Geddy Lee, the legendary frontman of Canadian band Rush, has long been hailed as one of the greatest bass players in rock 'n' roll history. An award winning musician, Lee's style, technique and skill on the bass guitar, along with his trademark vocal style has left a lasting impression with music fans around the world. Over the past thirty-years, Lee and his bandmates, Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson, have released 24 albums; 23 of which have gone gold. They have also had 14 platinum (3 multi-platinum) records, making them one of the best-selling rock bands in history, placing them fifth behind The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, KISS and Aerosmith for the most consecutive gold and platinum albums by a rock band.
As the lead singer in a band, one would expect Lee to be a "showman", however in person Lee is extremely soft spoken, so much so, that at times his voice is barely above a whisper. Humble and modest, when asked about being called one of the greatest bass players in the world, he quips, "That's because there aren't many of us." After a moment's laughter he continues, "Maybe it's typical of Jewish kids. There are a lot of Jewish catchers in major league baseball and I often joke it's because no one wants to be a catcher, so it's the quickest route to being in the major leagues. Maybe being a bass player was my route to being in the major leagues."
Born and raised in Toronto, Lee's foray into the music industry as a bass player began as "a typical suburban story." "My friends and I were into music, so a few of us got together and started playing. No one wanted to be the bass player, so they pointed at me and said 'you play bass' and I went 'okay' and that was the big decision." Lee and his friends began to play for fun, but it wasn't until he was 16, when he started playing in his friend Alex Lifeson's band Rush, that he began to take music seriously.
Their first show together is something Lee remembers fondly. "We were scheduled to play at a local church drop in centre. We jammed for a few hours beforehand and figured out the six or seven songs we cold play. After the show, we each got $7 after we paid our expenses, so we went to the local deli and had French fries with gravy. After that night, we decided to take ourselves and music very seriously."
The next couple of years in high school were very difficult for Lee. As the band became more proficient and began making a reputation for themselves, the shows became more frequent, eventually forcing Lee to make a decision; stay in school or make music a full-time career. "Anywhere there was a gig, we would do it. This meant traveling to 'far-away' places like Smiths Falls, which meant that in order to make it on time, we would have to skip off school in the afternoon. And because they were at night, it was hard for me to get up in the morning to go to school. It was very distressing for my mom, because she didn't really understand what I was doing."
It was finally with the help of his high school guidance counselor, Mr. Woodhouse, who Lee credits as playing a pivotal role in his life, who helped steer the young Lee towards his destiny. "Mr. Woodhouse was great. He did everything in his power to get me to stay in school. He arranged all of my classes to be in the morning, so I would be done by 2pm. He also allowed me to drop any meaningful subjects that would require a lot of work, so I wound up taking Theatre Arts, Screen Arts, History and English. Still in the end, he eventually told me that I was waffling and would have to make a decision. I decided to quit school and there began the start of my professional music career."
After honing their skills on the local bar/high school dance circuit, the band released their first single "Not Fade Away," a cover of the Buddy Holly song, in 1973. The single generated little reaction and, due to record company indifference, the band formed their own independent record label, Moon Records. Eventually the band released their self-titled debut album in 1974, "we recorded it during budget hour, in the wee hours of the morning, because that's all we could afford," which had limited local popularity until the album was picked up by WWMS, a radio station in Cleveland, Ohio. Donna Halper, a DJ working at the station, selected "Working Man" for her regular play list. The song's blue collar theme resonated with hard rock fans and this new found popularity led to the band signing with Mercury Records in 1974. This also turned out to be a major turning point for Lee's mother. "When she saw me on TV for the first time, she realized that I was an entertainer and not just some drug crazed lost soul. Even though the music we were making bore no resemblance to the music she could identify with, she saw that this was a career for me and not just some lark."
While Lee and Lifeson loved making music, they had little interest in writing lyrics. As a result, that responsibility fell on drummer Neil Peart. "We noticed that Neil read a lot of books, so we pushed him to write lyrics and although he had never written a song before, he found that he really enjoyed writing songs. Alex and I loved it, because we wanted to write music, not lyrics, so it turned out to be a great partnership."
Over the years, as Peart and Lee matured as songwriters and musicians, Lee become a more active participant and involved with Neil's lyrics. A song that came out of a result of this new partnership was "Red Sector A," a song very near and dear to Lee's heart. The song comes directly from a story his Holocaust survivor mother told him about the day she was liberated.
"She didn't believe that liberation was possible. When she first saw the British soldiers she didn't understand that they were there to liberate her. She didn't believe that if there was a civilization outside of the camps, that they would allow what happened to her and her people. In her starving mindset, she believed that most of humanity had perished and that they were the last survivors. It was the only explanation she had as to why no one came to her aid. Her feeling and recognition that the rest of the world was intact and what she experienced that day is the scenario behind 'Red Sector A.'"
Growing up at Bathurst and Steeles, the young Lee himself was often subjected to anti-Semitism. "Although my neighborhood was Jewish, the area at that time was surrounded by farmland. Every morning, I would be bused into school where these farmer's kids would wait at the top of the road to beat my friends and I up. We weren't exactly a powerful group, so every day I would be verbally and physically abused." Despite the abuse, the young Lee did not tell his parents about his daily experience. Perhaps it had to do with his family background.
Born Gary Lee Weinrib, anti-Semitism was not new to his household. His parents, Mary and Morris Weinrib were both Holocaust survivors, who immigrated to Toronto in 1947, where they opened a discount variety store in Newmarket, Ontario.
Lee loves to recount the story of how his parents met. "It's a beautiful story, especially considering the context of how they met." Interned together in 1941, in a labor camp in their hometown of Staracohwice (about an hour south of Warsaw), Poland, somehow in the darkness of despair the two fell in love. From Staracohwice they were sent to Auschwitz. Although separated into men's and women's camps, Lee's dad would arrange little presents for his mother. He would bribe guards to give her letters and shoes. "When I think about the fact that they had a teenage crush in the most horrible of places, it makes me smile. I like to think about that." Eventually his father was sent to Dachau in southern Germany and his mother to Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany.
Despite their separation, their love burned strong. After being liberated from Dachau, his father went looking for his mother, whom he eventually found in Bergen-Belsen which had been turned into a displaced persons camp. "One day out of the blue, in walked my father - like a knight in shining armor." They were married in the camps and eventually made their way to Canada along with his grandmother, who had also survived the war.
Unlike most Holocaust survivors, Lee's parents did not hide their experiences from their children. Lee began hearing the horror stories from as young as eight. "My mother was always very forthright about her wartime experiences. She used to tell me stories of what she went through. They haunted me as a child and her stories are still with me."
In 1995, Lee and his two siblings (he is a middle child), accompanied their mother back to Germany to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. It was an experience that had a significant impact on the entire family, especially his mother. "My mom was standing on the ground where she had gone through all these horrible things and she just cried and said 'look, I'm standing here with my kids. The Germans and the Nazi's are gone, but I'm here. I won.' That was the way she explained it - like she had won the war. Going back to Germany gave her a sense of closure and I can honestly say she's a different person today since that trip. She is much more at peace with herself and I think it helped her complete a circle."
They also took their mother back to her hometown in Poland where they went to the house where she grew up. "My mom wouldn't get out of the car because she was sure there was a sniper somewhere. She freaked out when we got out of the car to take pictures of this tiny house and her bedroom window." Despite her fears, Lee recounts her enthusiasm at being back home. "She was like a little kid back home and we saw a side of her that we had never seen before. It was a wonderful experience and something that I think every child of survivors should do."
Growing up and even as an adult, Lee still feels the impact of the Holocaust in his daily life. "When you grow up with both parents who in a household of people that experienced the worst kind of anti-Semitism in the history of mankind, it's always visible to you and you can see it from far away."
One part of his life where Lee doesn't have to worry about anti-Semitism is at work. Quips Lee, "I haven't noticed any anti-Semitism because there's so many Jews in the music industry." He pauses, "the only time I experienced any kind of anti-Semitism, if you can even call it that, was when we were opening for KISS in 1975. Back then I used to wear a Star of David and I distinctly remember Gene Simmons (their bass player) coming up to me one night, (we were in the South somewhere) telling me that I should take it off, that I was making myself a target. I took it off, but looking back now, I don't think it would have made a difference; nothing would have happened to me."
Growing up, Lee had a bar mitzvah, however today he does not subscribe to organized religion. He considers himself a cultural Jew and celebrates the Jewish holidays. "I love the culture and personality of the Jewish people, but after watching what my family went through, you can't convince me about the benefits of organized religion." The father of two children, Julian aged 26 and Kyla aged 12, Lee has taught his children to be respectful and objective towards any form of religion and has given them the opportunity to choose their own religious path.
A supporter of the UJA, Lee also gives to Mt. Sinai Hospital. He is actively involved with Grapes for Humanity, an organization that raises money for landmine victims around the world.
However, what's keeping him occupied at the moment are rehearsals for a five month worldwide tour starting this June in Atlanta and finishing in October in support of his latest album Snakes and Arrows. Recorded in the Catskills last summer ("I joke with all of my Jewish friends that it took me 35 years to make it to the Catskills.") and mixed in Los Angeles, Lee is extremely happy with the new record. "This album has been one of the most enjoyable recording sessions we've ever had. It's also one of the strongest collections of songs that we've put out. I'm very pleased with the place that we're at. Considering all these years later, we're able to create together and still enjoy that process is exciting."
At the end of the day though, what keeps this rock icon going is his fans. "I love my fans. I feel incredibly honored and overwhelmed by the amount of fans I have from my bass playing. The biggest compliment for me is when they tell me that they love my playing. To me, that is the honor of all honors. It blows my mind and that's what keeps me going." Clearly based on his longevity and the enormous fan base he's garnered, it's clear that we're going to see Geddy Lee for many more years to come.