Monday, February 23, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No. 17: Debut stories, a missing newt and Will's lost years

Our march to the Chicago R40 concert continues with Will and I listing Rush albums from least-great to “Moving Pictures.” 

Today’s post shows that we are heading toward a serious disagreement – and we learn a little bit about newts.

No. 17: Rush

Released in 1974

Highlights: “Finding My Way,” Working Man,” “In the Mood.”

Least-great moment: “Here Again”

Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment: None, as Neil famously joined the band after this album was released.  But Geddy and Alex came up with:

“I’ve been gone so long
I’ve lost count of the years
Well, I sang some sad songs
Oh yes, and cried some bad tears”

-- “Finding My Way,” and yes, it was good when Neil arrived.

I remember being so excited when I started my career, reporting from the Westport Bureau of Bridgeport Post.

One of my first assignments was covering a visit by Connecticut Education Commissioner Gerald Tirozzi to Tilford W. Miller Elementary School in Wilton.

He was reading to a kindergarten class astory about tugboats as students sat around him on the floor, and all was going well. That is, it was going well until the missing-class newt was discovered under a desk. The great escape was short-lived, as, apparently, was the newt.
A live newt. 

Pandemonium ensued, and the kids no longer cared about tugboats or the nice man in the suit.

I knew right then and there that I loved the job, which is both fun and unpredictable. I loved that story.

I also wrote a bunch of other stories that first year that weren't as memorable – and I’d love to have a chance to write again with the polish and insight that comes with experience. I’d like to think I got a lot better as I went on.

So that takes us to Rush’s self-titled debutalbum. Will’s right that this isn't the Rush that we know and love.

No disrespect intended to the late John Rutsey, who departed after the album was recorded because of health issues and some other challenges. 

But Neil Peart elevated the band from a good, heavy, blues-based hard rock band to the glorious, life-changing trio still stirring our passions 40 years later.

Here's a rare video of the band performing with original drummer John Rutsey.

This is not to say that there aren't some great songs on the album.  “Working Man,” “In the Mood,” and “Finding My Way” are still wonderful fist-in-the-air anthems.

Those songs don’t make us think like “Witch Hunt” or take us to exotic places like “Xanadu” or serve as the basis of a youth group lesson, like “Totem.” But they’re still fun, and the album sets the stage for those things to come. And, I still like it better than “Snakes & Arrows.”

Back in 2008, I received an email from then-Commissioner Tirozzi, who moved on to become a college president before President Clinton appointed him assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education. He remembered that day at the school and the missing newt. 

Now, Will fesses up. And here's where we start to have divergence of opinion.

No. 17: Hold Your Fire

Released in 1987

True confession: There was a time after I discovered Rush that I didn't like Rush.

It was during their Synth period, but unlike all the right-thinking headbangers out there, it wasn't because Rush started using synthesizers, it was because they weren't using them enough.

The early- to mid-Eighties was a big time of discovering progressive rock. Genesis, Yes and ELP were dominating my record player (back before that became an ironic media).

But almost right when I found Rush, they stopped making long-form songs that helped me get into them in the first place. The result: They fell by the wayside to the point where Power Windows was the first new Rush album I didn't buy since my discovery in 1980. 

When Hold Your Fire came out, Rush had fallen so far off my radar that I remember seeing the album in a Chicago record store and thinking, "Rush still is putting out albums?" I never heard anything from them on radio or MTV any more.

Eventually I rediscovered my love for Rush (story TK) and got caught up, but unlike other albums that benefited from hindsight, Hold Your Fire STILL leaves me cold. I mean, I like "Time Stands Still" as a live anthem (and I finally saw the completely funky video for the first time just a few years ago) and "Force Ten" is one of my favorite songs of all time by anyone, but the rest of the album is so much filler.

Check out the rest of the countdown:

Agree or disagree? Tell us in the comments.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No. 18: 'Feedback' provides all the fun, but none of the memories

Any feedback on how we're doing so far? 
We're preparing for the Rush R40 concert by counting down our favorite Rush albums, from the least-glorious to Moving Pictures.
Will is no longer relegated to the comments, and will post rankings here, too. You'll see that we like similar things differently. I love the Mets, he loves the Reds and we both love baseball. Our approach to Rush will be similar, I'm sure. 
We're still in the lower regions of the countdown, and this time I'm hitting on what has to be the Rush album that most surprised fans.
Dave's No. 18 Feedback
Released in 2004

Highlights: “Crossroads,” “Summertime Blues.”

Least-great moment: “Shapes of Things.”

Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:

Well, none. These aren’t songs written by the band. But the Peart-penned liner notes are pretty neat.

“The music celebrates a good time in our lives, and we had a good time celebrating it.”

I like to look at my high-school year book once in a while. It’s fun for me and brings back some nice memories. (Some not-so-nice memories, too. But that’s high school.)

Although I have the book in a prominent spot in the living room shelves, I notice that no one other than me pulls it out and looks through the photos. Not as much fun for them.

That’s kind of the issue with "Feedback" The guys chose to celebrate a milestone with an album consisting entirely of songs from their teen-age years.

“We thought it would be a fitting symbol to commemorate our 30 years together it we returned to our roots and paid tribute to those who we had learned from and were inspired by,” Neil writes.

The guys run through classics like “Crossroads” and “Summertime Blues” and “The Seeker,” and it sure does seem like they’re having fun.

“Crossroads,” in particular, has the band letting loose, which is not your basic Rush characteristic.  The live version on the R30 album is even better.

It’s a fun disc, make no mistake. But, as Will points out, we’re comparing this to other Rush discs, so the bar is high. Playing the disc again this week, I realized that it’s nice to listen to – but I probably haven’t listened to it in a long time. When I’m in the mood for Rush, I tend to reach for actual Rush, not Rush playing other performers' songs.

The album is kind of like flipping through someone else’s yearbook. The photos might be nice to look at, but the memories aren't there.
Here's some "Crossroads" to enjoy.
And Will joins us for his No. 18:
Will's No. 18: Rush
Released in 1974

There, I said it. I fully expect--and understand if it happens--Dave to now bail on the concert, not wanting to be seen in public with me.

It's true: Another of Rush's first three albums is in my bottom three and one that is held in high esteem by Rushies. Blasphemy! I should hang my head in shame and go back to listening to Triumph!

Sorry, but it just doesn't connect with me. Sure, there are three bona fide Rush anthems on this album, and it would be cool to hear them all this time, which we probably will, but none of them--even Working Man--are among the roughly 200 Rush songs I chose on my top 1,000 for a reason.

Just as there are Beatles periods, there are Rush periods, and Rush's early period, like the Beatles' coincidentally, is my least favorite. I make no apologies. (Yeah, I know I started the paragraph with an apology, but that's of the "I'm sorry if you were offended" ilk and not of the "I'm sorry for what I said" ilk.)

It's simple: I like my Rush with a brain, and although I would concede that Rush, the album, is smarter than about 98.6 percent of every hair metal song I've ever heard, it's just not, well, Rush. Every band has to start somewhere, and it's a cool document--you can definitely hear the band that made Feedback on this album, but ... something's missing, something that still was in St. Catherine's. The band and album were called Rush, but it wasn't REALLY Rush, not yet anyway.

For people just catching up:

Disagree? Let us know in the comments.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Van Meter loses its Bob Feller Museum, but 'Rapid Robert' will long be remembered

A little, but proud, piece of baseball history is going away.

I came across a New YorkTimes story about the decision to close the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter, Iowa. The legendary hurler used to help cover expenses by visiting the hometown and signing autographs, usually with some fellow Hall-of-Famers.

But since Feller passed in 2010, it’s been harder to raise enough money to keep the small museum opened. The building, with an amazing brick mural on an outside wall, will soon become the new Van Meter City Hall.

I had the pleasure of a quick visit to the museum during our epic trip to South Dakota in 2013. Even better, I twice had the opportunity to meet the man himself.

I once wrote that if you’re an autograph collector and you don’t have Feller’s signature, that’s on you and not Feller. He was among the nicest and most prolific signers in the game.

I first met the Indians pitcher when I was living in Connecticut and working in the Bridgeport Post’s Valley Bureau.

Feller had relatives in nearby Waterbury, and each summer he’d visit and would make a handful of appearances. I first met him at a baseball card store Seymour, Conn. in 1987. I brought a ball for him to sign, and there were only a handful of other people in the small store.

With little prompting, Feller starting telling me about his amazing Hall of Fame career. After asking my name, he wrote on an 8.5 by 11 sheet with his photo on the front, and flipped it over to show me where it listed all his career achievements.

I heard about the 266 wins and three no-hitters, and how he could have had more of each had he not enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, spending 44 months serving his country and earning eight battle stars.

He pointed out the line reading “The only pitcher in Major League history to win 20 games or more games before age 21,” then crossed out “only” and replaced it with “first,” since Dwight Gooden had matched the feat.

I met him again the next year at a New Britain Red Sox game, sitting at a table near the concession stands, signing photos and telling stories. He signed everything for everyone and then walked around the stands talking, signing and shaking hands.

He came off a little crusty in interviews in his later years, not having a lot of love for modern players who don’t approach the game the same way. I think Feller views himself not just as a standard bearer for old school hardball, but as an ambassador for the game. And to that end, few were better than the “Heater from Van Meter.”

So I was pretty excited when we were driving through Iowa on our way to South Dakota and saw the sign for Van Meter on I-80.

My mother-in-law spoils me wildly, and allowed me to pull over to take some quick photos – which led to a peek inside the museum, just before closing for the day.
There’s not much to Van Meter, so the museum was not difficult to find. The bar relief mural stands out.

We had just enough time to grab some things in the gift shop and admire some of the displays. The price of admission was nominal, and the two exhibit rooms were filled with Feller memorabilia. The folks in the museum were certainly proud of their native son.
The bat is the center display was used by the Bambino
One key artifact: The bat that Babe Ruth leaned on when he made is last public appearance at Yankee Stadium. You’ve no doubt seen the photo. Babe was using one of Feller’s bats, and it’s on display.

The thing with road trips is that you have to be open to stopping when glorious opportunities present themselves. This stop ended up being a once-in-a-lifetime visit.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No. 19: 'Snakes & Arrows' is a far cry from the Rush we like best

As you remember from the last post, Will and I are looking forward to the sure-to-be-glorious Rush R-40 concert later this year. In preparation, we’re ranking Rush albums from the least-great to “Moving Pictures.”

We started the countdown at No. 20 with “Caress of Steel,” which I think a consensus of Rush fans would rank as the band’s lowest point.

And here’s where I start getting in trouble. Remember, people. The least-glorious Rush albums are still better than much of the stuff out there.

No. 19: Snakes & Arrows

Released in 2007

Highlights: “Far Cry,” “The Main Monkey Business,” “We Hold On.”

Least-great moments: “Faithless”

Cool Neil Pearl lyrical moment:

“It’s a far cry from the world we thought we’d inherit
It’s a far cry from the way we thought we’d share it
You can almost feel the current flowing
You can almost see the circuits blowing.”
From “Far Cry”

A lot of people liked “Snakes & Arrows.” I wrestled with this one. I might have had unrealistic expectations. “Far Cry” was released in advance and it’s awesome. It’s everything we love about Rush, with poignant lyrics, precise drum and guitar interplay and a memorable chorus. It seems to have become a concert staple, too.

Then the rest of the album came out. There are a lot of long, lumbering, plodding cuts with lyrics that seem less upbeat than usual. Protagonists in Rush songs usually rise above. Here, they seem to be wallowing.

Geddy’s vocals seem to be layered throughout, making it difficult to understand what he’s saying. For a band that prides itself on its lyrics, that’s a problem. This isn't like Whitesnake finding new ways to rhyme “knees” and “please.” Will noted that the songs sounded better in concert, where just one Geddy was singing at a time.

It’s not unusual for Rush to have an instrumental on an album, but there are three of them here. They’re also the liveliest cuts on the disc. That makes me wonder if Geddy and Alex were struggling to match music with Neil’s lyrics.   

Usually it doesn't take long for a Rush album to embed itself in my subconscious. Outside of “Far Cry,” nothing from “Snakes” ever did. I’ve been playing it again this week to see if fresh ears would make things seem better, and I still can’t reach back and find most of cuts.

The best moments seem to bookend the album.

“Far Cry” is an expression of frustration at the times. “Whirlwind of faith and betrayal, Rise in anger, Fall back and repeat.” The tracks were written throughout 2006, and the world was a pretty scary place. Of course, we had no idea it was about to get scarier.
Check out this video of "Far Cry" from the "Time Pieces" tour. It's really good!

But the closing track seems to be an upbeat response. “We Hold On” speaks of determination and rising up to challenges. “Keep going until dawn, How many times must another line be drawn, We could be down and gone, But we hold on,” and “Keep holding on so long, ‘Cause there’s a chance, That we might not be so wrong. We could be down and gone, But we hold on.”

It’s like Neil is saying, “Yeah, we've got some problems. Things are a mess. But we’re not giving up.”

Like “Far Cry,” the cut moves faster and the refrain is memorable. It’s a good way to close out the album. It’s the stuff in the middle I had trouble with.

Here's the of the countdown. Remember, we're in the early stages.

Tell us in the comments where we have gone astray.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Celebrating a friendship and a life soundtrack: Counting down Rush from least-great to 'Moving Pictures'

Me with shockingly long hoodlum hair and a sweet Rush concert shirt, no doubt purchased from a shady guy in the Nassau Coliseum parking lot after the "Permanent Waves" show. John has cool Superman jammies.

Will emailed recently with a question and I’m fairly certain he knew the answer before he hit “send.”

He was snagging tickets for the upcoming Rush R40 tour, and wanted to know if wanted to go, too. Actually, it was closer to “I’m getting tickets to see Rush in Chicago and you’re coming.”

Will knew there’s no concert I’d rather see and no one I’d rather see it with.

Rush has been my favorite band since junior high. Outside of family, there are very few things that remain constants through must of your life. Like the Mets, Rush is one of those things, sticking with me though high school, college, marriage, new homes and new jobs. Each album takes me back to a time and place.

I’m not sure what drew me to the band at first. I remember a classmate at John P. McKenna Junior High wearing a “Rush Texas Tour” t-shirt and thinking that most bands are big enough to tour more than one state.

It’s a different kind of band. Most of the hard rockers at the time fell into two categories: British bands that sang about demons and wizards – think Black Sabbath – and American bands that sang about girls and partying, like Van Halen.

But the Canadian trio took a different approach. 

Lumped in the prog rockers, the band explored different themes. Sometimes drummer/lyricist Neil Peart dipped into literature, like “Lost Horizon” for “Xanadu,” or dystopian societies or, in lighter moments, radio.

It was always different, usually thought-provoking. I embraced it. My campaign posters for student council were based on Rush lyrics. I finished second out of three candidates. Not everyone gets Rush.

Critics always have hated on the band, which fit perfectly into my underdog-appreciating, outsider’s view of the world. Mets fans are like that.

Will and I met in 1990 when we were both working for the Flint Journal, introduced by my wife, no doubt stunned to find another baseball-loving, baseball card-collecting Rush fan. We’ve been close friends ever since. We've also attended at least three Rush concerts together before moving to other states made that more challenging.

But distance can’t be a factor for this upcoming special night. Rush is celebrating its 40th year together with the R40 tour, and members have announced that it might be their last major trip around the country.

Everyone realizes, of course, that many rock bands declare a farewell tour only to periodically unretire and hit the road again. But we’re not taking chances. We're celebrating a friendship, a band and a lifetime soundtrack.

So in honor of this momentous event, we’re going to mix in a new feature at the blog along with bad postcards and baseball rantings.

It’s time to countdown Rush’s 20 studio albums from worst to first. 

Well, we'll be counting from least-great to “Moving Pictures.” Who are we kidding? There are no bad Rush albums, and “Moving Pictures” is one of the best albums of all time.

I’m sure there will be some side trips for live albums and other things along his historical journey. A good road trip always includes some pauses.

So let’s begin. And feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.(Will, especially you.)

No. 20: Caress of Steel

Released in 1975

Highlights: “The Fountain of Lamneth,” “Lakeside Park.”

Least-great moments: “The Necromancer.”

Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:

“Everyone would gather
On the 24th of May
Sitting in the sand
To watch the fireworks display
Dancing fires on the beach
Singing songs together
Though it’s just a memory
Some memories last forever.”
-- “Lakeside Park”

I don’t think this ranking is a shock to anyone. Rush’s third album jumps headfirst into progressive rock and long, epic songs. Things start out heavy with “Bastille Day” about the French Revolution and get heavier, with the “Necromancer,” which involves summoning spirits of the deceased to discern information about the future. I’m still not sure what is going on in the 20-minute “The Fountain of Lamneth,” though it has some fantastic parts.

Things do get a little lighter. “Lakeside Park” is a beautiful tribute to a favorite spot in St. Catharines, Ontario, where Neil grew up. This cool website -- A Rush Fan's Guide to Toronto -- has some great details.

Hindsight is easy. The band might have been trying too hard. There were even issues with the album cover, which was supposed to be printed on a foiled paper. Instead, the steel on the cover looks like copper.

Historically, "Caress" lays out the framework for what would be classic epics to come. "The Fountain of Lamneth" eventually leads to "2112" and "Hemispheres."

"Caress of Steel" was released before I had discovered the band, and I somehow acquired the eight-track tape version, which dates both me and the band. I never got around to upgrading the album on vinyl or cassette, and only picked up a used version of the CD within the last five years.  

Rush has been unearthing some lesser-known album tracks on the most recent tours. But other than a snippet of “Bastille Day” during the R30 Overture, nothing from “Caress of Steel” sees the light of day. Could that be a surprise pick for R40? We’ll see. 

And here's how we wrapped up the countdown:

No. 1 Moving Pictures (both of us)
No. 2: Hold Your Fire (Dave), Presto (Will)
No. 3: Permanent Waves (Dave), Signals (Will)
No. 4: Roll the Bones (Dave), Permanent Waves (Will)
No. 5: Power Windows (Dave), Roll the Bones (Will)
No. 6: Test for Echo (Dave), Grace Under Pressure (Will)
No. 7: Signals (Dave), A Farewell to Kings (Will)