GEDDY LEE and myself are sitting face-to-face, staring into each other's eyes across a flimsy Formica table.
We're the sole occupants of a clinical cubicle somewhere in the backstage bowels of the Brighton Centre.
The Rush vocalist/bassist/keyboard player sips at a foamy combination of Guinness and lager, waiting. patiently for that first deeply penetrative, incisive, soul-searching, getting-to-the-heart-of-the-matter Bartonian question.
But instead the journalist, whose fearsome interviewing technique has been said to make a Gestapo officer sound about as vicious as Des O'Conner, is for once completely silent.
Fiddling with the controls to my tape recorder, my mind is in a turmoil. It's spinning with so many furious facts I'm afraid that if I do try to speak my vocal chords will produce nothing but gobbledegook.
Lee raises a quizzical brow as if to enquire, 'Well, shall we begin?' And I realise that there's nothing to do but swallow my pride and come straight out with the pathetic admission that...
"Ulp. Sorry, Geddy. But the problem is, I haven't got the faintest idea where to start."
The original Maple Leaf Mayhem Merchant is sympathetic. "That's alright," he drawls, "I understand. After all, it has been a hell of a long time since we had a chat."
And therein lies the crux of the matter. By my reckoning it's well over three years since we pair engaged in a serious head-to-head (unearth your copy of Sounds dated February 25, 1978 if you don't believe me). And a whole lot of water has spurted out of the Fountain Of Lamneth since then.
Why such a massive gap between encounters? Well, briefly, the story goes like this...
While Rush were going through their sword and sorcery slanted phase I was their biggest fan. Up to and including their 'transition' album 'A Farewell To Kings' I'd been very much in tune with the band, liking best tracks of the 'By-Tor And The Snow Dog' ilk, but generally and genuinely enthusing about the Torontonians every step of the way.
However a turning point came when the group decided to relinquish their status as the Tolkiehesque titans of the HR genre and move on to pastures new. And the 'Kings' follow-up 'Hemispheres' finally turned things sour for me. Setting little store by their awesome musical ability and potential highbrow appeal, I reckoned that Rush had metamorphosed into nothing less than a turgid, tortuous technorock trio. And my enthusiasm for the band waned considerably.
So it was that after a garbled and inconclusive 'Hemispheres' review I decided to cop out, hand over the helm to John Gill, jump ship and tread water while Rush steamed over the horizon.
WHICH MAY well be fine and dandy. But at the same time I can hear you ask: If that's all true, then why on Earth are you talking - or attempting to talk - to Geddy Lee now?
Well it seemed like a good idea at the time - y'know, 'writer back on the case after three album absence' or whatever. But right now, bearing in mind my tongue-tied state, I'm really not so sure.
You see, I've so much to say and no idea which subject to raise first. Except maybe...'Hemispheres' itself?
"Yeah, I remember your review."
Lee pipes up and I realise I must have uttered the album title under my breath. And our Ged, true professional that he is, remembers the gist...
"You couldn't decide whether the LP was the best or worst thing we've ever done, isn't that right?"
"That was the most disgusting case of fence-sitting I've ever come across!"
We both laugh and suddenly, thankfully, with the ice broken, the words start to flow. I mention that, to me, the single most disappointing aspect of 'Hernispheres' was the unsatisfying conclusion to 'Cygnus X-l'. And from here on in there's no looking back...
Geddy: "It took a left turn, that tune. We did the first part on 'Kings' and that was great, but when we sat down to write the second section we discovered that we really didn't know where to take it. But we'd already said 'to be continued', so we knew we had to do something..."
I was expecting some sort of gargantuan Star Wars epic set to music - not a heap of Greek god guff.
Geddy: "Neil (Peart, Rush drummer) had been working on this whole Apollo/Dionysus theme for some time, it wasn't originally supposed to be part of 'Cygnus'. But then after several discussions we thought, 'well, maybe we can combine the two ideas and kill two birds with one stone. And in the end we were quite pleased with the way it went.
"But that album 'Hemispheres' was a real nightmare to make. We spent three months between Rockfield, Advision and Trident putting it together, and that really took a lot out of us."
Why was it so difficult to record?
Geddy: "Well, when we came over to write it we really didn't know what we were going to do. It was one of those 'OK, let's go to the studio and get it together' things. And then we started working on it and what we initially ended up with was difficult for us to even play! So we had to go through the whole process of composing it, rehearsing it, learning it and recording it all at the same time and it just took such a big hunk out of all of us that by the end of it all we didn't know what it was sounding like any more.
"We knew we were happy with it and pleased with what weld done, but we couldn't see it in its proper perspective -we'd, just spent too long on it. But, by the same token, I think that the LPs following it were consequently much easier to record. We thought, well, we've done the epic thing to death now, it's time to get our heads clear of that, just brush it all away. Which is what we did with the next couple of albums."
Even as it stands at the moment you've enough massive works in your repertoire to enable you to play a 12 hour set...if, of course, you wanted to.
Geddy: "It came to a point where we had to make a major decision, We had to ask ourselves what we wanted to do, did we want to become known as a band that just does epics? Doing a 20 minute tune is good for us as musicians, it's a real challenge. And as a songwriter you really have to pace your material - it's a lot of work and it's really good to get your technical things and your craft together. But conceptually, we thought, it was all getting a little, bit stale. That's why we decided to assimilate all these many, many experiments that we call albums and see what we could come up with just as good songwriters. And that's when I think we found a happier place to be."
'MOVING PICTURES', Rush's most recent studio LP, is the best example of this new, more concise way of thinking. Tracks like 'Tom Sawyer' and 'Red Barchetta' clock in around the 'mere' four to six minute mark and yet still manage to say an enormous amount.
Geddy: "Feel is becoming so much more important in our music. 'Moving Pictures' is the first LP we've recorded that we can sit back and listen to and say, hey, this doesn't sound forced in anyway, it's just, like, real natural. Before we used to worry about staying on one groove too long, we used to chop and change things, add lots of special effects. And before we knew where we were we had this kind of monster song on our hands.
"Now I think we're beginning to appreciate staying in a groove, and then maybe just shading that groove a little bit...that's where we've been concentrating our energies. And I like it myself, I think doing what we're doing makes for much better rock songs."
In the future, is there any chance of a return of the sword and sorcery number?
Geddy: "It's unlikely to be honest with you, Geoff. That's the difficult thing about being a fan of a band - any band. I've done the same sort of thing myself, you sort of tune into a group in a particular moment, you're drawn in by the material they were playing at that particular stage in their career.
"But from our point of view, we cannot stay in that moment. That's why so many groups break up - they figure, well, we'll keep on doing the same thing. But after a while they become bored and complacent and stop caring about what they put on record. And their audience stops caring, too.
"We decided we want to stay together, because we like working with each other. We reckon there are lots of things we can handle in the musical rock scope, eventually, So every once in a while we take a turn off on to a side road or something. Just to keep things interesting, you know."
One track of particular interest on the 'Moving Pictures album is 'Limelight'. Reading Neil Peart's lyrics, there seems to be one massive case of stagefright going on...
Geddy; "I don't know if it's...so much stagefright. Playing in a band, you have all these millions of things expected of you. And you sit there and you try to remember why you're wading through all these interviews and why all these people are demanding part of your time.
"Finally you go - no, it's all bullshit, the reason I got into a band was to play, and play for people. And the trouble is, most of the time you're in the limelight it becomes very difficult to keep ahold of and recognise this fact.
"Neil wrote the words to that song at a time when we were becoming more and more successful and we were finding it increasingly difficult to keep everything in perspective. And you know how people make you feel guilty when you start turning down interviews or you don't want to have your picture taken or you haven't got time to do this or that. I think Neil had something to say to himself, to reaffirm to himself that, yeah, my priorities are still right, I'm here to play in a band.
"So many people get hung up on the other aspects of being in a band, in the limelight - which from our point of view is the garbage side of the music business. And because of the kind of band we are, I'm sure that if we did get involved in that other side too much, it'd be detrimental to our music and affect our psyche, our well-being.
"The basic and most important thing is that we still enjoy ourselves, playing with each other onstage and writing songs. Sometimes, as with 'Limelight', you have to throw out these little statements just to get the feelings out of your system and make yourself think, OK, I'm still in the right place and I can continue on. In a way it is stagefright, but it's also fear in getting involved in something that could harm your career. This sort of thing affects all of us, especially Neil, who's not a very public person..."
A FACT reflected by his current, almost reclusive reluctance to pose for photographs?
Geddy: "It's all part of the same syndrome. We don't want to emphasise our faces, our offstage personalities. We just want to emphasise the music we play. Keep it the way it's always been."
Aren't the band taking all this a little too far, though? The pictures on the inner sleeve to the current live album 'Exit...Stage Left' are unidentifiable as Rush group members. Guitarist Alex Lifeson's face is obscured by his arm, Peart has his back towards the camera and is almost obscured by assorted timpani, and Lee is just a murky blue silhouette.
Geddy: "That was sort of accidental, but in the end it worked out real well. We just picked the photographs we thought were neat and different. But I take your point - and after all, it's a complete departure from our previous live double, 'All The World's A Stage', where you opened up the cover and, wow, there were three pages of pictures of us in action on stage. This time we wanted to be a little more subtle."
But the pictures could be of almost anybody.
Geddy: "That is the beauty of it. Having said that, there's no preconceived plan to hide our faces - but by doing it this way we'll be around as a band for longer. Which is what we want."
Continuing on the subject of the sleeve to 'Exit' for a moment, I couldn't help but notice your printed statement that 'for reasons beyond our comprehension, we (Rush) have become increasingly more popular'. Surely you can't be that baffled by your steadily growing success?
Geddy: "We are baffled in some respects. In others we're not, because we can see what's going on, the wheels turning, the machinery making you bigger.
"But you know before the 'Permanent Waves' album took off the way it did we were quite happy the way we were. However with 'Waves' it was suddenly a case of - pow! -and we're sitting there going, why did all this suddenly happen?"
Obviously it was something you were working towards, though...
"I suppose so. But like I said, before 'Waves' we weren't exactly feeling uncomfortable. There was nothing wrong, we were making gold records, doing big shows all over the world...everything was fine. Then we just abruptly got so much bigger and, truthfully, we really couldn't figure it out."
BEARING IN mind the tedious 'fascist' jibes of the past, was it a conscious decision on your part to call the live album 'Exit...Stage Left' and not 'Exit...Stage Right'?
Geddy: "No, actually the whole title came from a character in an American cartoon called Snagglepuss. He's a great little creature, a lion, and every time there's trouble he flees, uttering 'Exit...Stage Left' or 'Exit...Stage Right'.
"But the fact of the matter was that the album cover picture was taken from stage left. And coincidentally that's the direction in which Snagglepuss runs most of the time. I suppose if we'd called it 'Exit...Stage Right' it would have made the NME a whole lot happier.
"And by the way, I'm right-handed. Did you know that?"
Why the decision to release a second live album?
Geddy: "It was just that the time felt right, if you listen to 'All The World's A Stage', we're just a power trio on there, no other instruments at all. Since then we've gone through a whole new development in our live show than wasn't represented on record. That was the real motivation behind it."
If 'All The World's A Stage' was 'a milestone to mark the close of chapter one in the annals of Rush', does 'Exit' signify the end of chapter two?
Geddy: "I've been thinking about that. The end of chapter one, if you want to put it in those terms, was very preconceived. I don't know if I could say if we even thought about it that way this time around.
"'Exit' may well mark the end of another - ahem - era, but I think these day we're letting things happen more naturally. Earlier we were hungrier, a little naïve maybe. We wanted to beat the world, swim upstream, that kind of thing. Now we have a more relaxed approach, we just let it flow. The next studio LP could mark a radical change...we just don't know yet,"
Reggae is just one new musical influence creeping into Rush's music (did you believe that onstage beginning to 'Working Man'?)
Geddy: "That's just the beginning of, like I was saying earlier, paying more attention to feel. Listening to reggae and the funkier new music that's been coming out recently, I think at last we're beginning to appreciate what the word 'feel' really means.
"It's coming out in reggae because that's the most obvious way it can do so right now, but I'm sure there'll be other styles coming to light in our music in the future."
And believe it or not Geddy is a big fan of the much-maligned 'New Romantic' movement.
"Spandau Ballet, Visage, Ultravox...there's some good music going down. The thing I really like is that the bands concerned are being highly creative, they're applying feel to technology with synthesis and it all sounds really positive. It's a happy music too, the whole antithesis of the punk movement which got too angry and hateful for me."
Not many people in Geddy's position as (maybe) a heavy rock mega-hero would have the nerve to say that kind of thing...
"I don't know why, there's nothing wrong with recognising good music, even if it's not to your taste all the time. As a musician it's my obligation to remain in tune, in touch with what's going on. If I want to remain a contemporary musician - a debatable point to some people, I suppose -it's something I've just got to do.
"You'd have to be considered a fool to ignore good music, no matter where it's coming from."
AND RUSH today do play good music, there's no escaping the fact. Earlier in the evening I'd watched 'em play a mammoth two hour set - a feast of hard-hitting hyper-complexity delivered with considerable poise, elegance and (thankfully) nary a trace of po-faced seriousness.
A long way from the band I saw play their first-ever UK date at Sheffield way back in June '77, to be sure - but nevertheless remaining recognisably Rush through it all, what with those idiosyncratic Peart paradiddles, jangly Lifeson licks and squeaky cLeen vocals... characteristics that will undoubtedly shine through any musical form the outfit choose to involve themselves with in the future.
But I'd be fooling myself if I didn't mention that I still hanker after (snow) dog days of yore and find it difficult to wholeheartedly embrace every aspect of this rapidly developing group.
To me tracks like 'La Villa Strangiato' and 'YYZ' represent the worst aspects of the current Rush style. The deadly doodling influence of these songs is at times overbearing, making for convoluted, calculatedly impressive instrumental breaks and causing me to lose sight of the band on several occasions.
It's at times like these that Rush become nothing less than a horrific hark back to the days of the early Seventies, when cold 'technique', finger-flashing 'expertise' and mind-boggling 'musicianship' were revered above all else and for completely the wrong reasons.
But with that out of my system it'd be doing the band an injustice not to admit that there is a lot to enjoy in the current Rushow - in particular, simpler stuff such as 'The Trees', 'Closer To The Heart' and 'Spirit Of The Radio' [sic], plus of course that compelling, cunningly constructed 'Stars On 45'-style greatest hits collection which closes the performance proper.
All of which means that, yes, after deserting the cruise liner I'm now back on board, But rather than being down below, I'm standing on deck holding my nose and with my life jacket inflated. Just in case.