By Mike McMahan. LPC
Perhaps it was just belated recognition for “Lock and Key” from the underrated Hold Your Fire album, but Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, of legendary prog rockers Rush, will receive a key to the city of their hometown, Toronto. While safe to say it won’t be unlocking anything, a key to the city has endured as a symbol of achievement for the ages and not something generally handed out of rock ‘n’ roll bands.
Rush has never taken the obvious path, and this creative integrity has paid off handsomely. They are undoubtedly the most popular Canadian rock band of all time, and have been hugely successful in the United States as well; once they graduated to arenas they were never forced back to smaller venues, a feat few acts can claim. Many bands reach a level of success and attempt to maintain this success by catering to what fans want; Rush has done the opposite, challenging listeners and staying true to their personal ideals of creativity. Their full story is told in one of the best music documentaries of all time, Beyond The Lighted Stage.
Rush began their life as a heavily Led Zeppelin-inspired power trio. Their first single, “Working Man,” was so based in this guitar/bass/drums with high-pitched vocals approach that when radio stations played it, listeners called in asking “when is the new Led Zep album coming out?”
Rush’s third album, Caress of Steel, was a complete flop. This was the first album in which they really embraced the long-form progress rock style that would launch them to success—and it had bombed. So, naturally, they defied the record company’s request to reign it in and roared back with 2112, which opened with the side-long title track and launched them on the path to success. They continued to mine this vein for two more albums, before beginning to de-emphasize long songs and taking small steps to embrace the synthesizer sound that would define their 80s output and 80s rock, in general. This approach yielded two of their biggest hits—“The Spirit of Radio” from Permanent Waves and “Tom Sawyer” from Moving Pictures. Likely their most well-known album, Moving Pictures contains two inarguably keyboard-driven numbers, the aforementioned “Tom Sawyer” and “The Camera Eye,” the latter of which marked the last time to date that Rush wrote a song that stretched past ten minutes. By the time the distinctive synth intro of “Subdivisions” from the album Signals hit radio airwaves, they had fully embraced a keyboard-driven sound that bore almost no resemblance to the way they sounded on their debut. Some fans objected, but they remained popular, and continued tinkering with their sound (though never again as drastically) for years. However, now that drummer Neil Peart has announced his retirement from touring, their future is uncertain.
So why did this career trajectory work so well for Rush? Most bands would not be able to make this kind of changes in their core sound and successfully maintain a huge fanbase. One possible reason could be that they adhered to a principle that is very important to consider in psychotherapy: change should be gradual and sustainable. In the case of Rush, they added the synthesizer sound and expanded it for several albums. Many speak of Signals as a complete departure, though that is not really the case, as keyboards figure prominently on Moving Pictures and made at least a cameo on Permanent Waves. So they made what would eventually be a huge change, but they started small and expanded on that success.
Consider how this might work in psychotherapy. When I have worked with couples, they often come into the office at the end of their rope: they are fighting all the time and often considering divorce. Maybe one partner has had an affair or there has been a separation. Whatever is going on, they want change and they want change now. But, as we learned from Rush, you can’t change from guitars to synthesizers overnight.
Like Rush's sound, good therapy relies on using available tools well. A homework assignment that I have often used with couples encourages a change in perspective, as well as gradual change. The game works like this: each couple chooses two days in the coming week in which they will be “extra nice” to their spouse or partner. I tell them they can’t tell their partner what days they’ve chosen and I ask them each to write their days down, secretly, and give the paper. Then each partner is instructed to watch the other partner and, during the next session, guess what two days their partner was being extra nice. This works in two ways: one, it encourages a change of perspective, specifically a way to look for positive behavior from the partner, as opposed to the negative behaviors that they have likely been focusing on; and two, it introduces an element of change to the relationship. But it’s fairly small. After all, it’s only two days, and they can feel free to fight like cats and dogs the other five days if they choose to.
This is generally at least a relative success if actually completed, though obviously nothing works every time. When it is successful, the partners often feel better about their relationship and it’s not uncommon for them to come in and say “we’re going to just do this every day.” On one level that seems great. They’re getting along, right? Case closed. But this new approach may not be sustainable, as it is a lot of pressure to behave differently every day in instant perpetuity. I encourage couples to stick to the two days for at least a few more weeks, so that new behaviors can take hold and, subsequently, be reinforced by therapy sessions. Then once they feel comfortable, of course the assignment can be expanded to three days and so forth, until, hopefully, it becomes unnecessary. They have made a gradual and sustainable change, which is more likely to take a deeper hold in the long run.
Rush took a slow, measured approach to change, and were able to harness new technology to their advantage. Some would argue that they took their experiments with synthesizers too far, and that albums such as Hold Your Fire were watered down as a result. While some might say that—you won’t catch me agreeing. I think each of their records are honest and reflect where they were currently in their journey. One of lyricist’s Neil Peart’s most famous lines is from “Freewill”: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Though the song is generally political in nature, it can apply to our personal lives as well. Feel free to make a change or not, but doing nothing is the default choice. We all have the power to change our own lives, but using that power is a choice and must be knowingly embraced and effort must be expended. You can only bring keyboards into your life's sound gradually!
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture