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“There was a period when we were doing cocaine just to keep the energy up”: A Q&A with Geddy Lee of Rush

Lee’s new memoir is about love, drugs, death and, of course, music. How the septuagenarian prog-rock icon found another way to use that voice

By Courtney Shea| Photography by Richard Sibbald
"There was a period when we were doing cocaine just to keep the energy up": A Q&A with Geddy Lee of Rush

Let’s start with the title: My Effin’ Life. What’s that about? I’ve been known to drop F-bombs. Originally, I wanted to call the book My Life in Comedy, because I often pause at the absurdity of it all. But my publisher was convinced such a title would be misleading. My jokes tend to be very inside.

You turned 70 in July. Did your age make you want to write it all down? I prefer to look forward, not back. But a few things happened to me recently. My mother was diagnosed with dementia before the pandemic. When I finally got to see her after lockdowns, there was a second where she didn’t recognize me. That really freaked me out. Also, Rush’s drummer, Neil Peart, lost his battle with glioblastoma in 2020. Watching him slowly disappear was horrible. Those two tragedies were preying on me. I started thinking about the fragility of memory and found that I had a lot to say.

Did the book help you process your mother’s decline? I always knew there would be a section about my parents. They came to Canada in 1946 after surviving the Holocaust. I wouldn’t be who I am without hearing about how they overcame their trauma. I wanted to know exactly what happened in those years, and writing this memoir forced me to do the research. I got to learn about Wierzbnik, in Poland, where my mom was raised, by cross-referencing her stories with interviews some of my relatives had done with the Shoah Foundation.

You write about how your parents’ trauma may have found its way into your work—in your anguished howls, for example. Was that something you were aware of when you were making the music? My friend Ben Mink would joke that, if his mother yelled at him, it would come out in a guitar solo. Music is a way to deal with the crap that’s happening in your life. My father passed away when I was 12. After that, we were no longer a happy household, which kind of forced me to run away and make music. But I wasn’t making these connections back then. I was in a kind of musical heat—dreaming—not thinking about things like, Where is this song coming from?

People love roasting your voice: “a hamster on amphetamines,” for example. Someone once said that I sounded like the damned howling in Hades.

That’s actually pretty cool. Ha! I was influenced by guys like Steve Marriott and Robert Plant—hard-rock screechers. Over the years, I’ve spent time expanding my range to be more melodious. But the real fans like it when I go all the way up there.

Industry folk wanted Rush to be more commercial in the early days, but you didn’t care. Was that youthful bravado? It was the friendship between Alex, Neil and me. It’s hard to fracture a trio. And, artistically, we always agreed that the very idea of compromise was offensive. For example, in 1975 we put out Caress of Steel, a concept album that was, admittedly, pretty weird. We were smoking a lot of dope at that time, trying to express ourselves as a progressive band. When the album came out, it wasn’t well received with the general population.

Did you consider following up with something a little more radio friendly? That’s what our label and management wanted us to do. They kept saying that our destiny was to be like Led Zeppelin or Bad Company, but we had other ideas. We refused to shy away from the concept album. Instead, we put out a better one about things happening in space. That album was 2112.

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Ah, yes—the album with the 20-minute opening track divided into seven parts. It didn’t make it any easier for us to get on the radio, but the word of mouth was palpably different with 2112, and it started a groundswell.

Geddy Lee in his garden

Rush fans are some of the most uncompromising and unrelenting in music. What’s your favourite fan memory? Where do I even start? Our fans are amazing. But I do think back to 2013, we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after years of being ignored. During the ceremony, Jann Wenner came up to the podium. All he said was, “And from Toronto—” and the whole room exploded.

What took the Hall of Fame so long? Prog rock has never been taken seriously, but many things conspired to get us inducted. For one, our fans kept sending petitions. Then there was Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, a documentary that came out in 2010. In it, you had Billy Corgan, Dave Grohl, Jack Black and others praising us. It became hard for the Hall to argue that Rush was not influential.

Rush isn’t known for partying. Were you cleaner than your contemporaries or just better at hiding it? You mean, what drugs were we doing? Honestly, it was strange living out of a bus. We once played 23 cities in 23 nights. At that point, we were doing a lot of cocaine just to keep the energy up. In terms of wild nights, when a band stays in a town for two days you can bet there’s going to be an intense amount of drinking. When we would open for bigger bands, people were constantly spraying beer and pie-ing each other in the face. One time, we pied Kiss in the face and they did the same to us. The hotel we stayed in got totally trashed. Someone took a giant potted plant and threw it over the balcony. They could have killed someone! But it was what you were supposed to do, I guess.
You don’t strike me as a potted-plant thrower. No. We were working too hard. And we’re nice Canadian boys.

I’m sure you met a lot of your heroes on the road. Is it true that this is best avoided? The first hero I met was Dave Cousins, the lead singer of Strawbs, whom I loved. We were opening for Nazareth in Montreal, and Dave was there on a night off—just totally wasted. I remember being in my dressing room, so excited to meet him and pick his brain.

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Not much of a brain to pick, I’m guessing. He was pretty sloppy. Then, around that same time, we met the keyboardist Billy Preston, who had played with Ray Charles and the Beatles. It was the night before the gig. Alex, Neil and I were all in our hotel room, drinking Southern Comfort, jamming, just having a great time. Then: knock, knock. It was Billy. He came in, drank all our booze and sang “O Canada” with us. It was the most amazing time. The next day, we went up to him and he had no idea who we were. He completely blanked on us. We had names for all these people: blankers, posers.

Who were the posers? Anyone who came backstage and acted like they were more important than the artists. Those were the posers. Later in our touring life, the production team created a Poser Pass, which looked different from the other passes to give us a warning.

By the time you hit your 40s, you were a hugely successful rock god. You were also a dad of two. Was it hard to marry those identities? When I was younger, I had become used to room service and sleeping until 2 p.m. Then I’d come home to the Beaches and be forced to take out the garbage and all that crap. But, as my bandmates and I got older, we came to enjoy those responsibilities. There’s something great about going to pick up your kid from school, making dinner for your family and even doing the dishes.

You’ve been with your wife, Nancy, since 1976. Any tips for marital longevity? Respect for each other is as important as love. Listening is also important. Those are lessons we both learned, but not always at the same time. For a while, we were living in two separate worlds: Nancy, obsessed with her career in fashion and raising our kids, and me, out on the road. That was not an easy time. We’ve done couples therapy. We learned that you need to have things you enjoy doing together. We both love to travel and cycle.

Rush came up playing a lot of storied Toronto venues that have become various forms of a Shoppers Drug Mart. Is that depressing to you? Ours was a moment in time. The drinking age had just been lowered from 21 to 18 in Ontario. Young people were turning the old taverns into rock and roll bars. That really sustained us while we were getting our shit together. I’m sure there are still small venues where bands play. There must be. They have to play somewhere.

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How do you listen to music? And what do you listen to? I stream music through four or five different platforms, like everybody. Last night we had guests over, and we listened to Bill Evans as well as an old Ray Bryant piano album. I listen to a lot of jazz.

I know you’re a big Jays fan. I’m a baseball fan, period. And I live and die through my home team. I tend to be away a lot during the winter and fall. Summer is when Ontario is at its best, and I love to go to a game every few weeks to see them succeed—or break my heart.

How’s the heartache? They were frustrating to watch this year, but there’s enough talent to fuel my hope for the future.

You started by saying that you prefer to look forward. What are you looking forward to these days? A lot. I’ve been working on a comedy series about bassists. The idea came from my Big Beautiful Book of Bass, where I interviewed fellow players. Most people think of us as guys who just hold down the rhythm, but there are fascinating cats among us. The show is called Are Bass Players Human Too?

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Are they? You’ll have to decide for yourself.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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