Thursday, May 07, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No. 4: Roll the Bones and the death of baseball card collecting

The glorious Rush R40 concert in Chicago is just about a month away, which can only mean that we are in the home stretch of counting down the best Rush albums from the least-glorious release to Moving Pictures.

No. 4: Roll the Bones
Released in 1991
Highlights: “The Big Wheel,” “Bravado,” “Dreamline”
Relative least-glorious moments: “You Bet Your Life.”
Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:
“When we are young
Wandering the face of the Earth
Wondering what our dreams might be worth
Learning that we’re only immortal
For a limited time.”
-- "Dreamline"

I remember driving somewhere along I-94 on the then-seven-hour trek to visit my in-laws playing Roll the Bones, and my wife suddenly saying, “This whole album, it’s about gambling!”
You can tell this was a long time ago and early in our marriage, because my wife was still willing to let me play Rush with her in the car. I pointed out that the theme wasn’t necessarily gambling, but chance – the things that happen to us and around us that we can’t control.
The always accurate Wikipedia notes that in the Roll the Bones tour book, Neil “described both the mindset of the lyrics written for not only the title track, but also the album:
‘No matter what kind of song you choose to play, you’re betting your life on it, for good or ill, and what you believe is what you are... No one can ever be sure, in this best of all possible random universes.
‘That's why the essence of these songs is: if there's a chance, you might as well take it. So what if some parts of life are a crap shoot? Get out there and shoot the crap. A random universe doesn't have to be futile; we can change the odds, load the dice, and roll again…. For anyone who hasn't seen Groucho Marx's game show You Bet Your Life, I mean that no one but Groucho knows the secret word, and one guess is as good as another... Anything can happen. That is called fate.’”
And since its Rush, the band tackles some heavy themes, like the end of the Cold War. How different were the lives of the people who happened to be born to families living on one side of the Berlin Wall than those born on the other?
Musically, the band continued stepping away from keyboards. There are some interesting experiments, like Geddy rapping in the title cut, at least as much as Rush is going to rap.
“Bravado” stands out as one of the few songs where the band in concert opens up and jams a little. And my favorite, “The Big Wheel,” has never been played live, so I’m hoping for an R40 surprise from the vault.
Will and I caught the Roll the Bones tour at the Palace of Auburn Hills. We killed time before the show opening a new box of baseball cards, which was not exactly unusual for us.

There are several things to note here. That year, 1991, was about the time the hobby took a turn for the worse.
Topps, after issuing what by any measure was a simply awful set in 1990, started righting the ship with a vastly improved issue. And you could still buy an entire box of packs for about $10.
We liked buying boxes and opening packs, because we could happily spend hours opening, stacking, sorting, trading, checklisting and, of course, playing the “stiff game,” where Rob Deer was a trump card.
This was fun, and the hobby had not really changed much from when we were kids.
Then the bad things started happening. First, companies started producing more than one set, each more expensive than the rest. Then, companies started the practice of “insert” cards – randomly inserted rare cards. The first were autographed cards, then it became cards of rookie stars, then – and here’s where the wheels came off – slices of jerseys and bats.
Suddenly no one cared about the base sets, all they cared about were the high-value insert cards. The base sets soon became an afterthought.
One of the great live versions of "Bravado."
Already some collectors were looking for more valuable “rookie cards” – the first cards of players. But, in theory, there were as many Ken Griffey, Jr. cards produced as the Rob Deers. Now, there were limited, limited, limited insert cards. People were ripping through piles of packs just to see if there were the special cards, which they’d then just try to sell.
Dealers soon started charging more for unopened packs because people could, in theory, pull out one of the expensive insert cards.
And, here’s where we get back to Roll the Bones. We realized that our favorite hobby had been reduced to chance. Buying a pack of cards now became almost like buying a lottery ticket.
This was an outrage to us, and the Flint Journal allowed us a forum to rant. Each week, we’d highlight the fun parts of the hobby and rail against what we – correctly – saw were storm clouds of people collecting for all the wrong reasons and the unsustainability of the concept.
We were the cardboard crusaders, and not entirely popular in some corners. But we had fun. And, I might add, all the things we predicted about the hobby became true.
And Will jumps in!

Of course they did! We knew what we were talking about, because we WERE experts who had collected for decades, not just some johnny-come-latelies who thought the hobby began with Don Mattingly. No one wanted to listen to us, and where are we now: One company runs everything and kids don't collect any more. It's an industry with no real future.

Sure, everyone realizes this ... now. We were saying that back in 19-aught-92 when "Dreamline" was kicking our rumps, and everyone was too busy plotting to finance their kids' Harvard educations with their TVP rookie cards!


On to my pick ...

No. 4: Permanent Waves
Released in 1980

Let me start by saying that if I were doing a list on the QUALITY of Rush albums--the "best" Rush albums and not our faves--this would be No. 2. I believe that most people would agree--except for a few hardcores who tout 2112 under the impression that one epic side is enough.

Why isn't Permanent Waves then MY No. 2 album? Context. Context, timing or whatever you want to call it makes all the difference. Permanent Waves was the first Rush album I knew, well, Side 1 anyway, but I didn't really gravitate to it until long after my Rush rebirth, in 1996. It was only then that I finally heard Side 2, which is outstanding. Consequently, it missed the key formative years that my top three all smacked dead center (and if you're paying attention, you know what they are by now). Put another way, memories based around playing Uniracers on your Super Nintendo don't stack up with memories of a first love, am I right?

Here's a live version of "Natural Science."

None of which is meant to slight Permanent Waves in any way. OK, so I'm not a fan of "The Spirit of the Radio," and "Different Strings" is meh. The four other songs all made my top 1,000, with "Natural Science" in the top 100, and if I had one pick for this Rush concert ... well, OK, aside from all of Fear and maybe "Fly By Night," I'd ask for "Jacob's Ladder" to be brought back to life just once more.

Rush hasn't played it on stage since 1981, so I've never seen them do it, and of all the songs from Permanent Waves, that one was there right from the beginning, thanks to Exit, Stage Left ... Maybe the boys think it's too repetitive and boring compared with other instrumentals; I don't know. It'd be nice to hear it, just once, live.

And while I'm at it, it'd be nice to have 50-cent packs of baseball cards again.

Here's our countdown so far:

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

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