I am a fan of hard rock — alternative, grunge, and then classic and progressive rock, in that order. I have been since I reached my saturation point in high school when it felt like Rage Against The Machine was the best there was. I knew in my gut there had to be something better than the modern music blasting through my radio.
So when Napster wreaked havoc on the music industry, my mission was clear: I would download everything I could get my hands on, with the Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Best Albums of all time as my guide — Led Zeppelin III, Fragile by Yes, and Band of Gypsys by Jimi Hendrix, to name a few. I knew instantly that I was missing out — the good stuff was the old stuff. So I stopped listening to the radio (which was constantly interrupted by commercials anyway) and resorted to mp3s, with iPods doing the sad Mac at least a couple of times.
Rush, a Canadian progressive rock trio featuring Geddy Lee (vocals/bass/keyboards), Alex Lifeson (guitar) and Neil Peart (drums), came up so I downloaded their songs: Tom Sawyer, Limelight and Spirit of Radio. They sounded great, but I wasn’t really into them yet at the time, which was in 2006. I had just landed a gig as a blues singer so I had to first get to know the American blues greats like Buddy Guy and BB King. Unfortunately, Rush was not part of the repertoire.
That changed three years ago when I saw “Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage,” a 2010 documentary streaming on Netflix. One memorable scene there was Gene Simmons of Kiss narrating his observations of Rush, which opened for them on that tour:
“Every night after the show the girls would line up — my god you could even be an ugly bastard like me and get laid and none of the Rush guys ever did it. I just never understood it. They’re not gay. No. Farm animals? No that’s not it. What the f*** did you do? You went back to your hotel room!”
I couldn’t stop laughing. I realized “oh my god, these guys are nerds” and I can relate. I already liked Rush songs but this character revelation made me LOVE them! I am a nerd too, who happens to be a blues singer. I am usually coy around fans, and so were they! I joined a band because I wanted to make music — so did they! They were not trying to be cool. They were not in show business to be famous. They were in music because of the music.
What I took away from the Rush documentary were life and leadership lessons — a delightful unintended consequence of sheer curiosity about the “holy triumvirate of rock.” Here is the secret sauce that sustained them for more than four decades of performing to massive audiences, with 19 records under their belt and legions of loyal fans.
Commit to what you love
“We were so in love with what we’ve done. We were so into it. So proud of it. When Caress of Steel pretty much met a deaf ear, we were opening acts for smaller tours. We were playing backwater clubs. We called it at the time the “Down The Tubes” tour.” — Neil Peart
Rush wrote songs that they loved which appealed to the eccentric. They were not popular and easy to appreciate.
One example of an album that did not land well was Caress of Steel. According to Geddy Lee: “Caress of Steel was not well-received by the record company. It was not well-received by our agents.”
They were proud of this album, but it wasn’t paying the bills. The record company was not happy and, in Neil’s words, “was leaning on us at our weakest.”
The band kept firm, which, as you can imagine, was probably not an easy decision to make when their own survival as working musicians was at stake. They “chose to go down fighting rather than make the record the record company wanted them to make.”
The result was the seminal 2112, their fourth studio album.
If this sounds familiar to you, then you must have, at some point, left a job you hated, pursued a career your parents did not want for you or focused on a passion that you were not sure would amount to something. For Rush, such risk-taking led to an enduring 40-year career as legends of progressive rock.
People are still dumbfounded whenever I confess that I am not a Beatles fan. It’s true. I love their songs. I love the melodies. But they don’t do strange time signatures, and everyone likes them. I wanted something more bizarre and impossible, sort of like the Rachmaninoff of rock.
Rush gave that with Hemispheres, particularly the instrumental La Villa Strangiato. I am a classical pianist, so I was floored when I first heard Alex Lifeson’s intro. Who are these rockstars playing classical music? There are only three of them. Three! Yet they sounded like a symphony, each one of them a non-pareil musician. It was quite shocking, and I knew that was what I needed to become a better musician — shock value.
Life is too short for mediocrity, and yet many tend to accept it. Rush demonstrates what you can achieve if you try to do otherwise. Their level of musicianship is so high that they would make you want to ask yourself: If I try harder, what could be waiting for me on the next level?
Embrace lifelong learning
That was the thing about Rush. We were always overreaching. — Geddy Lee
Rush did what they love, and they stood out but they never rested on their laurels. They kept learning and trying new things.
I honestly have not listened to all 19 studio albums but I have been listening enough my favorites again and again. I could sense, from album to album, that they were constantly moving the needle. One song, Spirit of Radio, confirmed this for me, from the starting riff to the counterintuitive shift to reggae to the time signature changes.
Neil Peart, who sadly passed away early this year, was a great example of this. A voracious reader, and later author of travel memoirs, he was the primary lyricist of the band. He based 2112 on The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, which got a 12-year old Sebastian Bach, the lead singer of Skid Row, to read philosophical literature. He kept studying, played jazz a la Buddy Rich and was mentored by acclaimed jazz percussionist Freddie Gruber.
Have we, as mere mortals next to these superhumans, been sharpening the saw, learning new skills, reaching out to successful people and in the process, piercing through our known limits?
Experiment, but know your boundaries
“There was no such thing as ‘that doesn’t suit Rush.’ Those words have never been uttered.” — Neil Peart
The band attracted a broader market with Moving Pictures, a monster success, which was the result of years of constant experimenting from 1974 to 1981. That was their 8th album. They would do 11 more.
In the 80s, Geddy Lee saw synthesizers and technology as “a way of sparking your creativity.” It was evident in Power Windows. He said that he and Alex were having disagreements because Alex felt that he had to work his guitar around the synths, which “wasn’t even a real instrument.” Some of their fans who were interviewed, like those who loved and were starting to miss Geddy’s bass playing, took a break from Rush during that phase.
Innovation is a buzz word these days, not just among start-ups but also in the more traditional and bureaucratic organizations. How do you innovate without paralyzing the systems in place? Experiments, such as the use of new instruments in Rush’s case, are essential for testing new ideas before throwing in your lot. Tools like the Sprint method can be useful for establishing limits because they can debunk supposedly good ideas with both qualitative and quantitative evidence.
There is no such thing as an overnight success
Rush would probably not have survived the rock and roll business for over 40 years if they kowtowed to record company executives or feared experimentation. In their overreaching and unrelenting creativity, they attracted the fans (whom introverted Neil Peart humorously referred to as “strangers with expectations”) that fortified their staying power from the beginning until they retired in 2018.
Rush was catapulted to the rock and roll stratosphere by a strong cult following. It enjoys brand loyalty built by honest lyrics, epic solos and that real connection among nerds, weirdos, and outcasts through the songs. The geek gods of Rush made the uncool crowd cool, and in return, the Rush fans buoyed up the band through thick and thin.
It reminds me of a small business principle espoused by Kevin Kelly in the 1000 true fans: “To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.”
Rush, obviously, has more than a thousand fans but I hope I have made my point.
Ignore the critics, but listen to your fans
“I stopped reading reviews a long time ago because if I believed the good ones I would have to believe the bad ones.” — Neil Peart
What matters to Rush is their music and their fans. If they had believed the scathing criticism they had crossed paths with such as “unintentionally funny” or “overbearing and repetitious to the point of tears” or “Rush’s humorless (and limited) interest in literary themes and meager sense of melody made for one dull, dull concert,” they might have not lasted as long as they did. Alex Lifeson ignored it because these critics were just “trying to sound cool” and just by reading the comments, you can tell that’s true.
The fans really mattered. They were the ones buying the albums. They were the ones whose time and resources Rush wanted to earn. So the band pulled back the synths because they did lose some fans after Power Windows. They listened to the feedback and then gave the fans what they wanted.
It is the same for celebrities and companies too worried about the optics, which is tough to ignore in a fake news terrain. But the customer reigns supreme. There is no other boss. And these days there are easier ways of distinguishing real customer feedback from those that are mere distractions.
Surround yourself with people you love
“There is no replacing anyone in this band. That is just not possible. It is the band, the three of us.” — Geddy Lee
It is impossible to create magic with people you don’t get along with, or you can’t count on when the going gets tough. And it got really tough for the band.
In 1997, Neil’s daughter died in a car accident and then ten months later, his wife passed away. According to Alex Lifeson, “everything to do with the band ended at that moment. It just didn’t seem important.” So Rush was on sabbatical, but the band was there for Neil when he needed them the most, even if at arm’s length, as he forced himself to be alone and try to make sense of the meaninglessness.
It may sound strange to have to find people you love in your place of work, but that is a necessity. I had once worked with a “think team” in my speechwriting days, always cordial in disagreement, ego out the door and will always pull through for me on a weekend. I feel that way with my band too. For some people, the absence of a healthy family life could discover a worthy substitute at work. Find those people you can be yourself around with. Be a teammate they can rely on and love them sincerely. If you are the boss, be that person you would like your children to work for.
Enjoy the process
The Rush video I watch repeatedly is YYZ in Rio. Just check out that crowd. How fun is that?
Working at your company may not be that fun but some version of that should make itself felt. We only have one life to live, and if you are not having fun, you are probably just wasting it.
Rush moved me and elevated me to new heights, not just musically but as a leader and a human being. Band life is chock full of drama so building resilience in the midst of struggle and success is a delicate dance any entrepreneur, founder and CEO could learn from. I am glad that I appreciate their music, and that many newer fans like myself and this guy reacting to Tom Sawyer are benefiting from their legacy. My only regret is that I wasn’t born early enough to fully embrace their gift to the world.