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Snapsongs: “La Villa Strangiato” by Rush

Sunday 11 May 2014 - Filed under Snapsongs

Ahhh, Rush. Amongst a certain demographic, the ne plus ultra of rock groups. It took me a while, but I finally got there. They’d been active pretty much all of my musically conscious life, but none of the parental generation in my family was into them, and I never listened to the radio stations that would play them. Except for a complete fluke — one singular moment in 1983 when an afternoon DJ at my favorite Austin pop station played “New World Man” in a momentary lapse of playlist oversight — I’d never really heard their music. I vaguely knew of their existence, and I thought “New World Man” was very cool, but that was about it.

It wasn’t until I really began exploring the concept of album-oriented rock in my sophomore year of high school that this whole musical catalog opened up for me. I was formally introduced to Rush on a field trip with the German Club to New Braunfels. We were shepherded onto a charter bus by my German teacher,  we ate funnel cakes, wurst, and pretzels, and had a water war on paddleboats in the Comal River, all in honor of the remnants of German culture that remained in central Texas. One of my fellow travelers brought along a jambox for the bus ride. Many albums were played, including Led Zeppelin II, Back in Black and Pyromania, but the cut that caught my ear was “Red Barchetta” off of Moving Pictures. I remember thinking, “Ohhh, so this is Rush.” It sounded awesome. I immediately took action.

A friend of mine from junior high had accompanied me to high school, and I knew he was into Rush. He was also, incidentally, into Ayn Rand and Objectivism, which sometimes accompanies a preference for Rush, but I never succumbed. Philosophy wasn’t really my cup of tea, and I was more interested in the music, anyway. (Later, when I finally perused Ayn Rand out of curiosity, I was amused to find I’d neatly dodged a bullet.) So I went to him the next day and requested entry into the hallowed halls. He immediately lent me his Rush collection: a nice selection of five cassettes that fit neatly into a padded silver TDK tape case. From Permanent Waves to Power Windows, it was a slice of middle Rush that showed them at a perfect nexus of popularity and precision. Later albums would be more accomplished and evolved, and earlier albums were more popular amongst the contemporary fandom, but these were an excellent sampling. Indeed, Grace Under Pressure remains one of my favorite all-around Rush albums.

I didn’t actually hear “La Villa Strangiato” until quite a bit later. The studio version of the song was not on this introductory set: it was on Hemispheres, an album from a more bombastic time. It helps to understand that “La Villa Strangiato” is an eleven-minute instrumental, with several parts that one could call “movements” and assign them goofy titles, if one was in a progressive power trio in the late 70s. Sure, it’s a bit overblown, as a lot of progressive was, but it isn’t anywhere near the lofty heights of self-importance attained by such acts as Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Pink Floyd. Indeed, it contains several quotes from “Merrie Melodie” cartoon scores, and the boys subtitled it “an exercise in self-indulgence” to make it completely obvious exactly what was going on. Such things are perfectly acceptable if they don’t get too out of hand. At any rate, I had to wait for my friend to lend me his copy of the live album Exit… Stage Left before I heard it. I was deeply impressed. The live version is much harder than the studio version, and basically serves as an organized excuse for all three musicians to just let things go crazy while on stage. As the album closer, it was a perfect setup for a fist-pumping, air-guitaring jamfest. Later on, I was able to capture a copy of the studio version when a local radio station played the entire record as part of its Sunday night full-album show. Both versions became staples in my Walkman while I wandered the neighborhood with the family dog. Both versions became major exhibits in my understanding that I was singing along with the bassline, not the melody, in the songs I liked. As such, the song became a major factor in my later decision to purchase and learn to play a bass guitar.

And, as luck would have it, the song became a major factor in my dedication and final mastery of the bass guitar. As with another snapsong, this was helped along by Bass Player magazine publishing the sheet music for the bass line in the center pages of that illustrious periodical. It was early enough in my apprenticeship that I was even more hopelessly lost by actual music notation than I usually am, but Bass Player helped me out: they included the tab notation.

Tabulature notation is a simplified way of representing what one should play by referencing the specific instrument one is playing and not the general universe of musical notes. Instead of a staff of five lines that represents an abstracted pitch space, tab uses a staff of however many strings is involved in the instrument played: in the case of bass guitar, the four strings tuned E-A-D-G. Instead of circles and dots representing pitches and timings, tab uses a numerical code on the requisite string to instruct the player which fret to play. Timing is indicated by spacing in the measure. For example: to play the upper bass clef note “E”, the tab could either indicate “12” on the lowest line, “7” on the next higher line, or “2” on the third line. Depressing each specified fret on the specified string would result in that particular note being played. The fourth line would not encode that note, because that note cannot be played on the bass guitar’s G string.

With tabulature one sacrifices theory for practice. Tab is not transposable between instruments, but with the tab in front of me I could figure out what to play and reference the staff notation to obtain more precise timing information and reference the recorded track to obtain feel. And that is exactly what I did. I had owned my blue Peavy jazz-bass knockoff for about six months, and I was already locked in to a dedicated schedule of practicing. I didn’t have a set time or duration for my practice sessions, but I pulled out my bass every free moment I had, and this song became a graduated lesson plan of technique, rhythm, timing, feel, swing, complexity and virtuosity. “La Villa Strangiato” has something for every level of prowess. There are simple sections, easy sections, middling sections, hard sections, and mind-blowing sections. I could either tailor my practice to parts I was comfortable with, or I could focus on the harder parts to see if I could start to make headway with higher-level fingerings like hammer-ons and pull-offs. Or I could just step back from the minutiae and play along with the entire song, feeling my way through the composition and fudging those parts that I couldn’t quite handle. From the beginning, Geddy Lee was one of the bass players I revered and hoped to one day emulate. Although we’ve only once met, he instead became something of my bass instructor.

One of the more ironic things about this particular time in my life is that my roommate at the time had actually purchased the copy of Bass Player that became my practice bible. I say ironic because it was this very purchase that probably had very much to do with the fact we did not stay roommates for much longer. It was too bad. I’d been pretty lucky in my dormitory roommate assignments, all things considered. My freshman year roommate had been a nice enough guy, but he was rather antisocial and preferred to spend his time studying in the carrels of the UT Law Library far removed from anyone that could bother him. His side of the room was very neat and organized, with his pencils lined up together and grouped separately from his pens. My friends commented that our room looked like a dorm room on one side and a hotel room on the other. He found himself his own apartment at the end of the year, and that was that. In contrast, my sophomore year roommate was quite a bit more engaging. We hit it off pretty much that first week, and he joined my group of friends as another cool guy to include on adventures. We hung out together, we went to the dorm cafeteria together, we played racquetball together. We even volunteered for Paul Tsongas’ presidential primary campaign together. We were, in actuality, just good friends.

It was somewhat interesting to note that this relationship worked best when we were in the dorms. Living together in cramped quarters in a cinderblock room that reeked of five decades of mold and mildew didn’t really faze us: we worked around the idiosyncrasies of each other’s schedule and the various shenanigans going on around us without problem. (It is amusing and apropos to note that I taped a hand-lettered sign with “La Villa Strangiato” on the top of the doorframe of both of my dorm rooms. The phrase means “The House of Strangeness” in Alex Lifeson’s goofy pseudo-Spanish.)

Of course, as with every person who lives in a dorm situation, we longed to move out, and did at the end of that first year. It’s unusual for two nineteen-year-olds to be approved for a lease without cosigners, but I suspect it was because I knew the apartment manager from my accelerated college German class. At any rate, that first off-campus apartment was not a beautiful dwelling, but it was my first actual real-life apartment away from my folks, and so it worked out okay. Neither of us was a slacker, the rent was never late, and splitting the groceries wasn’t a problem. When I went through a bad breakup and when my roommate broke his leg playing racquetball, we managed to cope with the fallout. It was only during the third year, in another (better) apartment, that things began to really break down.

I am pretty much certain that a good portion of that was my practice regimen. I played constantly. The problem was, I was also not very good, as one would only expect. My roommate was a marching band trumpeter who had at least four years of musical experience under his belt, so my constant bad notes and bad timing and just all-around continuous bad musical fuckups must’ve been like fingernails on a blackboard. The other problem was Rush. For all our rapport, neither of us had terribly compatible musical preferences. He, for some inexplicable reason, loved Kenny G, Queensryche, and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. I, on the other hand, loved Rush, the Police and the Cars. He also was obsessed with Tori Amos, which, if you’ve already read my musings about Suzanne Vega, know exactly how anathema this form of female singer/songwriter is to my tastes. As much as I hated much of his musical catalog, however, at least I didn’t have to hear him playing along with them on his trumpet. He had no such solace.

Alas, such a situation could have had a different outcome. At one point in time we could have sat down and worked out a mutually-agreeable way of eliminating the internal friction in the household. But we were twenty, and very few twenty-year-olds can go a week without some kind of drama. The fact we’d made it that far without some sort of blowup was actually pretty impressive. And at the time, our entire social group was undergoing huge stresses outside and beyond anything that we were dealing with, with the tribe fracturing along tensions and faultlines both obvious and obscure. It didn’t help that he had been becoming increasingly hermetic and judgemental in his overall worldview in the last year of our cohabitation. Although I was the sonic perpetrator in the bad dynamic, he became the close-mouthed perpetuator of the ill will. And, sometimes, the open-mouthed instigator. So the roommate situation went downhill, then underground. It culminated in me moving out one Saturday afternoon while he was still at work. Time to go. Exit… stage left.

So I moved into a crappy little hole-in-the-wall, to breathe and decompress and, hopefully, practice my music without driving anyone else bugnuts. He went off to do something, probably graduate, possibly work in economics, which was one of our shared interests. I really don’t know. My move-out exploded the tensions that had been building around us, releasing years of pent-up drama. He kept up with some other members of our shared group of friends for a short time, then just vanished. It is the sad truth that we never saw each other again, even after I had mended other fences later that fall.

To keep myself sane, I played as much as I could that difficult summer, in between sessions of work on my undergraduate thesis. I played mostly on an acoustic bass guitar I had fortuitously found through the local classifieds. By that time I had mastered every bit of “La Villa Strangiato” except for the really crazy bass solo around the 7 minute mark. It became a point of relaxation, to either groove with the recorded version or simply play it by memory. I still referred to the Bass Player sheet music to try to figure out exactly what Geddy was playing in that solo. It was an interesting talisman of an era that had abruptly closed down behind me.

So it went. My life reassembled itself. I managed to finish my thesis, creating two statistical metrics that positively tracked the ultimate success or failure of students in my honors program’s physics for non-majors class. I managed to graduate with decent honors and a decent GPA, and went on a whirlwind roadtrip to New Orleans to celebrate. And I managed to find a relationship with a woman that didn’t involve long-distance telephone calls or unrequited obsessions. Thus, late December found me in a much better frame of mind than I had really expected to be in. And so, late one winter evening, I was comfortably curled on the couch, reading a book and idly listening to the radio. The music interview show “Rockline” was on, because Rush was in town and they were being interviewed. I had tickets to see them the very next night. It was a good, but not stellar, interview — the usual Q&A about the new album and what it’s like touring. The DJ did his thing, they did their thing, and that was that. I don’t know if I would have remembered any particular thing about it if it hadn’t been for the fact I didn’t bother to get up to change the channel when the DJ started in on the production credits for the show. He thanked the band, his producer, the radio station, their staff — and the staff of the University of Texas at Austin. My ears pricked up. Why UT? Why thank UT? The offices of the radio station were ten miles north of the university, along the feeder road for the interstate highway. There was no reason to thank UT, unless — they were using the studios at the Communications Building to conduct the interview.

One of the few bonuses to that particular apartment — and there were not many — was its location to the university. It was only three blocks to the northwest corner of campus, where the lovely Modernist monstrosity of the Communications Building loomed. The ugly skin of rusting CorTen steel had been replaced with a dull gray plastic-coated cladding, but it was still an obtrusive blocky landmark. Within a minute, I was dressed for the weather and out the door, walking briskly.

Quite a few other fans had made the same inference that I had, judging by the crowd that surrounded the loading doors that lead to the basement studios. The waiting limousine made our deductions obvious. It was a group of about thirty to forty folks, milling in pent-up anticipation. People clutched glossy photos, notebooks, random pieces of paper. One excited gentleman had even brought his guitar and a giant Marks-A-Lot for the occasion. I had the first writing implement that came to hand — a Rotring fountain ArtPen — and my dogeared copy of Bass Player. If I was going to be able to meet my Bass God, I would be damned if I wasn’t going to have evidence.

Our gamble paid off. After about twenty minutes of waiting, the band and their entourage emerged through the wide steel double doors. It was obvious we were expected. Indeed, Alex Lifeson, the guitar player, had a huge grin on his face and extended his arms above his head, wiggling his fingers for a pen. As the crowd converged, I saw the guy with the guitar beaming rapturously as Alex scribbled his name on the pickguard of the instrument. Geddy Lee was not quite as enthused. Indeed, he looked like he was ready for the hotel and a good night’s sleep. However, he merged with the biomass without complaint. My proffered pen was accepted, as was my magazine, open to the first page of sheet music. Truth be told, a fountain pen is not the easiest thing to sign with, and another fan’s jostling elbow made the scribble less than legible, but it is my first, and only, autograph. It hangs on my wall, framed in medium gray black-core matting, and the newsprint has mellowed to the shade of a light tea.

Of all things to cap off an eighteen-month whirlwind ride of learning bass, finishing college and dealing with the vicissitudes of life, that would have to be one of the most fitting. By turns happenstance, coincidence, or predestination, depending on your philosophical bent, my virtual music instructor ended up autographing the very source code that had inspired me to play and practice, which behavior drove a wedge between myself and the friend who had given the sheet music to me, which forced me to move to a location where I was ready and able to obtain that signature. By design or by randomness? Who knows. All I know is, I walked home with Geddy Lee’s signature on the sheet music for my favorite Rush song.

So let’s hear it for the perversity of the Universe, which always increases to a maximum. And let’s also give a big thanks to Geddy Lee, the boys of Rush, Bass Player magazine, the University of Texas — and my old roommate, wherever he might be.

2014-05-11  »  Edward Semblance