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Thank You, Neil

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Somewhat unusually, I think, because it wasn’t a huge hit, the first album I heard from Rush was the debut, the only Rush record without a Neil Peart on the drums. My brother had it, and during those days, as young as I was, my brothers’ and my sister’s records just seemed to BE there. I had zero understanding about why they bought the records they bought, where and when they bought them, and how they got turned on to certain artists in the first place. But my brothers’ and sister’s record collections were my earliest music education. I got my pop education from my sister (The Monkees, The Beatles, The Supremes, The Mamas and the Papas, Herman’s Hermits), and I got my rock education from my brothers (Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Doors). And then the first Rush album made its way into my brother David’s collection. I was 10 years old. I remember, if not falling in love with it, liking it almost at first listen and listening to it repeatedly when I was with my brother. I think he had already, at 20, an apartment of his own. He was an adult and was listening to music for adults and whenever I would visit him, part of what we’d do would be to listen to music. This record was raw, energetic, and gutsy. Sure, a little like Zeppelin but distinct enough to make it seem new and original to me. Almost simultaneously, I think, I had grade school buddies whose older siblings were playing in rock bands, and when invited to listen to them rehearse, I heard for the first time young musicians covering “Working Man” and “What You’re Doing” from that first Rush album. A glorious confluence of experiences that ultimately and magically transformed my little brain into the brain of a musician.

It was about this time in my life, as I began to blossom as an avid music listener, when my Dad started to allow me to order records from his Columbia House record club. I had officially caught the record collecting bug. Eventually, becoming too impatient to wait for the package in the mail and having the first money of my own in the form of a weekly allowance, I started making the foray to the local record shop within walking distance of my suburban home. I know with some certainty that the first record I ever bought with my own money was Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and then, shortly after that, not Rush’s second album, but their third, Caress of Steel. It was the first Rush album I bought with my own money. I was a junior high kid by then, maybe 12 years old, and I was listening to Neil Peart’s drumming for the first time.

I had been drumming already for awhile. I think I got my first drum kit when I was in the sixth grade. It was cheap and shitty, but I played enough and listened carefully enough that in pretty short order I was playing along to a lot of my favorite records. I could play along to almost any Kiss song, not expertly, but passably. The most challenging thing Peter Criss ever did was probably the “Detroit Rock City” groove and I’m pretty sure it would be awhile before I could pull that off, but even as a 12 year old I could tell you that there was nothing especially inventive or interesting about the drum solo on Kiss Alive. It was boring and pedestrian–but for a 12 year old behind his first drum kit, it was super exciting (if not easy) to ape.  This drumming on Rush’s Caress of Steel was a different thing altogether. There were breaks. There were odd time signatures. This was a really big drum set, maybe the first double-bass drum kit I had ever seen. Here was a song that was 13 minutes long or 20 minutes long. There were dynamics. And there were these fills that just seemed superhuman. And Peart’s lyrics: they fueled my young imagination unlike anything I had ever read in school and unlike any other song lyrics I had ever heard. So listening to Neil Peart was doing some magical stuff to my pre-teen brain–not only was it turning me into a more sophisticated listener and exponentially raising the bar for me of what great drumming was about, but it was pushing my literacy forward. As a twelve year old, I began writing what I thought was serious fiction. I wrote a novel inspired by a song on Caress of Steel called The Necromancer! I think I still have that thing in a box somewhere in the basement. I’m sure it’s terrible, but whatever inspired a twelve year old boy to handwrite hundreds of pages of bad fiction must have been pretty great.

I fell a little out of love with Rush in the 80’s when I became consumed by the new wave movement, and in the 90’s I came to think of them, especially in the lyric department, as kind of a silly band. They were just too earnest, too serious, never ironic, kind of precious, and sometimes pedantic. But in the last five or six years, as the seminal records that were so much a part of my growing up turn 40 years old (2112, A Farewell to Kings, and Hemispheres), I’ve started listening again. I’ve come full circle. The things I was critical about become the things I most admire and respect about them. They’re great sounding, exciting records. I don’t listen to them every week or even every month, but when I do revisit these records several times over the course of a year, and as a result of learning about Neil Peart’s passing, all this past weekend, I rediscover their greatness and am reminded that, even though there have been other musicians whose music has better withstood the test of time for me, Neil Peart’s drumming and writing, more than any other musical figure, had a most monumental influence on my life.

Thank you, Neil.

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Well, That Was Mostly fun., Wasn’t It?

First of all, what a strange name for a band. Dorky, really; nevertheless, these fun. kids have become my favorite contemporary pop thing of the last couple of years. And I’ve been sort of astounded, surprised, and heartened by their recent and rip-roaringly fast rise to megastardom. So, I got my tickets months ago and my wife and I went to the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall last night to see the fun. boys play. And it was mostly fun. It was also kind of enlightening–in some good ways, but not always; in fact, it was also enlightening in some really heinous ways.

Let me get the negative stuff out of the way first.  Opening band.  I’m not much for slagging musicians, even famous or relatively famous ones, so, for now, this opening band will go nameless.  Any resourceful person could identify them in pretty short order, or, if you were there, you know who I’m talking about.  Two rappers (well, one rapper and another guy who grunted) and a drummer.  That’s it.  The drummer was clearly accomplished–I could tell by watching him flail around–but could I hear him? No.  He was slamming his drums behind prerecorded drum loops or triggers that were a thousand times louder than his acoustic drums, and nowhere near as interesting.  First strike.  Everything else in the way of “music” was prerecorded, canned.  Second strike.  Canned music is for dummies.  You’d think, with such a straight-forward mix, that at least the sound would be good.  Wrong again.  Messy, garbled, impossible to discern most of the harmonic information.  Third strike.

This is my bias, and I’m totally up front about it.  Hip-hop, rap, has never been my cup of mud.  I have never learned to appreciate 97.8 percent of it.  And this rapper guy seemed to personify all the elements about this particular genre that bug me.  I don’t like being yelled at.  He yelled at me.  Non-stop.  I couldn’t understand what he was yelling about.  And he kept calling me a motherfucker. Why does he need to do that?  And he kept ordering the audience around.  And this is most disturbing:  the only way he was able to get people in the audience to do a particular thing was by yelling at them to do that thing.  “Stand up, motherfuckers.”  “Portland, make some noise, motherfuckers.”  “Put your hands together, motherfuckers.”  And what I find most disturbing about this is that the audience, for the most part, would follow his instructions.  They’d stand up.  They’d make a noise.  They’d put their hands together.  They acted, too, as if they were enjoying themselves.  Go figure.  This band fun., they play sophisticated, melodic, hook-laden, original pop music.  During the whole opening set I was sulking in my seat.  I was angry, yeah, angry to be subjected to this terrible thing, angry at fun. or their production company or the promoter for hiring these yahoos, and angry at the audience for enjoying themselves.  People, don’t you distinguish?  Do you have no skills of discernment?  And then I was angry at myself for being so angry, and uptight, and hifalutin, and old.

It seemed to me, looking around, that the majority of my fellow audience members were young enough to be the fruit of my loins. They were high schoolers and middle schoolers.  Every once in a while I spotted a twenty-something and now and then I’d spy a person of my age group who was probably chaperoning for his or her kids, or, like me, just slightly out of place, there for strictly aesthetic reasons. Nevertheless, the audience was very young, the youngest audience I’ve seen a concert with in a long, long time. So the cynical part of me explained that, no, this audience was too young, they cannot distinguish or discern;  they don’t know the difference between greatness and mediocrity and would lap up ANYTHING that was put in front of them and labeled COOL by some marketing force about which they are oblivious and don’t understand a thing.  They are happy as clams to put up with and to even believe they were enjoying this opening act. I was so happy it was over.  The gin and tonic helped me get through the last two numbers.

Let’s get to the fun part about the fun. show.  Doesn’t that period bug you?  Aren’t you always kind of fooled into thinking that the sentence is over when it’s really not?  I apologize.  I’m trying to be true to the music, hence, the period and the lower case f.

fun. provided about the most extreme contrast imaginable to the preceding.  The three core members of the band, the guitarist, the singer, the keyboardist, as young (I think) as they are, are consummate players and performers.  The sound was full and the mix was comfortable–the only time I felt a desire for earplugs was during the teenage screaming in between tunes and before the encore. Okay, here are some items I found enlightening about the fun. part of the mostly fun show.

Item one:  I was surprised and filled with a kind of unaccountable joy to hear an entire audience singing along with each tune, word for word, every single line.  I found myself leaving the cynical me behind and just being impressed at the level at which young fans of this band are really attending to the music–which, as I’ve said before, I find rather sophisticated, lyrically, melodically, rhythmically.  There is, however, in most of their tunes an anthemic quality–the choruses especially beg to be chanted by throngs of enthusiastic humans.  But the verses?  And the bridges? And all of that syllabic information in the words?  Those tempo changes? Those quiet vocal breakdowns?  Yeah, they knew every nuance.

Item two: Again, in stark contrast to entertainers who call their audience members motherfuckers, the fun. guys were kind, sincerely appreciative, funny, relaxed, like normal guys who were genuinely thankful for the warmth and the generosity of their audience. They were, excuse me, having fun.  They were not posing or posturing.  And this also gave me hope for the future of pop music.

One last item:  Related to the last thing, I think, having to do with the kind of human being that makes the art (I don’t really know ANYTHING about what kind of people these guys are, really, so I’m making a huge leap here), the music that fun. makes is infectiously, overwhelmingly, undeniably positive.  Even though, lyrically, the songs often deal with characters in some kind of pain or confusion, there rings through most of them an incredible optimism.  I think this is good for the world and for music and for young people and for me.

So after the pain and misery of that opening act, the evening was redeemed by and through fun.

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