I Don’t Think Steve Earle and Rush Have the Same Audience
Recently, I bought my first ever ticket to a Rush concert. I saw the ad in the paper, screeched about it for a minute, bought a ticket online. Then I jumped around the house. A lot. My parents were around at the time and in the excitement, my dad mentioned that my uncle was a fan of Steve Earle, who we had also just discovered was playing in town soon.
When I calmed down a bit, I remembered my dad’s comment. “So, Uncle Ted is a Rush fan?” I asked. Obviously, I was faking a calm demeanour but still thinking about seeing Geddy Lee in person. “No,” he said, exasperated. “He likes Steve Earle. I don’t think Steve Earle and Rush have the same audience.” “Oh, sure, of course,” I answered.
But they do in me. Am I the only one? Are they really that far apart? I admit that the reasons I like the two artists are different: Rush has Geddy, who I have a hopeless crush on (he’s only 25 years older than me…), mainly because of his voice, but also because of the way he presents himself (I’ll get into this more in a minute). That aside, what the three guys manage to create in terms of power, virtuosity, variety, excitement never fails to get me worked up. In probably the worst bullshit move of my life, I put on “Working Man” as I make my way off the subway and down the street to work. The final chorus is just getting going as I open the door to my building and go up the elevator to my office, where I start work….as an instructor at a university. Yeah, I know that song wasn’t written for my type, but it is like the most satisfying thing when I’m wearing heels and don’t want to be.
I don’t have quite the same crush on Steve Earle, but I have a similar fascination with his voice. I’ve spent a lot of time listening closely to his singing and the way he changes his timbre to serve the emotional tenor of the song. I also appreciate genre diversity in an artist that doesn’t seem false or forced, and Earle’s got that. He goes between blues, bluegrass, country, and rock with apparent ease and he knows how to write songs that suit each style. What I’m saying is, it’s hard to get bored listening to him.
But where most people might initially see the Rush of long capes and tales of intergalactic travel or fantasy worlds, or conversely see Earle as an outspoken activist with too much of a beef with the world for someone in possession of a chequered past, I would argue that the similarities between the two are greater than the differences.
For instance: holy fucking prolific. Both artists keep producing material well into their 50s, and unlike other artists of the same age (I keep getting warnings about my upcoming Springsteen concert), their new songs push past their previous limits, engage new listeners, and don’t rely on what worked before. Not everyone likes this material, and both artists have had slumps where their biggest fans got disappointed, but often this is the material that draws in new fans and introduces them to the older recordings. A good example: “Closer to the Heart”, arguably Rush’s biggest mainstream hit. I heard this in my friend’s Canadian music class when I was 20, and that did it for me. I still like the song, but it was the most obvious way in to Rush for a girl who was completely infatuated with folk music at the time.
Another reason: they are super cool. Okay, that’s a stupid way to put it – what I really mean is that they both seem down-to-earth and connected to normal people, again, when other artists don’t. (Though I will admit that Mick Jagger’s recent appearance on SNL kind of helped him in that area.) Geddy Lee is laidback and matter-of-fact in every interview you see. Look at Metal Evolution, or A Headbanger’s Journey, (I like everything Sam Dunn does too) – Geddy seems like the most normal guy ever. I mean, watch the opening of Beyond the Lighted Stage, where Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson are giggling about switching tests their high school years. They’re totally like me and my best friend, and we haven’t sold millions of records (unless there’s something you’re not telling me, Deb?).
You don’t expect a guy like that to then turn around and do this at 0:22:
If you don’t feel like you could just hang out with Steve Earle and talk about, well, anything, over a cup of coffee, consider his book of short stories. I’m re-reading it right now, and I rarely read books twice. If he hasn’t gone through everything he talks about in the book, then he has sat with some people, both normal and totally fascinating, and really listened to what they had to say. That narrative gift found in the stories originated in songs like “Billy and Bonnie”.
Both Rush and Earle are sophisticated storytellers, who draw on unexpected sources for inspiration. Again, I refer to Lighted Stage, where Sebastian Bach hilariously describes his 12-year-old entry into literature via Rush. Earle moves from Vietnam War vets to heroin addicts to capital punishment and racism, and that’s just in his book. Maybe you’re put off by the esoteric nature of Rush’s lyrics if you’re not a fan, or you don’t like the brutal honesty with which Earle approaches his characters. But both acts have not only defied label expectations for commercial success by forging their own artistic paths, they stand by ideals of artistic freedom and tell stories of individuals who are lost in political rhetoric or the commercial masses (think “Suburbs”, “Spirit of Radio”, or “Johnny Come Lately”)…if you didn’t think they were relevant in the 80s, how about now?
They bridge generations. Not in the way you might think. My parents went to a Steve Earle concert with me. My brothers, one a guitarist, one a drummer, were sitting on the beach with me during our vacation last week. They begged me to recount the time I broke my wrist by tripping on the sidewalk while jogging. I sheepishly admitted that I was probably caught up in the music. I was listening to “Spirit of Radio” at the time. “Wait, wait,” said one of my brothers, pulling the song up on his phone to play it as the story’s soundtrack. “So it’s playing, and you’re running, feeling great, right, like this is the best song in the world…” he says, while my other brother air-drums with Neil Peart, “and then you just SMASH down on the sidewalk.” By this point, they’re both laughing, but not as hard as when I get to the part where people pass by me, laying face down, gasping for breath and starting to cry about how much my arm hurts. Meanwhile, Rush are gettin’ all irregular meter and reggae in the background.
Anyway. Are they really all that different? If you can appreciate all of these similarities, maybe the fact that they are of different musical styles or geographical regions or pop culture affiliations doesn’t really matter. Or maybe that still matters more than anything else.