Back in 1979, I was 15 years old and had no idea who I was. Always known as the class artist, I didn't quite imagine I would some day become one or that if this were even possible. My main concern was fitting in and getting by. In my town there were several set ways and paths one could choose. These ‘cliques’ determined who one was to be, early on. There were the preppy kids, who wore Izod shirts, clean jeans with dock-sider shoes and listened to hit music. There were the metal heads, which were more likely to be burnouts, dress in concert shirts, smell of cigarettes and were not necessarily at the top of their class. There were the smart kids who wore nice clean clothes and would end up being the successful, good-looking people years later, and there were the jocks, the geeks and other smaller groups. None were a good fit for my friends and me.
That year, my brother, as he often did when I was growing up, expanded my musical horizons by playing an album he discovered. In this case it was Rush’s ‘2112’. We shared a room and our turntable had a spindle stacked with records. Mine were scratched albums, Van Halen, Queen, and Cheap Trick. Slowly over the next few weeks I began to hear just how textured and powerful this ‘2112’ album was. I picked up the liner notes and large gatefold sleeve and carefully listened to the music and lyrics, it was Rush’s magnum opus. In the title track, a 20 minute journey and tale of a young man’s discovery of a guitar and artistic expression, he picks up this instrument, tunes it, and begins to play music on it. Amazed by this beautiful, transforming art, he brings it to the elders who quickly begin to crush his spirit and denounce artistic expression in this future age. In the end music wins out and the song concludes in a blast of guitar, drums and swirling music. I had never heard progressive rock before but this was a bit more than that. The music had virtuoso playing, powerful drums and guitar and lyrics that demanded attention. This album broke me free from all the set genres I would normally be choosing from, taught me that great music can come from anywhere, and that one need not follow expected paths, but could also, without shame, be a thoughtful artist.
From the song:
(The young man):
“Listen to my music
And hear what it can do
There's something here as strong as life
I know that it will reach you.”
“Don't annoy us further
We have our work to do.
Just think about the average
What use have they for you?
Another toy will help destroy
The elder race of man
Forget about your silly whim
It doesn't fit the plan.”
I was so inspired at the time by this song that I began what would be my first oil painting. I sketched out and painted the scene where a person discovers a guitar by a brook in a cave. This is what I saw in the middle of the song in my head. It was I suddenly not copying anything, it was I who saw a picture in my head and aimed for that. It was a breakthrough for me as a young artist.
Rush is a 3-piece Canadian hard rock band that started slowly and was given an ultimatum in 1976 to write a hit song or it was over. Challenged with having to conform to what was expected, they began to craft a more challenging album that led with a 20-minute song that stiff-armed the record label’s demands. This became their breakthrough album and earned them the freedom to be able to do whatever they wanted for the rest of their career.
Rush became a favorite of my little clique in high school, we were all hockey fans, and I’m half French Canadian, so we took to wearing hockey jerseys over hooded sweatshirts. We were jocks who liked all kinds of music, we roamed the halls, we laughed, we were not ashamed to get good grades, or a good as was possible without doing homework, and we looked like a bunch of mutts.
A couple of weeks ago, Rolling Stone’s Joe Hutchinson asked if I would illustrate something on the magazine’s review of Rush’s re-issue of ‘2112’? Of course I would. The request was to pay close attention to the concert shot from the photo reference since this re-issue would include a few new live tracks. Knowing this music so well, I felt I had to do it justice and begged for a different approach, one like the painting I did back in 1979. Joe kindly deferred to my impassioned plea and I submitted and got approved this direction for the illustration. I was able to find a copy of the art I did back then, again, my first oil painting and an early hint at how much I loved backlighting.
In the years that followed, my friends and I would all find our own directions in life. I was always known as the class artist, but never thought about earning a living as an illustrator. I would choose art over hockey and boxing and would be rewarded with a most fulfilling career. I doubt I would have been as successful in life without a smart and independently minded older brother to guide me.
Neil Peart, the renowned drummer and lyricist of the band wrote some most memorable things that have stuck with me over the years.
“Art as expression,
Not as market campaigns
Will still capture our imaginations.
Given the same
State of integrity,
It will surely help us along.”
Heady stuff for a young teen to consider and even for me in 2013.
Thanks Joe for a way to take a trip down memory lane and to consider again the influences and people who put me on my path.