DONNA HALPER ON RUSH
In 1974, a music director in Cleveland received a piece of mail from a friend in Canada. Inside was a record of an unsigned band. She put the needle down on “Working Man” & the rest is history.
That music director was Donna Halper. That unsigned band was Rush. Donna was kind enough to join me to talk about their 40-year friendship, what stood out to her at Rush shows, reasons behind the band’s retirement, & much more including an inside look at Rush’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
While this was supposed to be a podcast, due to technical difficulties, that didn't happen. But we thought you might at least enjoy reading it, so here's the transcribed version:
Jeremy Mills: This is The Jeremy Mills Podcast. We are welcoming Donna Halper, PhD. She's a doctor, but she's also the one that brought my favorite band Rush to the United States back in 1974 working at WMMS in Cleveland. She's that DJ who discovered Rush. Donna, it's my honor to welcome you to the podcast.
Donna Halper: Happy to be here. Just make sure your listeners know that I'm not the kind of doctor that could do surgery or cure their ills or anything like that. But I think the music of Rush has cured a lot of people's ills, am I right?
Jeremy: I'm a big example of that. You're a legend in my eyes. You played an instrumental part in bringing Rush to United States. You're also been friends with them throughout their career.
Donna: More than 43 years, 44 years, I think we're coming up to, now. And I'm still friends with some of their family and friends, with people at their record company and their management company. That's not a humblebrag; this is how these people are.
When I was backstage in 2012, when they came to Boston during the R40 Tour, the thing that I noticed, and I've commented on this on my blog, was how many people backstage were second and even third generation of folks who had been working for the band, or working with the band. You had the sound people, many of whom were now older, and their kids who were working on the sound for Rush, or their friends who were working on the sound.
The people who put up those speakers and set up the equipment on stage, they're people who'd been there since 1974. That is unheard of in the industry. Even the management, I mean, Pegi, the woman that was the vice president of the management company started off as a receptionist; she worked her way up. These are the most loyal people you could ever meet. It is really unusual in the music industry for a band to have the same people, or permutations thereof, working for them even years later. You know and I know a lot of musicians are famous for being divas. Like, they want the brown chocolate M&Ms as opposed to the blue chocolate M&Ms. They throw temper tantrums if they don't get the blah, blah, blah, or whatever. That was never how Rush were. From the day I met them, they were these down to earth, humble guys. It is really not surprising that even years later, even after the band members are no longer together, they still keep in touch with the same people, they have the same friends, and they are loyal to those people. It is just unusual. It is unique. It's just a privilege to have been a part of it.
Jeremy: Right. It runs deeper than the surface level of people being like, "Wow. This band. These three people have been together for 40 years." The manager, Ray Danniels, he's been there since the beginning. It's incredible. It's different.
Donna: Yes. And they're also unique because success never spoiled them. You saw "Beyond the Lighted Stage," I'm sure. There's a scene where Alex and Geddy are in a Tim Horton doughnut shop. They're just eating doughnuts and having coffee. Even when people come up to them and don't know who they are, like, "Aren't you a rock star or something?" It's not a big thing to them, even if you don't recognize them. They're still going to be sitting there eating their doughnuts. It's not about "Don't you know who I am?" They've never been like that. That is a very commendable quality.
People always ask me: do the guys in Rush know how much they mean to the fans? Yes, they know that millions of people really look up to them and idolize them, but it hasn't changed who they are as people. They are still family men; they are still people who care deeply about their friends. For me, it was like a breath of fresh air to meet some people who were not caught up in the whole rock and roll lifestyle.
Now, I understand, Neil never liked to sign autographs, and some fans used to get very upset about that. They would say, "Well, you know, we paid for this." No, no, no. You paid for him to get out there and play music for three hours. That's exactly what he does. Alex and Geddy didn't mind as much hanging out with the fans, talking to the fans, signing some autographs. Neil is famously shy. He never enjoyed talking to the fans, not because it's the fans, it's just it isn't something he enjoyed doing. He played his heart out, and then for the most part, he just left. I mean, there was a comment that was made to me. It really irritated me. Out on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, when I helped them to get their star, along with a couple of other people. We started a committee—the Purdy brothers, Kevin and Keith Purdy, they're from St. Louis, and a couple of other people. We worked real hard to get the star on the Walk of Fame. But we knew right from jump street that Neil wasn't going to be there. I was fine about it because I've known Neil for years. But there were some fans that were saying "How outrageous. The least he could've done was be there."
I'm sitting there thinking, "Excuse me. For all of these years, Neil did such a great job playing music, writing music, arranging music. He gave you a gift for four decades. You're upset because he didn't show up at the Hollywood Walk of Fame? Okay, whatever." But his wife was there. I met her, and I met his adorable daughter. Being there just wasn't Neil's thing. I wasn't upset. I didn't feel dissed, neither did the other guys in the band because the way they looked at it, this was just Neil being Neil. Neil does appreciate the fans. He just never felt comfortable doing the meeting and greeting and schmoozing. He avoided it. I was glad that he showed up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was just a wonderful and amazing evening. It really was one of the few times where he evidently felt like it was okay for him to hang with the fans. And yet, even there, when I saw him, he was mainly hanging with his parents and with the other members of the band.
Jeremy: I think Neil lays it out to in a song. He says, "I can't pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend."
Donna: So, after R40, Neil decided it was time to put his health and his family first. He had really bad tendonitis. Drumming became painful. He decided he'd done it long enough. I respect that. So do Alex and Geddy. He wanted to be there to watch his daughter grow up. He had spent years on the road, and now he wanted to spend time with his family. As for Alex and Geddy, at some point, they may collaborate on some music. They've talked about it. They haven't been able to get their schedules to align. I know the fans were disappointed, but some of them were upset with Neil, because he decided he didn't want to be out on the road anymore, I don't understand that. He decided it was time for the next thing. He has every right to do that. I don't talk to Neil much. I never talked to Neil much before. I talked to him now and then. I mainly talk to his friends, and I'm fairly close with one of his best friends. He recently told me, "Neil couldn't be happier. He's very at peace with the decision he made. He understands the fans were disappointed; but he felt like for his health and for his family, this is what the right thing was." If the guys ever decide to go back in the studio and write a new song, marvelous, though I don't see that happening. And if they never go back in the studio and write a new song, my God, they gave us four-plus decades. Where do you see a rock band that is still performing with the original members for more than four decades? You generally do not. It's been an amazing ride. I'm sorry it's over. On the other hand, I understand. I hope the fans understand too.
Jeremy: Taking me back to 1974, if you can, aside from getting that Rush record, what do you remember that day or about the time you were living in?
Donna: Friendship. Friendship stands out most to me. The truth is, while Rush fans years later thought it must have been an amazing day when I first heard "Working Man," when I got the record, nothing magical happened. It wasn't like there were rainbows or ponies; it wasn't magical. I was doing my job at the time. I had no expectation of magic. I was a music director. I got records sent to me, I had to listen to these records because it was part of my job. Some of the records were just wonderful, some of them were just awful, but I still had to listen to them. The thing that made this one stand out was not that it was Rush, because who knew? I had never heard of Rush. I never knew they'd become famous. I never knew we'd become friends. What made this one album stand out was it was sent to me by a friend of mine from Canada. I've talked about him before—Bob Roper. I'm still in touch with him. We still keep in touch on Facebook.
When he sent me that record, he was doing it out of friendship. He was doing it even though his label up in Canada was not going to sign this band. They didn't feel the band was ready. But Roper heard some potential. He and I had communicated in the past. He was a record promoter; I was a music director. He sent me music. Some of the stuff he sent was good; some of it wasn't. But this time, he was trying to do a good deed for some local boys. He was trying to get their music down to someone he thought might like it. It was almost kind of altruistic because it wasn't going to come back on him in any way. His label already said thanks, but no thanks. What he was doing was an act of friendship. He was sending it down to me so that I could listen, to see if I thought it deserved to be played and give these guys a boost. They were an unsigned band for all intents and purposes. They were on a small local label that they created called Moon Records.
There was no guarantee anything was going to happen. And to be honest, my first impression was "here's this Canadian band with the record that really looks like it was designed at someone's home." I mean, we're not talking a glamorous cover, but that's cool. Maybe, there's some good songs on it. My friend, Bob Roper, generally doesn't send me garbage, so he thinks there's something here. When I played "Working Man," I just instantly knew this was a perfect Cleveland record. There was no way that Bob Roper would've known that it was a perfect Cleveland record. He was up in Canada; he was in Toronto. “Working Man” just fit Cleveland perfectly. Now, when I ran that record downstairs, I was basically doing what music directors do. I got excited about a song not knowing that anything would ever come of it. I would love to say that it was instantly ponies and rainbows and flowers and a marching band, but no, it was none of those things. I cannot tell you how many times I got behind a song and nothing ever happened. I also cannot tell you how many times I couldn't stand a song and it went to number one. Welcome to life in the music business.
So, I had no way of knowing that the Rush album would take off the way it did. What I remember was taking it out of its manila envelope with the A&M of Canada logo on it. I'm like, "What's with A&M of Canada?" I saw the return address, I thought, "Oh, Bob Roper. Okay." Opening it up and listening to it and thinking, "Wow, Working Man. Perfect record for Cleveland. Factory town. I get up at seven yeah, I go to work at nine. Got no time for livin', yes, I'm workin' all the time." Who can't relate to that? Loved the hook, loved the beat, loved the music. I just thought it was a great Cleveland record.
Then the audience just responded. That made me incredibly happy. That gave me the chance to make some phone calls; I called their management and let them know that Rush was really popular in Cleveland suddenly, and that I needed some records. I needed copies of those records to go to the record store in Cleveland that sold imports. I got on the phone to the management company; I didn't know any of them. I talked to Vic Wilson. I talked to Ray Danniels. I was like, "Hey, you know? You guys are getting requests down here and nobody has your record." They were shocked because nobody in Canada wanted to play their record. Suddenly, they were a hit in Cleveland.
After that, getting to know the band, becoming friends with them, that was such a gift for me. But I would be lying to you if I said the moment I heard their album, I knew immediately. No, I didn’t. But I like how it all turned out: I got behind a new band, the audience liked it, the band became a success, and I got a friendship of more than four decades. How lucky am I? I can't complain about any of it.
Jeremy: Was “Working Man” the first song that you played?
Jeremy: But “Finding My Way” starts the album I believe.
Donna: Absolutely. “Working Man” was the first song we played. I still have the original Rush album. I will never sell it. I do not want to sell it. People have offered me money. No, not interested. Anyway, as a music director, my job is to see if there's other stuff on the album because people were asking. People liked “Working Man.” Then, they're asking what else is on the album. That's when we settled on “Finding My Way,” which, as I have said on more than one occasion, to this day, when I hear the opening chords of Finding My Way, and the same was true when they did it in concert, I would get the chills. It would just take me back to that time and that place where nobody knew what was going to happen next.
Jeremy: Not only are you friends with the band, you're a fan of the band. You talked about a lot of music that you liked. I know ranking the songs isn't something you like to do.
Donna: I won't do it. And I won't do it for you.
Jeremy: [laughs] Which is why I'm going to ask you...
Donna: It feels like asking a mother who's your favorite kid. I don't have a favorite album. I don't have a favorite song. I do have some songs that resonate more with me than others. That's just me. I mean, yes, “Working Man,” just because of the fact that it was the first Rush album, first Rush song, blah, blah, blah. There's that historical thing. I like “The Spirit of Radio” because of what's happened to radio. “Limelight” because of those lines about, "I can't pretend the stranger is a long-awaited friend." I am attracted to certain lyrics. “Freewill” has always resonated with me. “Driven” and “Time Stand Still,” both speak to me. “The Garden” resonates with me too. I could name you a couple of other songs. The reason I've stayed away from doing that is because I think everyone experiences Rush differently. I've experienced them as my friends. I experienced them as people who gave me a part of their life and changed my life in a way that I could never have expected.
I'm a working class kid from Dorchester, Massachusetts. It's a working-class neighborhood, part of Boston. I worked my way through college scrubbing floors in rich white people's houses. I was a maid. I was switchboard operator. I was a messenger. I worked five jobs to put myself through school. This is not like, "Woe is me. Poor me." I'm saying I did not come from money; I did not come from prestige. If you had told me, when I was growing up, that I would be sitting in the same room as Bob Seger or Bruce Springsteen or Fleetwood Mac or Rush, for that matter, or hanging out at the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I would've said, "Yeah right."
There wasn't a lot of opportunity for people like me when I was growing up. The opportunity to be in the music industry, the opportunity to meet all those celebrities, to get to know rock bands and to become friends with some of them—this has been incredible for me. So, my experience of the band is very different from other people's. I'm sort of a fan but for a while I was like Rush's big sister. When they didn't need a big sister anymore, I just became the person that was cheering them on. And through it all, it's been an honor to know them for so many years.
Jeremy: Good answer. Talking about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you were a big part of getting them inducted and were in attendance. Talk a little bit about what it was like being the room when Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins introduced them. I watched the video just last night to refresh my memory. I remember seeing Neil giving his speech and the crowd still standing throughout that whole thing, just out of respect. What was the energy in that room like?
Donna: It all started with Jann Wenner who was famously anti-Rush. There were a lot of rumors that one of the reasons Rush never got inducted over the years was because Wenner was opposed to having them in the Rock Hall. He never liked their music; he always thought they were derivative. There were some Rock Hall judges that also shared his view. It was pretty well known over the years.
Years later, a lot of those judges retired. The new bunch of judges come on, and they just outvoted the old bunch. It was like, "We're inducting them. Live with it.'" But it was Jann Wenner's show, so he got to come out and announce the names of the bands. He announced all the names of the bands, and when he got to Rush, the boos started immediately. The booing started when he walked out on stage. The boos got louder and louder. Everyone. Everyone was booing Jann Wenner. He got it.
He looked out at the audience. He said something like, "I know you hate me. I know you do." He wasn't being sarcastic, like "Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah. I know you hate me." He got it. He really got it. He was aware that there was some irony to his being the one to announce that Rush has been inducted. Then we started applauding. We weren't applauding him. You know, it's like, "You tried to keep them out, dude. You lost." When the guys from Foo Fighters were up there, and other people had mentioned long before the induction ceremony, people were talking online, other musicians were saying "I always admired Rush. I always respected them."
I was pleasantly surprised that Chuck D of Public Enemy said he always liked their music. He said he admired their musicianship. He even knew some of their songs. There are plenty of white musicians that like black music; there are plenty of black musicians that like white music. It's all music. And here was Chuck D, just giving his proper respect to Rush for their musicianship. It was incredible. It was such a great thing to be there and see that.
By the time the speeches started and everything—and don't forget, we had all been sitting there through various other people's speeches including the sort of weird Flavor Flav speech and the very long Quincy Jones speech…I really respect Quincy Jones, but honey, you've just gone on for twenty minutes. Give it a rest. It was the longest acceptance speech any of us had ever heard. And it led to Alex's blah, blah, blah speech.
Jeremy: Which no one knew.
Donna: Yes. Alex had two speeches prepared. One of which was the traditional "I'd like to thank my mother. I'd like to thank my father. I'd like to thank the Academy." That kind of speech. Then, Quincy Jones got up there and he went on. And on. And on. That may have influenced Alex. Now, he has never told me that Quincy Jones was the reason. He already had that other speech with him. Alex, has a great sense of humor, but he really was torn about whether he should mock the whole acceptance speech thing because so much of it is just people going on and on and on, and he didn't want to be that guy. In fact, that's why Geddy and Neil gave pretty short speeches, all things considered.
Geddy is famous for saying for years that he didn't care whether they got inducted. But when they did, his mother was thrilled. You know that old expression, 'If mama's happy, everyone's happy’? Well, when his mama was real happy about Geddy getting into the Rock Hall, suddenly everybody in the band was happy about getting into the Rock Hall.
Their parents were really thrilled because these are family men. Geddy's parents—his father is obviously deceased but his mother is still alive—his sister, his brother, his family, they were there. Neil's parents were there. They were not real healthy, but they were so proud of their kid, and they wanted to be there. Alex's family, they were there too. My point is, Alex partly wanted to give a traditional thank-you-to-my-family speech, and then Quincy Jones went on, and on, and on, and we're sitting there thinking, "I'm getting much older. I'm gonna miss my flight if this doesn't stop soon."
No offense to Quincy Jones or his amazing career., but I really do think that speech was one reason why Alex decided to do the blah, blah, blah version. He's always had this really weird offbeat sense of humor. Not everybody understood what he was trying to do, but a lot of us did understand.
Sitting in the room, even though the ceremony went long, I was so proud of the guys, and so proud of the fans. I knew that for all these years, there was nothing that we didn't do to try to get the Rock Hall to take them seriously. By we, I mean, a dedicated core of fans. We all did our parts. We signed petitions. We wrote letters. I approached the judges that I knew. I mean, we did everything we could to fight for this band. And then finally, to find out that they were in, and to be invited to see it in person... I'm serious, how lucky am I?
Jeremy: How many rock bands would still ride with the DJ who put them on? It speaks to Rush as people that they still look out for you.
Donna: This is exactly what I'm saying. They've always been appreciative of what I did for them. And I am so pleased that you care about this band. That you wanted to talk about Rush and that you wanted to talk to me. There's no logical reason why anybody should want to talk to me. I mean that. I'm not that important, compared to the band. Alex and Geddy and Neil are the ones who did it. As for me, I've had a great ride over the years; I've had a lot of fun knowing them. I've had a lot of fun keeping in touch with them and knowing their family members. Also, meeting fans all over the world and getting to know a new generation of people and feeling like I've been able to help tell the story. I hope I've been halfway interesting. And I'm grateful that you have a podcast, and you wanted me to be on it.
Jeremy: Thank you very much again. Maybe we'll catch up sometime down the road.
Donna: God willing. Thanks for having me.