Mist wafted off of Independent Lake, the centerpiece of a 100-acre camp in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. Modest white cabins fronted by porches faced the water. Across the lake, a slide sat unused, the summer season having ended weeks ago. A breeze chilled the morning air. The only noise was the rustling of the trees, the low hum of distant conversations, and the unmatchable music of Rush, the legendary Canadian prog rock band.
On a basketball court near the water, 27 people formed a circle around Mike Rosenthal, a 50-year-old father of two from Monmouth, N.J., who was wearing a Rush shirt on his barrel chest and a Rush bandanna on his balding head. He stood on a yoga mat branded to the Rush-inspired charity he started with Rush-fanatic friends Lance Kasten and Jim Brunke. The Rush song coming out of the speaker at Rosenthal’s feet, “Panacea,” was so old and obscure that I bet Rush singer Geddy Lee himself no longer knows the lyrics. But we all sang along as we twisted ourselves into Rush-themed positions.
A woman in the yoga circle said she chose “Panacea” for her daughter’s middle name. She tried to talk her husband into naming one of their sons Geddy, but he refused. HATER.
It was Day Two of RushCamp, a three-day celebration of all things Rush, where 110 of us had gathered to listen to Rush tribute bands, play Rush trivia, and buy Rush auction items. We became a flash mob of doomed trees while listening to the Rush classic “The Trees.” We got up at the crack of 9 to do Rush yoga, alongside Barbie dolls wearing homemade Rush shirts and twisted into yoga poses.
Just as Rush is more than just a band to us, this camp was more than just a camp to celebrate Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer Neil Peart. It was also a charity with noble aims — to lift up people who have fallen on hard times.
While Rush fans might be singularly nutty in expressing our fandom, our passion is not unique, nor is the fact we gather to express that passion. The Flower Power Cruise, departing from Miami on March 28, will feature a dozen musical acts from the ’60s, such as the Zombies and Arlo Guthrie, as well as Beatles and Cream tribute bands. On dry ground, the Star Wars Celebration, put on by Lucasfilm, will run August 27 to 30 next year in Anaheim, Calif., and fans of Jane Austen, Nancy Drew, and countless others from the literary world will gather to celebrate their obsessions. What makes RushCamp unusual is that the praise is not the end, but the means to an end.
In the late 2000s, Rosenthal, a financial advisor, went through a hellacious divorce. During his lowest times, his Rush-fan friends gave him great comfort. Rosenthal dreamed up RushCamp to be for others what Rush fans were for him. He recruited Kasten and Brunke to help him launch it and run it. They want RushCamp to embody ideals they drew from Rush’s history and music: selflessness, integrity, generosity. And so they use it as a fundraiser for a 501c3 called Overtime Angels, named after lyrics in the 2007 Rush song “Workin’ Them Angels.”
At a 2014 party of Rush fans called RatCon (for Rush Rats), a precursor to RushCamp, Rosenthal described the origins of the charity, making a case for why a gathering to celebrate songs of the Great Philosophers of the Great White North also happens to be a strong conduit for good works.
“It elevates the passion even more,” Rosenthal said. “Now I’m not just doing it to get drunk and air drum to ‘Tom Sawyer.’ There’s an above purpose.”
Rush has called itself the biggest cult band in the world, and the description fits. For much of its 40-plus year history, the trio was deeply loved by fans and deeply hated by critics. Peart’s pounding and precise percussion, Lifeson’s soaring and creative riffs, and Lee’s high-pitched wail and fast-fingered bass marked a definitive rock and roll line: cool kids on one side, the rest on the other.
Critics hated them for being kimono-clad purveyors of impenetrable nerd rock who sang about J.R.R. Tolkien, Ayn Rand, and other highfalutin topics. Fans loved them for the same reason.
I can pinpoint exactly when I became a Rush nerd: June 30 to July 5, 1989. I was 17, and my friend Ethan visited me in Michigan from Iowa. He was my coolest friend and a huge Rush fan and he brought along “2112,” Rush’s breakthrough album from 1976. Ethan put the cassette in, pressed play, and my brain blew out the back of my skull. Their music sounded like genius set to odd time signatures. It sounded like striving, aspiration, pushing yourself to your limit and taking another step. Even today, I love their slow-burn openings, raging-inferno middles, and explosive endings. I love that when I listen to their albums in order, I hear them getting better, trying new things, reaching for new levels of excellence. When they failed (which was NEVER, so SHUT UP), it was because they stretched too far.
Over 25 years, I attended 15 Rush concerts including 12 in four states with my brother, Mike, whom I trained to be an equally devoted fan, if not moreso. He’s seen them 20 times.
But Mike lives 591 miles from me. Of the others I’ve taken to Rush shows, only my wife of 19 years lives near me, and um, she’s not a fan. YET. My daughters are 13 and 9 and they don’t love Rush and I’m a failure.
I have no one to share Rush with. Jamming out to the band alone while I write, work out, cook, or drive is great, but unfulfilling. C.S. Lewis wrote that to love something and keep that love to ourselves is to leave it unconsummated. “It is frustrating,” he wrote, “to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with — the perfect hearer died a year ago.”
At RushCamp, perfect hearers were everywhere. I got my Rush on with the flagman for a tree-cutting service, an architect, an acupuncturist, three business owners, a prison therapist who examined Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, two PhDs, and a third who was writing his dissertation in his RushCamp cabin.
Also an ex-stripper, the recipient of RushCamp generosity, a symbol of Rosenthal’s “above purpose”: to pull individuals out of despair.
Overtime Angels lives outside the mainstream of the philanthropic world and the causes that draw the most attention, but it radiates meaning and purpose. It targets people who can’t get help from larger social relief organizations and are in a short-term crisis. RushCamp 2019, which costs up to $329 to attend, raised slightly more than $16,000. Since its founding in 2014, Overtime Angels has given 24 recipients more than $21,000, all because Rush’s generosity inspired Rosenthal, Kasten, and Brunke.
According to Samaritan Magazine, causes that Rush has supported include Alberta flood relief, the Winnipeg Museum of Human Rights, Toronto Second Harvest, AIDS research, and UNICEF. In 2017, Rush received the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award, which recognizes Canadian artists’ social activism and support of humanitarian causes. Rosenthal says that Rush’s treatment of a woman with cancer, who met the band through the Make-A-Wish foundation, especially inspired him. “That story put tears in my eyes,” he said, “and I wanted to find a way to honor the band in the way they honor their fans.”
Overtime Angels has paid bills for a father with lymphoma, a mother with pancreatic cancer, the family of someone who had suffered third-degree burns in a gas explosion, and a mother of two who volunteered with the elderly and was at risk of homelessness.
“It is frustrating,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with — the perfect hearer died a year ago.” At RushCamp, perfect hearers were everywhere.
Another recipient was Dawn Tallett, the aforementioned ex-stripper. I met her shortly after arriving. She was wearing a Rush jean jacket, glasses, and a been-there, done-that look birthed by hard-earned wisdom. She has an 18-year-old son with autism and Crohn’s disease, an infectious laugh, and a life story as raw as Rush’s first three albums.
“I lived a clichéd life,” she told me. “I married the bass player in my band. Then I became a stripper to support the band. Then he kicked me out of the band. Then we got a divorce.”
She guesses she is the only woman in history to get paid to take her clothes off to the 1975 Rush song “Bastille Day,” about the French Revolution. I bet she is also the only stripper to point out the irony of the song’s message, considering her place in the socio-economic system relative to the patrons for whom she performed.
“That one line in the song was very appropriate for being a stripper: ‘Power isn’t all that money buys.’ I thought it was funny,” she said. “Nobody ever got it.” She laughed. “There weren’t a lot of Rush fans in the strip clubs.” CERTAINLY NOT!
A few years ago, Dawn fell into financial problems and was in danger of losing her home. Depression crushed her. She felt like she had made wise decisions — she went back to college to get a degree and left an abusive husband — and her life fell apart anyway. She knew about Overtime Angels and was friends with Rosenthal, Kasten, and Brunke from the Rush fan world. She sent an email asking for help with a large, delinquent power bill.
It was paid two days later, and her house was saved.
Dawn cut up her credit cards, buys everything with cash or check and is trying to pay forward the good work that was done for her. She volunteers in her hometown of Binghamton, New York, and has lobbied for an anti-hunger organization in Washington, D.C. She insisted on paying back any money she received. Last year, she came to RushCamp with check No. 2112 and filled it out to Overtime Angels.
“I had nowhere else to turn,” she said. “I was so unhappy. There needed to be a way to come back out of that. Now I’m thrilled.”
As profound as RushCamp’s help of people like Dawn is, RushCamp is also a party. A crazy, all-hours, did-that-just-happen party.
My notes from the Saturday night air-band competition read like gibberish: “steampunk gnome … medusa snake wig … dressed like a ruptured pancreas … T-rex guitar arms,” all of which have nothing, as far as I could tell, to do with Rush and everything to do with the half dozen or so “acts” cutting loose and being silly. Earlier I watched Kasten — a four-time U.S. Air Guitar Mid-Atlantic Regional Champion—walk up behind a giant inflatable rabbit (a reference to the cover of Rush’s 1989 album “Presto”), grab its arms, and make the rabbit play air drums.
One guy was certain he knew me from Rush’s many Facebook pages online discussion boards. (In his defense, it was dark and late and he might have had a drink or six.) He leaned close to tell me there was a RushCamp code word for marijuana: “salad.” He promised to let me know if he found any. But I didn’t need him to hunt salad for me. All I needed to do was follow my nose. It smelled like a salad bar near the stage. And besides, I was having so much fun even a small bite would have been superfluous.
All weekend, RushCampers hugged and high-fived and high-hatted. We smiled until our faces hurt, ate until our bellies hurt, and came as close to dancing as you can to Rush, which isn’t very close. We knew, collectively, that we were reliving joy we’ll never have again in its purest form. It has been nine years since the band released its last album, three since they broke up/retired/whatever rock stars do when they are too old to keep being rock stars. There will never be another tour, never be another album, never be another new song. Rush is over, finito, done, kaput.
AND NO, I’M NOT OK WITH IT.
I went to RushCamp with my brother, Mike, so we could relive our years of fandom, talk about our Rush infatuation, and hear about others’. Our cabinmate, John Morrow, had a heartbreaking Rush story to share.
As we talked inside our cabin full of bunk beds and little else, John told me about the year that his wife, Robin, gave him an envelope. She’d written “Top Secret” on it and placed it in plain view, where it tempted him, taunted him, teased him. She forbade him from opening it until Father’s Day. Until then, their vacations had focused around her because of her health struggles, including a kidney and pancreas transplant. When he finally opened the envelope, he found inside it a ticket to RushCon, a fan convention. “You do so much for us,” she said. “You need to do something for you.”
That ticket was one of the last things she ever bought him. She died of heart failure six months later.
John, who has deep eyes and dark gray hair that drops almost to his shoulders, attends RushCamp every year to honor Robin — and to try to emulate her. Robin was outgoing, knew everybody, said hi to everybody. John is the opposite, but he uses RushCamp to practice becoming more like Robin. That’s helped him make close friends at camp. Many know his story of grief and have shared their own with him. “Having that connection was really helpful, knowing the stuff that was going on in my head, I’m not crazy,” he said.
RushCamp was a mighty fortress where the band lived on, and which no other topic or real-world problem could penetrate. “This is where people can go and be at peace,” Brunke said. “You talk to some of these people, they wait for this all year. This is their happy place.”
Though Rush no longer exists, RushCamp validates our passion, amplifies it, gives it purpose, builds community around it, and spreads it.
During Rush yoga — as Rosenthal led us in “downward snowdog,” inspired by the Rush song “By-Tor and the Snowdog,” and my back popped and cracked like a Neil Peart drum solo — I found myself looking straight at a woman named Gina. She is Rosenthal’s mom, 75, a grandmother of four. Her eyes twinkled and a dreamy half-smile creased her face. She bopped her head and used her fingers to tap an imaginary snare. I marveled at her late-in-life Rush fandom, reverse-inherited from her son.
“It trickles up,” she said.