On Being in Several Rush/Pink Floyd Cover Bands . . .
So, yeah, I was in several Rush/Pink Floyd cover bands. More below.
As for why I decided to write on this, well, its in response to Graham Harman, who’s been talking a lot about imitation and copies and fakes over on his blog, and he mentions at one point going to see a Led Zeppelin tribute band, which then leads him to various ruminations on the concept of a tribute/cover band.
I’ve been wondering what it would feel like to put so much energy into simply mimicking someone else. Granted, I don’t know what else those guys were doing with their lives, and that may have been just their fun way of paying the bills. But if you imagine just for the sake of argument that they had made a whole career out of it… Well, there’s no shame in it (some actors have done that too), I just wonder what it would feel like.
Well, I might be able to provide some degree of an answer.
I was in a Rush cover band. Ok, make that SEVERAL Rush cover bands . . .
Up until about mid graduate school (about 25 or so), I wasn’t sure – musician, academic. I started off as a keyboardist, and that’s the only instrument I had real lessons on. At one point my younger brother decided to take up the bass, and well, with another instrument around the house (that he wasn’t really playing), I figured I’d teach myself. Soon it was an addiction, and I would play along with cassettes (yes, back in the day!) all the time, and looking for more difficult lines to teach myself. I soon graduated to the difficult stuff, THE most difficult stuff you could find if you were a rock musician and aspiring bassist, namely, Rush.
I was in a typical HS band at the time, and started switching between doing keyboards and bass parts, particularly on the difficult songs, I would do bass and lead vocals. But the others couldn’t play Rush-type stuff, and didn’t want to either, they were more into blues/classic rock, but I was always a huge fan of progressive rock – Yes, Rush, classic Genesis (my absolute favorite band, even to this day, anything from 1970-1984 is golden!), Pink Floyd, etc. In my senior year, I was like, hmm, I need some people who can play the tough stuff. So I started a Rush cover band for the local ‘battle of the bands’. It was a one-off event, but a lot of fun.
When I got to college, I knew there would be a lot more musicians, and I needed to meet new people. So I put up an ad around campus – want to start a Rush cover band? Before I knew it, I had a really great guitarist and drummer on my hands, and for the next two years, we WERE Rush, playing at various bars on campus, the student union, etc. We occasionally threw in songs by other artists, like The Police, Pink Floyd, but it was basically Rush. We did obscure stuff and popular stuff. And we did it right. I could hit all the high notes, and I had an old fashioned Moog synthesizer, and and Oberheim rack mount, controlled by a more modern keyboard, that I would use for the polyphonic synth parts. Our drummer had Neal Peart down perfect. And I had long hair at the time. We didn’t try to look or act like them, but we certainly did SOUND like them.
To answer Graham’s question, what did it feel like? Well, Rush has the odd ability to be the hardest stuff most rock players who aren’t into speed metal will play. Playing Rush is like going to the gym, working out, its fun. You go into the zone, and you see, can you pull it off this time? Will you play each note with just the right timing, will the improvised parts sound like they should? With Rush its not so much about slavish imitation, but the skill, the workmanship, the craft. Do you have the chops? Like a triathalon runner feels, I’d guess. When three people are playing intricately intertwined parts, trying to do the changes all in unison, well, its kinda got a mathematical sublime to it. Jumping between synthesizer and bass while singing on top of it, playing as fast as you can, but always tunefully and melodically? Well, it felt like going to the gym, but a lot more creative.
That band finally broke apart midway through college. But after that, I found a pair of brothers who also loved Rush, this time not at my school, but near my home where I grew up. So for several summers in a row, we put together a Rush cover band that played out at backyard parties and at my annual kegfest in my parent’s backyard. By this point I had the Rush thing down, it was basically, add guitarist and drummer, and instant band. The first year, we mixed Rush with grunge, doing a lot of Stone Temple Pilots, but also some Pink Floyd, Police, and stuff like that thrown in.
But the next summer I had a grand idea: could we pull off the whole ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ album at my parent’s kegfest that summer? And we did. The drummer in that band also played sax, so for the second half of the album where we needed sax, we brought in a second drummer. And while I did lead vocals on all but one song, the drummer and guitarist (the two brothers) also sang, and so we did layered three-part harmonies for much of the show. I used a sampling keyboard to capture the intro sounds, the clocks from ‘Time’ and the change sounds from ‘Money’, had a Fender Rhodes electric piano and a less than fully successfull Hammond Organ with Leslie speaker, and of course, the Moog synthesizer. And yeah, I did all the vocals for ‘Great Gig in the Sky’, cause, well, if you can sing Rush, you can hit the notes! That year we did a full set of Rush, and then the whole Pink Floyd album. We played on my younger brother’s double-half pipe, a skateboard ramp that my dad (an engineer) built for him. We also had a crazy homemade lighting system with multiple colored floods, a strobe, and it was pretty damn cool.
A lot of it wasn’t that we wanted to sound exactly like them, but rather, that we could. How cool we could make the show be. For example, when we did ‘Have a Cigar’, it would always be a mix of the Pink Floyd and the Primus cover, much harder than the original, with big grunge influence, and with a long, extended jam session in the middle that Pink Floyd would never have done, along with a long extended Moog solo much faster than their keyboardist would ever do. Why? The sheer fun of it, I guess!
I often wish I had a recording of that Pink Floyd show we did, we were going to videotape it, but at the last minute the tape thing didn’t work. Though we didn’t know it at that time, that Pink Floyd show would be our last as a band, which I guess its nice if you go out at the top of your game. We sounded good, damn good. But grad school of various sorts got us the summer after.
During this whole time, I was also recording my own progressive/alternative/industrial rock music, hoping for a record deal. I was increasingly playing all the instruments on this recordings, having taught myself how to play guitars and drums in the interim, and recording it all in layers in my little home studio. All my summer job money went to buying equipment. Tons, and tons of fun.
What happened? Well, I kept doing this, hoping to have just the right product to send out. Grad school came along, and I kept recording, but the intervals to really do recording kept getting smaller. I had 1-2 recordings that I felt were perfect to send to record companies, but I wanted 1-2 more. I would occasionally perform modified versions of these on acoustic guitar at open mic type things, but I focused more on recording. Then my comprehensive exams came along. I put it on hold, and it was 2 years till I finally had free time again. When I went back to it, the strangest things happened. My heart wasn’t in it. I’d lost interest. In the meantime, my research had stopped seeming like a burden, like my ‘backup’ career if music didn’t work out. Rather, the idea of writing and researching and teaching theory had gone from seeming like a cop out to being what I really wanted to do. Instead of ‘selling out’, finishing the phd and writing and teaching started to seem like the much more important path.
My creative energies had changed, they had moved. Now when I go back and play my instruments, I feel like a large part of me still inhabits them, but its dormant. My fingers still do the right things, but my creative energy is elsewhere. Its feels uncanny, because the intstruments FEEL uncanny in my fingers. They are there, but the life has moved to my work with theory. I’m still surprised by this fact. But because I still have creative passion and projects that excite me like the music used to, I don’t feel bad. I feel like the creativity mutated, rather than went away. Its the same passion, I think, just different.
Now when I think sometimes about going back, doing music again, I often ask myself, ‘to what end’? My original purpose in all my recording projects was to create art, and while very few have heard that art, I did, and much of it is still archived somewhere in my parent’s basement, for nostalgia later. I realize now that I have nothing to say musically anymore, particularly because all that I was trying to do musically was in relation to a music scene that has now radically changed. I’d be a relic of some sort. But also, I no longer have something urgent to say with my music. My creativity, my desire to SAY something, has moved to writing and teaching. But I’m really glad I went through the process of creating all that music. It really taught me how to create a long-form, extended creative work. But it also was just a wonderful, vibrant process of creation, self-creation, and discovery. Would I love it if someday someone else enjoyed that music? Sure. But its not really necessary either. I had a great time making it, and in the process, that making also partially made me.
Sometimes I think it would be cool to start a cover band again with a few friends, play for my students on campus, that sort of thing, though we don’t really have a rehearsal space on campus that would make this easy (but I’m working on setting one up, both for the students, but also some for myself!). And who knows, it could happen at some point . . .
(and yeah, I know I tend to have looooong blog posts, but I type really fast! These posts just fall out kinda quickly. Hope they’re fun to read, then again, who knows if anyone reads them!)