Rush, Hell & the Summer of ’81

streamfinalThe stream turned blood orange red that summer. Back in the woods behind the apartment complex where I lived, my friends and I had spent the previous years building small dams, floating things and basically just hanging out.   The stream was a drainage stream, and not long after spring had melted into languorous longer days, someone had dumped a mysterious orange chemical in. Or maybe it was pollution run-off that caused the discoloration. Regardless, the rocks became stained a shade of rust that lasted long after the water appeared clear again. We never really saw anything living in the stream before and we definitely didn’t after the “orangeing”.

Most of all, though, I remember the hot, sunny days of that summer. The green New York foliage of the woods behind the apartment complex, like you could follow it down a corridor clear to the Amazon. Her long, honey-colored hair washed in sunlight as we sat on the swings at the playground or dove into the aquamarine depths of the pool.

I was 13 and she was a year older, up from Florida to stay with her grandparents for the season. There was an element of wildness and danger about her – a little scary, but intriguing. With both of us having roots in St. Petersburg, it wasn’t long before we connected. We also had Rush in common.

1981 was the year Rush released their mega-selling album Moving Pictures. “Tom Sawyer” was everywhere on the radio and on the boomboxes of the kids I knew (and the ones I didn’t know). I fell for Rush sort of the same way I fell for her, and partly for the same reasons – there was mystery and the unusual in both. With Rush it was their circle-in-a-star logo, their enigmatic album art, their literate lyrics that required active listening & interpretation, and Geddy Lee’s unnaturally high vocal register. With her it was… well, she was a girl and I was 13. They all had an element of mystery to some degree. She was also a big Rush fan, but for some very different reasons, as I would soon find out.

It all came back to that symbol – a naked man facing a star in a circle. Since its debut on their earlier 2112 album, that symbol had commonly been misconstrued as a pentagram, fueling rumors that Rush were “devil-worshippers” (when nothing could be further from the truth). Without getting too far into the proggy sci-fi storyline of 2112, the symbol on the cover represented the “red star of the solar federation” – an oppressive totalitarian entity that the protagonist of the songs was fighting against. The man was unclothed to symbolize helplessness, with the theme of the album being the individual standing up against oppression.

Alas, she was one of the misinterpreters of that symbol. She was also involved with some other teens in her Florida neighborhood who fancied themselves Satanists. Actually, they probably didn’t even know the word “Satanist”, but were trying out rebellion and so, she told me, they’d sometimes go out to a nearby field and have “devil parties”. What these consisted of, I’m not entirely sure, but I imagine now they were fairly tame – maybe some spells from old history of witchcraft books stolen from the library, somebody’s Black Sabbath tape playing and drawings of arcane symbols in the dirt.

The actual devil stuff didn’t appeal to me, and frankly I thought it was a bit weird, but the fact that she was involved added a definite atypicalness to her. She wasn’t the same as the girls in the hall at school with Shaun Cassidy pictures in their lockers and New Wave earrings. Yet, despite her extracurricular interests, she wasn’t proto-goth. She was a tanned, blue-jeaned girl. She played up the taboo angle to make herself sound cool when she didn’t really need too – she was already there.

Anyway, Rush didn’t seem dark and satanic, but in my infatuation-obscured vision I thought maybe she knew something I didn’t. I mean, there was their song “Witch Hunt” and the image on Moving Pictures of the person burning on the cross (all easily misconstrued by my impressionable teen self looking for evidence). How was I supposed to think clearly when she smiled, all glinting eyes? When alone though, I’d look for clues to no avail. They seemed like such a nice band – thoughtful and studious. No tales or even rumors of drugs and debauchery with Rush, but they were also long-haired rockers accepted by my peers and deemed cool. Even at that age I knew their lyrics were more concerned with equality, contributing to society, and living a creative and noble life. But then I’d meet her at the pool again and just maybe, just maybe she was right…

That summer wasn’t just filled with Rush – the band and the rush of infatuation – it was also filled with a rush of musical discoveries. However, by coincidence or some strange alignment of the stars, they were laced with darkness. Rush led to “the harder stuff”. Led Zeppelin, for one, was a band ripe for satanic misinterpretation with the supposed hidden messages present in “Stairway to Heaven” when the song was played backwards, as well as the inside sleeve artwork of Houses of the Holy with its evocation of pagan ritual sacrifice. AC/DC’s albums Highway to Hell and Back in Black (which opened with “Hell’s Bells”, fer cryin’ out loud) and Ozzy Osbourne (was there anything he did back then that didn’t have devilish connotations?) were played ad nauseum at recess by us on portable cassette players the following fall, having been discovered earlier in the year.

Pat Benetar released Precious Time in July, and though “Fire and Ice” and “You Better Run” were on the radio a lot, the overwhelming dominance of “Hell is for Children” from the year before ensured that that was the song you were most likely to still hear in 1981 where I lived. I had a vague understanding that the song was an anti-child abuse song, but it had the word “hell” in it, which just added to the fiery musical vibes of that summer. I have a clear memory of some unknown ripped-jeans-and-leather clad guy strolling down the middle of the street on a hot afternoon by the apartment complex with a giant boombox on his shoulder and “Hell is for Children” turned up to 11. If it wasn’t chance encounters with the song like that, there was a pale, slightly disturbed seeming kid who lived nearby who listened to nothing but Benetar and could be counted on to be walking around playing “Hell” on his tape player.

Some days I’d be over at my best friend’s place. His parents were in their early 30s. I can’t remember what they did for employment, but they spent pretty much all day, every day, as far as I can recall, chain smoking, drinking coffee, playing Dungeons & Dragons and listening to Queen. Now, Queen has never been considered an especially dark group, but tracks like “The Prophet’s Song” (“the fires of hell will take you”) and the album cover art of News of the World, depicting a giant robot killing the band members, dripping blood and people running in terror, synced up well with the other music those hot, muggy months. Queen is forever associated in my mind with smoky light through windows, half full mugs of old, stale coffee scattered on tables, and Dungeons & Dragons manuals with fire breathing dragons on the covers.

When the summer ended, Rush Girl returned to her field rituals and I never saw her again. But, like the newly orange stream, my world was a little more technicolor, more vivid – if partly from a toxic source (the girl, because let’s face it – she probably had some serious issues), but also from all the newly discovered music. It was a big jump from what I had previously been listening to, which was mostly John Denver, the Bay City Rollers, or the Beach Boys, as well as a big jump from girls mostly occupying the periphery to appearing as a possibility. I was soon devouring music of all kinds, from minor key heavy metal to bright cheerful pop, and everything in between. Rush was the main catalyst, pushing the doors open.

The woods are now a housing development, but I wonder if those rocks are still orange. Maybe they’re ornamenting someone’s flower garden, maybe crushed into driveway gravel, or buried under the bedroom of another 13-year-old listening to “Tom Sawyer” or “The Spirit of Radio”, thinking about the new girl in his neighborhood.


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