40 Years Later, Has Rush Won Out Over Rock Critics?
I caught up with Durrell Bowman, co-editor of Rush and Philosophy (Open Court Press: 2011), which was released in March, to talk about his academic work on Rush and how the book came together. Bowman is part of a movement in academia to take a more serious look at popular culture, so his book, which he co-edited with Jim Berti, a junior high school teacher in Latham, N.Y., fits into that mode nicely. His focus today is on a website he’s developing, music-discussion.net, which aims to do much the same thing as his book: create a discussion among scholars, serious fans, teachers, and even the artists themselves around music. The site is being beta-tested now. Bowman received his Ph.D. in musicology from UCLA in 2003, an M.A. in musicology from the University of Toronto, and a B.A. in music from the University of Waterloo in southern Ontario.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
Rush Vault: There seems to be new interest in the band. What’s your view?
Durrell Bowman: I think the band resonates with today’s post-counter-cultural, progressive, entrepreneurial culture. For the kind of professionals who are always moving from one project to the next, like computer technicians, programmers, and architects, they tend to put a personal stamp or aesthetic on everything they do. These folk see something similar in the music of Rush, which still sounds like the band it’s always been but at the same time allows other kinds of music and topics to be part of what influences it. So, it has its seriousness of lyrics and relatively complex rhythms, metrical constructions, and song structures even while it moves from boogie blues hard rock in the 70s to the progressive sort of stuff a little bit later to the synth-rock influence in the 80s, and then, stripping away the technology, back to the hard-rock sound in the 90s starting around Counterparts. It’s a constant regeneration of influences. In my dissertation (completed in 2003) I call it “Permanent Change.” I also think the renewed interest comes from the people in positions of power today at TV shows and at some of the journals. They’re in their 40s now and they grew up with the band and they’re finding that it resonates more with them than bands that rock critics have talked about in the past. There’s also the influence of the Internet and blogs as well, which have probably reduced the importance of critics.
RV: What’s the story behind the book?
DB: It was really Jim Berti’s idea to pitch this topic to the publisher of the Popular Culture and Philosophy series. I was familiar with the series and I vaguely knew it included some music books, including one on The Beatles, because a friend and colleague of mine co-edited that one with his brother, and I kept hearing about the Grateful Dead one as well, but it never occurred to me to propose one. Jim contacted me in early 2009. He had seen my name or some writing and was initially canvassing on whether I would want to contribute a chapter. I suggested that with my academic connections to the musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory side that I could probably get some people from those contexts and with his context in philosophy, history, and English he could get some people from there. So, we mutually decided we should co-edit it because we could get a broader range of people, which is pretty much what happened. I only met him in person last summer. We went to the Rush concert on my birthday [July 23] in Saratoga Springs in New York by Albany, which is around where he lives. I was living in Maine at the time, so it was a bit of a drive for me, but it was my birthday, so I took the day off from work and heard Rush in the evening, so that was nice.
RV: How did you select the essays for inclusion?
DB: We already had some people interested just from informal e-mail and then we did a more formal call for papers in the e-mail discussion list of some of the music societies (like the American Musicological Society) and some of the humanities and cultural studies societies and some of the blogs and websites as well. We talked to 25 to 30 people and we ended up with something in the high teens on submissions. Some people couldn’t pull things together the way they had planned and had to drop out. A lot of the people were full-time faculty, some worked in libraries, and we had a couple of graduate students, so people were busy working on other kinds of things. Eventually we got to the point where we had to nail down what the final chapters would be.
RV: Which essays surprised you or genuinely gave you a new perspective on things?
DB: Chris McDonald’s piece [which looks at the band and humanism] was good, because it was dealing with things that were a little different than what was in his dissertation and in his book [Rush, Rock Music and the Middle Class (University of Indiana Press: 2009), which looked at Rush and middle-class aspirations]. I like the enlightenment theme in his chapter and the fact that it’s more philosophical than it is ethnomusicological. I found the one with the YouTube theme and the obsession of musicians trying to play their songs [“Nailed it,” by John Reuland] interesting, because that kind of Internet, YouTube-y participation isn’t something I knew much about. [In the chapter, Reuland talks about musicians using YouTube to get feedback from one another on improving their technical mastery of the songs.] Nicole Biamonte’s chapter on exoticism [“Contre Nous”] was similar to certain things I had covered in my own dissertation and I certainly knew where Deena Weinstein was going [“Neil Peart versus Ayn Rand”], because we had had e-mail discussions about that. That one asked the question, is “2112” really that Ayn Randian or is it really some other kind of Orwellian thing? And she explains that quite well. And with Steven Horwitz [“Rush’s Libertarianism Never Fit the Plan”], I knew a lot about his libertarian thing as well, so his was also less surprising.
RV: The pieces in which the writers actually engage in philosophy are clustered in the back. Why’s that?
DB: Well, I initially had the libertarian, individualist, Ayn Randian stuff at the front of the book, because that involved some of the oldest music. But the publisher didn’t really like that. They wanted to get the more anecdotal chapter that ended up as the first piece at the beginning. [That piece, “Yesterday’s Tom Sawyers,” by Randall Auxier, mixed a humorous take on the author’s first Rush concert with a look at how artistic creation acts as a virtual semblance of an idea.] So, I had the four sections of the book running backwards from the way they are now. [As an aside], some people joked about whether we should call the book Rush AS Philosophy, because it’s essentially the case that the band is philosophical and not just a band that writes lyrics that are philosophical. But unfortunately the series already has “and Philosophy” in the title, so we were kind of stuck with that. We also had a little bit of stress over the subtitle as well. I had wanted to call it “Always Hopeful yet Discontent,” which I thought was an interesting way to describe both Rush and philosophy. Plus, I really wanted to focus on the early 1980s, because that seemed to me to be the period of the band’s music that is best known, and I wanted to get some lyrics referenced from “Limelight” or “Tom Sawyer” or something like that. But the publisher thought it was a bit too gloomy sounding, and they went with “Heart and Mind United,” which is a good description of the band’s aesthetic through all of its stylistic changes.
RV: Why did you choose Rush as the subject of your academic work at UCLA?
DB: I started thinking about them when I was trailing off from my more traditional and conservative music department at the University of Toronto, where they even found classical derived orchestral film music to be a little too weird and media-influenced to be real music. I was thinking about wanting to do a Canadian topic, because I’m Canadian myself [from the Waterloo area, where Blackberry maker Research in Motion is based]. I was thinking about an artist that had been around long enough that it would be interesting to look at stylistic changes over time and at different perods and influences. In the same way that one would do research on Beethoven or Bach, and Rush was getting into the back of my head as a possibility. I hadn’t followed the band in all that much detail after 1987. I vaguely knew they were continuing, and there were some videos in that era. And I knew there were a lot of issues with this fan-insider-musician’s-music kind of thing versus the critics. So, it was just the perfect topic to look into. Just everything: videos, structure, album covers, history, influences. Looking into all of these things was just exactly what musicology was all about in the 90s when I started looking for a topic. So, it’s partly the music that I grew up with and partly that I could get back into the band and find interesting things to say about it. Some people go, “Wow, you wrote a 330-page dissertation. You must be the world’s biggest Rush fan,” but I never really thought of it that way. Would you call somebody who did a 330-page dissertation on Brahms the world’s biggest Brahms fan? Just because it involves popular culture, people have different expectations.
DB: I suspect rock criticism is stuck in a 1960s counter-culture, Bob Dylan kind of world and might never catch up to the cultural shift around the band. But it might not matter, because the role of professional criticism will become less and less important culturally over the next decade or so as the Internet, blogs, and discussion networks become more ascendant. In a sense, what people are saying now is that, because there is so much more attention on them [two academic books, a documentary, guest appearances on popular shows], the band has kind of won out over the rock critics. In any case, in five or 10 years, will anyone care what Rolling Stone thought of them? Even now, when rock critics interview the band they’re surprised at how disarming and quite friendly and pleasant they are. They’re taken aback that the band can be so serious and have such structures and complexities while actually being pretty self-effacing about themselves.
—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
Rush and Philosophy
Open Court Press (May 10, 2011)
Durrell Bowman and Jim Berti, editors
$14.56 on Amazon
More on Rush and Philosophy:
Main book review: “Rush’s Turn Under the Academic Microscope”
Detailed reviews of individual esssays in the book: