Thinking Out Loud: Geddy Lee
The Rush frontman on his voice, South Park and wine
Born in Willowdale, Toronto in 1953, Gary Lee Weinrib is best known as Rush frontman Geddy Lee.
Since first forming back in 1968, Rush have been awarded 24 gold, 14 platinum and three multi-platinum albums. Their last studio album Clockwork Angels won the Album of the Year award at the 2012 Progressive Music Awards. They’ve also been nominated for seven Grammy awards, and in 2013 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This is what Geddy thinks of his journey so far…
“My parents met in a Nazi work camp during the war. They were both Polish, and they were born around 45 minutes apart from each other, geographically. They were around 12/13 years old when the war broke out, and when the Germans came into Poland they were ghettoised and assigned detail in a work camp. They met on their way to the work camp to carry out the manual labour that they were being made to do by the Germans. Then they both got shipped to Auschwitz: she was in the women’s side and he was in the men’s. They both had a crush on each other, but when they got to Auschwitz they were separated, and my dad would do little things like bribe guards to bring shoes to my mum. After a while my mum was transferred to Bergen-Belsen [Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany] and my dad was transferred to Dachau [Nazi concentration camp in Munich], and they lost track of each other until the end of the war. But after the war he found her living in Belsen and they got married in Belsen in the camp. By that point it had gone from a concentration camp to what they call a ‘displaced person’s camp’, and after their liberation my mum and dad were moved into the German officer’s living quarters, and the concentration camp was burnt to the ground in a very controversial move by the English soldiers – they said it was because of typhus, but I think politically they just wanted to get rid of it. Anyway, they eventually got immigration status to come to North America, and they ended up in Toronto because my father had a sister that lived there already.”
“My mom was very open to talking about the war with me. We heard a lot of those war stories in our house growing up, and they were sort of normal to us. That sounds weird, I know, and it does plant a dark seed in your persona, but I’m sort of thankful that she did share them. I have a real appreciation of what she went through, and how lucky we all are to be here.”
“Losing my dad was very traumatic, especially for my mom because she adored him. She’s never really gotten over him, to be honest. His death created a lot of stress in our household because my mI'm had to go to work every day and my grandmother had to take care of us. We were just hitting that rebellious teenage period as well, and there was no one really around to keep us together. My sister was getting wilder and wilder, and I was getting interested in other things aside from school. I started to get interested in music and playing in a rock band, and I met this crazy guy called Alex Lifeson [Rush guitarist] who was a very bad influence on me – he was the first guy I ever smoked pot with. So our family was coming apart at the seams, and it was all very stressful for my mother. But she’s a survivor and she has a strong spirit. And meeting Alex obviously led to us forming Rush, so it wasn’t all bad.”
“The music industry is very different these days. Back in the day you’d sign multiple album deals with record labels, and they understood that it might take you three albums to break through. They were willing to invest that in a band because if the band did break through, there were massive record sales to be made. Nowadays, records don’t sell – unless you’re Adele – and it’s hard for record companies to have the resources to endlessly fund bands. So now you have to get your shit together on your own, and come to the labels with a finished thing that they can sell. You more or less have to develop yourself, or have some management that helps develop you before you present yourself to the wider world. In the old days it was much more of a partnership.”
“Cream were the first band that really sent me over the edge. I liked John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers back then too, but initially it was The Yardbirds, The Who and Cream that got me fired up about music. I begged my mom to buy me this guitar that my next door neighbour was selling, and once I got my hands on it I found that I was pretty good at figuring out songs by ear. That was kind of an awakening for me, in that I’d finally found something that I was good at. So I started out mimicking other people’s music, and it wasn’t long before I felt like I could do it myself.”
“The 70s were a very exciting and fun time for Rush. We were so green and new to it all. We were pretty naïve, really. Our first couple of shows were opening up for Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. They were just at the end of their tour, and they were pretty wild and burnt out. They had quite a following of hangers-on with them, and we were just mind blown by the goings on that we saw. We played the last four shows of that tour with them, and on the last show they were throwing pies in each other’s faces, which I suppose is the kind of thing you do at the end of a tour. But we had just started, and we thought it was crazy. Then we went on a couple of really long tours with Kiss, who treated us really well, and that was our awesome introduction into the world of rock ‘n’ roll.”
“Rush’s move from opening to headline act happened over quite a few years. When 2112 [Rush’s fourth album] came out in ’76, we started headlining small venues here and there – mostly in Canada. But we were still opening some shows through to ’77. After we’d done A Farewell to Kings  and Hemispheres , we’d sort of cemented the fact that we were a small venue headliner. But when Moving Pictures [Rush’s eighth studio album, released in 1981] came out there was a huge change, and a huge amount of reception from a lot more fans. But because it had happened slowly we took it in our stride. The success of that album enabled us to get out of debt, and spend more money on our shows. That was kind of the way we looked at it.”
“Trey Parker and Matt Stone changed the power of animation, and how animation can be used not only to entertain, but also to ridicule. They really make politics interesting to younger people, and in a country as big and diverse as America they’ve been a really important message conduit for younger folks. They’re equal opportunity embarassers too, and they don’t just stick to the right or the left – any hypocrisy is fair game with those guys. Neil [Peart, Rush drummer and lyricist] met Matt and Trey first, and he became friends with Matt when he moved to Los Angeles. He introduced us to them and Matt in particular is an awesome guy, as well as a big Rush fan. So there was kind of a mutual appreciation society there. When they were doing the South Park movie there was this whole blame Canada theme, and they wanted us to do the Canadian national anthem so they called us up and talked us through it. We did it and sent it off to them, and we’ve just stayed pals ever since.”
“Rush is definitely a polarising band. I think that’s partially my voice, which is quite high and kind of unusual. People either dig it or they don’t. And the kind of music that we make is complicated and can be quite jarring in terms of the time changes and aggressive nature of it. So it’s not easily digestible and you have to have a willingness to invest some time and energy into trying to understand it, and if you don’t have that then you’re not going to dig it.”
“I love wine. I haven’t invested in any kind of winery or gotten serious about making my own wine – it’s more of a hobby and a pleasurable pursuit. But I’m a Burgundy nut. I love red Burgundy mostly, but I also like white Burgundy and the wines of northern Italy. I like Austrian and German white wines, too. But my favourites are Burgundy. I enjoy hobbies that take you to places and if I’m interested in a wine region then I often end up going there. That’s been really good for me and my family – we’ve visited many parts of France as a result of my curiosity with the wine of those regions, and it’s a good hobby to have, even if it can be a bit expensive and wasteful.”
“It’s almost impossible to think of my life outside of Rush. So much of my life over the last 40 years has been as a member of Rush. But outside of the band I’m very proud of my family and my kids. I think I’ve been a good dad and I’ve always tried to be present in their lives, even when I’ve been away on the road. I’ve always done everything that I can to keep my marriage healthy, and that’s difficult when you’re an itinerant musician like I was for so many years, but my wife and I are both big travellers and we’re always on the road and looking for new challenges in our lives. I get involved in a lot of different activities as well, and I quite enjoy fundraising – I’ve done a lot of work in that area. So there are plenty of things that have kept me satisfied outside of the band.”
Rush: R40 Live is out now on CD, download, Blu-ray and DVD.