He Was Once Best Friends With Another Kid. And They Loved RUSH.

Before I discovered music beyond the pale, I was like most 70s suburban kids whose early rock and roll was delivered with the first bands they heard: The Beatles, Beach Boys, Wings, Simon and Garfunkel, Elvis, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and, if you were lucky, Bob Dylan, or even luckier, Neil Young. Truth be told, it hardly ever got that good. The first record I ever bought was “Heartbeat, It’s A Love Beat,” by The DeFranco Family, a Port Colborne group whose vague Italianate I could relate to. From the DeFranco’s, it was 10CC, Andrea True Connection, Terry Jacks and Jim Croce, and from there, those gaudy K-Tel records, which sold for 99 cents on Becker’s record racks and featured bands like 1910 Fruitgum Company, Focus, the Incredible Bongo Band, Mouth and MacNeil, Looking Glass, Hamilton Joe, Frank and Reynolds, and Gallery. Becker’s was a fount for whatever was happening in rock and roll. My friends and I spent hours rifling through the racks, devouring album art and track listings while chewing licorice and drinking chocolate milk. One summer, I remember stopping at the plaza with my folks and coming away with “22 Explosive Hits,” hearing James Brown, Parliament, and Loudon Wainwright III for the very first time. After I’d passed through the K-Tel looking glass, I went straight to Rush, the first band with whom I was truly obsessed. This was partly a case of wanting to appear older– most of the kids two grades above me were into them– and partly because, like watching The Beachcombers, to follow Rush was to quietly awaken one’s nationhood and sense of place. Besides, if you weren’t into Rush– they took their name from cheap vials of powdered amphetamine that ocassionally got passed around the back desks of highschools– you were either into disco, or you were a fag. Or both. Seperated along these lines, Rush was the one band for whom every Etobicoke male cared about, at least as deeply as one’s homophobia would allow. Other communities around the world had their aural equivalent. Ireland had Thin Lizzy, Scotland had Nazareth. In London, it was T Rex, and in Manchester, Rod Stewart. The Guess Who were Winnipeg’s own, and so on. With “Lakeside Park” (from Rush’s “All the World’s A Stage” live album, recorded over three nights at Massey Hall), it was the first time I identified a local place in a song– not just a song, mind you, but a friggin kick-ass chunk of moltenmetalprogrock, embellished with rollercoaster drum fills, chiming guitar flurries, and Geddy Lee’s Witchie-Poo vocals. In the past, I’ve stressed the affect that Stompin’ Tom has had on my life, but it was Rush– and to a lesser extent, Max Webster– who first sang to me about my home. From the time I started plinking around on my first guitar– a white, El Degas Stratocaster copy with black tone dials and a wooden neck with as much give as a church pew– Rush was the band whose songs I played, or rather, tried to play. Nothing was easy. Sure, I could handle the D and A in “Fly By Night”, but when it came to Alex Lifeson’s spangley solos and rich chords, I was lost. This was despite the efforts of a teacher named Greg, who gave lessons at Ken Jones’ Music, the local guitar shop. Greg wore the same brown corduroy jacket and brown bell-bottoms every day, putting in long hours in that hot closet of a music room, tapping my fingers as I groped my way up and down the fretboard. I was passed from Greg to other guitar teachers, all of whom tried fitfully to show me the three staples of lead guitar playing — the solo to “Stairway to Heaven”, the riff in “Funk 49”, and Deep Purple’s “Space Truckin’”– but it wasn’t until I met Ronnie that I was finally able to navigate the neck. Ronnie and I were the same age. I first encountered him while walking down the hallway of my highschool. I was wearing my RUSH 1 TORONTO t-shirt, which  had been steam-pressed in spongy, white letters at the t-shirt stall in the Albion Mall. “You like Rush?” he asked me. “Ya, man, I love Rush.” “Cool. Wanna hang out?” “’Kay.” And that’s how it started. Ronnie was a guitar player and he was way better than me. Not only could he play Alex’s solos note for note, but he also looked the part: mangey and skinny-legged, with long blonde hair spilling over his shoulders. Though Ronnie and his brother, Rob, lived in a bungalo near Silvercreek Park with their mom and dad and two family sedans, he looked like he’d woken up in a gultch. His face was moody and drawn without ever having touched dope or booze or speed, and the way he wore his guitar– a sunburst Les Paul with white humbuckers and gold knobs, slung low across his midriff– suggested that he’d had it strapped across his boney shoulder since birth. Ronnie was the real thing. I was envious of him from the beginning. Ronnie and I jammed. We sat at the edge of each other’s beds on numberless afternoons, watched over  by Rush’s “Farewell to Kings” poster– Geddy, Alex, and Neil standing arms crossed in front of a castle, long seaweed hair dripping down their backs– and strummed along to our favourite records. Actually, Ronnie did most of the playing. I studied him closely, copping riffs to “Bastille Day” and “Temples of Syrinx” and, of course, “Xanadu,” Rush’s monumental work of oscillating synths, wind chimes, mystical poetry and fast, hiccuping bass lines. Ronnie and I saw lots of shows together– Max Webster at the Gardens, Triumph and Doucette at the CNE Grandstand– but most importantly, we saw Rush twice, the last time at the Gardens on their “Hemispheres” tour. One of the best moments came during the flashpot blasts in “Closer to the Heart,” where the whole of the crowd came alight, sixteen thousand faces hanging open as Alex kerranged a D major chord in his fringed monk’s robe, his wild eyes obscured by a car wash curtain of hair, which whipped across his face as we yowled pangs of delight. Ronnie and Rob formed a band called Typhoid. When they first told me what they were going to call their group, I was floored. Typhoid. It was the perfect name. I couldn’t believe that no one had thought of it before. The first thing they did was splash their logo in paint across a bedsheet, which they hung behind them when they practiced. Back in the 70s, it was very important to have a backdrop or a lighted sign. I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of bands like Triumph and Taurus, but it was their signs– which triggered sirens and belching smoke– that separated them from the rest. A few years before Typhoid, I’d tried forming a group with my cousin– piano, guitar and drums– but when I suggested that we do a show, he said, “Naw, man, we can’t do that, we don’t have a sign. We’ll just end up playing with some band that has a sign and get blown off the stage.” Typhoid staged concerts in their parents’ basement, and the highlight of the show was their last number, the Rush song “Working Man,” which featured Robbie’s drum solo. Robbie laid it down across roto toms, gongs, and cowbells, and to me it sounded like the end of the world. At solo’s end, he threw his sticks into the crowd, which comprised myself, a few cousins, and his parents. Maybe their grandmother. During the show, Ronnie introduced the songs with a vaguely American drawl (which, I thought, gave him instant rock and roll credibility), but most of the time he just stood there in repose, looking messed up in front of homemade wooden cabinets– enormous blonde boxes with small speakers in the center. For each concert, the brothers built more speakers, and while their sound more or less remained the same, their gear got bigger and bigger. It was like something out of “The Wall.” After awhile, they encroached Robbie and his kit, which expanded, too, cymbals added to cymbals, tom rack over tom rack, and, finally, a double bass drum that, when he played it, blew my mind. But like any of the best friendships anyone ever has as a kid, the one between Ronnie and I could not last. With the passing of time, and as we hurdled grades in middle and highschool, my idea about music started to evolve. Soon, I cast off the power chords and glam candy of metal and hard rock for defiance, rebellion, anger, dread: the sound and ethos of punk rock. Ronnie got into punk too, but he hadn’t been hit as hard. This drove a wedge between us. It happens. With change, certain people come to represent what you used to be, and this was the case with Ron and Rob. After awhile, I found myself looking at those speaker boxes and just shaking my head. I believed that if you didn’t buy into all that bands like X-Ray Specs and The Damned were about, you were a conformist, and conformists were the antithesis’ of punks. I made new friends, got into new bands, dressed differently. One weekend, I begged my parents to let me have a New Wave party. They said I could. I didn’t invite Ronnie. At the party, two friends, Tommy and Monk, crank-called Ronnie’s home. For them, it was typical behaviour. Tommy, in particular, used to harass Kirk Lapointe– now the vice president of CTV news– who used to host an open-line program on MacLean Hunter cable television. Kirk would go on and tell viewers about new bands like AC/DC, the Fabulous Poodles, and U2; it was a great place to discover new music that  the radio wouldn’t touch. He’d play tracks set to visuals of the band’s album covers chroma-keyed against psychedelic blues and greens. People would call in and argue with him about his choices, and once, after he described Led Zeppelin and their fans as “dinosaurs”, thugs waited for him in the parking lot after the show and beat him up. He took a few weeks off, but he was back hosting the show with cuts and bruises on his face. He called his assailants “chicken sh*ts” and played something by Pere Ubu. Later that year, I won a Graham Parker and the Rumour album from him. My dad drove me to the tv station to pick up my prize, and when I met him, and I was speechless. It was like meeting a  celebrity. I was in awe. Kirk had to deal with lots of nonsense on his program, and Tommy was really the least of his worries. He’d call him up and say things like, “Hey, Kirk, I got a bag over my head” or “Kirk, I’m putting my head in the oven!” It was a miracle that he could get through the call-screeners, and to a seventeen year old, it was hilarious stuff. The next day in school, Tommy was always a real hero of the hallways. At first, I was unaware that Tommy had called Rick’s parents from my party. Most of the kids were in the basement, dancing to C90 tapes I’d made of Bow Wow Wow, The Demics, The Sex Pistols. Ronnie’s mom answered the phone, and Tommy and Monk uttered the first thing that came into their heads: “Mrs. W, your sons have been killed in a car accident.” Then they hung up the phone, laughing. A while later, there was a pounding on the door. When I opened it, Ronnie, Rob and about five of their friends charged into the hallway. Ronnie waved an Exacto knife, and he came at me. He slashed the air and screamed my name. He howled something about his mother, how upset she was, and I fell backwards against the stairs, holding up my hand for Ronnie to stop. It was a bewildering scene. My friends rushed up from the basement. Kenny Huff grabbed Ronnie, and pushed him out the front door. After a struggle on the driveway, he climbed back into his car. He had this strange, twisted look on his face, and as the car pulled away, one of his friends shouted out the window that he was going to find me after school and break my fingers. It was   terrible. A few days passed and Tommy and Monk finally fessed up to what they’d done. Five years later, Monk himself died in a car crash. I thought of Ronnie and Robbie and Typhoid when the Rheostatics  got to record with Neil Peart, in 1992. I’d met rock stars before, but it was special meeting Neil because he was among my first heroes. Truth be told, I’d actually talked to Neil once before, having interviewed him by phone for a local magazine. This was a profound event, too. At the end of the interview– he’d called in the early  from the Chateau Frontenac in old Quebec, and I was bleary-headed from staying out late the night before– I asked him if he was listening to any new bands. He paused a minute and said, “Well, there’s this one band from Etobicoke. They’re called the Rheostatics. Have you heard of them?” “I’m… in them,” I said stutteringly. “That song ‘Horses’,” he said, “We were recording and I couldn’t get it out of my head. We were doing a track, and I just couldn’t concentrate. I was playing to the song, but all I could hear was,  ‘Holy Mackinaw Joe’” he said. “I had to stop and go out and buy the record.” Neil came down to Reaction Studios while we were making our “Whale Music” album and set up a little yellow jazz kit in the corner. The Barenaked Ladies were there, too; they’d just laid in their background vocal to “California Dreamline” earlier in the day. We huddled together and watched as Neil warmed-up on his kit. Gone was his wild vined hair and fringed robe and shaggy, prestidigitator’s moustache; in its place was a vest and beaded African hat, but he was nonetheless a chimeric figure   under the low studio lights. Head lowered, torso centered, feet kicking, his hands glancing over the drums, Neil played all afternoon. Both bands were rivited to the carpet, aware that we were listening so closely to such an important sound. Neil’s touch was soft when it had to be, but propulsive, too, like a distance runner tugging the flow of blood to his heart. It’s one thing to see your hero perform from a faraway seat in Maple Leaf Gardens, but it’s something else to feel so near to his work, as I did that day. Once upon a time in my life, I’d dreamed of what it would be like to simply attend a Rush concert– even before that, I’d booked my time after school around a chance to see their video for “Closer to the Heart” on the New Music or Video Hits or Toronto Rocks– and  there I was sitting on the studio parkay, not twenty feet from where he was crafting a part for a song that would appear on our album. While Neil played, I thought of Ronnie, how he used to bend the fat strings of his Les Paul to play the vibrato riff of “What You’re Doing,” his skinny wrists working the neck, his tongue curved over his lip trying to get the riff just right. And I thought of Robbie’s drum solo, all flailing arms and slumping meter, the sound of the suburbs, the sound of Rush, and what it had taken for me to be where I was, living this rock and roll dream. As Neil commanded his kit, he was painting my adolescence before me, evoking everything about it, and even though I sat alone, I imagined that Ronnie was there, too, watching our hero as he played and played and played, tapping out rhythms of the heart for a kid who was once best friends with another kid, and they loved Rush. Adapted from ‘For Those About to Rock’ (Tundra)

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2 thoughts on “He Was Once Best Friends With Another Kid. And They Loved RUSH.

  1. Thanks Dave…misty and wistful at Beckers.
    I was in Thornhill growing up, and RUSH would do tour prep in a local garage. We’d all sit just past the fence and listen to them lumber and then leap through songs. Porches and Ferraris parked out back, the trappings of success. And at the end of every days rehearsal, they’d come out and speak to us…US, denim Tuxedo wearing kids who, rather than throw a ball around on a warm summer day, would listen to what for us, at that moment, was the greatest rock band on earth.

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  2. I have distinct memories of donning my dad’s silk dressing gown and prancing around my living room with a tennis racket guitar and a couple of my friends playing along to the whole of A Farewell to Kings. Good times!

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