When you Google “geek rock”, a Wikipedia entry is shot back atcha #1 (with a bullet). For me, the notion of “geek rock” was vague and unfocused until I happened upon a Funny or Die video from 2011 where fanboys Paul Rudd and Jason Segel finagle their way backstage to meet Rush. It’s pretty fantastic.
I had few friends in junior high. One friend I did have, due mainly to locker proximity (lockers were assigned in alphabetical order by last name), was Scott Eichmann. His distinguishing characteristic was his ludicrous height. He must have been 6′ 5″ in 7th grade. By contrast, I was more like 5′ 6″. You could always spot his mulleted head towering above the masses that swept through the hallowed halls of Wayzata East (a.k.a. Ridgemont) Junior High School. But if his uncommon height was a not a dead giveaway, he could also be identified by the staggering array of Rush t-shirts he regularly and religiously donned. I’d swear the kid had some Rush t-shirt draped over his torso every other day.
Anyway, I vividly recall a specific conversation we had in Mr. Pearson’s wood shop class one October day in 1985.
Side note: Mr. Pearson also went by Mr. P or simply “P”. Although he was missing the tip of his right index finger, he made up the difference with his outsized heart—he was an absolute saint! It’s my belief that any middle school industrial arts teacher gets a free pass to sainthood in the afterlife. There is no more thankless (or perilous) job in the entirety of K-12 education. Mr. P was a rare gem indeed. He endured so much shit with an ever cheerful disposition and unwavering desire to teach careless 7th grade idiots how to avoid gruesome/hideous injuries while building useful stuff.
Scott and I had many conversations in shop, likely because we sat next to each other as a consequence of the apparently mandatory alphabetical arrangement of teenaged souls. Much to the dismay of Mr. P, the layout of the massive classroom facilitated copious conversation. Instead of the traditional assemblage of desks aligned in rows, the wood shop had 8 massive 6′ x 6′ work benches. Each bench featured a pair of cast-iron wood vises on opposite corners and a stool on each side. Since Scott and I were alphabetical fam at this point, we found ourselves on adjacent sides of the first big bench in the room. We could easily slide our stools to our shared wood vise and chat face-to-face.
On this particular autumn day during my junior high malaise, I noticed that Scott had donned an ’80s staple—a “baseball shirt” that was unsurprisingly emblazoned with the Power Windows album cover.
In those days, I was an unapologetic top 40 pop music fan. I worshipped at The Church of American Top 40 where every Sunday the Revered Casey Kasem preached the gospel of pop/rock supremacy. I was not only early but front-row-center for every sermon.
Amid the hustle and bustle of flagrant posturing and pointless chatter that precedes any middle school class, Scott sidled over toward the corner and casually asked me what I was listening to on the bus that morning. We rode the same bus, but his stop was early in the route and my stop was the last one. As a result, we rarely had the opportunity to sit together. Most days, I was happy to sit anywhere.
Every day that I stepped into the terrifying lair of the middle school bus, I was never without my trusty banana yellow Sony Walkman WM-F2073. I explained to him that I was playing a mixed tape of songs I recorded off the radio. Scott was a specifics guy—he wanted to know exactly what I was playing. I admitted that my playlist du jour included Dire Straits, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Tears For Fears among others. To avoid extreme embarrassment and inevitable ribbing, I failed to mention some of the other artists on the tape like Madonna, Wham!, and Starship.
After learning of (by his estimation) my atrocious taste in music, Scott looked at me crestfallen. He felt compelled to educate me about a more refined, a higher, level of musical appreciation that could only be achieved by listening to bands like Rush. At that moment, my knowledge of Rush was limited to:
- The video for “The Big Money”, which was in moderate rotation on MTV
- Their best known song: “Tom Sawyer“, which I had probably heard on the radio
- Scott’s seemingly unending array of Rush t-shirts
Beyond that, I was completely clueless about my friend’s favorite band. Let’s just say, I was much less clueless after his five-minute overview of Rush’s supremacy in contrast to the mere mortal musical acts I enjoyed. If you know a Rush fan, you know how this little diatribe goes. His musical education was cut short, however, as Mr. P. managed to marshal the tittering pupils to the requisite degree of attention needed to conduct class. He likely proceeded with a demonstration of some useful but potentially deadly power tool.
I listened to Scott’s plea, but it ultimately fell on deaf ears, at least ears deaf to progressive rock juggernauts like Rush. It would be another few years before I eventually dipped my toe into the sea of classic rock acts. Boston would pop my classic rock cherry, followed closely by the Eagles and Bob Seger. But as the decades passed and my musical tastes rarely veered from mainstream trends (early ’90s Grunge, mid ’90s Alt Rock, late ’90s Post-Grunge Neo Alt Rock, etc.), I never listened to Rush.
I can’t really explain why, but Rush was never a thing for me.
FFWD to this past (bizarre) year. In February, I decided to read Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road by Rush drum god Neil Peart. It was suggested by a friend. In addition to the friendly suggestion, I was aware that Peart’s songwriting was informed by a novel I was planning to read: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It turns out both books affected me profoundly. And in the process, I developed a major man crush on Peart the writer. I plan to read the rest of his books at some point.
Additionally, it turns out I have two cousins and a friend/neighbor who are ardent Rush fans. I’m curious, is there even a such thing as a casual Rush fan? My friend/neighbor, who magnanimously gifted me his cassette collection, never fails to suggest that I “play some Rush”. This rallying cry generally appears as a comment when my preposterous HiFi stack appears on Instagram. In answer to his unremitting pleas, I do periodically “play some Rush“. That said, I don’t specifically seek out Rush vinyl at record shops or online. I won’t pass up a Rush LP when I discover it in the wild on a thrifting run, however. As of this blog post, I’ve discovered the following Rush records “in the wild”:
- Fly By Night
- Permanent Waves
- Moving Pictures
Then last week, I received my order from www.3rdfloortapes.com. When I was perusing the site, I noticed they had more Rush albums missing from my collection. I decided to snag them all. I’ve since added the following Rush tapes to the wall o’ compact cassettes:
- A Farewell to Kings
- Roll the Bones
- A Show of Hands
(Very) Slowly, I’ve been aurally unpacking their dense catalog. Let’s just say if listening to current pop/rock music is like a day at kindergarten, listening to Rush’s music is a graduate-level college course. It’s a bit of a slow go, but I’m gettin’ there. I was also doing some reading about the band and I ran across this article in Rolling Stone: “From Rush With Love Is this the end of the road for the geek-rock gods?”
This started me thinking about “geek rock” in general.
Coincidentally, I stumbled across a fantastic article about Gerald Casale. If you know that name, consider yourself a student of “geek rock”. Casale was an art student at Kent State university. He was on campus protesting the U.S. bombing of Cambodia on the afternoon of May 7th, 1970. If you know what happened next, consider yourself a student of history. Casale’s friends, Alison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, were shot and killed during the protest which became known as the “Kent State Massacre“.
Casale was affected profoundly and went on to found one of the most influential and important “geek rock” bands of all time: Devo. Shortly after reading the article, I knew so much more about Devo than I could’ve imagined. Previously, my knowledge of Devo could be distilled down to their lone hit and “oldies” radio staple “Whip It”. I immediately wanted to listen to all of their music.
Right after I posted a link to the Devo article on my FB news feed, this popped up on the FB feed of a group that I follow:
I’ve always been a fan of Zappa’s political views and his stanch free-speech/anti-censorship stance. He seems like one of those “smartest guy in the room” guys. Since my ego often lobbies me that I’m also one of those guys, Zappa feels like a kindred spirit of sorts. I’m likely delusional, however, which I remind my ego often.
His ’86 appearance on Crossfire is now legendary. I love nearly everything he says. What is jarring, nearly disorienting, when watching this ancient clip is the civility of the participants. Today, it would be four massive ruddy faces on a screen interrupting, over-talking, and yelling at each other about anything other than the topic at-hand. And while I knew a lot about his outspoken views, my knowledge of Zappa’s music was exactly and only his lone top 40 radio hit “Valley Girl”.
Rush have been proclaimed “Geek Rock Gods” by Rolling Stone. Devo often dressed like geeks. And Zappa always seemed way too intelligent for the average music fan. As a result of this seemingly strange cosmic confluence of the “geek rock” pantheon, I decided more research was in order. Here are a few of the pages that come up if you check the Google:
- List of geek rock artists – Wikepedia
- Geek Rock – Urban Dictionary
- 10 Other Nerd Rock Bands You Should Know – Consequence of Sound
- The Best Geek Rock Bands – Ranker
- The Evolution of Nerd Rock – Uncanny Magazine
Like everything else on the Interwebs, there does seem to be a bit of…shall we say…disagreement as to what constitutes “geek rock”. Is a band “geek rock” because they look like geeks (Devo), or play complex esoteric music (Rush), or are obviously intellectually sharp (Frank Zappa)?
The closest (imperfect) analogy I can come up with is artsy science of “beach music”. I would contend that many beach music playlists include songs strictly because they contain the word “beach” (or similar tropes like: summer, beer, sunset, and so on, and etc.). While I’d concede that the Beach Boys put out some all-time classic beach tunes, everything they ever did is not beach appropriate—Pet Sounds is hardly the album I’d want playing while sipping a margarita and watching the sun drop below the lapping tides. By the same token, “Beaches of Cheyenne” by Garth Brooks doesn’t really put me in the mood for sun and fun. “Amber” by 311 is a killer beach tune despite making no reference to anything beach related. Let’s be honest, after Jimmy Buffet, 311 is hardly the next band you think of to include on your beach music playlist—that would be Kenny Chesney, the prince of chill beach music.
I thought about the beach music conundrum a lot while compiling a list of “geek rock” bands. For my purposes, and since it’s my damn blog post, here is my list:
- The Buggles
- Elvis Costello
- Oingo Boingo
- Talking Heads
- Weird Al Yankovic
- Frank Zappa
Devo seems paramount, particularly since the seminal geek flick, Revenge of the Nerds, payed homage to them during the talent show portion of the battle of the Greeks.
Rush is also big for me on this list for all of the aforementioned reasons. I mean…I own most of their albums—I’m out of excuses on them.
“Heard of Spotify, have ya?”
“Yep. Fuck Spotify (when possible). I’d rather be able to hold the music in my hands before I hear it.”
Of the bands on my list, the only one I would consider myself a fan of is Talking Heads. I’ve always dug their schtick, and David Byrne’s book, How Music Works, is utterly delightful. This notion of “geek rock” has obviously captivated me all of a sudden, so I plan to become a fan of the rest of the acts on this list. Ironically, I’ve spent 25 years daylighting as an IT geek, you’d think I would’ve been all over this music.
“Geek rock” has clearly evolved, and there are acts from the ’90s like Nerf Herder and Weezer that I do dig as well. But for the purposes of this little musical sojourn, I’m gonna stick with the pioneers. Hopefully I didn’t byte off more than I can chew.
The curious thing about the musicians I chose is that they seem to be excellent examples of the “Iceberg Effect/Theory/Principle”. Essentially, what most know about these artists is what mainstream media, top 40 radio, and record companies have pushed to the surface.
In the case of these “geek rock” stalwarts, that ain’t much. Going just below the surface reveals a vantage point that can’t be achieved casually. But if you venture below, the rest of the picture unfolds—and it’s a big wonderful picture at that.
On that banana yellow Sony Walkman, I used to listen to entire tapes from the test tones at the start of Side A to the tape hiss at the end of Side B. When I acquired Boston’s self-titled cassette (and started my classic rock education), I probably played it a hundred times. Sure, “More Than a Feeling” was the impetus, but I quickly became just as familiar with the other seven tracks. Thinking about that album, my favorite track is probably “Hitch a Ride”. It’s slightly dreamy vibe soothed me during my harrowing high school epoch when that tape rolled continuously.
In today’s age of disposable technology, news, and entertainment (and especially heroes) there is little need to stretch our ever-shrinking attention span. Nothing from consumer goods, to information, to music is delivered with an expiration period beyond what is needed to sell you a new smartphone, terrify you with the next looming catastrophe, or dazzle you with excruciating forgettable noise. Despite drinking it all in from the business end of a fire hose, we’re forever in state of thirst. We want it now and we want a lot of it. Whether it’s substantive or not is irrelevant.
If it can’t be shot straight into our eyeballs, ear drums, or veins at lightspeed, it’s simply too tedious.
I’ve always thought I was an “old soul” or “old school”. The banality of that notion and its cliched overuse has become tedious. It’s like a cape worn to identify oneself as a neck-bearded hipster superhero. It always seemed to suit me nonetheless. I’m starting to think, however, that I just never grew out of that adolescent phase of patient wonderment. I can still get lost in an album end to end over and over again. I eventually came to understand that Boston was a whole lot more than just a feeling. I intend to learn the same about Devo, Rush, Frank Zappa, and the rest of geek rock immortality.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of “existential” is as follows:
of, relating to, or affirming existence
Side note: the punctuation of dictionary definitions is bewildering to me.
Nothing this month has been more affirming to my current existence than Rush’s “geek rock”. It seems like “existential rock” to me right now during this tumultuous time. I’m going with it…
© 2020 – ∞ B. Charles Donley