36. Rush - Red Barchetta

Truly great songs need two things to cement said greatness.  They need music that gives you the feeling the first time you listen to it that you need to listen to that song again.  They also need to tell a story, lyrically that pulls you in and makes you think.  "Red Barchetta," by the iconic Canadian rock trio, Rush, is without a doubt one of those songs.  Since I'm usually transfixed by the music of a song, I find it harder to focus on the lyrics as I'm listening.  So songs that I think are love songs are actually songs about heartbreak while another song that I think is wistful remembrance of youth has lyrics that talk about abuse as well.

The story of "Red Barchetta," however, instantly pulled me in. The song starts with a fade-in of guitarist Alex Lifeson playing some guitar harmonics, slowly joined by some atmospheric keyboards and tinkling cymbals and muted bass, acting like the wavy lines in television shows that take you into that dream state.  Drummer Neal Peart, who also serves as the band's lyricist, paints the picture in just two lines, which bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee sings with gentle phrasing: "My uncle has a country house, that no one knows about."

The story of "Red Barchetta" is based on the 1973 short story "A Short Morning Drive" which appeared in Road and Track Magazine about a near-future where internal combustion engines have been outlawed in favor of newer, cleaner technology.  But the hero of our story yearns for the feeling of the past and goes out to the country to visit his uncle, who has a secret.  He's got one of the last pre-"Motor Law" cars in his barn that he's been saving for his nephew.  Every week, the boy heads to his uncle's for his weekly drive.  Illegal as it may be (and the consequences for being caught serious), the boy just can't help it.  He heads out to the barn and starts the car.

I fire up the willing engine,
Responding with a roar.
Tires spitting gravel,
I commit my weekly crime... 

As he heads out on the back roads, both the music and the lyrics of the song change their pace.  Gone is the drive-in-the-country attitude.  The pulse of the music becomes more frantic, matching the mood of our hero.  The lyrics change their style, too, transitioning into pure poetry:

In my hair-
Shifting and drifting-
Mechanical music-
Adrenaline surge... 

Alex's guitar playing mimics the spinning of the wheels and the roaring of the engine while Neal matches the rhythm with this high hat.  If you're really getting into the song, your adrenaline surges as well.  As I listen, I'm often struck with the notion that this is just three guys playing.  No keyboardist (Geddy usually plays them - and with his feet when he's too busy on the bass) here or lead singer who can barely play the acoustic guitar.  They sap every drop of music that they can possibly create out of each of them.

All three members of Rush are world-class musicians.  I would argue to my dying breath that Peart is the most talented drummer to have ever picked up a pair of drumsticks.  My argument wouldn't be quite as strong, but I'd put Geddy Lee's bass talents up against anyone else's.  Alex Lifeson is underrated as a guitar player because he often restrains himself to keep the songs from being too overwhelming.  And if I'm willing to give up my right pinkie to play guitar like Richie Sambora, I'd willingly give up my left to play drums like Neal.  I've listened to Rush songs for hours straight, intense in concentration over breaking down his drum parts.  And although I have never played the drums, I can do a pretty good air-drum to "Red Barchetta."  Although my wife would die of embarrassment, you probably wouldn't have to ask me twice if you handed me a pair of drumsticks.

In our song, the nephew has his own set of problems.  He's now being chased by the authorities in a huge alloy air car.  If he's caught, the car will most definitely be destroyed.  He can't let that happen:

Laughing out loud
With fear and hope, I've got a desperate plan.
At the one-lane bridge
I leave the giants stranded at the riverside.
Race back to the farm, to dream with my uncle at the fireside 

The song ends as it began, with Lifeson's harmonics, as the song and its great story fade from your mind's eye.

Great songs have great stories in them and the story in "Red Barchetta" is one of the most vivid ones I've ever heard in a song.  The scenes and images that fill my brain while it plays are numerous and incredibly detailed.  Even though the band never made a video for the song, there's one running in my mind whenever I listen to it, and the great thing is that it can change.  Every time I listen to it, there's something else that sparks a new image that I'd never imagined before. 

Whether you want to focus on the brilliant musicianship that fills "Red Barchetta" or the graphic nature of the lyrics, there's always something that can capture your attention, and more importantly, hold on to it.  When I first put this list together, "Red Barchetta" was lower on it, but when I actually listened to it again, up it climbed to #36.  It's a deserving spot for a deserving song, and I'm going to listen to it for the sixth time today, just to see what else my brain has in store for Neal's brilliant lyrics.  I suggest you do the same.

Maybe not six, but what the heck, go for it.

Just because I can't help it, I'm putting three videos up for this one.  The first is a video of the album version of the song that some guy did where he added appropriate pictures, because the band never did a video for the song.  The second is Rush's appearance on The Colbert Report where they took the band back into the offices of the show and had them try their hand at "Tom Sawyer" on Rock Band.  Pretty Funny!  The third is the video that the guys from South Park did for Rush's 2007 tour where Cartman, Stan, Kenny and Kyle are playing their own version of "Tom Sawyer."  That's not just pretty funny, it's damn hilarious.  So forgive my indulgence, I love to laugh.

(Fun Fact #46:  The Red Barchetta named in this song is an actual car made by Ferrari.  It was one of their first front-engine 12 cylinder engines that was specifically designed for racing.  For those wondering what one would look like, I found an image.  Apparently they made them in other colors than red, but the red, by far, was the best seller.)

If you'd like to read the original story that "Red Barchetta" was based on, here's the location of the article:

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