Running is a solitary sport.
You may train with a group or run a race in the company of one or two other people, but in the end, the concentration and dedication falls upon your shoulders alone. Sometimes when I run, it’s with music blaring through headphones; other times, with only my thoughts and the rhythmic slapping of my soles (and my soul) on the ground. In some ways, being a runner is similar to being a musician — the hours spent practicing and training are all for an experience that may only last an hour of your life.
That was my experience when I was a devoted drummer, but that was back in the ‘80s, when I emulated musicians like Neil Peart of Rush. I believe every drummer goes through a rite of passage in discovering Rush, a period of exploration in which, as a drummer, you come to appreciate Peart’s precision and flawless technique. What I’ve always loved is the ease in which he makes every drum fill sound effortless, whether it’s 16 toms or just his snare. One listen to that famous drum section in “Tom Sawyer” (from 1981’s Moving Pictures) and you’ll know what I mean.
I came into Rush, which also includes guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist/vocalist/keyboardist Geddy Lee, after their space-age prog period had ended and they’d moved into a more mainstream rock territory. These years coincided with the principal period of my life in the basement, between junior high and college. This was a time I was tinkering daily with my eight-piece white Rogers brand drum set.
Besides thrilling me musically over the years, Rush’s music consistently brings to mind my good friend, Jay, an original basement dweller and still one of the finest drummers I’ve ever heard. One of his most amazing musical feats came in high school: A cover band he was in used to play “Subdivisions” (from 1982’s Signals), a complicated drumming achievement that Jay not only matched note for note, but he also sang lead vocals while doing it. Take that, Phil Collins!
For a period throughout ninth grade, Jay and I were pretty tight. We spent many nights downstairs deciphering the magic of Peart’s drumming and lyrics, as well as discussing the mystery of girls. With beer snuck in from our secret stash, hidden under the winter snow in the front yard bushes, the two of us would work through one can of Miller each and ponder how to get to first base with the older girls who were showing interest in us. Although Jay and I grew apart (the result of foolish teenage egos and changing interests), we remained friendly for the duration of high school. One reason was that we were in band together and saw each other every morning. The other, of course, was the music of Rush.
I vividly recall sitting in the front seat of his white tank a week before school started in 1987, air drumming the new Rush song, “Force Ten,” which had just been released. Later that fall, when I finally made it to my first Rush concert, I attended it with Jay. However, upon high school graduation, the two of us lost touch. We both went off to college and in the early ’90s, Jay moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. It seemed as if we would never connect again.
As fate would have it, when Julie and I made our own move to the west coast, Jay and I saw each other periodically (even took in the ’96 Rush show at the Forum). We would lose touch for months, even a year, then out of the blue, a phone call would be made and the two of us would spend 20 minutes catching up and promising to go to lunch. Whether this ever happened was not as important to me as the fact that Jay and I had reconnected.
In November of 2001, Jacob was born. A month later he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. As you all may know, what followed was a long period of adjustment; a long period of sadness; a long period of questions with seemingly few answers. I’m still not sure that period has ended. Spring 2002 saw the release of Rush’s first record in four and a half years, Vapor Trails. In the period between their previous effort and this new release, Peart had suffered the tragic loss of both his only daughter and his wife within the span of a year. Lee and Lifeson anticipated the end of the band as their good friend, more like a brother, took the necessary time required to heal. When Peart felt that he might want to rock again, he called his old chums and told them, “Let’s give this a try.” The result was Vapor Trails, a raw, blunt record full of pain, spiritual questions and introspective lyrics.
Needless to say, I gravitated to this album in search of a cathartic release to the emotions corked up inside of me. Because I was listening to Rush again, I was soon ringing up my friend, Jay, to check in on his life. Although our initial conversations began about the new Rush music, our talks would veer into deep questions about love, life and the fear of death.
What I have always found refreshing about Jay is his ability to cut through the bullshit and just ask honest questions. “Do you believe in God?” “What is love?” “Are you afraid of your son dying?”
In 2003, I began training for my first marathon, a fundraiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. With renewed interest in the music of Rush, I began sifting through their catalog for a playlist to accompany me during my runs. I wasn’t listening to just their popular songs, but also more obscure material like “Entre Nous” (from 1980’s Permanent Waves), “The Speed of Love” (from 1993’s Counterparts) and “Anthem” (from 1975’s Fly by Night), songs that contained an optimistic tone and a feeling of hope. I recalled a track from the band’s 1991 album, Roll the Bones, that had always haunted me, “Ghost of a Chance.”
For years I have appreciated the much more straightforward approach the band took to this song. Peart holds back, playing minimal jazz fills (impeccable, of course), Lifeson creates a dreamlike tone with his guitar, and Lee sings in his regular voice, not the high-pitched wail he’s infamous for. It’s a nice, concise pop song, which is a strange way to describe a Rush composition. Moreover, I believe that Peart’s lyrics add to the song’s beauty, especially the chorus. Despite what the song’s character would have you think he disbelieves, he still holds out hope, even minimally, that you can find someone to love and make it last.
Underneath the cool exterior of “Ghost of a Chance,” with its slick Rupert Hine production and dozen or so effects, there’s a human heart beating. At a time when my heart needed hope to quell my eternal fears compounded by nasty genetics, I found this song circling around me, waiting to be heard.
I’ve been running again, training for a half-marathon in November. The many mornings and nights spent out on the paseos of my neighborhood have granted me time to dwell on my life or to escape reality for an hour, drowning out the din of daily life with music from my iPod. Sure enough, Rush is programmed into that tiny computer. On the hard days, the music carries me through the runs, fighting for each footfall on the pavement. On the good days, I’m able to feel a spiritual lift and leave my body. On those days I imagine looking down on myself and watching as I run away from the pain, into a future full of positive things while Alex Lifeson’s guitar sings and fades off into silence.