The Spirit of Radio

In early January, Rush drummer Neil Peart died of brain cancer at the age of 67. It is literally not possible for me to imagine what he’d been going through since his diagnosis less than four years ago. He was a remarkable person in so many different ways, not the least of which was being Rush’s drummer for more than 40 years.

I’ll direct you to Rolling Stone‘s beautiful version of an obituary, but I want to tell you my Rush story.

The first rock show I ever went to was Chicago, at the Hersheypark Arena, in (probably) 1976. I would have been ten or eleven years old, so my dad took me, as I was incapable of driving myself at the time. Little-known fact (unless you, like me, are from south-central Pennsylvania): Hersheypark Arena opened in 1936 as Hershey Sports Arena and served as the home of the Hershey Bears American Hockey League team from 1938-2002. (It also served as an evacuation shelter in 1979 during the Three Mile Island nuclear emergency.) If you want to know more about the fascinating history of this stadium where in 1962 Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points, setting an unbroken NBA record, read this article.

According to Wikipedia, when it was built in 1936, “as the Hershey Sports Arena, the building was the largest monolithic structure in the United States in which not a single seat suffered from an obstructed view.” Who knew?

Also, I just read on the Hershey Entertainment website that Chicago played at the Hershey Theater in April 2019, and that this was Chicago’s “50th consecutive year of touring, without missing a single concert date!” That is impressive.

Back to my first show:  that’s pretty much it.  I don’t actually remember anything at all about Chicago or the venue itself, just that my dad took me. He probably doesn’t realize this, but my dad is one of the main reasons music is such an important part of my life. When I was a kid, I was always amazed at his ability to name the artist after only a few seconds of a song playing on the radio. I wanted so badly to be able to do this, and it cracks me up to remember my approach:  I would just memorize which songs went with which bands. It had nothing to do with the singer’s voice or the sound of the music itself, and everything to do with learning by rote. Eventually, of course, I realized that bands and vocalists have very distinctive sounds. But I didn’t know how my pop knew, so it was completely magical to me.

Dad took me to several shows when I was in high school, the most memorable–for a variety of reasons–being Rush, the year I was a sophomore at Herndon High School.

The way I remember it, my homettes and I were making plans to go–which in our case included two dads as chaperones–when someone’s parent won skybox tickets off the radio (or were given to them?). Naturally we didn’t want to be seen with said chaperones, so we gave them the skybox tickets, and the girls and I purchased regular seats.

I feel like it’s imperative that I mention that in 1981, these two Old Guys who agreed to take us–one of whom was my dad, the other the afore-blogged-about doctor of cow farts–were barely forty. That’s young, as far as I’m concerned–especially since I’m now 54–but for some unfathomable reason, they both felt compelled to wear what equated to polyester leisure suits, shunning ties for a more casual look with dress shirts unbuttoned. I’m pretty sure I remember one of them, at least, wearing plaid pants. They looked exactly how narcs were portrayed in 1970s TV dramas. My girlfriends and I were beyond mortified and made them walk at least ten feet away from us.

The concert, as I remember it, was not only stupefyingly wondrous, but to this day the loudest show I believe I have ever seen. I was both deaf and hoarse for most of the next day. Though Geddy, Alex and Neil were touring their 1981 release Moving Pictures, my favorite Rush song was–and still remains–The Spirit of Radio.

(I love this particular video because 1) at the beginning, it shows the year the song was recorded, 2) it’s clear that much of the audience is my age, 3) the little kiddos with ear protection–something I wish I would’ve known about a little earlier in my life, and 4) Neil Peart’s drum kit is over the top.)

After the show, the dads had delightful stories of their own to share. Unbeknownst to any of us, skyboxes are not private spaces: they can be shared by a number of people who don’t necessarily all know each other. Upon arriving in the skybox, the dads noticed a mini-fridge which happened to be stocked with beer they assumed was complimentary. They decided this was very nice indeed, and were enjoying a couple cold ones when the other skybox occupants returned. Oopsie.

If I remember correctly, I’m pretty sure my dad said their skybox neighbors who so graciously didn’t beat the shit out of them for taking two of their beers “smelled like camels.” I’m not sure on what occasion my dad would’ve noted what a camel smells like, nor why he chose this particular animal, but apparently their new acquaintances were more fragrant than what these two sportcoat-sportin’ narcs were used to. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall.

To cap off the experience, some guys brought their girlfriends into the men’s room while dad was using the urinal. Good times.

Rush was one of my favorite bands at a very impressionable time in my life, and The Spirit of Radio encapsulates–as does Queen’s Radio Ga Ga–my feelings not only about music, but the role FM radio played in the formation of those feelings. It’s very difficult to overstate how important it was at the time.

So thank you, Neil Peart, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, for being there for me during those traumatic formative years when I wasn’t sure I’d make out the other side. Your music and your legacy will last forever.

Neil Peart photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Hersheypark arena photo courtesy Wikipedia

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