Long ago (autumn, 1971) in a galaxy far, far away (Cedar Rapids), two eighteen-year-old girls spent their first few months of college drifting off to sleep each night with the same album on the turntable. The music was side B of the album “The Circle Game,” by Tom Rush, and the girls were me and my roommate, Eden (her preferred pseudonym).
Until I went to college, I had never heard of Tom Rush. His music was just one of many things I encountered for the first time. I learned about some of these new things in class, from my professors and the readings and film viewings they assigned. The novels of Marcel Proust, the films of Ingmar Bergman, for example. Other things I learned outside of class. Musicians like Dave Mason and Buffy St. Marie; foods like bagels and burritos. (My childhood was pretty tame.)
I knew the song Rush used to name his album, having heard it sung by Joni Mitchell, who wrote it. But to hear this song rendered in the gorgeous baritone of Tom Rush was a revelation. The album as a whole was eclectic, scattered as it was with up-tempo songs like “Sunshine, Sunshine” and pensive instrumentals like “Rockport Sunday.” Rush was a singer-songwriter who was not afraid to cover other people’s tunes, drawing attention to the work of musicians who, like Mitchell, were just starting out. My favorite was one he composed himself: “No Regrets,” the last one on that album.
Not long ago, my husband got out his old turntable and amp, clearing a space for them as well as for a few hundred albums. We’d put them away years ago, after he borrowed a piece of equipment that turned them into compact discs. CDs are so much more, well, compact. You can throw them in the car for a long drive, or, if you’re as old-school as we are, pop them into a boom box for portable sound.
But I missed our albums. We had hundreds. We’d already done the compare-and-purge that couples do when they move in together, taking delight in how many duplicates we had, knowing this meant we were compatible. Bob had a lot more records than I, in a much broader range of genres. Not just rock, but jazz, blues, African, reggae, folk-rock, honky-tonk. He’s a musician; I was more of a groupie.
I didn’t just “like” the Beatles. I was in love with them, the way only a preteen girl can be “in love” even before she knows anything about the birds and bees. I wanted to live with all of them, one big happy commune where sex didn’t figure in because I had no idea what that was. Even after I became fully educated, I still felt a pang when I heard those voices on the radio, and I was devastated when John – my favorite – was senselessly gunned down.
Eventually, I learned to appreciate the music for the way it sounded, the way it made me feel, rather than the way the lead singer looked. I stopped caring about the biographical details and spent more time being impressed by the talent laid down on the tracks. Any time I was alone at home, I would take out my favorite Allman Brothers album, crank up the volume and dance around my dining room all alone. I was definitely not in love with Greg Allman, but I sure did like his voice.
I learned to really enjoy female singers, too, for their talent and virtuosity and their way with words. Women like Bonnie Raitt making John Denver’s “Too Long at the Fair” sound like a prayer; or Joan Armatrading stopping me in my tracks until she had sung “Everyday Boy” from start to finish. (Find them on YouTube!)
Now that I’m older and it seems that every week another great musician dies (Richie Havens, Lou Reed) or is robbed of a beautiful voice (Linda Ronstadt’s Parkinson’s; Gordon Lightfoot’s stroke), I find myself looking up the names of the ones who got me through so many times, both joyous and desolate, wondering, Are you still here?
And so it was that I went to Wikipedia to look up Tom Rush. All I wanted to know was whether or not he was still alive. I didn’t expect him to be still writing songs, still singing or performing. So I was thrilled to learn that not only is he alive, he is touring, and would be playing at the Opera House in Stoughton, Wisconsin, in late February. We made reservations, crossed our fingers for good weather, and booked a motel room in Madison to crash in after the show.
I worried, though. What if his voice was only a shadow of what it had been? Could it hold up to my memories of those nights falling asleep to that brilliant handful of songs all those years ago? Would the applause be only polite, a token admiration for what had once been?
People, I am here to tell you: Tom Rush has not lost a thing. If anything, his voice has become richer, more resonant, even as he sings songs at age 74 he must surely be a little tired of. Did he sing every song from that old album? He did not. Did he tell funny stories that had the audience in stitches? That he did. After suggesting we sing along to an impossibly complicated song, he called out, “Ladies over 40!” He knew his audience.
And then, his now-white head of curls glowing like a halo in the stage lights, he sang the last two songs from that album, the ones that carried Eden and me to sleep so long ago. No regrets, indeed.