A Review of Martin Popoff’s “Driven”
Back in the day, I was a huge Rush fan. How big of a Rush fan was I? Well, I almost got kicked out of journalism school as a result of putting the band first! This happened back in the fall of 1996 when I was in the third year of my undergraduate journalism studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. I was supposed to attend a meeting for a journalism course that involved putting out a community newspaper, but that meeting corresponded with the day Rush’s Test for Echo album was released. I put my priorities around Rush and was one of the first in line to buy that record. Later on that week, I went to school and was called into an office for a session with the professor of the journalism course/community newspaper I was to work on and another student who had missed the meeting, which turned out to have been a very important meeting as I was essentially read the riot act over not showing up. So that’s my big Rush fandom story of how the band impacted me, and perhaps not positively.
After the live album Different Stages was released in 1998, I kind of drifted away from Rush. I was getting more into alt-country at the time, and Rush — with its emphasis on technique and musicianship — started getting the short shrift from me, unfortunately. I had also had drinks with a few journalism school peers at the time where one of them indicated to me after my love of Rush had turned up in conversation that the band was “boring.” I had to kind of agree with this assessment after thinking about it — some of their albums were so pristine that there wasn’t much life to them. (Sacrilege, possibly.) However, I remained enough of a casual fan that I saw them play live in 2010 here in Ottawa. And, I, of course, was heartbroken when drummer Neil Peart died of brain cancer in January 2020. So when Martin Popoff’s third (and final) biography of the band each covering a decade or so of the band’s existence (the ’70s, the ’80s, and, this one, the ’90s to present) came across my desk, I snatched it up to read it. Since the book starts at 1991’s Roll the Bones, the album that was released just as I was becoming a fan, I was curious to see if the book would take me back to being 16-years-old all over again.
It did to a degree, but the book — I have to admit — is only so-so. It is structured as thus: each chapter deals with a different album released since Roll the Bones. The first part of the chapter is a bit about the preproduction of the album and how the songwriting process was set up. The second part of each chapter is a blow-by-blow recounting of each song on the album and what the song is about, what is so special about the song, etc., etc., along with a little author commentary. The third part of each chapter then deals with the subsequent tour of the album and things that happened along the way. Rinse and repeat for each album. This structure to the book makes it a little, well, boring. The best biography of Rush that I read was Bill Banasiewicz’s Visions, even if it only goes up to 1987’s Hold Your Fire and despite the fact the journalist had a falling out with the Canadian power trio after its release. The reason Visions is so successful — even though it’s eons since I read it — is that it is written as more of a conventional biography, weaving a story out of the band’s output.
The problem with Driven is that much of it is presented as just quotes verbatim. Essentially, the book is one big copy and paste job. You’ll get to a section where bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee is talking about bass sounds or Alex Lifeson is talking about his approach to melding his guitars with Lee’s keyboards, only to discover that the conversation or block quotes run on for page after page unedited. Driven is not an oral history, but it is structured as such — only that this book needed a better editor because there is an awful lot of repeated information presented across each of the speakers. It’s as though author Martin Popoff needed to fill 400 pages of text any which way he could. That makes Driven a tough slog at times. And speaking about needing to fill space, fans may find it suspect that in any serious biography of the band that there is zero mention of Lifeson’s 2003–2004 New Year’s Eve arrest in Florida for an altercation with police, nor — on the more positive side of things — is there any mention of the band’s involvement with Trailer Park Boys. Weird, indeed.
However, there are positive things I can say about Driven. I liked the fact that Popoff isn’t a blindly slavish fan — he has criticisms about the covers EP the band did, Feedback, even though there were conversely times that I was wishing that he kept his opinions to himself and presented a more objective history of Rush. There are also bits of interesting trivia to be found in this book. For instance, did you know that the “rap” section in the middle of the song “Roll the Bones” was intended for Monty Python member John Cleese to recite? I learned some new things about the band in this book as a result — notably including how Peart dealt with the double tragedy of losing his daughter to a car accident and common-law wife to cancer in the late ’90s within a year of each other — so even with its warts Driven will be invaluable to the hardcore Rush fan. And this book is meant for the diehard fan, as there are references to things that are inside baseball that only a true blue fan would understand.
The only other thing I can say is that the title is a bit of a misnomer. The book ends with the band’s final performance in Los Angeles in 2015, not Peart’s death — for the reason of protecting the privacy of his family. I can understand and appreciate that, but if you’re looking for some new insight on how Lee and Lifeson dealt with this blow and whether or not they plan to still make music together, which was being floated to the press as a possiblity a few years ago, despite the band ending, you’re not going to find it. To that end, Driven is a bit of a missed opportunity or even a cop-out. However, the book works as a time capsule of the making of the band’s recordings after they progressed from their critical and commercial high watermark in the ’80s to becoming more of a cult band in the ’90s. (To wit, when I was listening to them, there was maybe only one or two other people in my whole high school that appreciated the band, too, so liking Rush felt a bit as though you were part of a secret society in the pre-Internet age because everyone else hated the band.) Driven could have been better written and not be so predictable, but I suppose I have two earlier books (Anthem and Limelight) to check out if I want to get a more robust story about a band’s music I used to love. Yes, Rush was a band I used to love so much that I nearly derailed my journalistic dreams because of them. Strange how things eventually turned out.
Martin Popoff’s Driven: Rush in the ’90s and “In the End” will be published by ECW Press on April 27, 2021.
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