It took a series of losses for the high-voiced rock star to confront his personal history. It all came out in his new memoir.
Weinrib, better known as Geddy Lee, played his final show as the octave-bending frontman of Rush eight years ago. At the time, though, he still held out hope for an encore, which didn’t seem unreasonable. The prog-rock trio was a giant of 1970s FM radio, filling arenas with a sound that melded the proto-metal of Hendrix or Led Zeppelin with the nerdy, noodling precision of Yes or early Genesis, while their graduate-level lyrics evoked Ayn Rand, Samuel R. Delany or John Dos Passos, to the delight of fans who kept coming back for decades even after they cut their hair and sold their Trans Ams.
Lee can talk eloquently about birdwatching, baseball and what he looks for in a great burgundy. But his response is blunt when he’s asked if he misses his band.
A band, it’s often said, is like a marriage. Except most married couples get to spend a few hours apart each day. A band eats together, bunks together and rambles together from gig to gig in that rusty Econoline or, when fortune strikes, a posh tour bus. And if that band is lucky enough to score a bona fide hit, the bitter battles over money, credit and fame can rupture the union as brutally as a divorce.
But Rush was an unbreakable unit from the moment Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart began playing together in July 1974. No 2-to-1 votes; everything had to be unanimous. Debates were fine, but voices were never raised; drumsticks never flew through the air.
“I mean, I’m sure there were differences of opinion at times, but they always managed to work it out,” says Terry Brown, who produced Rush over its first decade.
During the era of the golden god, when jean-stuffing rockers roamed the Earth searching for drugs, groupies and TV sets to toss, the members of Rush seemed content keeping to themselves. “Every night after a show, the girls would line up, and my God, you can even be an ugly bastard like me and get laid,” Gene Simmons of Kiss recounted in a 2010 documentary on the band. “And none of the Rush guys ever did. I just never understood it. What the f— did you do when you went back to your hotel room?”
The trio’s personal lives mirrored their collective commitment to the band — a relationship that Lee contemplated as he tried to cope with a series of losses over the past decade.
He lost Rush in 2015 after that final tour. He lost Peart in 2020. And he lost his mother, Mary, and their Saturday lunches and Yiddish one-liners, in 2021, when she died at 95. Those losses and the isolation of the pandemic left Lee, 70, struggling with an overwhelming sadness.
He had looked to his mother as a model of resilience. A Polish Jew, she had survived the concentration camps and found strength and purpose in preserving and sharing the stories that others preferred to forget.
So Lee decided to take stock of his own memories. And he began work on a project he had never intended to take on.
There never was a band like Rush. Despite the occasional forays into platform shoes and satin, none of them looked or acted much like rock stars. They mastered the kind of technical precision — experimenting with synthesizers and changing time signatures mid-tune — that gets you labeled as “classically trained,” which they weren’t. And in the era of headbanging and “Cat Scratch Fever,” they were singing 11-minute songs inspired by the epic poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
“Conform or be cast out,” Lee sang in “Subdivisions,” a 1982 song about the pressure to be like everybody else, which Rush would never succumb to.
“They lived that,” said Les Claypool, the frontman of the 1990s funk-metal band Primus. “When we toured with them in Europe, we got a lot of s— from the press because it’s, like, why are you cutting-edge guys playing with these old dinosaurs? … From our perspective, these were our heroes.”
And what about the voice of Geddy Lee? In truth, it ranged no higher than that of Robert Plant, the keening powerhouse of Led Zeppelin, but early on, the strained, reedy quality of Lee’s vocal stylings was arresting — instantly recognizable and easily mocked. “A guinea pig with an amphetamine habit,” wrote the Montreal Gazette. “A munchkin giving a sermon,” sniffed the New York Times.
It didn’t matter. Lee had heard worse.
Growing up in Toronto in the 1960s, the greasers teased him about the size of his nose and joked that he rode to school on the “Jew bus.” It was only when he became friends with Steve Shutt — a future Hall of Fame hockey star — that the bullying let up.
Mary had tried to prepare her three children for this. She told them all about her journey — how she and her future husband, Morris, were just teenagers when they were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. About the miracle of their survival and their reunion after the war, and about the antisemitism she feared they would face, as well.
Not long after Lee’s 12th birthday, Morris came home from work with what he thought was the flu. Lee remembers waking up later in the night to the screams: His father had had a heart attack and was dead at 45.
For the next 11 months, Lee found himself even more socially isolated, spending every day at shul to honor his father, in abidance of Jewish law. The experience set him apart and formed him as the nerd frontman he would become, forever shy yet anxious if he didn’t properly acknowledge his fans, never convinced he was truly a part of the rock star club.
Canada probably had something to do with it, as well.
“Growing up in Toronto, you were just sort of made to feel like a dollar’s worth 74 cents,” said comedian and actor Rick Moranis, a grammar school classmate of Lee’s. “You felt more like an appendage of the States or something like that. I mean, we drove to Buffalo to buy Beatle boots or blue jeans. … It felt very much like a foreign place that things hadn’t reached. Except on the radio.”
While his mother worked long hours at the family discount store, Lee and his siblings were left either with their deeply religious grandmother Bubbe Rose or largely to their own devices. Lee took to going to rock concerts with Shutt, and one day they both bought bass guitars.
A couple of weeks later, Shutt was at Lee’s house when Lee put a record on and started playing along.
“He’s just playing it. Boom, boom, boom, boom,” Shutt recalled. “And that’s when I knew Ged was going to be a bassist, and I was going to be a hockey player.”
Mary, boggled by the cultural upheaval of the decade, was unimpressed with her son’s musical acumen — and infuriated by his ever-growing hair. Rather than have a bar mitzvah photo taken of her son, Mary commissioned an artist to create a portrait. In the painting, she could keep his hair cropped.
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“She would go into his room with a scissors when he was sleeping,” remembers Susie, his sister. “And I remember coming after her and grabbing her and going, no, no, no, you can’t do this.”
Geddy spent more time in his bedroom, listening to music and practicing. Eventually he dropped out of high school, to his mother’s dismay. Yet the two were very much built from the same stuff, said his younger brother, Allan.
“There’s a Holocaust instinct that comes out, like no matter what happens, we keep moving forward,” he added. “In 1965, women don’t go and take over a business and run a store and raise three kids. And [Geddy] clearly has a creative gene that needed to be nourished, and that’s what carried him through. … That sort of survival drive helped him stick with it. And he was very fortunate to meet partners who were like-minded. That is the real miracle of Rush.”
So … I’ve got a brain tumour.
Sounds like a joke right there, I know — but alas, no joke.
The email from Peart came in August 2016, just as Lee was beginning to contemplate that Rush might really be over.
The band had come to a similar crossroads in 1998, after Peart’s 19-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident and, less than a year later, his wife died of lung cancer. But Lee and Lifeson had given Peart space and emotional support, never asking him to play again until one day he said he was ready. And so Rush carried on for another dozen years.
They had no trouble filling rooms. Long after the heyday of their radio-friendliest hits — dawn-of-MTV songs such as “Tom Sawyer” in 1981 — they retained a deep fan base of guitar enthusiasts, headphone-wearing bros, the quiet army of young men in suburban basements across North America who needed a little more fiber in their hard-rock diet and didn’t care if it was no longer “cool.”
(And yes, it was mostly guys, which is why the scene of Paul Rudd and Jason Segel air-guitar-bonding at a Rush concert in the 2009 comedy “I Love You, Man” felt so true.)
Lee was frustrated when an exhausted Peart limited their 40th-anniversary tour to 30 dates in 2015, opting to go home rather than extend to Europe. Still, he hoped his friend would come around again — that Rush would carry on again, eventually. Until he got the email.
For the next three years, Lee maintained a promise not to talk about Peart’s illness, even when other friends tried to ask about him. The drummer was so private, he hired a publicist to keep the news from getting out.
“The thing he feared most was people sitting in his driveway singing ‘Closer to the Heart’ while he was going through this thing,” Lifeson says. “He was a very private person. If you became his friend, he was wonderful. But if not, he could be very aloof and tough.”
Lee and Lifeson would fly out to visit Peart, or “Peke” as they called him, in connection with some long-ago joke. Peart would pour them two fingers of Macallan, and then they would make fun of Lifeson (or “Leke,” as they called him).
One day, instead of offering him ice, Peart asked if Lee wanted bacon. He also wrote Lee a note addressing him as “Baby.” Lee’s many nicknames within the band included Deke, Dirk, Dekey — but never Baby, and this left him deeply rattled.
“He’s losing his life, but I’m watching his gray cells diminish, and this was the most incredible mind that I had personally known so intimately,” Lee recalled.
Nancy Young, his wife of 47 years, suggested he find a therapist to try to cope with his friend’s illness. It wasn’t enough, and soon he saw his mother begin to fail, as well. He began to consider the gravity of all this, “the potential of losing a life’s worth of memories.”
He talked about his grief with his friend Daniel Richler, a onetime punk rocker turned DJ and TV host, who lost his mother around the same time. They had worked together on “Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass,” a more-than-400-page chronicle of Lee’s collection of instruments from 2018. Richler proposed a new exercise.
“I didn’t immediately suggest he write a memoir,” Richler recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s just send each other some amusing anecdotes by email of the earliest things we can remember in life, just for fun.’”
Lee would sit on his couch, punching out memories as they came back to him. The day he met Lifeson, through an introduction from their mutual pal Shutt. His first kiss with Nancy, then a redheaded teenager, in 1971. His trip with his mother to Poland, where they toured the barracks and gas chambers at Auschwitz, the World War II death camp run by Nazi Germany. All the early days of Rush, from their production choices to their sartorial decisions (those silk robes!). His gradual embrace of his Jewish identity (years after Kiss’s Simmons, also Jewish, told him to avoid wearing his mezuza necklace while they were touring the South).
Richler would read his work, fix a word or a sentence, or nudge him to explore a moment more deeply. Sure, that dinner was “great fun.” But tell me more about it.
“It was like a detective story,” Lee says now. “It was me trying to remember. So it became a memory game. And maybe after a few weeks, Daniel said, ‘You’re writing a book?’ I said, ‘I am.’”
“My Effin’ Life,” which will be released Tuesday by HarperCollins, is in effect the project that publishers had been trying to coax Lee into writing for years. But Lee wasn’t yet ready to look back. “My story is not finished. And I didn’t even like to think of my life as a story. And God, it’s such a self-conscious, in a way egotistical thing to do, to think your life is so f—ing important you have to put it down on paper.”
But writing helped as he considered his losses. So much so that the manuscript swelled to 1,200 pages long. (There would be editing.)
“He needed to do this,” Young said. “To sit down and really write about Neil and his mom and the history. It was really very cathartic. I could see it.”
Late in “My Effin’ Life,” the author reconsiders his dream of an encore.
He thought he had said goodbye to Rush. But then, last year, Rush fanboy Dave Grohl called with a request. He was putting on a pair of star-studded tribute concerts, one in London, one in L.A., to pay tribute to his late Foo Fighters drummer, Taylor Hawkins, who had died that March. Would Lee and Lifeson perform?
They had hesitations. How could they play without Peart? Would fans assume that Rush was reuniting without him? And who, literally, could handle the gig? Rush songs are hard. But they finally enlisted a few ringers — Tool’s Danny Carey, Omar Hakim, Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Grohl himself on a section of “2112,” a classic Rush epic from 1976, clocking in at 20 minutes.
It felt good to hang out with musicians and remember how much Rush was loved, and even better to stretch out with Lifeson on three of their signature songs. At the after-party, Paul McCartney congratulated them and urged them to get back on the road.
“It had been a taboo subject, and playing those songs again with a third person was the elephant in the room, and that kind of disappeared,” Lee said. “It was nice to know that if we decide to go out, Alex and I, whether we went out as part of a new thing, or whether we just wanted to go out and play Rush as Rush, we could do that now.”
Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. But in October 2022, for the first time in years, Lee and Lifeson went down into Lee’s home studio and jammed.
The idea lingers. Lifeson was excited as offers rolled in after the Hawkins shows. Then he thought about sitting in a hotel room as he waited for the next gig. He also had surgery in July for his long-standing stomach problems. He’s improving but still wakes up feeling nauseated.
Does Lee plan on nudging his pal to get back onstage? Of course not. He doesn’t even plan to bring it up.
“He needs to feel good and feel healthy and strong,” Lee says. “And then maybe we have a discussion.”