Set the Controls for the Heart of Cygnus

I’m back from 1978. I’m sorry to report that my time travel mission was a failure. I just found Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s ‘Love Beach’ album in a milk crate at a garage sale; the prog rock trio recorded it anyway, despite my warnings. I’m sure they thought I was a raving lunatic; I should have brought a copy of the album with me to prove I wasn’t crazy. This time it will be different. On this new mission, I will be armed with definitive proof that everything I caution against will come to be true if my warnings are not heeded. I set my time machine’s controls for August 14, 1974, and aim it at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. I’ve got everything I need this time: I’m wearing bell bottom jeans, I have plenty of snacks (time travel always gives me the munchies), and a copy of Rush’s ‘Hold your Fire’ album on cassette. There’s always a tape deck close at hand back in the 70’s.

I arrive. I’m backstage at the Arena, and as I get my bearings, through an open door I see the three members of Rush doing all that stuff band members do before a really big show. They look a little nervous. I’ve chosen the time and place for our encounter carefully; an event the three of them will never forget: it’s their first show on their first American tour; opening for Uriah Heep in front of 11,000 people. It’s also their first show ever with new drummer Neil Peart. He’s only been in the band for about 2 weeks. He’s the first one to notice me as I slip into their dressing room. Smells like hashish. He looks up from the book he was reading and says “Hey, that person doesn’t have a pass.”


It’s Go time. I blurt it out as fast as I can: “Rush, I’m from the future and I came back in time to warn you about some really bad stuff that’s going to happen!” I like to get the insane-sounding stuff on the table first, so we can deal with it early and move on. Hopefully.

Peart looks confused. “The future?” He looks at his new bandmates. “Does this kind of thing happen a lot with this band?” They both shake their heads No.

Geddy Lee looks annoyed. He strides across the dressing room to confront me. “Are you stoned? Is that it? Bad acid? Maybe you’re looking for Uriah Heep’s dressing room, eh? I mean, ‘Traveller in Time’ is one of their songs, right?” He walks toward the door and waves his arm as if to signal my exit.

“Wait! Look, I don’t expect you to believe the time travel part, but I need to talk to you guys for a few minutes; it’s really important to me, and to a lot of other people back in the future. Just a few minutes, maybe listen to a few songs. That’s all I ask.” I hold out the cassette of ‘Hold Your Fire’ so they can see the name of their band on it.

Peart approaches me. He’s pre-handlebar moustache and thin as a rail. “He seems lucid. Doesn’t smell like grass. What bad stuff are you talking about?”

I swallow hard. I hold the cassette higher. “With all due respect, I mean I am HUGE fan of you guys, and I mean, you guys can obviously do what you want, but I… I…”

Peart turns and walks away. “LSD. Gotta be.”

“Your music!” It comes out too loud; I’m starving. “At first, you guys put out a bunch of totally awesome records, but then, I don’t know, you start to change your sound, and eventually you sound… pretty…crappy. Almost unlistenable. You’re still a great band, but your sound kinda… goes astray? Can I have some of these chips?”

Just then Alex Lifeson steps forward. Is that a kimono? “What year did you come from to ‘warn us’ about our ‘crappiness’?”

I’m not sure if he really wants to know or is playing along in case I’m wearing explosives or something. “2014. You guys are still together then! But this album came out in 1987.”

Peart shakes his head and laughs. “2014? Wow…we’d be in our early 60’s at that point! That’s ridiculous! Bands don’t last that long. You’re a nut. Guys, he’s nuts.”

I’m talking too loud again. “I’m serious! It does take a while, but you guys are eventually one of the biggest bands on the planet! You even make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!” This causes such an outburst of laughter that I end up laughing too. Great. Now they are absolutely certain I’m crazy.

Alex approaches me. “So let’s hear it then.” he says, as he reaches out for the tape, smiling at me. He looks over at Geddy and Neil. “Guys, we’re gonna listen to this …person’s tape, hear what he has to say, and then we’re done. Everyone okay with that?” Geddy and Neil slowly nod. I’m nodding too. It’s clear they all want to get through this encounter as painlessly as possible and they’re just humoring me, but I’m okay with that; at least they’ll hear some of the music I need to prevent.

Alex looks back at me, and reaches out for the tape. In a few seconds, we’re listening to album opener ‘Force Ten’ on a battered boombox.

“Are those drums?” asks Peart, incredulously. “It sounds like a jackhammer… Is that supposed to be me?”

“They’re samples. It’s hard to explain. You play real drums but also electronic drums at this point, with lots of triggered samples. They’re like little recordings of drums, or simulated drum sounds, and you have electronic pads that trigger those sounds.”

“Do I actually hit these things with a drumstick, or…?”


He smirks. “Well, you see, this is where your ridiculous story falls apart, my time traveling friend. If I’m going to hit something with a drum stick in order to make the sound of a drum, WHY DON’T I JUST HIT A DRUM?”

He gets it! This is encouraging. “I have no idea why! But you do!”

Frustrated, Neil Peart dismisses me with a wave of his hand. “You guys all get seduced by technology! It changes the basic sound of the band, the way you write, it’s awful!” Alex looks insulted. “I’m sorry guys, I’m just telling you how it is! …Or, will be!”

I point at Geddy. “You get all keyboard-crazy too! Synthesizers, sequencers, foot pedals… It get’s to the point where you’re playing so many instruments on stage that it looks like you’re trapped in some futuristic torture device!”

“Listen, man, you don’t know what you’re talking about! I’m a bass player!” Geddy plays some air bass for me to illustrate his point. It’s awesome. “I play the bass!”

“Not on this album”, I insist. “Well, you do, but you also play a bunch of Akai S900 samplers, two Prophet synths, a PPG 2.3, a Roland Super Jupiter and a D-550, two Yamaha KX-76 MIDI controllers, two QX-I sequencers and a DX-7, two MIDI Mappers, and a set of Korg MIDI pedals.”


Lifeson, who’s been listening to Future Rush intently, pitches in. “It’s all synthesizers, I think. It’s all fake. That does sound a little like you, Ged, but an octave lower. What is this, I mean really?”

I look directly into Alex Lifeson’s eyes. “It’s you. It’s your 12th album. Unless you count live albums, in which case it’s your 14th album overall, but I usually don’t count live albums when I—” He raises his hand to silence me; instinctively, he knows it’s time for the guitar solo. We all listen through together.

At the end of the solo, Lifeson smiles broadly and looks to the other guys. “Well that was pretty cool. Looks like I’m the only one still playing a real instrument in 1987!” Geddy throws a pack of rolling papers at the guitarist’s head.

‘Time Stand Still’ starts. They’re still listening! Peart asks Lifeson “Isn’t his five minutes up?” When the chorus hits, he wanders back over. “Those percussion sounds are a little off the wall, but …that’s actually interesting, rhythmically. Who is that?”

“It’s YOU Neil!”

“Oh, right, yes, sorry… The me from 2014.”

“1987”, says Lifeson. Peart faceplants and walks away again.

“Who’s the girl singer?” asks Geddy.

“Aimee Mann. She was in a band called ‘Til Tuesday.”

“Is she a fox?” He’s having a little fun with the mental patient. “Is she famous in 1987? Does one of us date her?” he asks, sarcastically.

“Ya, she was famous, for about fifteen minutes. Listen, I know my time is short, and there’s stuff I really have to say. You guys don’t get like this overnight. It happens gradually, like over 3 or 4 albums. But this is one of the two albums in your whole career that doesn’t go Platinum!” Peart almost sprays Evian out his nose. “You’ll be tempted by all the electronics and fancy recording techniques and all that, but… Just resist it! You 3 become the most awesome band EVER! You don’t need all that fake electronic stuff. Keep doing what you do, and—”
‘Open Secrets’ begins to play. They all listen for about half a minute. A confused Lifeson asks, “Do I play any power chords in the future? Like, any at all?” He looks worried. It’s working! “Do they not make Marshall amps in 1987?”

“Time’s up!” excaims Geddy. He pops the tape and jams it into my hand. They’re all walking me to the door. “Thanks for stopping by, um, what’s your name?”

“Bob. I’m serious, you guys. This is real.” Damn. We didn’t get to ‘Tai Shan’. Both Alex and Geddy have stated on record that it’s their least favorite Rush song… But it’s too late.

Peart looks at me like a lawyer about to deliver a piece of evidence that will hammer his case closed: “You do understand, ‘Bob’, that if we take your advice, if we do anything differently after meeting you, we may change the course of the future such so that we don’t stay together for 40 years, don’t become one of the ‘biggest bands on the planet’, don’t make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you get that, right, ‘Bob’?”

Before I can answer, the door slams behind me. I can hear them laughing through the door. Peart’s right, of course. I knew that’s how it worked going into this mission. But I had to try. It’s what I do.

My hope is that, eventually, back in the timeline I just left, somewhere between ‘Moving Pictures’ and ‘Signals’, one of the members of Rush remembers that crazy guy who somehow got into their dressing room and talked about their gradual slide into technological overload. And that someday, in the present, that handful of Rush albums polluted with headache-inducing synths and digital robot drum simulators will just blink out of existence, replaced by different versions of those same albums recorded solely with the tried and true 3-piece instrumentation (the occasional synth line or Taurus peddle would be fine) that served Rush so well throughout their first decade of existence. I’m confident that they’d still become ‘one of the biggest bands on the planet’ without all of that technology. I just hope they share that confidence when the time comes. Came. Whichever.

Hey…Wasn’t their last tour called “The Time Machine Tour”? I’ll check my copy of ‘Grace Under Pressure’ daily, fingers crossed. If they’re still sporting those ridiculous hair cuts on the back cover pic, I’ll know my trip was in vain.

Anyway, I’m off to my next mission: Austria, 20 April 1889; smother baby Hitler. But first, I’m going to stop by Sheffield, England, December 1978 and leave a copy of ‘Hysteria’ at Def Leppard’s practice space.


One thought on “Set the Controls for the Heart of Cygnus

  1. I love this. Nicely done. I actually like 80s Rush, but I totally understand the sentiment that they fell off the rails for a while there. The idea of time travel being used to avoid suckiness – fantastic.

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