Ted Leo’s Life With Rush: Closer to the Heart
The punk-rock lifer reps for the ultimate prog-rock band
In advance of the June 12 release of Rush’s new Clockwork Angels, punk-rock stalwart Ted Leo shares his tale of a life touched by the prog-rock cult heroes.
“Plus c’est la change, Plus c’est la meme chose”: A life with Rush in six scenes…
Scene One: Summer 1981
One year, my dad bought a van. Apocryphally, there’s a section of my family that comes from somewhere up around Machias, Maine — possibly descended from the Pirate John Kelley. If you knew the Irish side of my family, this would not shock you in the slightest. (Neither that it could be true, nor that it might be an apocryphal story they’ve woven around themselves over the centuries). Regardless, I had a great aunt from Staten Island who, in her later but still very vibrant years, went to live and work, for a while, with some old friends and relations who had eventually migrated from Way Down East to Kennebunkport, and the van was our way of getting from urban New Jersey to this sleepy (relative to its current state of post-Bush presidency tourism boom), beautiful place.
The van was maroon and silver, with four gray-and-black captain’s chairs and a gray bench in back. I was older than my siblings, and so commandeered the bench to spread out, in my tweenish need for space, with my books and my tapes and my Walkman. Very soon, that Walkman would start playing Run-DMC, the Crash Crew, Divine Sounds, etc. Then mostly the Misfits, Flipper, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, etc. But for now (and for some time before and after), I would sit there, amid the maroon and gray, and stare out at the six hours of alternating city and country, and that Walkman would play one thing and one thing only: Rush’s Moving Pictures, and specifically, “Red Barchetta.”
As we rolled through the greener parts of New England, I’d shoot out from the highway down half-hidden, mostly imagined country lanes, chased by the gleaming alloy air cars trying to enforce the Motor Laws until we got to the tumble-down motel near Goose Rocks Beach we’d always return to; and in the twilight, looking up at the big red barn by the tetherball court, knowing that the brilliant red Barchetta was once again safely hidden within, I’d keep my own company for a while, shutting out the noise of family and other tourists, and wish that I, too, had been born in a better, vanished time.
Scene Two: Spring 1984
Lucky was he who found a full refrigerator box, freshly left on the curb for pick-up! It could last for months if you really took care of it. (Kept it away from moisture, duct-taped the edges, didn’t let it drag behind you as you made your way to wherever you were going to set up that afternoon, etc.) I was lucky that May, as 14-year-old hormones were going haywire responding to 14-year-old pheromones, and needing an outlet that wasn’t somehow self-destructive. (‘Cause as Catholic school kids, self-destruction was pretty much the only option on the menu other than sports, which, one could make the case, falls under the heading of “self-destruction.”) So myself, the twins Darren and Daryl West, Billy Jones, Billy LeGates, and maybe Steven Todd or someone else were making hard use of this particular piece of cardboard. We weren’t shrinking violets — the asphalt parking lot didn’t stop failed attempts at headspins of more than 360 degrees, and bruised shoulders and hips were part of what you got for working on your windmills. (Self-destruction always finds a way in.)
But we weren’t in gangs, and we didn’t fight. We took the spirit of hip-hop and break-dancing to heart and as bad-good little Catholic boys, I think the quixotic nature of the quest to squash beef with dancing appealed to our collective martyrdom fetish. So when the hesher kids from Fairview came walking by to gawk and laugh at us, we didn’t care. We just kept dancing. Until one of them came over and kicked Billy LeGates while he crab-walked to the Rockers Revenge playing from my small and not very boom-y Sanyo boombox. This kid was exactly the wrong kind of the right kind of kid we all should’ve been friends with. His look was amazing: Four-foot-five, the perfect slightly greasy but still feathered butt-cut, denim vest with Maiden and Floyd patches on it, zits, cracking voice, big comb sticking out of the back pocket, but still ready to fight. Like, you couldn’t write this kid into a story if you wanted to because he’d be too much of a composite, too much an ideal form.
But, that said, fuck that kid for being a dick and kicking Billy LeGates, right? So we all stand up on one side of my exploded cardboard box, and his friends (who all look equally awesome, I have to say) stand around the other, and the first kid grabs my box and changes the radio from 98.7 KISS FM (RIP) to 102.7 WNEW, which was, of course, a rock station. I’m like, “Yo, gimme my box, jerk!” He naturally calls me a homophobic pejorative that was common to the area parlance at the time (no surprise there) and says he’ll give it back if I can dance to the next song that comes on.
Now, as those who have seen me sometimes too angrily rebuff requests to play “Since U Been Gone” over the last decade might be able to attest, I don’t really like being treated like a trained animal or just generally (outside of the context of job hierarchy) being asked to do things I don’t want to do. (Something I’m still working on, I admit, but at least I’m working on it, okay?) So initially, I get that “Psssss, you must be trippin, yo” look on my face, but then, the rock gods smiled on my hip-hop friends and I as that sweet, sweet descending keyboard drone and headbanging beat from Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” that I’m still surprised no one ever sampled (especially back then when it was less common to live in the isolated genre prisons that people do now) kicked in, and before the first line of the song was over, “Modern day warrior, mean mean stride / Today’s Tom Sawyer…,” I’d done some flashy handspring into your basic ground work, backspin, freeze into a bridge, flip back onto my feet, into some up-rock that probably ended with one hand on my crotch and the other pointing at the hesher’s face, as Billy LeGates grabbed the box back and we waved them on their way; my only regret being that I never got to tell them I actually liked a lot of the same music that they did.