Rush’s “Subdivisions”: One band. One song.
Rush were, are and will always be loved. They’ve sold millions of records, are regarded as one of the finest live bands in musical history and in 2013 were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They can also lay claim to having one of the greatest drummers of all-time, the late Neil Peart, in their ranks. The plus column is stuffed with powerful affirmations of their goodness yet I just, plain, can’t get into them. But lord oh lord, how I’ve tried.
I’d been particularly charmed by their 2010 bio documentary and career retrospective, Beyond the Lighted Stage, had found myself completely won over by the trio’s camaraderie, humor and self-awareness. I was so invested in maintaining these good feelings that I decided to read not one but two of Neil Peart’s acclaimed travel memoirs in quick succession. I actively tried make Rush happen in my heart.
Of course I recognized that the film and books were mere ephemera and a diversion from what really mattered. Yup, I knew that to truly understand and experience Rush in a meaningful way, I had to spend time listening to the actual music. And so I did, the whole discography. It didn’t work. Which is to say as I was listening, I felt nothing. Was not transported. Had no epiphany.
Wishful attempts like this to love, feel and understand Rush were actually nothing new to me. My approach to appreciating Rush was disturbingly similar to having a drivers license or passport renewed. Every few years like clockwork I would check in, usually after witnessing some extreme display of fandom and/or worship, then trawl through the discography. And the result was always the same. Several years prior to the documentary, I’d been similarly swayed to give them another chance after witnessing the unbridled Rush passion of Nick Andopolis on Freaks and Geeks( a TV show so painfully, chronologically on point for me that I officially categorize it as a 19-part documentary). Seeing Nick’s complete and utter worship of the band, watching him clumsily, passionately thrash along to “Spirit of the Radio” on his 29 piece drum kit and later defend drummer Neil Peart’s genius to his ex-girlfriend’s Lindsay’s Dad, was downright inspiring. And with that I hopefully cued up their mega Moving Pictures album…and felt nothing as it played.
And so why continually try when these attempts have never worked ? Well, it’s all because of one song, 1983’s fatly synthesized anthem of teen alienation and ennui, “Subdivisions”. I loved it. That song was the singular source of this blind and apparently eternal optimism. Back in the day, it’d spoken to my young, angst-ridden ass as deeply as any of the songs my most beloved band at the time The Smiths had kicked out. It was my “Manchester, so much to answer for”. But my ”Manchester” was the considerably less historic, austere, damaged and romantic patch of unbridled suburbia known as, uh, Long Island. And so The Smiths were only gonna get so far in terms of helping make sense of the world in which I lived out my teen-dom. “Subdivisions” on the other hand understood. It got me.
In the High School Halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
Yes, Rush, yes, I would geekily think anytime I heard it. “Subdivisions” was released just as MTV was beginning to grow in popularity and the song’s video was on constantly. And since I watched MTV roughly 4–5 hours a day every day (sick), it was only a matter of time before it planted its flag into my oh so impressionable psyche. Of course, as was the trend in music videos of the time, the visuals were painfully literal. Faceless suburban streets, check. Lonely bespectacled nerd ignored by oblivious happy popular kids, check. Rush themselves, check, check, check. Here it is, in all its glory:
Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone
If I’m being honest, as far as my teenage musical touchstones go, I’ve spent more time listening to “Subdivisions” over the past several decades than I have the entire Smiths discography. I know that sounds sacrilege but that’s the mysterious and insidious power of “Subdivisions”. Rush said everything I needed to hear to feel understood and seen in one song. That’s all it took. Just the one song. And as it turned out that’s all I needed from Rush. And maybe after all this longterm effort that’s the real epiphany I was meant to have. And I couldn’t have asked for more.
P.S. In 2007, singer-pianist Anita Athavale released an absolutely kick ass cover of “Subdivisions” which as of this writing is not available on any of the streaming services…but it is on YouTube albeit in the weirdest and most on the nose way imaginable. Anita’s version provides the poignant soundtrack for a resolutely grim, un-ironic video tribute to a deceased shopping mall in Cleveland (complete with a “1976–2009” graphic at the end). Seriously though, Anita strips it down to its bones and it’s ridiculously good. Here it is:
P.P.S. The Rush fanbase is overwhelmingly male. While this “boys love Rush” phenomenon is discussed with sweet and hilarious candor in the aforementioned Beyond the Lighted Stage, nothing beats the depiction offered in the 2009 buddy comedy I Love You Man. Come cringe along with Rashida Jones, playing Paul Rudd’s beleaguered girlfriend, as she experiences the effect Rush has on grown men in real time. It’s perfect.
For more hyperbolic, humiliating pop tales, deep discography dives, and glistening playlists of the best new music, please visit my blog, Picking Up Rocks!