Friday, July 31, 2015

A Farewell to Rush?

Tomorrow—August 1, 2015—marks the end of an era…probably. Rush, the reigning gods of progressive rock, will play the last show of their last major tour at the Forum, in Los Angeles, California. At least they are saying this is their last major tour. I, like many diehard Rush fans, are hoping they’re lying through their Canadian teeth. But, if the last 40 years of the band’s public life have proven anything, it’s that Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart are not like your typical egomaniacal, blustery, self-promotional rock stars—in other words, they’re probably telling the truth.

On July 27th, I was fortunate to see Rush for the 12th—and likely, final—time in my life. I attended the concert at US Airways Center in beautiful, sunny Phoenix, Arizona—or as Rush proclaimed our city on a giant screen before they came on stage, “Vitamin D capital of the universe.”

The band was in top form and Geddy seemed to be hitting notes I don’t think I’ve heard him hit since the late 90s. This was particularly impressive considering it was the third to final show of a 35-show tour that started back in early May. And Neil and Alex were none too shabby either. On that note, I feel compelled here to say a few words about Alex Lifeson.

Rush is one of the few major bands in which the guitarist is the least talked about member. As the band’s affable, extroverted singer and bass player, Geddy Lee is Rush’s “front man” and often the focal point of major screen and print interviews. Rolling Stone ranked him #4 on a list of their greatest bass players of all time. As the band’s intellectual, introverted lyricist and drummer, Neil Peart has developed a mythic persona among Rush’s rabid fans. Rolling Stone ranked him #3 on a list of their greatest drummers of all time. (A ranking that most Rush fans were probably mortally wounded by.)

But what of Alex Lifeson, the band’s stalwart guitarist? Ranked #98 on Rolling Stone’s list of greatest guitarists, Alex, with a sardonic wit that often leaves his bandmates paralyzed with laughter, seems to revel in his role as third fiddle. In the 2010 documentary about the band, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, there’s a great scene in which Geddy and Alex are eating in a small diner. When the waitress recognizes Geddy, she excitedly comes over and asks for his autograph. As Geddy graciously signs for the woman he points to Alex and tells her who he is. The waitress politely smiles and nods and focuses her attention back on Geddy, completely ignoring Alex, who happily continues to chomp on his sandwich undisturbed. You can see that he’s fine with being left to his food while the attention is heaped on his bandmate—in fact, he somewhat relishes it.

Yes, Alex is ignored, but oy vey, can this man play. I spent a large portion of the concert staring in amazement at the hands of this 61-year-old, heavyset man, as he completely shredded on his guitar.  The set list started with songs from their most recent album, Clockwork Angels and proceeded to go back in time, album by album (although four albums were skipped) until they ended the show with “Working Man,” from their 1974 self-titled debut album. And Alex played like a madman every step of the way. Having seen him eleven times previously, this didn’t surprise me, but I always like to be reminded of the virtuoso skills of Rush’s least heralded member.

A Rush show is more than just a concert—it is an epic theatrical experience. It not only features amazing musicianship, but also psychedelic lasers (see below), comic video interludes featuring the likes of Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Peter Dinklage, Jay Baruchel, and Eugene Levy, and lots and lots of geeky, middle-aged men head-banging in unison. Indeed the intermission of a Rush show is one of the few places on the planet where the line to the men’s room is significantly longer than the line to the women’s room.

If this past Monday’s show was, indeed, the last time I will have seen Rush live, I have to say they left me happy. They couldn’t possibly play every one of my favorite songs of theirs since that would take them the better part of seven hours, and their show was only three, but they did sneak some hidden gems into the set along with their more popular stuff. In fact, one song, “What You’re Doing” was played for the first time since 1977—nine years before my first show!

So with that, I now wish Rush a fond farewell. But Geddy, Alex, and Neil, please take note—if I ever become a billionaire, I will pay you handily to do one last show…which will last seven hours and contain a set list handpicked by me, personally. Here’s to hoping I get to show number 13.

Photos by John Jones

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Twenty Years in Arizona

Twenty years ago this month I became a resident of Arizona. I landed at a Motel 6 in Tempe, before moving into a one-bedroom, furnished apartment in Mesa, whose monthly rent was a little less than half that of the tiny studio apartment in which I had been living in Manhattan’s Upper East Side for the previous three years. I was excited to be in Arizona after a seven-week road trip that took me through 17 different states. (I realize you can get from New York to Arizona in three or four days, but I decided to take the scenic route.) And 20 years later I’m still excited to be here.

Certainly, I can write a small book about my time in Arizona, but since I don’t have an agent, publicist, or crazy, stalker fan, I’ll just focus on a few highlights of my time in Arizona so I can keep it to regular blog size. Let’s go sequentially, shall we?

The Really Early Days

After seven weeks of living on the road at campsites, youth hostels, and the back seat of my Oldsmobile Delta 88, I finally settled into my small, neat apartment overlooking a swimming pool. And after the initial excitement of getting to my destination wore off, I was bored out of my mind. After almost two months of hiking (summited Harney Peak, highest point in South Dakota), sight-seeing (went to the football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio), and partying (got drunk at the Steamboat Days festival in Burlington, Iowa) I suddenly had nothing much to do. Mostly I spent my time watching Court TV, because the O.J. Simpson trial was in full force and, well, it was better than watching daytime soaps. I also wrote a lot—freelance articles for MAD, a screenplay I never did anything with, and journal entries about…the O.J. Simpson trial.

After a few months living off my savings and an occasional MAD sale, I thought I should probably get a part-time job to have at least some sort of steady income. I drove up the block, stopped at the first “Help Wanted” sign I saw, walked in, told the boss I used to work at MAD Magazine, and was hired on the spot. I was now a short order chef at a hamburger joint called The Longbun Grill. As a vegetarian this was, admittedly, an odd career move, but I needed some cash and the place was a 90-second drive from my apartment, so it worked out well. Whenever the boss asked me if I wanted to try the burgers or the bratwurst we made, I told him I was allergic to meat. Somehow he believed me. I worked at The Longbun Grill for about five months and then my freelance income picked up enough that I was able to quit.

The Theater Days

Supporting oneself as a freelance writer may sound romantic, but it can be a lonely lifestyle. I spent the bulk of my days writing and/or staring at walls trying to come up with something to write about. I spent the bulk of my evenings watching sitcoms and/or trolling in AOL chatrooms. I didn’t have much in the way of in-person social interactions, other than the once per month I went to the office of my apartment complex to pay my rent. Yes, it was fairly pathetic.

Eventually it occurred to me that I should participate in an activity I enjoyed that afforded the opportunity to interact with other humans on an ongoing basis. I enjoyed reading, but it turns out that trying to chat someone up who’s reading in a library generally does not go over very well. I enjoyed watching movies, but it turns out that trying to chat someone up in a movie theater goes over even worse. Finally, I hit upon something—acting. I’d done it for years in school, but never in my adult life. As it turned out there was a community theater a couple of miles from my apartment and they were having auditions for a play called Night Watch. I auditioned and got cast as a New York City police lieutenant. I’m sure my accent—mild by New York standards, but thick as a calzone by Mesa, Arizona standards—is what got me the part.

Acting again, after about a seven year hiatus, was exhilarating. Even more exhilarating, however, was that I suddenly had a social life again, after about a seven month hiatus. Hanging out with my cast mates on a regular basis was a blast. We often went out as a group after rehearsals and performances and, because of the close proximity of my apartment to the theater, we had a cast party at my house on the final night of the show. (I could tell the party was a success, because when I came back from a beer run I found out the cops had been to my apartment while I was gone to tell us to turn down the music.)

Over the next four years I became ensconced in the local community theater scene. I bounced from show to show, theater to theater, playing a variety of roles both big and small. I found many a kindred spirit in the Arizona theater world and made many a lifelong friend along the way. After doing about a dozen shows I decided to try something a bit different and joined an improv group called Comedy Sportz Phoenix. I found improv even more exhilarating than traditional theater, due to the fact that it was all unscripted so the next line in the show was anybody’s guess. This was both exciting and terror-inducing, and I loved it. I found even more kindred spirits in this setting, but more importantly, it was during this timeframe that I also found the woman who would become my wife.

The Romance Days

Nicole does not perform improv (at least not on a stage in front of other people) but she sure does enjoy watching it. We met as coworkers at the University of Phoenix (I was temping there to supplement my sporadic freelance writing income) and became great friends. She soon found out that I was part of an improv comedy troupe and came out to see one of our shows. She laughed at every joke…and loudly…and contagiously, so that there were no dead spots throughout the entire show. Everybody in the troupe loved her, because she was like our own personal laugh track.

After that first show she came to another, and another, and another. Eventually I started wondering if she was coming because she liked to laugh or because she liked me. Then I realized the truth was probably somewhere in between—she was coming because she like to laugh at me! Finding a beautiful, intelligent woman who laughed at everything I said was my dream come true, and soon we started dating. Five months later we were engaged and seven months after that we were married, less than a year after we started dating. (I realized once I found somebody who laughed at my good and bad jokes equally, I had to seal the deal quickly.)

For the next six years after we got married we ate out a lot, went to lots of movies, entertained often, traveled frequently, and generally had a great time. Then we had kids.

The Family Days

Okay, okay. I know the last sentence of the previous section sounds bad. I don’t mean to say we haven’t had fun since having kids—certainly we have a ton of fun. Of course, we don’t eat out, go to the movies, entertain, or travel anywhere near as often, but we sure do play with Legos—lots and lots and lots of Legos.

And we sometimes go to the city pool. When I grew up in New York, summer break was a time to play outside with friends, but here in Chandler, Arizona, where the average temperature in July is 105-degrees, playing outside is the last thing you want to do, unless you have a pool, which we don’t. So we often go to one of the City of Chandler pools—most often one called Desert Oasis. It’s really a lovely pool—as long as you’re not grossed out by the thought of what the toddlers running rampant in the pool might be evacuating into the water.

And that, my friends, is a very, very high-level synopsis of my last 20 years in Arizona. I feel remiss having skipped stories about karaoke singing, scorpion hunting, and searching for (and finding) decent pizza, but you’ll have to wait for my book to find out about those things. But first I have to find an agent, a publicist, and a crazy, stalker fan. Oh wait, I already have one of those—and I married her! I’m one-third of the way there!