Sunday morning, 72°F and sunny
Listening to The Allman Brothers, Jessica
I take my writing inspiration from a lot of different places, but mainly from music and musicians. While I’ve talked about Pearl Jam quite a bit because my first published novel was inspired by their music, I think it’s time I mention Rush and 2112.
It’s a story any Rush fan knows, so here’s the short version. Rush’s first, self-titled album was a brilliant work of accessible hard rock that went gold. Their second album, the more progressive Fly By Night, went platinum. Caress of Steel, their third album effort, contained a 12-minute progressive piece, The Necromancer, on side A and the entire B-side was a conceptual suite called Fountain of Lamneth. That album “only” went gold, disappointing Rush’s label.
Rush was instructed to head back to the studio and produce a rock album more like their first. But Rush believed in their progressive direction and hit back hard with 2112, a concept album that begins with a 20-minute, 7-song suite based on an Ayn Rand novella. (Oh look, novelists inspiring musicians. I love it!)
“‘What are we going to do next?'” Lifeson remembers thinking. “‘Are we going to do what they want us to do, which is basically the first album again? Or are we just going to say, ‘Screw you, we’re going to do what we want to do?’ This was us giving them the finger. That’s the way we looked at it right from the beginning. And then of course it turned into something else, something grander. We just wanted to let them know that they couldn’t push us around.”—Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, interview with Andrea Bergrand, NPR, April 2016.
Initially, Rush’s label was not amused.
In short, 2112’s angsty teen protagonist lives in a rigid society devoid of music. He discovers a guitar and longs to share the magic. He is scorned for this. The ruling priests screeching “Forget about your silly whim/it doesn’t fit the plan” could be every parent yelling turn that garbage down. It ends tragically when the boy decides he can’t live without music and takes his own life just as The Solar Federation arrives to liberate the planet. To give you an idea of how deeply this simple story affected me as a teenager hearing it for the first time, I got chills typing that last part.
I was far from the only kid who related deeply to this earnest work of progressive genius. 2112 went triple platinum. Rush quickly followed it with the live album All The World’s A Stage which also contained the suite (minus the fragile acoustic wonder, Discovery). That album went platinum as well.
2112 is a story that still resonates with kids today. I introduced my son, born in 2001, to it when he was 13 and he immediately fell in love. We embarked on a joint project of learning the suite on guitar, which we both play.
Here’s why 2112 inspires me as a writer: If Rush had followed their label’s mandate to produce an album more like their first, 2112 wouldn’t have seen the light of day. The fact that 2112 vindicated itself by going triple platinum in the USA is almost beside the point. It’s a great work regardless of its chart-topping validation. Rush stood behind 2112 despite their label’s misgivings and performed it live many times as they do in the video below.
What’s striking to me about that video is what a great time they’re having. They know 2112 is a monster jam and a great story, even though it was unprecedented at the time. They don’t care that they broke every rule by opening a rock album with a 20-minute suite in 1976. They’re damned proud of it, and they should be.
If we, as writers, look only at “what makes a hit” and try to write stories that fit “what’s selling” we, and our readers, miss out. I believe our best stories come from somewhere deep in our psyches. We can (and should) deconstruct what makes a story work, and use that knowledge to write new stories that also work. But we should never turn our backs on the weird, the as-yet-unproven, or that thing we’re passionate about in an attempt to pander to the masses. Like Rush did with 2112, we should go with what strikes a resonate chord deep inside of us.
Cover photo: author’s screenshot from Rush, Live at the Capitol Theatre 1976.