Rush and the 80s Nerd

I got into punk when I was 15 years old and never looked back. I bang on about it all the time, so if you know anything about my musical taste, it’s my 35 years in the punk rock trenches. What you may not know is that before I saw D.O.A., Black Flag, Marginal Man, and a bunch of other bands that changed my life, I had a progressive rock phase. It’s weird, I know, because punk was in part a reaction to the excesses of the prog rock scene in the 70s, but back at my parents’ house you can still find my dusty King Crimson, ELP, and Yes albums. My absolute favorite band at the time, however, was Rush.

As I’m sure you’ve heard, Rush’s drummer and lyricist Neil Peart died last week, and this caused me to think about the band’s impact on my early teenage years. The first album I bought with my own money was Moving Pictures. The first arena rock concert I ever went to was Rush (December 15, 1982 at the Worcester Centrum). I remember getting into heated arguments with my classmates, who didn’t understand why Alex Lifeson was obviously the greatest guitarist in rock and roll (a very 8th grade conversation). Rush was the first band I was passionate about, full stop.

On reflection I realized it was more than music for me though. Rush was an integral part of my life at an important time. They were my favorite band from roughly ages 11-13 and what else was going on that period? Well, when I was 10 years old I first read the Lord of the Rings. That same year I started to play Dungeons & Dragons and it soon became my obsession. And to me at the time this was all part of a greater whole. One of the reasons Rush appealed to me is that their lyrics were tailor made for fans of fantasy, scifi, and roleplaying. They had a song about Rivendell on Fly by Night! The Necromancer on Caress of Steel was basically a D&D adventure, three men of Willowdale on a quest to defeat an evil sorcerer. And 2112, of course, was a science fiction tour de force. Those years were about reading Tolkien, Moorcock, and Leiber, playing D&D, and listening to Rush. This cocktail would be formative for me and lead ultimately to my career as a RPG designer and publisher. “Square for battle, let the fray begin!”

As it turns out, my experience was not uncommon for nerds of the early 80s. The thing is I had no idea this was the case at the time. This was before the internet so I had no easy way to connect with members of my tribe. The only other gamers I knew were the people in my home town. My only window into the wider world of gaming was reading Dragon Magazine, and even in the letters section there was little talk about contemporary music (more important to argue about the alignment system or rollplaying vs. roleplaying, don’t you know). I was isolated in a suburb of Boston, part of a subculture that was derided and attacked as Satanic, and nobody outside my circle of friends thought D&D was cool (and certainly nobody in Hollywood did!). The song Subdivisions, as you might guess, spoke to me when Signals came out. “Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone.”

Those heady years were important but they passed. As I was getting into punk rock, Rush was really embracing the synthesizer and that just didn’t do anything for me. I wanted guitar-driven music, harder and faster. I wanted music more in tune with my angry leftism, not Ayn Rand’s poisonous bullshit. So I said goodbye to prog rock and hello to punk and hardcore (and a subculture even more reviled than D&D!). While I would never revisit most of those bands, Rush proved the exception. Their 70s records were something I always went back to. A few years ago Rush did their final tour and I actually considered going. I hadn’t seen them since 1984 and thought it might be fun to relive those days. Unfortunately, their Seattle area show happened when I was at GenCon. Ironic, that it was gaming that kept me away.

When I was 12, I had this fantasy. There were no game conventions near me and I’d certainly never been to one. I could only read about GenCon in Dragon and dream. Well, what if I organized my own convention? And what if I got Rush as the musical guest? Surely this was something a 12 year old could pull off! Now yes, this was completely ridiculous, but it shows you what was going on in my head. Music and games and fiction were sparking dreams and creativity, and from those early beginnings I’d make a career and a life. So thank you Neil, Alex, and Geddy for getting into my brain and giving me a soundtrack for my first adventures. In the early 80s Rush was more than just music for me and I know I’m not alone in that.

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