 2001 when I went through what was more or less a divorce. At the same time, my brother was struggling with the fact that his father-in-law was dying of cancer in his Forties. He turned me on to a bootleg recording of "Afterimage," and that song hit me like a freight train, immediately getting heavy rotation on this new thing called iTunes.

A year later, feeling in a life stall, I quit my job of nearly nine years cold and went off to start working on a book I'd been planning for some time. Suddenly, everything and anything seemed possible, and "The Enemy Within" came ringing back in my ears: "I'm not giving in to security under pressure; I'm not missing out on the promise of adventure; I'm not giving up on improbable dreams. Experience to extremes. Experience to extremes." I was living it and loving it.

In 2004, while I was working the greatest job of my life--I was like Crash Davis, going to the ballpark every day and getting paid to do it as an official scorer in the International League--I heard "Between the Wheels." Another freight train. It became the song of the fall of 2004 when the logical end of my career free fall was rapidly approaching--with me financially splattered all over the sidewalk--but a door suddenly opened in Chicago. Anything and everything.

I needed no more than that to push Grace Under Pressure back into my good graces. But why not have more? The unexpected rolling out of "The Body Electric" on the Clockwork Angels Tour reminded me that, oh yeah, that's pretty cool song, too, with its catchy beat and nonsensical chorus. (Psst: It's not really JUST about androids.) Heck, if they break out "Kid Gloves" this time, I'll probably love that, too.

So I didn't connect with it when I was 20. What the heck did I know about, really, anything then? Consider Grace Under Pressure fully rehabilitated.
Your countdown so far:

No. 15: Fly by Night (Dave) and Counterparts (Will)

No. 16: Vapor Trails (Both of us)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Bad postcard of the week: The Canopy restaurant had a nice lobby

Between all the Rushing and reading during the last several months, we’ve neglected our ongoing pursuit of bad postcards.

I came across one recently that this connoisseur of gloriously bad postcards found impressive. And it’s right here in Michigan, too!

The back reads:

“In Brighton, it’s the Canopy. Food with imagination. Cocktail Lounge and Dining Rooms. Smorgasboard every Thursday, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Main Dining Room seating 100 people. Walnut Room seating 85 people. Gaslight room seating 25 people.”

And, guessing from our spectacular view in this postcard, the lobby seats about 10.

There are many wonderfully bad restaurant advertising postcards that show empty dining rooms filled with beautifully decorated tables. And we’ve even come across some with unspectacular chairs.

But I’ve never found a deserted lobby view quite like this. Oh, somewhere down the corridor we can catch a glimpse of some tables.

But mostly we’re getting benches where people chill waiting for a table in the Walnut Room. It looks like there might be something on display in the wheeled cart by the fake plants. And I can’t tell what’s going on across the hall behind the glass. Are those stuffed animals?

But we do get a nice view of the blue-gray carpet and the recessed ceiling!

The Canopy folded up for good in the 1980s, but some stories recall it to be a nice place to get a steak and enjoy some music.

A 2012 Livingston Post article tells us:
“For much of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the Canopy was the most famous landmark in Brighton, as people came from far and wide to eat there. A spectacularly elegant restaurant located on Grand River Avenue, the Canopy had linen tablecloths, sparkling glasses and incredible steaks.The Canopy also had Earl Williams.Earl was the house pianist at the Canopy, and one of the best things about dining there was that you got to listen to him tickling the ivories. Earl Williams was more than just a Brighton institution – he was a Brighton legend.”
Sounds neat. And today we have a legendary bad postcard.
If you like the bad postcards, here's a link to some the posts from the MLive days. Scroll down for more here in the blog.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Rush R40 Countodwn at No. 7: Signals and the dangers of working in the bowling alley with the 'New World Man'

How do you follow a masterpiece? Will and I are counting down to the R40 concert in Chicago by ranking Rush albums from "least glorious" to Moving Pictures.

No. 7: Signals
Released in 1982

Highlights: “Subdivisions,” “Analog Kid.”

Least glorious moment: “Countdown.”

Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:

“The fawn-eyed girl with sun-browned legs
Dances on the edge of his dream
And her voice rings in his ears
Like the music of the spheres”
-- "Analog Kid"

I can’t listen to “New World Man” and not think about my old 300 Bowl co-worker Dominic.

Dominic at work one day boldly proclaimed that the song, Rush’s first top-40 single, perfectly described him.

To be sure, when you combine a song that’s a string of descriptions—“He’s old enough to know what’s right and young enough not to choose it”—and cocky and somewhat self-centered high-school-age boys, these things happen. No doubt we all claimed ownership of the song, but Dom was the only one who said it out loud.

And I can’t think about Dominic without remembering one fateful night at the bowling alley where we worked. I toiled at the front desk, handing out shoes and score sheets and collecting the money. Dom worked in the back with the machines.

The pinsetter in action is actually a pretty cool machine to watch. Each alley has two full sets of pins, scooped up and set through a series of wheels and conveyer belts. Since pins go flying everywhere, they occasionally end up facing the wrong way or in the wrong spot, sometimes blocking the hole where the ball is supposed to roll to be sent back to the bowlers.

About 80 percent of the time, a problem can be fixed by simply rolling another ball down the lane, dislodging whatever is gumming up the works.

Every serious bowler knows this and makes this fix from time to time.

Here's a great live version of "Subdivisions," one of the best Rush songs.

One night, I was in my spot behind the counter and Dom was in the back, and one of the alleys near the bar was having issues. Dom shut down the alley and entered the machine from behind, laying on his back where the pins usually are set, reaching up to fix something.

Well, one of the bowlers stepped out of the bar, saw that the machine wasn’t working and casually picked up a ball and rolled it down the alley without looking.

It happened quickly, before anyone realized what he was doing and could stop him. Then it was as if time slowed as the ball rolled down the lane. Everything stopped, except for the ball.

All we heard was roooooooooooooooollllllll, roll, roll, roll, roll, roll, roll—and a soft thump. That, of course, was the sound of a bowling ball striking Dom somewhere in the head or shoulders.

Then we heard the inevitable scream. Then, Dom yelling as he crawled out from the dark recess of the front of the machine. It was half in English, half in Italian and entirely in language inappropriate for a family bowling alley.

It didn’t help that most of the bowlers, seeing now that Dom wasn’t seriously injured, thought this was hysterical.

It was a bad night to be Dominic, but Signals—with the song that may or may not be about Dom—is a good album for Rush. If Moving Pictures cracked the door for keyboards and synthesizers, the followup blew it wide open.

Give Rush credit for not simply remaking the masterpiece. And there are some magical moments on Signals. “Subdivisions” is a top-5, all-time classic. “The Analog Kid,” with its soaring chorus, is wonderful, and “Chemistry” is fantastic.

 “Countdown,” about the band’s experience witnessing the first space shuttle launch, was cooler in concept than in execution. Neil resorts to clich├ęs—“Excitement so thick, you could cut it with a knife”—which is unusual for someone so talented.

The rest of Signals doesn’t reach the perfection of its predecessor, but that’s an unreasonable demand. And there is no shame in being the seventh-best Rush album.

And Will jumps in:

Well, it took 14 albums, but I'm finally shocked, shocked that you used to work in a bowling alley, that is.

OK, so I'm a little shocked that Signals is this low, if No. 7 counts as being "low." Anyway ...

No. 7: A Farewell to Kings
Released in 1977

Hemispheres, part 1, as I noted the other day. I'll address this album in three bullet points:

* When I said that Side 1 of 2112 might be No. 2 on a list of Rush sides, its chief competition for that spot would be Side 1 of A Farewell to Kings: "A Farewell to Kings" and "Xanadu" both made my top 1,000. Again, just to dig up Secretariat so I could flog it once more, flip that disc over, and you get something you don't get with 2112: more good music. "Closer to the Heart" and "Cygnus X-1." Nuff said.

* The mere inclusion of "Xanadu" meant this album had to be placed fairly high. "Xanadu" is my favorite Rush song, period, coming in at Good Ol' No. Keith Hernandez on my list. It might even be their best song, period, although I'm willing to yield that point due to preference. I've been fortunate to see them play at least part of that song seven times, although only once since 1994. I'll have fingers crossed in June that they blow the dust off it once more.

* I might have heard the last if not only time "A Farewell to Kings" and "Xanadu" were played over commercial radio. (Actually, I'm pretty sure I, myself, played "Xanadu" over the air waves at least once back in my college days--and it was a commercial station--now that I think about it.)

Anyway, in 1997, the Blitz in Columbus celebrated an anniversary--can't remember which--by playing "entire albums" in alphabetical order, supposedly everything in their playlist. This went on for months. They didn't play the entire album in many cases, of course, but enough so they weren't playing just one or two songs and calling it good enough. Anyway, as I drove into work early in the process, I caught A Farewell to Kings. The played all of Side 1, and I realized I'd never heard the studio version of "Xanadu" before, let alone "A Farewell to Kings" at all. As the station faded into "Closer to the Heart," I realized I had a purchase to make as I was pulling into downtown. Off to the record store ...

Your countdown so far:

No. 8: Counterparts (Dave), Hemispheres (Will)

No. 15: Fly by Night (Dave) and Counterparts (Will)

No. 16: Vapor Trails (Both of us)

Monday, April 06, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No.8: Complicated 'Counterparts' sounds superior

It's been a pretty good day. The Mets won, the Reds won, the Yankees lost and we get to resume our R40 Countdown with the No. 8 spot.
No. 8: "Counterparts"
Released 1993

Highlights: “Cold Fire,” “Animate,” “Everyday Glory.”

Least-glorious moment: “Double Agent.”

Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:

“It was just before sunrise

When we started on traditional roles

She said, ‘Sure, I’ll be your partner

But don’t make too many demands.’

I said, ‘If love has these conditions

I don’t understand your songs you love’

She said, ‘This is not a love song.

This isn’t fantasyland.’”
-- "Cold Fire"

“Counterparts" is an unusual Rush album, for a variety of reasons.

In what’s been called Rush’s response to grunge, the band continued scaling back the keyboards and amped up the guitars with a ferocity not heard since “Permanent Waves.”

And Rush love songs are about as rare as, well, a female at a Rush concert. Yet here we even have a song with “Love” in the title. I think you have to go all the way back to the debut to find another one.

Here's "Cold Fire" from a concert at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

As you can imagine by the title, the album’s theme is relationships, focusing on how complicated they can be.

I originally had this one lower in the countdown, but listening to it with fresh ears led to some new discoveries.

For one thing, this is the best-sounding Rush album ever. I don’t know what they did differently or why they haven’t done it since, but this album is crisp. Neil’s drums hit you in the chest. There’s space between the instruments. Geddy’s vocals aren’t dubbed into mush. It’s fantastic.

“Cold Fire” is a highlight, with Neil writing about one of those all-night conversations between a guy and an appropriately determined woman in a new relationship. And “Nobody’s Hero” deals with HIV and a call for understanding. “Everyday People” focuses on family struggles.

The one I can’t figure out is “Double Agent” that features some odd spoken word sections. Geddy’s rap in “Roll the Bones” was cool. But I can’t figure out what‘s going on here.

The first two cuts – “Animate” and “Stick it Out” – seem to make it to playlists since then, joined occasionally by “Nobody’s Hero.”  I’d love to see some of the others, especially “Everyday Glory,” which has never been played live.
Will jumps in:
They also roll out "Leave That Thing Alone" on occasion, and they debuted "Between Sun & Moon" in 2002 in honor of John Entwistle, so they definitely like playing this album.
No. 8: Hemispheres
Released in 1978

Now THIS is what a Rush album that has more than just one epic song sounds like. Of course, "Hemispheres" the song isn't as good as "2112" the song, but this album has way more going for it.

Hemispheres also is the only Rush album that I've heard them play every song live aside from Moving Pictures, which doesn't really count, because the whole point of the 2010 tour was that they were going to play the entire album. Of course, when an album has only four songs on it, like Hemispheres does, that's easier to accomplish.

My guess is we'll get at least part of "La Villa Strangiato" in June and, very hopefully, a little of Hemispheres. They last whipped out the “Prologue” in its entirety in 1994--a search of YouTube will find you a pro video of them doing it at The Palace the night I was there--and if Geddy is scared of doing "Fly By Night," the thought of doing the Prologue again probably would cause sheer terror. They've said they wrote it intentionally high, so Geddy has to really reach to unleash his Witchiepoo shriek to get there. They prefer playing 2112, so it's questionable whether he could do it twice.

For reasons that shouldn't be too difficult for a Rush fan to understand, Hemispheres sounds to me like it's the second record of a double album and not just because Hemispheres the song is listed as Part II of "Cygnus X-1" from A Farewell to Kings. It's hard for me to not think of "The Trees," "Xanadu" and "La Villa" intertwining--particularly the first two songs--because of Ext, Stage Left ..., which would be the one Rush album out of my collection I would save if I only could save one. The songs all seem to have come from the same place, even if they weren't recorded, or even written, at the same time.

Your countdown so far:

No. 15: Fly by Night (Dave) and Counterparts (Will)

No. 16: Vapor Trails (Both of us)

Friday, April 03, 2015

An appreciation of bullpen buggies and Mel Rojas, too

What’s all this about some guy paying $112,000 for a Mets bullpen buggy.

I have a Mets bullpen buggy. I think I paid $10 for it a few years back. It’s really cool.

Sadly, the buggy was long gone when Mel Rojas was in the Mets’ bullpen in 1997 and 1998.

I was thinking about Mel Rojas today as we start on our traditional journey of pairing the age we turn today with a player who wore that number, and thinking about what lessons that might bring for the year ahead.

Now that we’ve slipped past Sid Fernandez, it’s going to get more difficult as we head deep in to the part of the numerical roster frequented by coaches and players who don’t stay very long. We’re still a long way from Johan Santana.

One rare occasions we look to a non-Met and hurler Randy Johnson was an option. But after he went from famed Yankee conqueror to an actual Yankee, he’s pretty dead to us, at least until he confesses the error of his ways.

Consulting the essential “Mets by the Numbers” by Jon Springer and Matthew Silverman, we learn that No. 51 has been worn by a largely unmemorable cast of Mets, including Mike Maddux and Rick White and a whole bunch of coaches.

That brings us to Mel Rojas.

Rojas was a stud closer for the Expos, then signed a big contract with the Cubs. Like many highly-paid Cubs, he was awful.

Mets GM Steve Phillips thought Mel just needed a change of scenery.  Queens proved less friendly than the confines of Wrigley. Mel posted ERAs of 5.81 in 1997 and 6.05 in 1998.
Phillips then swapped Rojas to the Dodgers for Bobby Bonilla’s second stint with the Mets, a tenure that did not end especially well.

But I like Mel Rojas. Here’s why: I used to collect game-used jerseys. My collection was limited by two things. First, I was unable to spend a lot of money. Second, I liked jerseys that I could actually wear. These conditions made for a rather small set of potential purchases.

One day I read that the Mets were selling game-used equipment, and that such treasures could be purchased over the phone. I remember calling the team and speaking to the clerk, inquiring about the number of jerseys available that were large in size and small in price.

“I have a Mel Rojas,” he said, almost apologetically, and suggested a price that I could not resist.

The jersey arrived a short time later, and it’s really cool. It’s technically a road batting practice jersey with New York across the chest and No. 51 on front and back. Mel even signed the front number. I love it, and it’s one of my favorite jerseys to wear to a game.

Every former Met plays a role in our team’s history. It’s great to celebrate the Wrights and Harveys. But someone has to remember the Rojases.

So, our goal for Year 51 will be to appreciate everybody. Even the least-successful Met – and there are some who struggled more than Mel – is special. And they might need your cheers more than David Wright. 

That’s a lesson we can take outside of baseball to the folks we encounter every day.

Everyone is special, even the people who challenge us in some way and make it difficult to see their specialness. We can't let that stop us. 

Lessons from previous years:

50: We must embrace opportunities to shine like Sid Fernandez in the Big 5-0
49: In year No. 49, we look back to appreciate Armando Benitez and forward to Jon Niese
48: Trying to embrace the Randy Myers year, but without the nastiness
47: For year No. 47: Jay and Jesse, fresh starts and happy endings
46: Redeeming No. 46 in delicious fashion
45: Following Tug's advice for the year ahead
44: Like Brady Clark, I'm just happy to be here
43: Jim McAndrew and unforeseen opportunities 
42: Celebrating the Jackie Robinson birthday

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March is Mostly Mets Reading Month transitions to an even bigger celebration with 'The Case for Christ'

I'm kind of sad that March is Mostly Mets Reading Month is coming to a close. There are still so many books to talk about and stories to tell.

But today's entry will help as we ease into the next celebration, followed by yet another on Monday.

The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
Published in 1998

Would you give your life to defend something you knew was a lie?

It was one of the most heartbreaking stories I have ever covered. A missionary family from a Grand Rapids suburb was working in South America, flying in a small plane that the government mistakenly believed was being used by drug smugglers.

The authorities opened fire on the plane, and a shot ripped through the fuselage, killing the mother and infant daughter she was holding in her lap.

I was assigned to cover the funeral, and was amazed at how some of my fellow journalists were behaving and how well the church staff was handling the international attention, mourning in front of a wall of cameras.

A couple days after the funeral I wrote a note to the pastor, thanking him and his staff for being so helpful during what I knew was a very difficult and emotional time.

A short while later an envelope arrived in the newsroom with a nice note from the pastor and the book, “The Case for Christ, A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus,” by Lee Strobel. I was intrigued by the surprise gift, and was hooked.

Strobel was a cops and courts reporter for the Chicago Tribune and an atheist. His wife in 1979 became a believer and he was amazed by her transformation. Still a skeptic, he dove headfirst into an exhaustive investigation to prove whether or not Jesus existed and whether the details of his life that we celebrate this week were, in fact, true.

It’s a fascinating story as he travels the country, grilling experts and historians. Along the way he weaves in stories about events he covered over the course of his career, and how they might apply to the next line of questioning.

He comes to a startling conclusion – and you can consider this a spoiler alert:

“The atheism I had embraced for so long buckled under the weight of historical truth. It was a stunning and radical outcome, certainly not what I had anticipated when I had embarked on this investigative process. But this was, in my opinion, a decision compelled by the facts.”

I was moved by the gift and the story, and admire the way it was told. So much so, that I required it in the journalism classes I teach. I’m an adjunct at a Christian college, so this is OK. And if you want to make college students happy, tell them that you can find copies of their newly assigned textbook on Amazon for under $1. In classes where I don’t get to select the textbooks, I read aloud passages, especially the sections where Strobel describes the people he interviews and their offices.

I want the students to see how this acclaimed journalist went about his craft, and know that our work can have a tremendous impact on our readers – and, on a good day, ourselves.

Now, to get back to the question at the top of today’s post. One of the most fascinating interviews in the book looks at the disciples and their lives after the resurrection. If that resurrection, and all the other aspects of Christ’s life, were false, they would know. Nearly all were put to death after spending their days telling people about what they had experienced. No one, he argues, gives their life for something they know is false. 

Your reading list:

March 5: "Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century" by Marc Okkenon
March 4: "Clemente! The Enduring Legacy" by Kal Wagenheim 
March 3: "Mets by the Numbers" by Jon Springer and Matthew Silverman
March 2: "Faith and Fear in Flushing" by Greg W. Prince

Monday, March 30, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No. 9: Was 'Hemispheres' remaster cover art given 'Smell the Glove' treatment?

We're in the Top 10 of our R40 Countdown of Rush's albums from "least-glorious" to "Moving Pictures," and we're starting to see some big differences of opinion. And, watch for "Spinal Tap" references.

No. 9: “Hemispheres”
Released in 1978

Highlights: “Cygnus X-1, Book Two: Hemispheres,” “Circumstances.”

Least glorious moment: The album cover

Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:

“We can walk our road together
If our goals are all the same
We can run alone and free
If we pursue a different aim

Let the truth of love be lighted
Let the love of truth shine clear sensibility
Armed with sense and liberty
With the heart and mind united
In a single, perfect, sphere”
-- "Cygnus X-1, Book 2: Hemispheres, Part VI The Sphere, a Kind of Dream" 

Like “2112,” “Hemispheres” is anchored by an epic, classic song that takes up an entire side of the album.

And also like “2112,” this release originally was ranked higher in my countdown but was passed by as others moved up as I listen to the albums all over again.

That’s no slight to “Hemispheres,” because we’re moving into the upper reaches of the countdown.

The epic continues the character “Cygnus X-1” from “A Farewell to Kings” with a story about conflict between the gods of love and reason as they battle for the fate of man. You know, typical Rush stuff.

The first of the song’s seven sections – “Prelude” – is as great as prog-era Rush gets. The part where Geddy’s bass seems to take over the melody is pure magic.
The more familiar cover.

So here’s what confuses me: As far as I can tell, Rush stopped playing the song, other than a snippet during the “R30 Overture.” The classic first sections of “2112” have been concert staples. “Hemispheres,” has been relatively ignored for 20 years.

(I originally thought that the song hadn't been played since the Permanent Waves Tour, but the kind folks at The Rush Forum noted that it was last played in 1994 on the Counterparts Tour, which Geddy seeming to struggle with the high notes.)

The album has only three other songs and two of the three – “The Trees” and “La Villa Strangiato” – are played frequently, and they’re all strong. “Circumstances” was revived for the “Snakes & Arrows” tour.

So the mystery remains of why the band has continued to ignore what might be its best epic.

The album didn’t perform as well on the charts compared with other Rush releases, peaking at No. 47. The band resisted changing after “Caress of Steel” receded on the charts, but switched gears after “Hemispheres” with glorious results.

OK, now let’s get to the cover. There’s a naked guy on there. I get the whole right side/left side of the brain thing, with the stuffy suited guy on one side and the naked, creative guy on the other. Now, there is no more insecure being on the planet than a teenage boy.  And when 98 percent of your audience is guys, well, a design like that isn’t going to sell too many T-shirts.
Here's a great -- and rare -- live version of "Circumstances."

When the remastered edition came out years later, the CD came with the usual booklet, and also a second with a black cover, with just the distinctive wordmark and album title. Did some at the label think Rush needed to “Smell the Glove?”

And Will jumps in:

So what you're saying, Dave, is that if Rush had thrown a naked babe on there, it might have sold better with pimply faced youths from Long Gisland who can't reconcile the strange sensations they experience when they see a naked man? And how did the cover of All the World's a Stage strike you or was that OK because the naked man in question there was part of the 2112 logo and, thus, automatically acceptable, because it was badass cool? 

Dave again: All I'm saying was that the next album cover did have an attractive female on the cover, and it did sell better! But that's later in the countdown.

Back to Will:

Personally, I had a harder time with the photo on the back of the 2112 album cover, but we've already discussed that.

After a first half where our choices were very similar, we're starting to diverge more, like, well, two halves of a perfect sphere.

No. 9: Test for Echo
Released in 1996

While I would say that it's even money that we'll hear at least something off Dave's choice--my guess is part of "La Villa," but even a snippet of Hemispheres would be awesome--I further would bet that of any of Rush's albums, the one most likely to not be represented at all is my selection. Dave talked about a lack of Rush playing the title track of his album since its release, but since the Test for Echo Tour in 1996/97, Rush has played exactly two songs from "Test for Echo:" "Driven" in 2002 and an acoustic "Resist" in 2004. The ONLY Rush album less represented in the set lists over the same time is "Caress of Steel."

For a long time, I didn't get why this would be the case. It's a damn good album, although, I must admit, it slid a bit upon further examination--and only because everything I have above it is better. I liked "Test for Echo" almost in its entirety right away, and it marked a return to the more atmospheric sound that I loved so much before "Counterparts."

Now I know why (or I think I know why), and it's the same reason why I expect to not hear Afterimage on this tour as well: Neil doesn't want to have anything to do with it, and not unreasonably so. Yes, it's been almost 20 years, but "Test for Echo" was the last album Rush did before Neil's life fell apart with his daughter and wife dying with a span of a year. I can't imagine, even though things are much better for him now, that he ever feels like going back and re-examining these songs even if his anguish isn't as acute. It's not as if he has to. "Test for Echo" wasn't a huge selling album, so there aren't any songs they HAVE to play, and when you have a canon as large as Rush's, you can skip as much as like and not short-change anyone.

It's too bad, because this album makes me think of happy times. In fact, the first time I ever heard the title track was a great day I remember well. Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to 1996. That year, my now-ex had a new job with little vacation time accrued, most of which was going to be burned up by a vacation to New England. I had a ton of time, so I was able to take extra days off. I decided one Monday to take a day off and hit all of the card stores in Columbus that I'd never visited before. (For the kids in the audience, card stores were actual stores where retailers sold baseball cards back before the Internet changed/ruined everything. If you're in a really big city, you might see one of these dinosaurs slinking off into the desert.)

I went to seven locations, two of which had closed, two of which became regular stops over the years (but since have closed). I was finding a lot of good stuff and having a pretty good day just being a little kid, although the weather was somewhat overcast and drizzly when I finally arrived at Hilliard, which is on the West Side of town and almost as far away as you could get from where I lived while still being in the Columbus metropolitan area. That's when the sky opened up.

I had just made a small buy when the rain came down in buckets. Even making the 50-foot dash to my car in the parking lot would've soaked me to the bone, and, more important, it would've soaked the batch of 1994 Fleers I'd just bought to fill in my Will Set. So I waited inside the door for the rain to let up, which it finally did after about 20 minutes. In the parking lot were puddles the size of Lake Erie, and I might have gotten a soaker or two before reaching my car.

I went to another store in Hilliard, and when I came out of that store--with hands empty, alas--the day was rapidly turning into a beautiful September evening. It was warm, with the sun beginning to set and huge white clouds of the storm that passed through framed against a bright blue sky. The roads were adorned with large puddles, but the sunlight shown orange through the green-leaf-bedecked trees. I had Q-FM on my radio, and Test for Echo came on. My ex had heard it once or twice already--she listened to the radio more than I did--but I hadn't. The shimmery tones of Alex's guitar seemed to represent precisely the change in weather, and as the song built--and I realized I loved it instantly. I called my ex at the next stop--she was home from work by now--saying I was about to head home, and I'd heard the new Rush song. We went out to dinner that night, and I remember feeling happy. I'd had a really good day, and Rush was definitely a part of it.

And no one will be more shocked than I if I get to relive it in June by Rush blowing the dust off the title track and giving it a go once more.

Your R40 Countdown so far:

No. 15: Fly by Night (Dave) and Counterparts (Will)

No. 16: Vapor Trails (Both of us)