CATCH THE SPIT: DISCOVERING RUSH IN TOM SAWYER COUNTRY
My Uncle Jimmy introduced me to the band RUSH in the summer of 1979. I was a quiet eight-year-old and I hadn’t seen far beyond our little valley in Central New York, about 30 miles east of Syracuse on a sun-soaked stretch of Route 20. Nothing but telephone poles, pine trees, cow pastures, and the odd trailer park for miles in either direction. When I wasn’t busy reading or drawing, I was running around shoeless and shirtless in the great green expanse of our backyard, toasting to a golden brown in the unrelenting heat.
My uncle and most of our other relatives lived a couple of hours south in the comparative metropolis of Elmira; former Iroquois territory turned transportation hub, built up in the 1800's on the banks of the Chemung River. The city had seen its heyday long ago, and by the time I came around there wasn’t much but a few empty factories and some soon-to-be-dead department stores. Subsidized apartment buildings like the one where my uncle and grandmother lived stood listless and baking in exposed lots near the highway.
Sounds a bit bleak, but really, this was my summertime version of the Big City, and it was just fine with me. Birds chirped, the sky was blue, and the Chemung rolled along endlessly, its indefatigable current evoking images of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, as it surely had for Mark Twain, who — nearly a century before — had written his classic stories from his summer home on a peaceful Elmira farm.
Uncle Jimmy was 19 and lanky with long, straight hair and shaggy bangs that covered his quick, brown eyes. He wore hockey jerseys and smoked cigarettes. He had a blue Fender-style bass that was always in some state of disrepair, strings sticking out all over the place like angular silver snakes. In other words, he was Seventies Cool, and I loved hanging out with him. Sure, he was living with his mom (my grandmother, prodigious hugger of grandchildren and drinker of Tab), but he had amazing taste in music and an incredible flair for art that enabled him to replicate album covers in precise detail — most often on the backs of denim jackets (jean-jackets to us Upstaters). And he always indulged my curiosities as I not-so-shyly perused his personal belongings.
That day, there was a new work in progress and his tiny bedroom was thick with an intoxicating blend of ashtray and oil paint. A faded Levi’s — the kind with two snap pockets on the front — was draped over a makeshift easel. The image on the back was still wet with brushstrokes and it depicted a naked man gesturing in either fear or reverence toward a red pentacle set against a field of pure black.
“Um, who’s that?” I asked. He was interesting, this Starman. I wondered if he was a famous disco dancer or something.
“You’ve never heard of RUSH? Really?”
This was similar to Uncle Jimmy’s response the previous year when I’d failed to recognize the four members of KISS. Really? You’ve never heard of KISS? They’re amazing, you’ll love them. He was right about that, of course.
Jimmy went to a turntable surrounded by paint tubes, pens and pencils, hastily-concealed girlie magazines and, of course, several record albums. He rifled through his collection a bit and pulled an LP out of its sleeve, passing me the cover.
“Caress of Steel? This looks weird.”
“It’s so great. Just listen to this. It’s called Lakeside Park.”
With no conscious effort, he grabbed the tonearm and dropped the needle precisely at track three. About five seconds later, my highly impressionable, slowly developing sense of musical awareness was launched into hyperdrive.
I’d never heard such a voice. Shrill and defiant. Impossibly high, but assertively masculine. It was the sound a TIE Fighter would make if it could sing! And there was a story happening— this guy was looking back, remembering old friends and old haunts, as though he’d somehow lost them in time. A heavy concept when, at eight years old, time is an endless runway heading in a foward-only direction.
Midway hawkers calling
‘Try your luck with me’
The same old melody
A thousand ten cent wonders
Who could ask for more
A pocketful of silver
The key to heaven’s door
This was a far cry from KISS’s ass-shaking superhero rock. The guitar sounds were loose and etherial. The chords rang out clean like a piano, but then turned all growly and crunchy as one theme morphed into another and another…this music was taking me on a journey. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but the bass — that magnificent bass — was pulling me deeper and deeper into the words, somehow gliding along the lyrics like a second voice.
And the drums sounded somehow…smart. This wasn’t your typical 70's caveman boogie. Though my eight-year-old mind could only subconsciously grasp the contrast between the bombastic, complex grooves and the nostalgic melancholy conveyed by the lyrics, the impression — a definitive illumination of my musical mind — has lasted nearly 40 years. Like the song says, some memories last forever.
I can still see that blue bass, lying atop the unfolded laundry on Jimmy’s bed. I can still smell the paint — a good smell — electric and sizzling against the otherwise impenetrable wall of teenager and stale tobacco. I can see his hand on the tonearm, repeating his expert maneuver for the thirty millionth time…this track, this one here. This is the song that will show you the way.
It’s all there, vivid and full of meaning, though, if I’m honest, I don’t remember listening to RUSH again until a couple of years later (KISS still had a firm grasp on my imagination, leaving little room for anything else). But I can draw a straight line between my first impression of RUSH and the one that sealed the deal for me.
Flash forward to 1981. I was ten and finally crossing over into big kid territory, and I’d begun what would become a lifelong habit of staying up way too goddamn late (I’m doing it right now as I type this). Back then, there was no YouTube or Facebook or any of the other bullshit we regularly stare at past 11 pm these days. But we had radio, and lots of it. And so, late past bedtime when I could hear dad snoring across the hall, I’d tune my beige Panasonic clock radio to the Syracuse rock station.
On a sweltering August night, somewhere between Dirty Deeds and Start Me Up, I heard it.
BEEEEEEOOOOOOOOOOWOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW went the synthesizer, and an otherworldly, syncopated drum groove heralded the arrival of Tom Sawyer:
A modern day warrior
Mean, mean stride
Today’s Tom Sawyer
Mean, mean pride
What was this?!
I pressed the clock radio up against my head — hard enough for the plastic speaker grill to brand my ear — and let it pour in; a tide of hot ectoplasm bearing within its whitewash of viscous, distortion-drenched brainpaint many of the values, questions, and monsters from the Id that I tote around to this day while masquerading as an adult.
What you say about his company
Is what you say about society
Catch the witness, catch the wit
Catch the spirit, catch the spit
Catch the spit? Are you fucking kidding me? I couldn’t begin to know what that meant, but I knew it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard, and I knew that voice. I knew it as surely as I knew my own birthday. And so I wasn’t surprised when the DJ announced that was a new one from Canadian trio RUSH…Tom Sawyer! If it rocks, it’s on 95X!
Did the transient spirit of Mark Twain — perhaps strolling along the banks of the Chemung River, trailing a phantasmal wake of cigar smoke— look up from his reverie and knowingly smile in the direction of our little home in the valley? Did I think of my Uncle Jimmy in that moment? I’m sure I did. I remember wanting so badly to hear it again, and then again. To drink in this new cosmic enlightenment and report back to him…I found them. I mean, they found me. I have them now. And not being able to, naturally, because back then in the stone age of ’81 we had to surf the dial and wait for our favorites to come around again. That’s just the way it was, kid.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I had a fresh pressing of Moving Pictures in my grubby little hands. And soon after a Realistic Clarinette record player appeared in my bedroom, a gift from my parents, who had seen how deeply music had anchored itself as a grounding force in my young heart.
A few nights ago I saw RUSH in concert for what might be the last time. After 24 gold and 14 platinum albums and 40 years of touring, the guys are claiming that this could very well be their last big hurrah. The music is physically demanding, and things like arthritis and tendonitis have become a problem. It’s an unlikely marketing ploy for a class act like RUSH — they aren’t known for promotional stunts. And it’s easy to imagine that being so awesome for so many years has finally just…exhausted them.
Incredibly, their first encore at the TD Garden (still just The Gahden for most Bostoners) was Lakeside Park; a fitting bookend if that was indeed my last live experience with the band. I would’ve probably felt more emotional about the whole thing, if I hadn’t been so busy smiling. I suppose that’s why I’m staying up too late again, writing this mini-memoir.
Someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll be an old codger sitting around in a bathrobe adorned with pins and patches featuring the logos of “oldies” bands like RUSH, KISS, Black Sabbath, and AC/DC, telling anyone who’ll listen about my glory days as a young rock and roller. I’ll tell them how music is still at the heart of my life, and I’ll probably talk about RUSH — and naturally, Uncle Jimmy — when I do it.