As these days of self-quarantine warp and fold my sense of time, I’ve increasingly found my mind drifting back forty years, to the last time I was floating in a similar state of semi-housebound limbo.
I’d moved to Chicago from Los Angeles with my mom and sister at the end of 1979. I had been attending my new elementary school on the city’s Near North Side for all of three weeks, when the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike. School was out — and nobody knew for how long.
Normally, I would have been rather thrilled by this turn of events. But I hadn’t been part of my 8th grade class for long enough to really make any new friends, which meant there would be no one to hang out with during my enforced hiatus from the classroom. And it was late January, which meant risking severe frostbite and windburn if I wanted to get outside and explore my new city. So I wound up spending most of the two-week strike cooped up in my bedroom, reading Shakespeare’s plays and books on ancient Greek and Roman history — the impromptu “home-schooling” curriculum my mom had set out for me — and listening to my clock radio, which provided me with a whole different kind of education.
In retrospect, early 1980 was a pretty weird time to become completely enthralled with FM rock radio. WLUP and WMET, the two stations I switched back and forth between, enthusiastically cranked out the arena rock staples of the 70s as if they’d always been important, and always would be. And why not? New albums by Led Zeppelin and the Eagles had just spent the last sixteen weeks of 1979 at the top of the Billboard Hot 200, and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” was settling for a chart-topping run that would last until spring. But “The Loop,” the savvier of the two stations, clearly sensed that times were changing — because Devo, Blondie, Gary Numan, Talking Heads, The B-52s and The Police were all starting to pop up on their station between the rafter-shaking anthems and ten-minute progressive rock workouts.
And then there was Rush, a band I’d never even heard of before I moved to Chicago, but who were in regular rotation on The Loop. With their tricky time signatures, hard-rocking riffs, lengthy instrumental jams and cerebral lyrics, they were clearly an established part of the “music to do bongs by” fraternity. But there was also something about them that seemed… different. I didn’t know at the time that lead singer and bassist Geddy Lee had been born Gary Lee Weinrib to Polish Jewish parents who’d survived imprisonment at Auschwitz, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen before settling in Toronto; all I knew was that he had this high, androgynous wail that made him sound more like an avenging banshee than a swaggering rock idol. And while Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart all possessed an impressive degree of technical proficiency on their instruments, I also thought I caught a whiff of barely-restrained rage in their playing — something I never got from prog gods like Yes or Genesis. It all added up to a definite “outsider” vibe, which, in my own state of isolation and dislocation, I found exceptionally appealing.
Rush had just released their seventh album, “Permanent Waves,” and WLUP and WMET were playing “The Spirit of Radio,” the album’s opening track, for all it was worth. It was unlike any of the older Rush songs I’d heard — the heavily flanged guitar lick that introduced it (and returned for the choruses) sounded like an alert for a breaking news bulletin, and the verses bopped along in a jubilant, almost poppy manner. “The Spirit of Radio” sounded sleek, sharp, and modern, and the song’s use of synthesizers and exotic percussion (and a brief touch of reggae towards the end) seemed to place it closer in sound and spirit to these “new wave” bands that The Loop was starting to program, even while its wah-wah freakout guitar solo and explosive, Who-like conclusion left one foot firmly planted in well-plowed 70s rock pastures. I was completely entranced by the song, and found myself making an almost involuntary lunge for the volume knob each time it came on.
It took only a few listens before I realized that the song was, in a most meta way, actually talking to me about what I was doing at that moment — listening to the radio — and rather even-handedly contrasting the magical and cosmic aspects of the experience with the calculation and sleaziness that went on behind the scenes. Bands wrote songs about radio all the time in those days, knowing full well that DJs and program directors were suckers for songs that made their own jobs seem more important. But that wasn’t exactly where “The Spirit of Radio” was coming from. “One likes to believe in the freedom of music,” sang Lee, stridently delivering Peart’s lyrics. “But glittering prizes and endless compromises/Shatter the illusion of integrity.” Hearing those words at the time, I felt like the band was tapping me on the shoulder, saying, “Hey, kid, you’re not alone in this crazy world. It’s okay to love music as much as you do… but never forget that this is a soul-crushing, creativity-sucking business, too.”
As the lengthy liner notes of the new “Permanent Waves 40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Box Set” recount, the album marked a new chapter for the band, both musically and commercially. Even if other longtime heroes of the FM dial hadn’t gotten the memo about the changes happening in the musical landscape, Rush most assuredly had; and as the 1979 glided into 1980, the three musicians were determined to enter the new decade with a more state-of-the-art sound (courtesy of Le Studio in Quebec, which would become a second home for the band), and without the baggage of concept albums and side-long suites. They were burned out on making those kinds of records, but they also knew that the “free-form” format employed by FM stations like Toronto’s CFNY, which had helped launch Rush’s career, was rapidly being replaced by more homogenous, commercially-driven programming. “The Spirit of Radio” was the band’s farewell to that golden, bell-bottomed era — and, as the fates would have it, it would become the band’s biggest hit to date. The song reached #51 on the Billboard charts, and helped propel the album all the way to #4 on the Hot 200. (“Hemispheres,” the band’s previous album, had only made it as high as #47.)
“Permanent Waves” — which also included such now-classic tracks as “Freewill,” “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Entre Nous” — put new wind in Rush’s sails, pushing them forward on an ever-evolving musical odyssey that would only officially come to an end in 2018, when Lifeson announced that the band would no longer play any more shows or record any new material. (Peart, who had been suffering from brain cancer since 2016, passed away this January at the age of 67.) The album pushed me forward as well — when the teachers’ strike finally ended after two weeks, it was one of the records I wound up discussing with my musically-minded new classmates, some of whom became friends that I’m still connected with to this day. Ironically, the same sentiments embodied by “The Spirit of Radio” actually pushed me away from the band for a while; in a belated (and “integrity”-obsessed) attempt to catch up on all the punk and new wave stuff I’d missed, I consigned Rush and the rest of their fellow FM icons to the “dinosaur” bin, at least until they (like so many other things I loved during my impressionable adolescence) all gradually started to pull me back.
In the case of Rush, it was “The Spirit of Radio” that once again ensnared me. Shortly after graduating college, I was playing an absolutely miserable gig with my band at the time; there were maybe seven people in the audience, and the sound from the PA was slapping against the room’s far wall and bouncing back at us in a way that made it almost impossible to hear ourselves. Trying to inject some levity into the proceedings, I started playing “The Spirit of Radio” on guitar (that chord progression sounded really great with a more distorted, punk-rock attack) and somehow managed to lead the band through two entire verses of the never-rehearsed song before the whole thing collapsed. Our drummer pitched a huge fit about it in the van on the way home — not because I’d made him play a Rush song, but because I’d made him do it without any rehearsal. He was such a baby about it that we fired him the next day, but I also kind of understood where he was coming from: If you’re going to play a Rush song in front of people, you should probably have all the licks and paradiddles worked out beforehand. Still, the experience inspired me to pick up a new copy of “Permanent Waves” that week; I have never been without a vinyl or digital copy since.
“The Permanent Waves 40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Box Set” actually has both — a remastered version of the album on CD and 180g vinyl, plus unreleased live recordings from Rush’s 1980 tour — as well as a folder full of fan-friendly goodies like a reprint of the 1980 tour program, replicas of the band members’ tour passes, and a notepad from Le Studio. It’s a great package to get lost in during these blurry days, and those opening notes of “The Spirit of Radio” can still send chills up my spine, and bring me back to those days when “invisible airwaves crackl[ing] with life” made uncertain times more bearable. Once again, it feels like someone’s tapping me on my shoulder — only this time, it’s my thirteen year-old self, telling me to turn it up.
Dan Epstein is The Forward’s contributing music critic.