I was recently gifted Geddy Lee’s book “My Effin Life” (HarperCollins). Honestly, I’m not a big Rush guy. But to my surprise, the book is a thoughtful, insightful, and fun read, even for a moderate fan like me.
Geddy Lee (Gershon “Gary” Lee Weinrib) grew up in a suburban section of Toronto, the first generation of Jewish immigrants to flee post-war Germany (Lee’s grandfather was murdered in the Holocaust). He didn’t grow up in a household of music; quite the opposite, the family’s ability to get past the horrors of war took precedence. Years after becoming a successful musician, a distant aunt casually mentioned, “It’s so nice zat you have become a musician. After all, so was your father.” That was a shocker for Lee because his father never mentioned a peep about it. His aunt insisted that his father played the balalaika professionally, at parties, bar mitzvahs, and weddings. Lee states he was thankful for the DNA.
A returning theme of this book is Lee being Jewish in a strange land. “I was a particularly easy target: shy to begin with and self-conscious about my outstanding nose…I looked not just Jewish, but too Jewish.” He experienced antisemitism as early as grade school and is frank about being an outsider from the start. He worked hard to understand their differences and at times, found humor in most of it. Lee dedicates an entire chapter to tell “their story”, sharing details of his parent’s experiences in the war (complete with Auschwitz-Birkenau pictures he took when visiting the site years later).
His immigrant reality weaves throughout the book as he tackles his father suddenly dying when he was 12. Lee then takes the reader through the strife of telling his mother that he was leaving school to become a musician after only completing the 10th grade. “My mother’s pain and bereavement sucked the air out of every room in the house…she wouldn’t talk to me. It’s a standard quip to say that Jewish parents want you to become a doctor or a lawyer, but she really thought I was insane. Needless to say, my mom was disappointed in me, even crestfallen. My aunts and uncles berated me for my newfound independence or, as they saw it, defiance…I remember one uncle saying ‘You’re killing your mother! You rebel, you delinquent!”
Lee artfully describes his youthful dedication to 60’s rock and roll, the Beatles, British Invasion, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, and Zeppelin. Playing music with a multitude of friends, Lee playfully takes us through meeting childhood friend Alex Zivojinovic. He was also from an immigrant family; his Serbian last name actually means “Son of Life” (thus the world eventually gets “Alex Lifeson”). The free-spirited guitarist would be in Lee’s first band, kicked out later, then brought back for another iteration.
At 15, Geddy and Alex got their musician union cards, followed by the typical growing pains: playing birthday parties, weddings, dirt-bag clubs, and strip bars, then eventually small warm-up gigs. Lee has funny tales and shares his abundant experiments with drugs. Eventually, Mercury Records found the two members along with their original drummer John Rutsey.
Their first record struggled to get airplay in Canada (“Our songs weren’t radio-friendly either”); Lee weaves us through the miracle news that their LP was being heavily played…by a Cleveland radio station. Rush would get their break thanks to the big country to their south. What happens next is the typical classic story: sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Well, maybe not the sex. In fact, I found the book’s most glaring omission is that women, groupies, or even a one-night stand never come up. Lee paints a nostalgic picture of everything else going on for the band in the 70s; the reader can only (wrongly) conclude that they were secretly Boy Scouts when it came to women.
Soon the clashes with drummer John Rutsey took a toll; Geddy and Alex invited drummers to audition. In a single afternoon, five tried out, Neil Peart being number four (“A goofy-lookin’ guy with short hair and no shirt and his drums in garbage bags”). Although they did eventually audition Drummer #5, they immediately knew what they had in Peart, years before he would be considered one of the top 5 greatest drummers to play rock and roll.
The book describes the road-tested clichés of a rock band emerging to stardom: wrecking hotel rooms, playing shows while under the influence, being mobbed by fans, shitty promoters (Bill Graham), shitty opening act gigs, meeting their musical heroes, deep discussions as to their musical direction. It’s all very entertaining.
As for the music, Lee brings over-the-top enthusiasm to the topic. He and the band were “believers” in their abilities to make good art. He explains that Rush was always destined to be a trio, mirroring the greats like Cream. They never once considered adding session musicians. Given that, he had no choice but to play bass, keys, bass peddles, and sing, all at the same time.
The most gripping section of the book comes toward the end. Around 1997, Peart’s only child, 19-year-old Selena, died in a freak car accident. His wife, Jackie, was diagnosed with cancer soon after and succumbed to it 10 months later. The band came to a dead stop. Peart wanted to retire. Lee admits he felt powerless to help his bandmate, admitting he didn’t know what to do or say for several years. The band did return to the studio in 2001, but the recording process for Vapor Trails was tough. Still, they did some of the biggest live shows of their career until Peart’s untimely death in 2020.
As he closes the book, Lee leaves the reader knowing that he’s always been a true believer in doing what moves you….and not many moved us like Geddy Lee.
Photo: Geddy Lee at the Taylor Hawkins Tribute Concert, Wembley 2022 [ Raph_PH via Wikimedia Commons]