American Popular Culture Home American Popular Culture Home
American Popular Culture Home About Americana Contact Americana American Popular Culture Archive
Emerging Pop Culture
Magazine Home
Venues: Places in American Popular Culture Visit Press Americana

As a teenager, I used to ride around a section of town called the Loop. My older cousins occupied the front seat, scanning cars for friends to talk to and boys to flirt with and, to my great regret, controlling the radio. An outsider in the backseat (I wasn’t even from town), I still reveled in the way we sped up at the far side of the Loop, pointed toward distant city lights. Escape looked like the car in front of us, taking the exit for urban adventures.
Growing up, my cousins and I saw new teens come to the Loop. The desire to escape the quiet of suburbia, to charge the horizon with as much horsepower as they could borrow from the family garage, was passed down generation to generation. Older now, we who had once raged against the quiet, boring safety of the suburbs were folded into them, leaving that almost-escape-route to a new generation. This article examines a loop that circles through the work of the rock band Rush, flashing back around like the keen, dark edge of a vinyl record. It argues that a focus on suburban spaces is essential to understanding the band’s trajectory, showing their evolution from rebels against suburbia to philanthropists and “good, caring citizens” - as reported by CBC News. A focus on spaces like the suburbs and the newly opened Lee-Lifeson Art Park also provides a fuller understanding of the band’s audience and appeal.

Men of Willowdale

An affluent Toronto community named for the many willow trees that once grew there, Willowdale Ontario lacks the fame of some of rock’s more prominent hot spots, such as Abbey Road, Graceland, or Hotel California. Described by Sarah Liss as “a rock ‘n’ roll mecca” for its part in Rush’s story, Willowdale is remembered in rock journalism as a “neighborhood even sleepier than it is today: a dull, grey sprawl of ranch-style bungalows, modest pre-war dwellings and sad-looking strip malls.” From such modest soil grew two-thirds of the band: guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee.

As drummer Neil Peart is not associated with Willowdale, it could be argued that it should be excluded from consideration as a space important to the Rush story. However, a strong argument for its inclusion and study is the fact that the band thought Willowdale important enough to bring it into the Rush canon, at least in fictional form. Featured on Caress of Steel (1975), the lengthy fantasy song “The Necromancer” begins with “three travelers, men of Willowdale” as they prepare to enter “the dark and forbidding lands” of the sorcerer that gives the track its title.  These three travelers may be seen as stand-ins for the members of the band, tying Rush to Willowdale as a group. Both rock journalists such as Martin Popoff setting out a history of the band and the 2010 documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage identify Willowdale as an origin point for the band, a space where “Rush history blossom[ed].”  An important jumping off point for Lee and Lifeson, this space is far more interesting when considered not in light of the band’s origins but of its legacy.

An Insulated Border: Life in the Suburbs

Today, Willowdale is a moderately busy Toronto suburb, sporting all of the modern landmarks that have come to denote life just outside the city, but when Alex Živojinović and Gary Lee Weinrib were growing up in the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s, the aesthetics were quite different. The two describe the neighborhood in Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, noting the prevalence of undeveloped farmland that made up the landscape of their younger years. In a shot of the two bandmates being driven down the streets of the neighborhood where they grew up, Geddy begins, “None of this was here,” indicating the scenery beyond the window. He is quickly seconded by Lifeson, who adds, “It was just the school and then fields.”

In Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class: Dreaming in Middletown, Christopher J. McDonald further details the picture of the environment that two-thirds of the power trio grew up in, describing it as: “a grid of small bungalows, townhouses, and medium-size family homes punctuated by new redbrick schools and strip malls, green belts and power lines, commuter lots and freeways.” McDonald sees in this image a “model” of “the ideal lifestyle of the modern middle class,” a lifestyle marked by “order, careful engineering, self-discipline, and a comfortable distance from the social stresses of the urban core.” As teenagers who dreamed of rock-stardom, the members of Rush had a slightly different take on their environment than the middle class individuals who sought the conveniences of the nearby city without the crowds, traffic, pollution, and expense.  During a broadcast of In the Studio during which the band discussed the release of its then most recent album Moving Pictures, Lee noted, “I think we were very typically suburban… I think we longed to break out of the boring surroundings of the suburbs and the endless similarities…the shopping plazas and all that stuff.” In the Rush catalogue, the suburbs have consistently appeared as confines to be escaped. This point is most famously explored in the lyrics and subsequent music video for the song “Subdivisions.” The conservative world of suburbia where “the future” is always “pre-decided” depicted in “Subdivisions” is also explored in fantasy form, magnified and vilified in the dystopian society of "2112."

Where “2112” is inspired by fiction, “Subdivisions” has its origins in reality.  Writing in 2004’s Traveling Music, Peart remembers growing up in the suburbs in a largely negative light. There, conformity left no space to try new styles or to step outside a carefully codified and enforced norm. He recalls: “In those high school hallways of the mid-60’s, the conformity was stifling. Everyone dressed the same, in a uniform-of-choice – Sta-Prest slacks, penny loafers, and V-neck pullover vests over Oxford shirts – and at Lakeport High, the jocks and frat-boys were king. To be both a jock and in a fraternity was the ideal, to be neither, unthinkable. Even by 1967 and ’68, when I was fifteen and sixteen, in our whole school there was only about three guys who dared to have long hair (below the ears, that is – though I combed mine up and pushed it behind my ears when I was around my disapproving dad). I was starting to wear bright-colored “hippie” style clothes, long-sleeved striped T-shirts, floor-dragging flared jeans, and in the hallways we endured constant verbal abuse: “Is that a girl?” “Hey, sweetheart!” “Let’s give it a haircut!” and other intelligent remarks...Outside in the parking-lot smoking area, it was worse, feeling tense and watchful as the frat boys passed, with bullying threats and casual elbows and punches thrown at us. All because we were ‘freaks.'"

This reality did not belong to Peart alone, but was shared by his bandmates. Geddy Lee has also discussed the trials of being different in a world where everyone is perceived to be the same and where such sameness is marked with desirability. In a 2009 interview with Heeb magazine, Lee looked back to his years growing up in the world described in “Subdivisions” and remembered, “I grew up feeling the alienation that many kids feel growing up. I wasn't a particularly social kid. That creates a feeling of being an outsider. I spent a lot of time living inside my own head, and our music is full of those kinds of stories.” This alienation was reinforced by the perception of being an outsider due to his position as a child of immigrants. In An Oral History of Rush, Lee’s immediate mention of his parents’ immigrant status signals that this was very much part of his childhood identity: “I grew up in a suburb of Toronto, as did Alex. He was the child of Yugoslavian immigrants. And I was a child of Holocaust survivors.” In Beyond the Lighted Stage, Lee elaborates on this theme, remembering that his family was “one of the few Jewish families to live in our neighborhood." As a result, Lee says that he “constantly liv[ed] in terror of being beat up” and sarcastically remembers his suburban upbringing as “an exciting time!” The fledgling versions of Rush may have provided an escape from the misfit aspects of the band members’ identities, as well as a potential ticket out of suburbia and into the wider world.

The yearning for a wider world beyond the confines of one’s own space is, of course, practically a teenage rite of passage and is not solely the lyrical province of Neil Peart. Indeed, Rush’s success in connecting to their initial audience (many of whom, today, describe themselves as having been misfits when they discovered the band) owes much to their articulation of these familiar feelings. In his Heeb article, Ayre Dworken quotes Lee, “[there is] the comfort of knowing you're not the only one who experiences alienation, and we have fans that have looked for comfort much in the same way that we've looked for comfort from our own music.” The teenage trials of Lee and Lifeson are important here because they can be connected to a certain set of coordinates – both on the map and in the Rush canon.


Lerxtwood Mall and Olde Dirk Road:
“Subdivisions” as personal geography

To discover Rush’s official take on life in the suburbs, fans know to turn to 1982’s Signals, where “Subdivisions” soundly denounces life in the orderly quiet of the residential community. Peart’s lyrics mark suburban space as stifling in its perfect geometry, “an insulated border” that prevents any exchange of ideas and buffers “the lighted streets” of the suburban world from the “action” associated with the city. Since the band describes itself as one in which the members “are able to…be ridiculously considerate of each other” and as “the last working democracy,” listeners can assume that Peart’s lyrics must ring true with his bandmates and that they agree with the picture he has painted of the environment in which they grew up, according to Danial Brockman.  In describing the world of “lighted streets on quiet nights” where Lee and Lifeson were raised, “Subdivisions” charts the band’s personal geography – the space they outgrew in order to step onto the stage – and maybe even the space they were running away from. Yet, the success of “Subdivisions” and its vision of “a disconnect with urban life,” Brockman suggests, may be that this particular geography was charted out, tread, and escaped not only by the band, but by many of their listeners.

The importance of this personal geography also appears on the album’s cover and in the music video for “Subdivisions.” Following the misfit steps of a restless youth who suffers the same kind of isolation as Peart and Lee and who cannot find acceptance in those typical teenage spaces of “the high school hall,” “the shopping mall,” “basement bars,” or “the backs of cars,” the video for “Subdivisions” shifts from the perspective of this character to a wider view in order to draw the audience’s attention to the suburbs. In a sense, the suburban environment becomes the villain of the video. Deadening, confining, and soulless, this borderland outside of the city acts as both a cage for misfits, dreamers, and outsiders, and a silent accomplice for those who ostracize and mistreat others like the misfit protagonist. The protagonist’s misfit status is signaled through the use of familiar stereotypes: sitting alone, reading, being hassled by the “in-crowd,” and watching a Rush video! Sara Sherr points out that it is from just such “misfits” that Rush’s original audience formed and “when Lee… first sang ‘be cool or be cast out’ he was talking to all the lonely guys in suburban cul-de-sacs who failed to fit in.” The shots of the “mass production zone” that the misfit youth must navigate and endure are clearly intended to be negative. Endless, anonymous traffic points toward the commute to and from the city. Identical houses with identical lawns appear in uniform rows, bare of any sign of innovation, creativity, or escape. The video even makes use of drab, joyless colors, the sky leeched instead of blue, in order to cast suburbia in the role of prison, in contrast to “the timeless old attraction” of the distant city.

The “far, unlit, unknown” of the city might be the space most longed for by the protagonist of “Subdivisions,” but the album art for Signals suggests that the ever-expanding suburbs may have the last word. The primary image on the front cover of the album shows a well-manicured suburban lawn (albeit about to be marked with a defiant splash of yellow) that points listeners back to the protagonist of “The Analog Kid,” who “lies on the grass” his “young and restless heart” “moved” by “a bright and nameless vision." It is easy to imagine that the Analog Kid could stand in for one or more of the members of the band, dreaming of an escape from the suburbs and compelled by the desire to make music somewhere far away. Such an image would also connected with the band’s audience, young listeners who wanted to move forward – without necessarily knowing “what [they were] hoping to find” upon taking those first steps into the wider world.

While Signals’ primary image merely points toward the suburbs and its stereotypical lawn wars, the back cover explicitly maps out this space as a part (albeit a former part) of the band’s terrain. Taken up by blueprints, the back cover of the album displays one of the very spaces that the protagonist of the “Subdivisions” video has been cast out of: another mall. The very presence of the blueprint seems to be an argument for the pervasiveness of suburban life. After all, the creation of another mall or another community requires copying plans rather than any sort of creativity, a form of “mass production” very much at odds with a band enamored of imagination, progression, and artistic integrity.
Yet, as is almost always the case with this progressive band, the surface fails to tell the entire story. A closer look at these blueprints reveals Rush striking back against suburbia, as the band’s nicknames have all been signed to the plans and incorporated throughout as little jokes. “Pratt and Associates” (Neil Peart) are credited with the creation of Lerxtwood Mall (Lerxst is Lifeson’s nickname), which will be built on Olde Dirk Road (named for Lee). Maybe this will be the mall where all of the misfits hang out? Since Lerxtwood Mall has yet to be built, listeners might look on the act of playing Signals as a sort of audible antidote, a vocal refusal to conform to all that these plans represent.


Finding Their Way Back Home

While the lyrics and imagery of Signals might give Rush fans a fairly negative picture of suburban spaces like Willowdale, Signals is not the end of the story. Rush’s progressive attitude toward music also extends to other areas, and the band’s opinions and beliefs have continued to evolve alongside lyrics, guitar riffs, and drum patterns. Whatever the beliefs of their teenage selves, two of Rush’s members returned to the suburbs to make their homes and raise their families. Although listeners to “The Analog Kid” may map the protagonist onto to younger versions of Rush’s members, it is also worth listening to Peart’s cautionary note at the end of the song, where the Kid admits that “I don’t know what I’m leaving behind." This notion of the undefined and left-behind may encompass the charms of the suburbs that went unseen by the band’s younger selves, charms that drew them back in mature form.

Besides returning to Toronto to raise their families, the members of Rush have also remained active in their local communities, embracing charitable causes and sharing the benefits of their success. According to Nick Patch, Lifeson has tied the band’s charitable inclinations back to their suburban upbringing, noting, “We're all middle, or lower-middle class, suburban kids. First of all, [being charitable is] the right thing to do. We are very, very fortunate. We've had an amazing career as a band. I think we were raised with those sorts of traits [to give back]. It just seems right to give back. Move it forward.” This attitude and the band’s work for their community led to their reception of the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award in 2015. Throughout their career, Rush has supported various good works including the United Way, amfar, Sarstock, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the Make It Right Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, Alberta Flood Relief, Little Kids Rock, Child Advocates, Dominic Triano Foundation, Casey House, the Kidney Foundation, and Grapes for Humanity. While much of their work has a worldwide focus, Rush has never forgotten its native city, actively supporting the Toronto Foodbank and other local causes. The city has responded positively to its native sons (there is even a sandwich named after Geddy Lee at Caplansky’s Deli). In 2014, a new Rush space was announced: Willowdale’s Lee-Lifeson Art Park. Looking back to Rush’s lyrical treatment of Willowdale (or Willowdale–like areas) in “Subdivisions,” Todd Coyne in the Toronto Star writes that “the city has obviously forgiven the slight.” By looking at this small, unique space in conjunction with Peart’s words and the band’s history, fans can gain insight into the legacy Rush would like to leave.


Grand Designs

According the journalists Markus O'Brien-Fehr and To Coyne, the idea for the expansion of Willowdale Park and its transformation into “a place for the community to celebrate and observe the creative arts” dates back to 2012 and was proposed by Willowdale Councillor John Filion. Describing the way that the park came to be named, Filion remembers, “I was standing around one night with a fellow music lover trying to think of somebody who had grown up in Willowdale who was a famous artist or musician. We both came up with the name Geddy Lee almost simultaneously.” While Lee was reportedly “interested and honoured” by Filion’s proposal, the bassist and singer refused to accept the honor unless the park was also named after Alex Lifeson, who also grew up in Willowdale. Lee’s condition may seem a small one (it was embraced by the Toronto Parks Committee and by Filion, who writes that he was “delighted" when Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson agreed to have [the park] named after them), but the decision to include Lifeson’s name already reveals a great deal about the members of Rush. The trio is notably devoted to one another and has been quite vocal about the fact that there is no Rush without all three members.

The bond between Lee and Lifeson is particularly notable, with fans even creating a portmanteau name, “Dirxst,” to refer to the pair. Besides being famous for their stage play, the two can also often be found together off of the road. Says Lifeson, “Ged and I have been friends since we were in junior high school. We hang out as friends, we’re buddies, and we still live ten minutes away from one another.”

In Beyond the Lighted Stage, Lifeson even goes off on a silly tirade about living near to his best friend, and about how Lee may sometimes regret this closeness. “"Yeah! I see you see me!,” he declares, during a discussion about going to visit the bassist sans invitation. “And then you run into your house. And I see his face, I actually see his face; he goes like this... [Lifeson mimics a look of startled horror] And he goes running in his house!" Lee listens indulgently to this one-man comedy act. This anecdote as well as other interviews and photographs suggest a long-suffering fondness in the face of such antics, although Lifeson’s performance of a comedic speech composed entirely of the phrase “blah blah blah” at the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction almost incited him to violence. Said Lee, "He's genuinely one of the funniest people you'd ever meet in your life. But I wanted to kill him at the three-minute mark. Neil and I were threatening to knock him on the head and drag him offstage."

The depth of the pair’s friendship can be seen in countless interviews and also onstage at Rush concerts, where Lee and Lifeson can often be found playing with each other or rocking out side by side centerstage. Like the origins of the band itself, this friendship can be traced back to Willowdale, where Lifeson remembers that “we were very similar…we both felt that we were very outside of our class, outside our school, outside everything.” Alienated by the local landscape, the two would join forces and plan to take the wider world by storm.

Friendship and collaboration are key to the Rush ethos, and these aspects have been celebrated by fans, who find them admirable in the carnivalesque world of rock, where the “sounds of salesmen” often echo louder than the chords or drumbeats - as Peart wrote in “Spirit of Radio”. One of the primary places this collaboration can be observed is in the creation of Rush’s lyrics. Written almost entirely by drummer Neil Peart since 1975, the words that fans actually hear on a Rush album are the product of collaboration between Lee and Peart. When asked what goes into the negotiations surrounding lyric writing by Stutz Fretman, Lee reports, “The process is really quite simple...he’s obviously put a lot of time and effort into thinking and writing what he’s going to come up with, so I give him the benefit of making sure I put some time and thought into reading the lyrics when they come to me.” These lyrics are rarely accepted in the form that they arrive. Fortunately, Peart is “very considerate” of Lee’s role as a singer and “has no problem changing something to suit [Lee’s] singing style or for the betterment of the song.” Since friendship and collaboration are key to Rush’s creative process and to their success, naming the park after two members instead of one makes perfect sense. The band’s input on the band also demonstrates a concern for legacy; the Rush brand cannot be assigned to just any space or applied without thought.

Besides the name, the band was also consulted with regard to the park’s use and, Coyne reports, were “impressed with the thoughts and plans” shown to them by the architects for the park. Designated as an art park to showcase local creations, the park’s original design include a bandstand for the performance of local music. While the park will be dedicated to all of the arts, Lisa Queen reports that Filion states that “the focus will be on music and sound.” However, Willowdale residents need not rush out to stockpile ear plugs, as the name of the park “does not mean there will be any loud music in the park,” O'Brien-Fehr reassures residents. Perhaps the next Rush will find their stage here, as the original found their first stage in long-gone drop-in centers like the Coff-In. Whether or not this is the case (the music climate has changed considerably since the band’s self-titled album was pressed in 1974), Rush’s involvement with the park demonstrates a concern for how they will be perceived in the future. They wish to be known for their commitment to the community, their place in the world of art, and as mentors (even if they are a degree removed) to a new generation of artists – musicians and otherwise. The Lee-Lifeson Art Park is directly bound up in these concerns. Not only their involvement with the Art Park, but the liner notes of the band’s most recent release, Clockwork Angels, also indicates that collective mind of the band has turned to contemplating ideas about community and legacy. By taking a closer look at these liner notes and lyrics and by connecting them to the Art Park, Rush fans can better observe the band’s views in regard to their legacy on and off the stage.

On Clockwork Angels, one of the ways that legacy is negotiated is through allusion, a literary method that Peart has turned to on several other albums. On those past albums, Peart has used not only traditional literary allusions, but also historical, theatrical, and musical allusions. These allusions span years, movements, and types of literature. To Rush fans, the most familiar of Rush’s inspirations (and, perhaps, the most controversial) is writer Ayn Rand. Since choosing to dedicate 2112 to Rand’s vision and naming their record company after one of her novels, Rush has had to fend off considerable criticism about their perceived alignment with the novelist’s politics. While Peart confesses that he and Rush, “would eventually grow into and, largely, out of Ayn Rand’s orbit,” he still considers her work “a significant stepping stone or way-station...along the journey to a more nuanced philosophy and politics.” Other literary notables who have influenced the Rush canon include Michael Ondaatje, Joseph Conrad, John Barth, Camille Paglia, Daphne du Maurier, and Thomas Wolfe. In the case of Clockwork Angels’ “The Garden,” Peart chooses Voltaire’s Candide as an inspiration. Rather than leaving listener’s to puzzle out a meaning, Peart sets out a guide for understanding “The Garden” using the album’s liner notes as a space to offer exposition and explanation. “There is a metaphorical garden in the acts and attitudes of a person’s life,” he writes, “and the treasures of that garden are love and respect.” Under such a reading, everyone has a garden to tend, and a crop of love and self-respect that may either yield a great harvest or be blighted by lack of care.


The Men Who Hold High Places
(must be the ones who mold a new reality)

Even the most steadfast and dedicated Rush fan must acknowledge that the late appearance of Clockwork Angels means that it will be one of the band’s last albums. Since Peart wrote “The Garden” knowing this, it is easy to imagine that the song’s heavy reliance on time imagery is connected to ideas about the band’s future and its legacy. Lyrics referencing time in the song include the following: “time is still the infinite jest,” “the hours tick away,” “in the rise and the set of the sun,” “in the fullness of time,” “the future disappears into memory with only a moment between,” and “forever dwells in that moment.” As the Lee-Lifeson Art Park raises these same issues, it is proper that both the song and the park be examined together so that they can illuminate one another.
Rush’s behavior in the limelight as well as in countless interviews indicated the philosophy expressed in “The Garden” is neither a “fly by night” construction nor “just a song” intended for radio play and consumption. “The Garden” extols the “Rushian” virtues of working toward a life that garners love and respect, all while working against time. These same virtues may be seen in the band’s attitude toward the Lee-Lifeson Art Park.  Having a park dedicated to their life’s work and having their names on a community space in which further art can be created and displayed is a physical sign of the respect that the members of Rush have earned as musicians. Further, the park demonstrates their roots in the community by making them a lasting and physical part of a communal space. The gifts that they have given to that community through the practice of their art and through various charitable endeavors are reflected in the community’s gift to them, its recognition of their value to Willowdale and to the wider world.


Turning the Pages of History

In recent years, Rush may measure its success in spaces dedicated to the band as much as in album sales. These locations include Hollywood’s Rock Walk, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and an exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Though less permanent, RushCon has also honored the band since 2009. There is even an iphone app to guide fans to Rush sites located throughout Toronto. With so many sites already dedicated to the band, fans might question the need or the fit of a space like the Lee-Lifeson Art Park. Before exploring these connections, it is proper to understand just how this type of space developed and how it has historically been used.

In The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks in America, Galen Cranz outlines four phases of park design in the United States: the pleasure ground, the reform park, the recreation facility, and the open space system. Nineteenth-century parks began as pleasure grounds, landscaped spaces “planned as places of healthful recreation for all classes,” Setha Low and others explain. These parks took the place of “common, open space” outside of town that might be “appropriated for outings, get-togethers, picnics, sports, and games” and were designed with the idea that “a graceful, tastefully furnished landscape  would ‘naturally’ compel the working-class users to emulate their social betters.” Just as the suburbs pressured the members of Rush and the protagonist of the “Subdivisions” video to conform, these early parks put pressure on immigrants and working class individuals to adopt standards of middle class behavior.

The aims of pleasure ground parks were further refined by reform parks, which became popular at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Galen Cranz, reform parks were intended to provide a recreational space for the working class and “to provide special play environments for children” (Cranz “Urban Parks of the Past and Future”). Inspired by increased immigration, these parks were intended to bring members of the community together “so that they would speak the same language, they would know how to fill out government and other kinds of forms, they would know what it means to live in America." These spaces were appropriated as zones where citizens could be made, all in the same mold. As the children of immigrants, Lee and Lifeson would have been aware of the pressures that their parents’ chosen country exerted on newcomers in an attempt to bring them into the fold. In Rush: Chemistry, Jon Collins acknowledges the hardships faced by “newcomers” who “spoke little English,” like Lifeson’s parents; such individuals were “treated as second class citizens by more established residents” and would have been the target audience for reform parks.

Reform parks – recreational spaces that could exert reforming influence on those who visited them – were in their turn replaced by recreational facilities, spaces that emphasize activities and move away from the greenery associated with earlier versions of the park. In the 1960s, these type of parks, which Cranz laments for their lack of “artistic vision” were replaced by parks that belonged to the Open Space System, parks inspired by the idea that “recreation is potentially everywhere – in the street or on the rooftop or on a crosswalk or at a waterfront or an abandoned railway site or a plaza or a park” and that “all those spaces” could be integrated into the space of the park (Cranz “Urban Parks of the Past and Future”). The Lee-Lifeson Art Park looks to follow this model, incorporating artworks and performance into the space of the park.


A Garden to Nurture

When imagining a park, we typically think of green lawns and flowering trees. As Low and others note, the “Western tradition of idealizing nature and wilderness” helped to inspire urban parks in the first place while, today, “notions of environmentalism and civic-mindedness” continue to make nature one of the most valuable assets of any park. Historically, parks have grown out of gardens, emulated gardens, and contained gardens – and so it is proper that the park that will point to Rush should be examined in conjunction with the song “The Garden” from 2012’s Clockwork Angels.

In “The Garden,” Peart claims that a single life may be seen as a garden that must be tended, nurtured, and protected. If one is a careful and a lucky gardener, a life’s harvest will yield “a measure of love and respect” equal to “the gifts that you give." While only “the fullness of time” can ensure such a harvest, this yield may be easily lost through improper actions or words, as described in the lyrics “so hard to earn, so easily burned.” With this metaphor in mind, Rush fans can look on the Lee-Lifeson Art Park as a physical representation of the “love and respect” that the band has earned in its home city. While it is too early to know what type of growth such a space might yield, the Art Park’s designation as a space of creative expression and community exhibition suggests that it may well act as a garden space where new artists and musicians may bloom.   

That a song like “The Garden” is meant to evoke a place as well as a metaphor is evident from the visuals that accompanied the performance of the track on the band’s Clockwork Angels tour. Designed with input from the band, the video for this track opens with wheels and gears giving way to organic life: buds and blossoms unfolding as fireflies broadcast their messages in gentle flashes of light. This scene is then replaced by a magnificent greenhouse with crystal panes sheltering the fragile growths within. The greenhouse is reminiscent of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, a structure built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. The time period and location (England) tie back to the steampunk theme of Clockwork Angels, as steampunk is commonly associated with the Victorians. Above the stage, a series of screens show different pieces of footage. The arrangement of these screens for “The Garden” is almost organic, vines and leaves seeming to reach out for one another across each panel. As Geddy sings about “the fullness of time,” each screen begins to bloom with red and purple flowers growing toward the light. As the music builds, the main screen is overtaken by great golden flowers. The clockwork theme returns as the song speaks of hours “tick[ing] away,” and petals fall down the screens to symbolize change. “The Garden” is a poignant song, and has a feeling of farewell about it, both because of its place in the Rush catalogue and because of its subject matter. However, the video that accompanies the live performance of the track shows new seeds being planted for the future. Behind the band, buds burst forth into blossom, the fruit of seeds – literal and metaphorical – like those that will be planted in the Willowdale Art Park.


The Treasures of a Life: The Gifts That You Give

There are other aspects of Rush’s philosophy and legacy that may be fittingly honored by a park, including their humbleness, their avoidance of the limelight, and their devotion to their families. The fan that considers a park an unexciting or unfitting Rush space would do well to first consider these aspects of the Rush character. Rush’s humbleness is visible to any fan who has ever watched an early interview with the band. There is no strutting or bragging to be seen – just a commitment to playing and performing as well as possible. It could even be argued that the band’s humbleness is practically audible as well as visible, as reporters have occasionally been unable to hear the shy and self-effacing Lee. For such a band, the quiet space of a park with just a plaque to mark its connection to them may be a more fitting or proper tribute than a flashier alternative. “We’re musicians,” Geddy Lee has reminded fans, “it’s not that noble of a thing” (The Boys in Brazil). With such an attitude, it is no surprise that the band might favor a venue that shifts the limelight from them to the artists the park will feature.

This underlying humbleness has also led the band to live their lives relatively free of celebrity gossip. Privacy is a fiercely guarded band value. This is most clearly reflected in the lyrics of “Limelight,” written by Peart to address the band’s growing popularity. Describing the drummer’s struggle, Lee says, “He was having the most difficulty of the three of us adjusting” to “fame and autograph seekers and a sudden lack of privacy.” For a band that clearly wishes to keep separate their personal and performing lives, a park operates as a perfect sort of metaphor. After all, parks were designed to permit privacy even in the midst of public life – to offer an escape from city crowds. While it is unlikely that the band will need to seek refuge in the park that bears their name, it may offer a retreat for others escaping the conditions described in Moving Picture’s “Camera Eye,” where “head-first humanity” “pace[s] in rhythm” and “flows through the streets of the city.”

Besides offering privacy and being moderately quiet spaces of tribute, parks can also act as familial spaces. The members of Rush are all “devoted family men with marriages of long standing,” a virtue rarely connected with any face famous enough to grace the cover of a magazine - as Nicholas Jennings notes. Indeed, this dedication has been cited as one of the reasons that Rush’s touring schedule must change and is likely an impetus behind Peart’s (and by extension, the band’s) concern about legacy and looking toward the future. In a recent interview, Geddy pointed to Peart’s young daughter as one of the reasons that Rush wants to slow down. “I can stand missing her,” says Peart, “but I can’t stand her missing me and it’s painful and impossible to understand for her. How can a small child process that? And there’s the guilt that comes with that – you fell guilty about it, of course. I’m causing pain.”  Love of family is clearly part of Peart’s garden – perhaps even the best part, if one takes into account the lyrics “to nurture and protect.” Rush has even shown a paternal sort of concern toward the extended family of their audience. The band clearly values the fact that their music has been handed down from parents to children and even to grandchildren, but has also been vocal in encouraging the proper use of headphones for children in their audiences. The band has similarly been disinclined to perform at festivals, citing fears that individuals in the audience might be hurt, as has historically happened in the case of other bands. For a band with such values, a family space seems a proper tribute.


So Many Memories: Rush's Other Park

Savvy fans will, at this point, remember that there is one other major connection between the band and the park. On 1975’s Caress of Steel, Peart penned a tribute to “Lakeside Park,” a park on the shores of Lake Ontario. The song celebrates many of the key aspects of the park. The line “willows in the breeze” conjure up images of the natural world while “merry-go-round wheezing same old melody,” marks the park as a place of both community and tradition. The positive values of both of these aspects are celebrated as the song’s narrator remembers “nights of barefoot freedom” and “singing songs together” around a campfire with friends. Visiting the park is linked to the tradition of the holiday, and the narrator will treasure the memories made there even if the magic of the place faded over time. Peart marks the park in his lyrics as a place of value, even if that value may be more evident to its younger visitors.

Nor is this song the last time that Lakeside Park serves as an inspiration. In the 2007 tourbook for the Snakes and Arrows tour, Peart remembers his summer job at a game booth “on the midway at Lakeside Park in Port Dalhousie.” “Prize every time,” the drummer would call and the repetitive cry eventually came to be a metaphor for those endeavors of life that reward – like song writing. The phrase is so resonant that the drummer returned to it for the title of his 2011 autobiography: Far and Away: A Prize Every Time. For Peart, Lakeside Park has acted as a consistent source of inspiration. Now, the Lee-Lifeson Art Park and the works that it will house may go on to inspire many more songs, stories, or other works of art.

There is also a connection between the park and progressive rock. Pastoralism and ecological concerns have been connected to progressive rock, making the park a proper place for rock and roll theorizing (see Hegarty and Halliwell). Past studies of Rush have focuses on other philosophical veins in their music – Aristotelian logic, libertarianism, etc. – and it is true that the band’s environmental concerns may be a minor theme in comparison to some of the others explored by their music (see Freedman). These themes have been expressed in a song like “Red Tide,” which discusses acid rain, and Second Nature. While these particular songs may not make the dream setlist of most Rush fans, they provide another link between the band and the small, unique space of the park.  


Hope Is What Remains to Be Seen

While songs like “The Garden” and “Subdivisions” can help Rush fans to see where a park fits into the Rush story – as a unique space that will honor their work and inspire future artists – the future of the park as a fan site is difficult to predict. At this particular moment, the Lee-Lifeson Art Park exists as a newly opened site, so only speculation can be offered regarding its future and the importance it may come to have for Rush fans. In September 2016 at the opening of the park, Lee and Lifeson were honored as “good, caring citizens” whose influence stretches “from Willowdale to the world.” Hopes for the park were high, with Lee commenting, “We hope this park serves the community in the best possible way.”

In almost every large park, statues, plaques, and memorials point to the great deeds done in the past. Rush has finished their touring life, but spaces like the art park add new chapters to the band’s story. It is to be hoped that spaces like these will ensure continued interest in the band, celebrate those aspects of Rush that fans have long applauded, and, perhaps, inspire new interest in the band’s vast catalogue of work. Though small, the Art Park may be seen as “one little victory” for the members of Rush.


March 2017

From guest contributor Kayla McKinney, Alderson Broaddus University

[back to top]

Home | About Us | Contact | Archive

All materials on this site © 2017 Americana: An Institute for American Studies and Creative Writing

Website Created by Cave Painting