About three years ago there were reports that Rush, the Canadian power rock trio, was on the rocks. In an interview back then with drummer Neil Peart, who writes the band's extremely literate lyrics, he seemed dissatisfied and ready to bail out of Rush.
Of course, the band, which is performing Wednesday and Thursday at the Forum, is still around. There was no split. But because Peart, lead singer/bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson are so guarded about their private lives, we don't even know how close they came to a breakup.
Lee claimed there never was any danger of a split but didn't deny that there was a problem.
"Neil wasn't too happy then, but neither was the rest of us," Lee said. "We were burned out on tour and not playing too well and not caring about it--that's the worst. You just go on stage and do another show, but you're not all there. It's too much on automatic pilot."
All this happened after the 1982 album, "Signals, " which one critic snidely labelled "a complete mess." The songs seemed meandering, incomplete and often chaotic. Peart's lyrics, which frequently hammer out an Ayn Rand-like passion for the rights of the individual, were mired in pretentions. Rush's music is a strange blend. It takes Yes-Genesis grandeur and the pomposity of progressive rock and forces it into a hard-rock structure. Peart's lyrics contribute an intellectual quality that makes it all seem meaningful.
Though "Signals" was less than first-rate Rush, fans still bought 1.4 million copies. But they probably weren't going to tolerate another album like "Signals." Something had to change.
"Signals" did reflect burnout and disinterest. Apparently Lee, 32, Lifeson, 32, and Peart, 33, were in a rut. It was the band's 10th album since it began recording in 1974. All had been produced by Terry Brown. Firing him was the first step out of that rut.
"By then we knew every move Terry was going to make before he made it," Lee recalled. "We needed someone with a fresh approach to our music. We wanted to change our music but we weren't sure about the direction. We were just bored with our sound."
For the next album, "Grace Under Pressure"-- released in 1984--the band hired producer Peter Henderson. The way they initially praised the album you figured he'd be with them for years. But hindsight dimmed some of the album's luster. It sold over a million but didn't stay in the Top 10 very long. By Rush standards it was something of a failure.
"We thought we had good songs but we didn't have enough," Lee said. "We didn't achieve what we started out to. What happened is that we got so caught up in making it weren't looking at it objectively enough. A few songs could have been taken farther. The whole thing was convoluted and confused. It could have been done a whole lot better. We thought we had solved the problem but we hadn't."
Exit producer Henderson.
Rush has other problems. One is its image. Lee, Peart and Lifeson do interviews but not very often and certainly not frequently enough to create a well-defined public image. They don't even like to sit for publicity photos. It's one of the few faceless arena-rock bands. Even Rush fans don't know too much about their heroes. Pop music fans who are familiar with Rush probably couldn't identify Lee or Lifeson or Peart.
"We haven't really tried to build any kind of image," Lee said. "We're not these wild, exciting people anyway. We don't do the kinds of things people want to read about. We're not going to generate great gossip. We're more concerned about invasions of our privacy. Privacy is too valuable for us to sacrifice it to build a public image."
But, Lee noted smugly, how necessary is a highly visible public image?:
"We've done well without one. People come to see our shows. They buy our records. I'm glad we don't have to count on a gaudy public image. We'd be in bad shape."
The other problem is Lee's singing. Critics are still complaining about his shrill vocals. However, they do acknowledge he has toned down his style somewhat, forsaking some of that blood-curdling shrieking.
Explaining why he started out as a shrieker, Lee said: "In the early days I had a hyper style because the music was hyper. My style just reflected the music."
But now Lee doesn't scream much any more. "It was time for me to try something different," he explained. "I couldn't go on doing the same thing."
But that didn't quiet the critics. Most of them don't like his softened vocals either.
The latest Rush album, "Power Windows," is, as usual, a hit, recently crossing the million-unit mark in sales. However, it really is superior to any the band has recorded since "Permanent Waves" in 1980. New producer Peter Collins spruced it up in spots with strings and a choir. The songs are melodic and tautly arranged. Peart's lyrics have much less of a pseudo-intellectual tone. "Power Windows" is a genuine triumph.
So Rush is over the hump. Happy with the new producer and reveling in another platinum album.
Lee hinted that burnout is creeping up on him. "It wasn't a problem on the tours with 'Signals' or "Grace Under Pressure,' but I find it's bothering me now. I'll get over it. I don't want to rock the boat. This will pass. It has to. We can't afford any more problems."