You might be thinking "Yet another old rock band is trying to make a come back," but you would be wrong. Although Rush has been together over 30 years, they've never really stopped playing - they just took a long hiatus. The progressive rock trio of vocalist/bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart has put out 22 albums, earning Gold and Platinum certifications right and left. "Vapor Trails" (Atlantic Records), the group's 17th studio recording is showing the same promise, as its first single, "One Little Victory," has become the number one most added track in three rock radio formats.
Not everything has been roses for Rush. Five years ago the band took a break. Peart had suffered the death of his wife from cancer and the loss of his daughter in an automobile accident and needed time to get his life back together. There were, of course, side projects during the intermission, but the intent was always there to get back to doing what they liked best - playing together - as soon as they were ready. For many groups, being on hold would have meant the end of their career or a least a huge struggle back to the spotlight.
Now Rush is on the scene full-steam. They have been touring solo - no opening acts, just pure Rush for some three plus hours, and have managed to sell-out their concert venues easily. The album is being snapped up by old fans, as well as new ones. The most interesting part of the Rush phenomenon is that young kids, who have no idea of the band's history, are discovering that they like this "new" group. This is little wonder, not only because of their music, but because of their passion. I had the opportunity to spend some time with Lee and learn more.
As usual, I want to hear about how it all began from the musician's mouth.
"The early days," Lee ponders. "The early, early days, Alex was in a band called Rush with our original drummer and another bass player. And this guy wasn't very reliable, so they called me in to fill in for him and I never left. That's how I got started with them. And eventually, in '74, we got offered a record contract, that's about the time our original drummer was not so interested in going out on the road and decided to leave. So we had auditions for a drummer and Neil walked in and blew us away and we haven't let him go since. In a nutshell, that's the history of the band."
"Was your family musical when you were growing up?" I ask.
"Not that I knew of at the time," replies Lee. "My mother and father were both Holocaust survivors and came to Canada after the war and so they basically were immigrants who came with nothing and kind of built a life for themselves. I grew up in a suburb of Toronto, a very modest lifestyle. I sang in choirs when I was in school and I think it became apparent to me that I could sing when I was younger. I took piano lessons like everybody in the suburbs did, I guess. But nothing extraordinary.
"When I was much older, I found out that, my father passed away when I was about 12," continues Lee. "I discovered after he had passed away, quite a few years later, that when he was in the old country, in Poland, when he was young he played balalaika (a three-stringed guitar-like instrument with a triangular shaped body which produces sound similar to a mandolin). It was my first clue that maybe I came upon my occupation honestly."
I query as to whether Lee completed his schooling or went straight into the band.
"I was actually a dropout," admits Lee. "I had a guidance counselor who was very accommodating in terms of trying to rearrange my schedule so I could stay in school and play in the band, but I decided that playing in the band was way more fun. I guess I was about 15, 16. I must have been 16, I was legal age to quit, so I must have been about 16."
Lee still had to work once in a while during the band's beginning.
"Once in a blue moon I had to work, but not very often. In fact, I'm proud to say that I've had very few real jobs in my life." Lee recalls, "I got a job painting a big theater one time. Alex and I were both stuck for dough and we got this job together. That was kind of fun. And when I was younger, my mother had a variety store, I used to work at her store through the summers and the weekends. And then I spent one fascinating two week period answering phones at a tool and dye company. That's the sum total of my real job experience."
"Must be nice," I muse and ask him if it's true that he's a big baseball fan.
"I love baseball, I like the Blue Jays," Lee says. "I'm a Toronto boy, so I root for the home team."
"Aren't you also into photography?" I ask.
"Photography was kind of a passing phase for me. For a while I was into it, I started taking a lot of pictures and I started collecting a lot of photographs. I got more into collecting art on a broader scale. I don't really spend much time with photography, lately any way." Lee explains, "I have about a million hobbies, I collect wine, I'm a huge tennis nut, I do a lot of cycling, bicycling, those kind of things, a lot of traveling with my wife. So those things take up more time. Of course I always bring a camera along, but it's not nearly as passionate as in once was for me."
Rush's music has covered a variety of themes, such as fantasy, the technical future and now it seems to be more intimate.
"This last record was, I think, in some ways more of a personal record of experiences, Neil's life over the last six years," Lee agrees. "And that's hard to generalize about lyrics, they just come out, whatever you happen to be going through at the time."
"What was it like to work together again?" I must ask.
"Of course it was nice to be back in each other's company again in a working environment, as opposed to a friendly environment," Lee tells me. "But at the same time there was a bit of mixed feelings, it was quite emotional on some level. There was a lot of, I guess, equilibrium to be found still and that took a bit of time."
I am aware that Peart writes the lyrics, while Lee and Lifeson work on the music, I wonder how they bring everything together.
"Neil will give me a few sheets of lyrics or thoughts he's been working on and Alex and I will be hammering away at music writing, collecting bits and pieces of music," Lee says. "And we start finding some music gravitates to some lyric that's there or sometimes I'll just feel very strongly that I have an idea melodically from reading a lyric and I'll just start with that melody and then build a song around it. So it can go a number of ways."
"How did you approach you solo project, 'My Favorite Headache'?" I query.
"That was kind of fun for me," Lee brightens. "I just kept a journal over the few years I was considering writing and I started jotting things down, whatever struck me somehow as worth thinking about. Eventually I started writing them into lyrical form and kind of started doing the same thing I do when Neil's there, except with mine, I can be more brutal with them."
Lee tells me that when writing for his solo album, he could tear apart his material without regrets or remorse. But I know that Rush tossed out just about every song to write new ones for "Vapor Trails" and I was curious if this was a similar experience.
"We just felt that we needed to keep our standards very very high because of our absence," responds Lee. "We didn't want to slip into any sort of comfortable mode where we could fool ourselves into believing that these songs were the best that we could do. And because the album was spread out over such a long time to do, we had time enough to step back from the material and see what was really great and what we didn't feel was so great and whatever wasn't so great we got rid of. In some cases, I felt the lyrics were really strong, but maybe the music wasn't so strong, just rewrite it."
"It was nice that you had the time then," I comment.
"Time can be your enemy if you spend too long on something, but it can also be a great benefit for sorting out the good from the not so good," states Lee.
"To what do you attribute your staying power?" I say.
"I don't know, we're a bunch of idiots, I guess," Lee laughs. "I don't know, it's hard to say. We just like hanging out with each other and we've always found something musically that we can do together that works. We've got a lot of respect for each other. For some stupid reason it just works out."
After the long break, it's interesting to see what Rush sees in their future.
"I'm really just enjoying the moment," Lee says. "I think as you get older, you just tend not to plan ahead too far and just enjoy the moment and take it one step at a time. Right now, I'm loving playing on this tour. The three of us are playing really well together. maybe the best we ever played together. And I'm really proud of the show we're bringing around and we're just trying to take it as many places as we can before we start breaking down. Just digging it right now."
Now I decide to try to play tough journalist. I have often heard that people think Lee and Rush lack a sense of humor, but I know they have had their moments. I ask Lee about "South Park" and it's many jabs on Canada.
"I think 'South Park' is hilarious," Lee bursts. "In fact, Alex and I did a song with them for their sound track, 'Oh Canada."'
"Would you like to do more with them?" I offer.
"I don't know, we're a rock band, not a comedy troupe," Lee shows his serious side. But then admits that he would like to do another song for "South Park" if invited.
Our time is almost done, so I ask, "Is there something that we didn't talk about that we should?"
"It's not for me to say, you're the writer, you have to make that decision," Lee replies.
"Fair enough," I give him. "But is there something you would like to tell your fans?"
"Just 'Hi!'," Lee grins. "I'm looking forward to playing for you down in Southern California."