Thursday, June 9, 2011

RUSH to Judgment

To watch three artists as technically proficient and talented as Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee -- collectively known since 1974 as RUSH -- is to witness art, specifically music, even more specifically live music, in its truest, most urgent, finest form.

And because RUSH plays with such expansive courage and sophisticated precision, the band accomplishes what few artists -- and that includes artists of pretty much any genre -- can do these days: Make you think.

Perhaps that’s why the Bi-Lo Center wasn’t sold out at the Canadian trio’s June 8 show in Greenville, SC. After all, we live in a society of fast food, fast Internet connections with fast relationships (see: Weiner et al) . . . fast consumption. Even a long, lingering, costly meal at a $65-a-plate high-end restaurant likely doesn’t last much more than an hour or so. And these guys rocked for more than two and a half hours.

But RUSH made you think. At least, made ME think. During the show, I thought more than once about art, the process and creation of art, the dedication and (HATE this word at it applies to art, but it seems certainly to apply to RUSH) discipline of art.

It was as if, watching Alex Lifeson coax, manhandle and otherwise reshape his guitar(s) to make it do what he wanted to do and to watch Neil Peart do things on that massive drum kit what so few drummers can do . . . I thought, naturally, about writing. And about how art’s made.

To digress: Nearly every time I meet one of the writers I worship, who happens to live in my neighborhood and was the youngest winner of a major international literary prize, she asks: “So. What are you reading?” I have an answer. (I love to read. Just finished THE THREE MUSKETEERS, but be sure to get Lowell Bair’s translation. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in years.) But a few years ago, I was talking with a friend who fancied himself The Writer. I asked him: “So. What are you reading?” “Me?” he responded, as if thrown a trick question. “I’m not much of a reader.”

Among the zillions of frustrations I have in my day job, which is buying the talent for our live-music venue, are the bands. Which is kind of akin to a grocery store manager saying he gets annoyed at . . . all those groceries. But here’s the point, really: We get somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 requests (let’s call them “queries”) from bands, artists, musicians, agents/agencies, to perform on our stage at The Handlebar. Each year, we have to fill around 400 or so slots. That’s 150 shows a year times three or four bands per show, including the headliner and opening bands.

Here’s what often happens: We’ll post a show on our Website, a big show, a brand-name artist who likely will a bunch of tickets. Sometimes within minutes, we’ll get several requests from area bands and some even farther afield asking if they can open for that band. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but here’s where the irksomeness comes in.

If we were to get as much interest from fans to see the show as quickly and as hopefully as some of these bands want to open for these shows, we’d sell out more frequently and more quickly -- and make more money to afford to develop younger and, let’s face it, less talented bands who are seeking broader exposure.

But then things get muddy. Oftentimes, a big, national, brand-name touring band will bring its own “support,” bringing along with them their own opening bands. The reasons for this are so numerous, mystical, weird and political that it may require another blog . . . or maybe not.

The bottom line thus becomes: Okay, local/regional band guys, you didn’t get the opening slot for Such-and-Such Big-Name Band, but . . .

You also didn’t come to the show.

More often than not, when I walk into a half-filled or even packed-out show in my venue, I don’t see a lot of musicians or would-be musicians. The excuses I’m given -- on the rare occasions I care to ask -- include: We had practice, man. I was gonna, but I don’t have the cash. I had to babysit my stepsister’s little half-brother because . . . We had a gig at the Barbed Wire Grille.

Okay. Sure. I get it. My writer friend’s not much of a reader, either.

And that’s the point. To bring RUSH and their prowess, passion, dedication and--let’s just say it, perfection--back to the business of art, more specifically writing: Watching Neil, Alex and Geddy perform was, for me, something like being able to sit inside Jonathan Franzen’s or Jennifer Egan’s brain and watching them work for a couple of hours.

If I could be one of Isaac Asimov’s characters from “Fantastic Voyage” (the guy who got to pluck the bacteria off Sophia Loren’s chest, for instance . . . uh, sorry), I would inject myself into their heads and see how it is, exactly, they are capable of the pyrotechnics that make them so . . . fucking good.

If I were a musician (and I can barely play the radio), I would RUSH (again, sorry) to plunk down more than the price of a book (especially one on Kindle or used or . . .) and do anything I could to see a band of such powerful mastery perform.

Which leads to the second point. As I was walking back to The Handlebar from the Bi-Lo Center arena, it occurred to me: Creativity inspires creativity. Hence this blog post: RUSH inspired me to at least SAY something -- never mind that it’s not nearly as proficient as the music that inspired it.

So today comes a story on MSNBC: The gist of the piece is that a performer/artist as brilliant as Jon Stewart makes you THINK, which, then, makes you more creative. So, while the government shreds arts funding and chops away at education, including and especially targeting arts education, we’re left with some hefty personal decisions.

Open the book and read. Get out of the garage where you practice. Witness the work of an artist who/that will make you THINK, expand your worldview, your vision, recalibrate your sense of who you are and what you have to contribute to the world, regardless of how much it costs in time or treasure.

Then, in the sweet, spare space, get into it and get good at it.