Thanks to epic songs, fantastical lyrics and extravagant drum solos, the great nerd band of the Seventies rocks on through the 21st century
It’s Saturday at Toronto’s Rogers Centre ballpark, where the Toronto Blue Jays are taking on the Boston Red Sox. Lee and I are right behind home plate in his incomparable season-ticket seats, watching Boston’s Manny Ramirez take a practice swing straight out of Gladiator.
With his long hair, soul patch and round sunglasses, the 54-year-old Lee suggests either a French semiotics professor or an abstract expressionist. He’s often noticed but frequently misplaced. “For some reason, Latino people think I’m Ozzy Osbourne,” says Lee. “I don’t know ”“ big nose, long hair? Others say Bono.”
When Rush emerged as a hard-rock power in the Seventies, Lee entered the history books as one of the genre’s truly sui generis frontmen: gimlet eyes, ectomorph frame, noted proboscis. Robert Plant may have sung about Tolkien’s mystic realm of Mordor; Lee looked like he’d been there.
“In the early days, it was tough,” Lee says. “I used to sing really high and really screechy ”“ early influences were guys like Plant and Steve Marriott, the soprano-ish screechers. So every live show we got reviewed, I was just hammered to death. ”˜He sounds like he’s screaming after swallowing razor blades,’ or ”˜the damned howling in Hades’ was one of my favourites.”
But Rush were always an acquired taste. With Kiss releasing Kiss and the Ramones debuting at CBGB, the band hit its stride just as punk’s aftershocks had cohered into a few core standards for American rock. Three chords and the truth. Basic structures. Passionate lyrics. No drum solos. If rock had a Geneva Convention, Rush would be war criminals.
Their very existence defies most natural laws. Let’s start with a real basic one: the sex, drugs and rock & roll triumvirate. Sitting under Toronto’s former SkyDome, Lee recalls Rush’s US debut, at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena in 1974. “They asked us if we wanted anything in our dressing room, so I asked for some Southern Comfort,” he says. “I read that rock singers drank that before they went on. So I had this little shot when we go on, and I’m like, ”˜Holy mackerel!’ I’ve got all of 26 minutes to play, and I’m dizzy for half of it.” Behold Rush’s entire history of onstage intoxication.
Now for the sex. This won’t take long either. Lifeson is married to his first girlfriend, Lee is married to his high school sweetheart, and Peart was with the same woman for 22 years until she passed away in 1997. Of Rush’s 150-odd songs, not a single one concerns that rather popular rock & roll topic: chicks ”“ which, when compared to the likes of Kiss, makes Rush more or less the AV Club of 20th-century rock.
Sitting with his score card, Lee prepares to record the at-bat of Blue Jay and Rush fan Gregg Zaun ”“ who chose the band’s ’81 hit ”˜Limelight’ as his theme music. As the towering riff rings out in the arena, Lee’s real-time image fills the jumbotron, prompting a radio announcer in Boston to ask, “Who’s the guy behind home plate that looks like Bono?”
A young head-buzzed man in a Red Sox jersey appears by our seats. “Geddy!” he calls ”“ then bows with his hands clasped before him. “Thanks for the music, man.”
“Hi,” says Lee. “Pfft,” he asides, with a discreet grin. “Boston fan.”