Monday, May 18, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No. 3: Permanent Waves is a masterpiece, Signals recalls exciting times

And then there were three! And that makes sense for a power trio like Rush. Will and I are continuing our R40 Countdown, marching toward the very best from our favorite band.

No. 3: Permanent Waves
Released in 1980

Highlights: “The Spirit of Radio,” “Entre Nous,” “Freewill.”

Relative least-glorious moment: “Different Strings.”

Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:

“Just between us
I think it’s time for us to recognize
The differences we sometimes fear to show
Just between us
I think it’s time for us to realize
The spaces in between
Leave room for you and I to grow.”
-- "Entre Nous"

I’m feeling emboldened by Will’s decision to rank the glorious Permanent Waves at No. 4.

From the very start, I had this epic release at No. 2, right behind Moving Pictures. But something happened as I started to study the albums as we prepared each installment of the countdown.

There was one release that I kept going back to, over and over. It was always a favorite for many reasons, and you’ll learn more about that next week.

But each play revealed new nuances, new thoughts about lyrics and a stronger appreciation. I’ve found my thoughts drifting back to that release, over and over.

Here’s where things get bold. My No. 2 is not a release generally loved by Rush fans. It will be the biggest difference of opinion between Will and I, as he has it in the lower reaches of his list.

Thinking some more, I wondered whether it was possible that I enjoyed the release more than Permanent Waves. That’s blasphemy to many Rush fans. But I have to be true to myself.

So here we are at No. 3. There is no shame in being the third most-favorite Rush album. Actually, there’s no shame in being the least-glorious Rush album at No. 20.

I love Permanent Waves. “The Spirit of Radio” is an amazing song, immediately distinguishable from Alex’s stinging intro. It’s one of two songs – “Tom Sawyer” being the other – that Rush will probably play before being allowed to leave a stage now and into the future, whatever that might be for the band.
"Entre Nous" has been played live on only one tour -- and here it is!

A few years ago, my friends at the Crane Pool Forum had a thread where someone would list 10 consecutive songs from their iPod playlist, and then someone with one of those songs would start there and list the next 10 from his own list.

I remember listing about six different versions of “The Spirit of Radio,” and someone posting, “Isn’t that a bit excessive?”

The only answer is, of course, “No. Why do you ask?”

But the real gem is “Entre Nous.” It doesn’t rock as hard as “Freewill” or some of the others, but I love the message that we are all different and can still find ways to get along.

Being an impressionable high-school student when this came out, I embraced this album. One art class called for us to match lyrics or poetry with our artwork, compiled into a book at the end of the year.  I called mine “Entre Nous,” which made sense since most of the projects were based on Rush lyrics anyway.

The disc sounds amazing, leaping from the speakers with plenty of space between the instruments. And with shorter songs than the predecessor – Hemispheres – Permanent Waves is considered more accessible, opening the world of Rush to a much wider audience.

It is, in many, ways, a darn-near perfect album. I just happen to like two others better.

And Will jumps in:

I happen to like three, but that's just me. It's been fun to see as our lists dwindled what still was left. A couple weeks ago, I got clued into the likelihood that Dave and I were going to finish the same way--with a super-personal and somewhat idiosyncratic choice at the No. 2 spot and the obvious choice at No. 1. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Newhart finale (the best ending of a TV comedy ever), maybe one of us is going to slip you a mickey, but my money's on the favorite.

That being the case, that makes my latest pick ...

No. 3: Signals
Released in 1982

I have a theory of music--feel free to argue with me if you think I'm wrong. I believe that most people gravitate to the music that was on the radio or record player or 8-track or CD carousel or iPod playlist or stream (we'll see) when they first got laid.

That can be the only possible explanation for the extended run of "Classic rock radio" and the death of modern rock radio. The people who still listen to music radio are old, like me and Dave (not that I still listen to the radio), and when Boomers go to the radio, what do they want to hear--the music of their youth, when they first were doing the dirty deed. Led Zeppelin, Clapton, The Beatles, Boston, etc. It's as comfortable as a pair of old jeans and always there when you need it.

That can be the only possible explanation for why I love--without any irony whatsoever--what I refer to as 80's synth-pop crap. Give me a steady dose of Duran Duran, The Waitresses, Flock of Seagulls, Psychedelic Furs (with maybe a little Phil Collins thrown in) all interlaced with the dulcet tones of J.J. Jackson, and I'm asking for seconds.

Signals came out in 1982, the year I finally grew a pair and asked that super-hot strawberry-blonde babe who kept coming into the grocery store where I worked my senior year in high school out on a date. And I had it in heavy rotation on the record player in my bedroom my sophomore year at college--the year when I and that super-hot strawberry blonde finally consummated our relationship. (Signals wasn't actually on at the time of that momentous moment, because it happened when I was home in Columbus over Christmas break.) Et voila, as Eddie Izzard would say.

Here's a great live version of Will's fave -- "The Analog Kid."

All that aside, however, this album spoke to me in a big way 30 years ago, and it continues to speak to me after all these years. The first time I heard "Subdivisions," I thought Neil wrote it solely for my benefit. Needless to say, I WAS that kid from the video who was out playing Tempest while all the cool kids were doing what cool kids do.

Then there's "The Analog Kid," which is, simply, my second-favorite Rush song of all time, behind only the saintly "Xanadu." With no apologies to Dave or any other Rush fan, Neil DID write that one solely for my benefit. (Sorry.) The chorus is magical, and the final line "When I leave I don't know what I'm hoping to find, and when I leave I don't know what I'm leaving behind," has been something of a mantra to me my whole life--looking forward and back with longing and regret all at the same time. If I had to pick one, it's probably my single favorite Rush lyric.

The rest of the album ... isn't as strong, of course. Nothing dishonorable about that; that's a pretty formidable one-two punch there. However, "Digital Man," "The Weapon" and "Losing It" also made my top 1,000.

"Losing It" in particular has taken on more weight now that I'm older, and I can begin to relate to the characters in the bittersweet elegy who are losing the skills that made them great at their peak. It happens to us all; it just happens to some people more slowly if they're lucky. Every time now that I say something and come to a screeching halt mid-sentence because I forgot what I was going to say (and it happens enough now to be more concerning than frustrating), I think of this song.

OK, so I'm as guilty as anyone about gravitating back to the music "of my times," ahem, but I wonder how many people are listening to Derek and the Dominoes and finding something that relates to their life now, not the life they wish they still lived--when everything was new and wonderful?

Speaking of wonderful, I know I'm running long, but I want to leave you with one final story. I couldn't tell it on my blog, because the song didn't make the list. Dave mocked "Countdown" earlier, and I won't disagree with what he said about it and its datedness, but it makes me think of something specific.

When I took American History my junior year of high school, I took it in the fifth period, right after lunch. Consequently, I was in the class with all of the burnouts, and I mean every single one. (The reek of smoke--not all of it cigarettes--was fearsome.) It was OK; they paid me no mind, much like most of the rest of the high school (which was the way I liked it after a brutal junior-high experience).

Anyway, one day in 1981 after the bell rang, Mr. Brewster greeted us at the front of the classroom standing next to a TV set wheeled in by the AV guys. I'll never forget what he said: "This is a history class, and today we're going to watch some history."

He turned on the TV, and we watched the Columbia land, the end of the first flight of the space shuttle--the blast-off of which, of course, inspired "Countdown." When it landed safely, the whole room burst into applause--and I mean everyone, including the burnouts. It took me by surprise, because it was the last group of people I expected to show spontaneous joy at something that was part of the establishment. But everyone got it.

If I may digress further, a decade or so ago, VH-1 ran a show counting down the top 100 TV moments of all time. I tried to guess the top 10 and got most of them right including the inevitable No. 1--9/11. I chose 9/11 because it was huge but also because it was the most current (in 2004). Other things, like, say, MLK's I Have a Dream speech, The Beatles on Ed Sullivan or Oswald being assassinated, were so old that the kids watching wouldn't have as much attachment to them.

It was kind of like when ESPN did its list of the top 100 athletes of the 20th Century. I knew No. 1 was going to be Michael Jordan, because everyone watching had seen him play. ESPN didn't have any footage of Jim Thorpe--who clearly was the top athlete of the 20th Century.

When the bit about 9/11 ended, however, the screen went black with the words "A second opinion," and the producers gave the final word to Walter Cronkite. Cronkite, who knew a little about big TV moments, said in his opinion the biggest TV moment was the No. 2 moment--The day the Eagle landed on the moon. Fear and sadness are powerful emotions, he agreed, but they'll never be as important as the forces of wonder and joy, which was what Apollo 11 meant. Cronkite said man is always at his best when he's striving for greatness and achieving beyond the wildest dreams of imagination. Consequently, the images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon will be the ones that ultimately endure.

That brings me back to watching the Columbia land. Everyone in that fifth-period history class understood that they were watching something wonderful, something bigger and better than themselves, yet something that also represented and touched the best in themselves.

Neil nailed that emotion perfectly: "In fascination, with the eyes of the world, we stare ..."

And from one "Countdown" to another, here's where we stand:

No. 4: Roll the Bones (Dave), Permanent Waves (Will)
No. 5: Power Windows (Dave), Roll the Bones (Will)

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