Rush fan or not, there's a must-read story about the band in the current Australian edition of Rolling Stone magazine, penned by Brian Hiatt. It's a lengthy feature done in the old Rolling Stone style where the writer spends days in close quarters with the band members. He fleshes out an intriguing back-story to the trio's cast, and manages to extract a level of candor from the players that is surprising.
It was (Geddy) Lee who pushed hardest for Rush's Eighties transformation, after hitting prog overload with 1978's Hemispheres. Among other problems, they wrote and recorded the backing music for the entire album without checking whether Lee could sing over it. "We wrote it in such a fucked-up key," he says, his frustration still fresh 37 years later. "It was just the worst two weeks of my life recording vocals."
After that album – which kicked off with the meandering, 18-minute-long second part of "Cygnus", with Lee singing stuff like "As a disembodied spirit/I am dead and yet unborn" – the frontman told (Neil) Peart and (Alex) Lifeson that Rush needed to start over. "I said, 'Look, in a way we are becoming formulaic, just like all these bands that we can't stand'," he says. "We do the overture thing, and then we do this theme and that theme. So we said, 'What if we take six minutes and try to do something that's more tuneful but is still fucked up, with really complicated musical moments that have a different energy?' That's when we started 'Spirit of Radio' and those kinds of songs."
Lee has been friends with Alex Lifeson since they were nerdy teens in the Sixties. The guitarist set Lee up with Nancy Young, whom he married in 1976. Clearly, Lee has no issues with commitment, though touring strained his relationship with his family until Rush cut out European dates in the Eighties. "The worst thing you can do in marriage is to look at your partner as your wife or your husband," says Lee. "We decided to treat each other as if we were still boyfriend and girlfriend. That subtle bit of semantics helps a lot, I think."
Lee, born Gary Lee Weinrib, is the child of Holocaust survivors, and he traces some of his drive to his parents' legacy. They met in a Nazi work camp in occupied Poland around 1941, and had fallen in love by the time they were both imprisoned in Auschwitz. "They were, like, 13 years old," Lee says over a late-night beer in a sleepy Tulsa bar, "so it was kind of surreal preteen shit. He would bribe guards to bring shoes to my mum." As the war went on, his mother was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, and his father to Dachau.
When the Allies liberated the camps, his father set out in search of his mum. He found her at Bergen-Belsen, which had become a displaced-persons camp. They married there, and immigrated to Canada. But years of forced labour had damaged Lee's father's heart, and he died at age 45, when Lee was 12. Lee's mother had to go to work, leaving her three kids in the care of their overwhelmed, elderly grandmother. "Had my dad survived," says Lee, "I might not be sitting here talking to you – because he was a tough guy, and if he didn't want me to do something, I may not have done it. It was a terrible blow that I lost him, but the course of my life changed because my mother couldn't control us."
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