Tend Your Garden: Three Views of Rush’s “Clockwork Angels”

“Hey Dad, play that ‘We Are Young’ song again” asked my then-four year old son. Referencing by chorus rather than title, I knew he meant Rush’s “Dreamline” and the request was another case of life imitating art reflecting life again. He’d heard it as the opening song for the Rush show at the PNC Bank Arts Center earlier that summer. I remember him standing on his seat so he could see, rocking out the whole time, and at one point falling down between the seat and the chair back when the seat tipped backwards on him, but not missing a beat. I consider that night one of my best “parenting of a post-toddler” moments, sharing the joy of live music with my own kids — something my father shared with me, and I hope my kids share with my grandchildren.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

[Spoiler alert: Going to reveal the ending of the book and some setlist information.]

I’ve been a Rush fan since the late 1970s. “Permanent Waves” set the hook with and then “Moving Pictures” reeled me in. At the time my musical diet consisted of Yes, Genesis, Renaissance, and power rock combinations, and Rush just slipped right in an enriched them all. The first Rush concert I attended was in Worcester, Massachusetts during the “Hold Your Fire” tour. I’ve now seen Rush live more than any other band, and all but two of them have been with my son. As he has grown as a guitar player and music fan, he’s discovered more texture and depth in Rush’s catalog, and explored Lifeson’s styles as evidenced by bits of “Villa Strangiato” or “Hope” echoing down our short basement hallway from his practice sessions.

We have both been anticipating the release of “Clockwork Angels” and the CD doesn’t disappoint one bit. The songs are inter-related and tell a story but stand on their own as well. The playing is crisp and well articulated; the long tom-tom drum fills that demarcate phrases in “2112” are replaced with precise drumming that moves each song along. Lifeson’s solos run the gamut from jazzy (title track) to jolting to incredibly rich and layered (“The Garden”). As an album it holds together remarkably well, as much as “Moving Pictures” did thirty years (!!) earlier. If “Moving Pictures” conveyed themes of frustration with mainstream media and governance, then those ideas have blossomed larger and more fully in “Clockwork Angels.” I detect bits of Peart’s continued railing against religion (“Free Will” has spawned “BU2B”), but also the notion that long-term governance and forced stability is a kind of imposed religion as well. From the clockwork and steampunk themes to the on-going dischord between belief and science, I was reminded of a conversation I had twenty years ago with Danny Hillis about the clock of the Long Now, a 10,000 year project to build a mechanical clock — and Danny’s concern that at some point the project and its support might turn into a religion of sorts.

The CD got me thinking, but in a melancholy and maudlin way. I loved “The Garden” but it felt, coming on the heels of “Wish Them Well” as gentle acceptance and wistful thinking of what might have been. Great music, but more on the side of Springsteen’s “Darkness On The Edge of Town” (which remains one album I’d take with me to a deserted island).

Fast forward a few months – Bubba and I have listened to the CD any number of times, have our favorite songs playing on mental shuffle, and Kevin J Anderson’s novelization of “Clockwork Angels” appears in my mailbox. I like Anderson’s writing – I thought that he did wonders with Frank Herbert’s “Dune” prequels in adding color and motivation to the backstory. He doesn’t disappoint in turning “Clockwork Angels” into prose.

Usually I find myself going along with popular sentiments about adaptations, where the book is better than the movie. In this case, the book makes the CD better, and not in a SparkNotes or study guide way. First of all, Anderson’s book is full of Easter eggs from song titles and other band references (the capital city is powered by “cold fire” and in a description of the traveling circus, the narrator refers to “a prize every time” – subtitle of one of Peart’s books).

At the conclusion of the book, though, our hero has gotten the girl, settled down, looks back on his dueling foes of Anarchist and Watchmaker with mild amusement (“Wish Them Well” re-interpreted) and generally enjoys his family. My first reaction was that it was a ghost-written Peart biography, and perhaps his secret is revealed – he’s actually pretty happy with his station in life now. But more than that, the chorus from “Headlong Flight” about wishing to do all of those things of youth again is not about doing them differently, it’s about the joy of living them again with the richness of maturity and experience to help get around the difficult bends in the road. The placid but maudlin ending I heard on the CD was just what I layered on the music; Anderson’s book gives us a joyous celebration of life. It’s “Rent” with a happy ending, where generations live happily ever after, brought up to believe and free will sitting off to the side while your gentle narrator enjoys a glass of the Macallan.

Back up a few months: Bubba turned the falling-through-the-seat anecdote into a college application essay and his multi-track studio recording skills into a supplemental question submission, and he’s off to college in Boston. Fast forward to mid-October: We’re going to see Rush at the TD Garden together. We both had some trepidation about the “Rush with strings” orchestration of the “Clockwork Angels” section, but were more eager to bask in three hours of music.

This was a show for the ages. From the tribulations of conformity in “Subdivisions” to abrading the glimmer rubbed on teen suicide in “The Pass,” it was a great show to see with a teenaged (for a bit longer) son in tow. The first set was a tour-de-synth of Rush in the 80s, the period between “Moving Pictures” and “Hold Your Fire,” and then the second set strolled through “Clockwork Angels” and “the hits section”. Re-listening to the CD after the show, I can hear the string accents and they work; I wouldn’t have thought to listen for that phrasing until I’d seen it live. The band had an amazing energy, the show was tight and well produced, and it was a great night out with my son, one of his friends, and our mutual artist friend Seamus Burke. Seamus gets props for his review and pictures.

If you look at the far left side of this photo, where the dasherboards meet the floor, following the line of Geddy’s bass neck, you’ll see a guy in a blue shirt with right arm raised (the Bubba), a guy in a black t-shirt with glasses and a silver robot on the front (me, sporting R. Stevens wear). It’s from the “2112” encore, but the whole night was like this.

As the strings bowed their way into the opening of “The Garden” (at the Garden, how meta), I found myself in a difficult position, surrounded by 14,000 or so of my closest musical friends. I was thinking of Lifeson’s interview where he mentioned tearing up during “The Garden” without it devolving into schmaltz; I reflected on Anderson’s parting (and opening, if you read carefully) shot in the novel about a man surrounded by family, thought about my first Rush show 25 years earlier (exactly half my life ago) in Worcester, and how lucky I was to be able to, well, do it all again with my own son and friends.

I lost it right there in the Garden. If Ben or Alex or Seamus noticed they were too polite to mention it, or else they just rocked on through my sniffling. A win either way, and a prize every time, as Rush powered through “The Garden” and right into “Dreamline” – a great song to reflect “Clockwork Angels,” the wandering path that brought the four of us to that particular Garden, and one in which we all sang “we are young” with just the right amount of vigor and volume.

We are young
wandering the face of the earth
wondering what our dreams might be worth
knowing that we’re only immortal for a limited time.

One thought on “Tend Your Garden: Three Views of Rush’s “Clockwork Angels”

  1. Kristin Lamendola

    Music, like sports, can connect generations including times when nothing else can. On that note, I’m taking my newly-minted 12-year-old son to see Springsteen tonight at Denver’s Pepsi Center.


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