Alex Lifeson: The High Times Interview

By David Bienenstock, High Times, June 2012, transcribed by John Patuto

High Times Interview with Rush Guitarist Alex Lifeson: A rock legend recalls high times on and off the road, including the time our first issue inspired the creation of a legendary pot song.

When I first started working at High Times, I noticed a strange phenomenon. Every afternoon around 4:25 p.m., somebody down at the other end of the office would start blasting Rush. When curiosity finally got the better of me, I walked toward the music and found cultivation editor Kyle Kushman rocking out to his favorite band with wild abandon. It was like he was at home, in a smoke-filled basement with headphones on and a packed bong, instead of in the middle of a bustling workplace in midtown Manhattan.

Kyle eventually pulled up stakes and moved to the wilds of Northern California, choosing to leave Gotham's publishing world behind to pursue his dream of breeding the best medical cannabis on the planet. So imagine Kyle's surprise when I called to invite him down to LA for an interview with Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, who agreed to sit down with High Times largely based on a referral from our mutual friends, the Trailer Park Boys.

In 2003, Lifeson guest-starred in an episode of the Trailer Park Boys, in what was arguably the cult Canadian TV show's funniest ever.

"It's funny," Lifeson says. "In Canada, those guys are gods. I don't know how many times I've been out walking around and someone's come up to me and said, 'Hey, you're the guy from Trailer Park Boys!' Never mind the 40 years of records and all that other stuff: 'You're the guy from Trailer Park Boys!' Yeah, that's me."

The guitarist greets us on the roof deck of a hotel in downtown LA. He's in the city along with lead singer Geddy Lee and drummer extraordinaire Neil Peart to finish up recording Rush's 21st studio album, Clockwork Angels. For a man who's part of one of rock's truly chart-topping acts-a power trio second only to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for the most consecutive gold or platinum albums-Lifeson couldn't be more gracious or accommodating.


You founded Rush in 1968 and still seem to find so much joy in recording and performing. What makes this new album unique?

All of our records are thematic, but this one is a little more of an old-fashioned concept album in the tradition of 2112 and Hemispheres. We just recorded a string section yesterday for five of the songs-we still have to sit down and see what we'll use from that, but it sounded fantastic. Rush hasn't used strings in a while, and it's really added a lot of emotional impact to the songs.

How did you first get into The Trailer Park Boys?

It's funny-my wife turned me on to the show. The first time I watched it, in the first 10 minutes I thought: 'I don't think this is really for me ... I don't get it,' But by the end of the episode, I realized that this is some of the best stuff I've seen on television. And the more I watched, the more I learned that the show's really about friendship, and about helping each other and loving each other and always being there, no matter who you are or what you are or where your station is in life. Every episode ends on that note.

Do you see a parallel between that kind of ethos and Rush?

Well, Geddy and I have been friends since grade eight; I introduced him to his wife when we were teenagers. We've experienced so much together, within the band and outside of the band. There's a brotherhood that exists between all of us - I'm only highlighting Geddy because our relationship has been longer. But for the last 38 years, it's been the three of us - and we've gone through a lot of ups and downs over that time, but throughout it all, we've always enjoyed each other's company.
You know, you hear stories about how certain bands get along, or don't get along - separate dressing rooms, separate travel arrangements; they don't say a word to each other for a whole tour. I can't possibly imagine something like that.

Aside from the band, you and Lee also share a love of fine wine...

We both started collecting in the mid-'70s, I guess. Until then, our experience with wine was typically the kind of $3 bottles you drink as quickly as possible. But then a promoter named Randy McElrath took us out for dinner after a show and asked us if we had any interest in wine. He ordered a bottle of Château Latour and Chateau Margaux, and we drank those wines and they were spectacular. I had no conception of wine being like that - how it would transform in the glass.
Geddy's wine collection is to die for, it's so smart and so well developed. I try to help him drink it whenever I can [laughs]. On the road, after a show, we have a nice little meal - sitting there in our underwear - and we always have a great bottle of wine. Generally, we bring bottles from home, from our cellars, because that's the good stuff we always promise to share.

Do you see any parallels between the connoisseurship of wine and cannabis?

Well, yeah ... when I first started smoking pot, it was probably mostly Mexican pot, and occasionally you'd get something from South America. Very, very rarely would you get Thai Stick or Cambodian or something from that part of the world.
I think the first time I smoked pot was in the fall of 1967. I remember smoking a joint in the back of a plaza, hiding behind the garbage bins. I can't remember if I really got high from it or what exactly, but certainly in those days and in the early '70s, the quality was very limited. I mean, now there is much more sophistication among the growers - they know how to bring up the quality.
Wine has evolved the same way, in the same time frame. The California wine scene in the early '70s was really a dozen or so wineries. Now, there are hundreds, including small producers that arguably make the best wines in the world. And I think cannabis has become like that - a lot more sophisticated. The boomer generation has grown older, and it's a whole different scene now. I know so many people my age that smoke pot just as part of their normal routine of having dinner, then doing the dishes, and then having a puff before watching a movie or finishing some work from the day or whatever.

So you support full legalization for adults?

I do. In fact, the Liberal Party in Canada just endorsed legalization, and I think that's a very smart move on their part. Meanwhile, the current Conservative government wants to bring back more stringent laws and rules against pot. Personally, I just think, at the end of the day, who cares if people want to smoke some pot? More trouble happens with alcohol than with pot, so we have to start viewing the issue more sensibly.

Do you consider yourself a libertarian?

I think I'm a liberal. I'm certainly socially liberal. And I think government can play an important role in our lives, which libertarians don't believe.
As far as our album 2112 and the tribute to Ayn Rand - I read one of her books, but she was a little too far out for me. For Neil, it was a period in his life, and now he's kind of moved on.

The struggle between the free individual and the power of the state has always been a theme for Rush. From when you guys started as a band until now, how do you see that pendulum swinging?

I think it's swinging forcefully in the wrong direction. I can't understand what's happened to my generation: We were the generation of free-thinking people, even in terms of pot. But as we've gotten older, we've become more conservative, and it's the people that I thought of as holding up the banner of liberty that are now very close-minded.

So you agree with the libertarian argument against marijuana prohibition, but you're not necessarily a libertarian?

Exactly. I don't want to get political, but our whole drug policy is out of whack. Billions of dollars are spent on it - and, really, the only people who profit from it are the underworld, for lack of a better term. So why not put that money into controlling the quality and putting more money into the coffers for our social programs, for people who need health care, who are starving...

Okay, you're a liberal. So what can you tell me about the writing of the song "Passage to Bangkok"?

That should be self-evident - it's about a fun little journey to all the good places you could go to have a puff. We thought it would be kind of fun to write a song about that, and Neil did it in a very eloquent way, I think. That song was probably written in a farmhouse, on an acoustic guitar, in front of a little cassette player of some sort. We would record like that and then go down in the basement and rehearse it.

In those days, High Times actually reported on pricing and quality in all of the places mentioned in the song - Colombia, Thailand, Jamaica, Morocco ... The magazine launched in 1974, before high-quality domestic homegrown, so we used to keep professional smugglers informed on, say, the price of a pound of Nepalese hashish.

That's right! I remember thinking, "Oh my God, this magazine is so cool." I think we probably got the first issue.

So its safe to say that High Times inspired the writing of "Passage to Bangkok"?

It's very safe to say that.

Certainly a lot of Rush fans smoke pot. Do you think there's a connectivity between the state of mind that pot can bring you to and the state of mind that Rush can bring you to?

"Do things go better with pot?" Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. I find that you can be very imaginative when stoned, you can be very creative - but implementation is sometimes difficult. In the past, there have been times when I've been really inspired in writing and came up with things that I would never otherwise think up. But the actual playing can be obstructed a little bit.
In the very, very early days, occasionally - well, more than "occasionally" - Neil and I would smoke a joint before going on. I mean, this is in the mid-'70s; I would never, ever do something like that now. I won't even have a sip of beer before a show, because I need to be extremely clearheaded. Of course, some people can smoke and remain clearheaded - just not me.
But back when we were younger and a little crazier, and we were only playing for 25 minutes or half an hour at a time, it was okay to smoke before a show. I still played well ... Also, back then our music was relatively straightforward - but quickly the arrangements became much more complicated, and we all feel an enormous responsibility to put on the best show we can on a night-to-night basis.

How about offstage? Is there a vast trove of Rush jam sessions that no one knows about?

There's a ton of crazy shit that we do in sound check. Some of it - I mean, maybe I'm not objective, but some of it was really great. I smiled when you were asking the question, because we've been trying to be a little looser in that respect. There's not a whole lot of room, but in a song like "Working Man," for example, it's at the end of the night, and so we've turned it into an open platform - we just play like crazy. It's a great way to end the show, for the audience and for us, because no two nights are the same.

Have you ever been a fan of largely improvisational rock bands like, say, the Grateful Dead?

Yeah, I especially love the Dead from around 1967 to the mid-'70s. We use to play a couple of Dead songs when we were a bar band. Back then, we were much more of a jam band - we did a version of "For What It's Worth" that was 20 minutes long.

So Kyle and I are staying down the street at a hotel that's affectionately known as the "Riot House," where Jim Morrison hung out the window by his fingertips and Robert Plant bellowed, "I am a golden god!" Are there Rush stories like that, but they just never got told?

Not really, I almost hate to say. I guess we had our times in those days, but really, we were always in the shadow of the headlining act. If we stayed in the same hotel, we were usually in our rooms looking down the hallway, watching them throw TVs out the window and stuff. That was too expensive a hobby for us.
Seriously, we were never really crazy like that. Those classic rock'n'roll stories were never really a part of our world. Most times on the road, Neil was reading and we'd be watching TV or something.