Geddy Lee

For al­most 50 years, all the world re­ally was a stage for the bas­sist/vo­cal­ist with prog gi­ants Rush. Away from the spot­light he’s a fam­ily man, a se­ri­ous col­lec­tor – wine, basses, base­balls – and, most re­cently, an au­thor. He is, with­out doubt, one of r

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Philip Wild­ing Por­traits: Mick Hut­son

Away from the spot­light he’s a fam­ily man, a se­ri­ous col­lec­tor – wine, basses, base­balls – and, most re­cently, an au­thor. The Rush bas­sist/vo­cal­ist opens up in The Clas­sic Rock In­ter­view.

Le Stu­dio, in the Lau­ren­tian moun­tains in Que­bec, Canada, where Rush recorded some of their biggest­selling al­bums – ev­ery­thing from 1980’s Per­ma­nent Waves through to Coun­ter­parts some 13 years later – has long gone. In some small part though, it lives on. Take the curve of metal stairs down to Geddy Lee’s base­ment stu­dio (where he and Alex Life­son wrote and de­moed the bulk of the band’s fi­nal few al­bums), and there hang­ing on the wall among an ar­ray of gui­tars and basses, some box-fresh, oth­ers look­ing some­what trashed, hangs a Fen­der Jazz bass that has small gouges in the pale body and looks like it was pieced to­gether from dif­fer­ent bits of wood. Lee takes it down off the wall and points to the ‘Le Stu­dio’ im­printed into the head­stock. A lot of the gui­tars in this room have sto­ries, and this one is no dif­fer­ent.

“About six months ago, Scully [Lee’s bass tech] called me up and told me to get Alex [Life­son] to the house, and turned up with th­ese two gui­tar cases. We open them, and there’s this bass, and a Tele­caster for Al,” Lee says, pluck­ing ab­sent-mind­edly at the strings.

“A guy called Mike Bump and the Fen­der Cus­tom Shop put them to­gether for us. He’d heard from an old stu­dio em­ployee about th­ese pieces of wood that came from the door to the sound room in Le Stu­dio, and he took it upon him­self to fash­ion th­ese gui­tars out of the old doors for us, and he did a pair of drum­sticks for Neil [Peart] too. It was a very emo­tional thing. We were re­ally sur­prised, and all th­ese mem­o­ries of record­ing in that stu­dio came flood­ing back. Alex used the Tele­caster for a ses­sion he did re­cently for John May­all [a song called Evil And Here To Stay], my bass was the last gui­tar to make my book [more on that later], I snuck it in there at the last minute.”

It’s been three years since Rush walked off stage at the LA Fo­rum in In­gle­wood. That af­ter­noon, ru­mours had cir­cu­lated around the Lon­don Ho­tel in Hol­ly­wood that for the first time Rush drum­mer Neil Peart had asked that his live drums be shipped back home af­ter the show, as op­posed to the band’s stor­age space in Nash­ville. That night as Peart stepped off his drum riser at the end of the show and snuck up on his un­sus­pect­ing band­mates and hugged them, as op­posed to flee­ing into the wings, there was more than a lit­tle sug­ges­tion that the band’s time was up. Th­ese days Peart is en­joy­ing some kind of splen­did iso­la­tion at home in Cal­i­for­nia, where he’s said to be work­ing on a book of his own. Gui­tarist Alex Life­son, who isn’t sit­ting com­fort­ably un­less he has a gui­tar in his hands, has guested on nu­mer­ous pro­jects (“Alex is a cheap drunk, he’ll play with any­one. I’m not so cheap,”

Lee says with a grin).

In the past few years Lee has been work­ing on the ex­pan­sive Geddy Lee’s Big Beau­ti­ful Book Of Bass.

A hefty (drop it on your foot and you’ll know about it), lav­ishly il­lus­trated and beau­ti­fully pho­tographed book about the idea of col­lect­ing, the his­tory of the bass gui­tar, and in­ter­views with some of Lee’s mu­si­cal he­roes. But it’s so much more than that. The in­stru­ments he writes about echo Lee’s mu­si­cal jour­ney; men­tion a cer­tain model and he’s trans­ported away to a stu­dio or tour that in­spired him, or a store front where a gui­tar once hung and the young Lee stood star­ing through the win­dow, de­ter­mined that one day it would be his. Look around his base­ment stu­dio now and you re­alise that he must have stared into quite a few mu­sic-shop win­dows in his time.

Re­mark­ably, you’ve only been col­lect­ing bass gui­tars since 2012, but you’ve al­ways col­lected, haven’t you?

All my life: wine, base­balls, art, stamps! For me, th­ese things, th­ese ob­ses­sions are win­dows into time and cul­ture that goes beyond the thing you’re hold­ing in your hands, a gui­tar can tell you a lit­tle some­thing about the his­tory of Cal­i­for­nia in the 1950s, or what were The Bea­tles do­ing in Ham­burg when they walked into a gui­tar store and saw a cer­tain model on the wall and changed the world. I look at wine and base­ball and art and mu­sic and crafts­man­ship as things that have an aura about them that res­onates more than the thing it­self, and I think that’s what I’ve al­ways found fas­ci­nat­ing.

Talk­ing of gui­tar shop­ping, you picked up one of your most en­dur­ing and fa­mil­iar basses in a pawn shop.

My Fen­der Jazz bass, my main one, yeah. I got it in a pawn shop in Kala­ma­zoo, Michi­gan in the mid­dle sev­en­ties. I never owned a Jazz bass be­fore that, and I wasn’t a pawn-shop guy. My tech at the time, Skip, had a day off. We walked into this one pawn shop, and there was the bass hang­ing on the wall, a cig­a­rette mark on it, two hun­dred dol­lars, no case. The guy threw in a card­board case and I walked away with this Jazz bass, which, all th­ese years later, has been my main man for quite a long time af­ter my Rick­en­backer pe­riod.

When peo­ple think of Geddy Lee, a lot of them think of the Rick­en­backer bass – and usu­ally a twin-neck.

Ha! That said, the first real bass I bought was a 1968 Fen­der Pre­ci­sion. That was the bass I made the first Rush record with, and that was the bass I played in all the bars. When­ever you see those

“The cover songs were al­ways more pop­u­lar than our badly

writ­ten orig­i­nals.”

old, pre­his­toric pic­tures of me, you know, waist­coat, no shirt, that’s the bass I’m hold­ing. That did me un­til Alex and I got our first ever ad­vance money. That was on Fly By Night [’75] We went straight down to the big mu­sic store here in Toronto and I bought a Rick­en­backer, lit­er­ally the first day I could buy one.

You broke quite a few hearts when you stopped play­ing those.

I still love their sound. But they were tools back then, and I was hav­ing prob­lems on Mov­ing Pic­tures get­ting the sound I wanted out of one of my Rick­en­back­ers – it was for Tom Sawyer, ac­tu­ally – so I pulled out a Jazz bass that I’d bought and never used. And a light bulb went off, so I ended up us­ing it for a cou­ple of songs: Tom Sawyer and Vi­tal Signs. Rush were al­ways look­ing to stretch our sound. I was the same. Un­til I went back to Fen­der on Coun­ter­parts I was dab­bling with Wal basses, Stein­berger basses, the head­less ones, though that went when my mul­let went!

The Rick­en­backer was a nod to one of your mu­si­cal he­roes: Chris Squire of Yes. Cer­tainly was. The only band I ever camped out overnight to get tick­ets to see – and in

Cana­dian weather!

And years later, in 2017, you and Alex get to in­duct Yes into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, where you played bass with them on Round­about. What a thrill. Ab­so­lutely. And it was the first time I’d been on stage since R40 [Rush’s fi­nal tour, in 2015]. That’s very pri­mal stuff there. Chris Squire and Yes were so im­por­tant to me, just like The Who, and to be asked to play this pin­na­cle song, one of the songs that changed my life, I had to do it. And I had to prac­tise to do it too, to make sure I didn’t fuck it up. It’s not an easy song to play. But it was a great me­mory for me and a per­sonal trib­ute to Chris Squire and Yes.

You men­tioned The Who and Yes, but there was an­other Bri­tish band who were very im­por­tant in your mu­si­cal evo­lu­tion: Cream. For me they were re­ally the first band of ex­tra­or­di­nary mu­si­cians that came to­gether, they were the first group of pure vir­tu­os­ity. I mean, they were the first su­per­group to me, and it was a three-piece too – the per­fect model. And in our early days

“Chris Squire and Yes were so im­por­tant to me… John Paul

Jones is a pro­foundly im­por­tant bass player in my life.”

play­ing in the cof­fee houses and drop-in cen­tres we would feast on Cream songs for days be­cause of the play­ing, it was all about that. The songs were great, but they al­ways had mo­ments of jam­ming. A song like Spoon­ful, you could jam on that for days. There wouldn’t be a Work­ing Man with­out Spoon­ful. You take songs like that and al­bums like Who’s Next, with John En­twistle’s play­ing. That is one of the most im­por­tant records to me in my life.

We kind of fash­ioned our­selves af­ter Cream, re­ally. We were fans of John May­all’s Blues­break­ers and that whole English scene, so we did the same thing, tak­ing old blues stan­dards like Born Un­der A Bad Sign. We were just im­i­tat­ing our peers and, of course, the cover songs were al­ways more pop­u­lar than our badly writ­ten orig­i­nals.

How did Rush go down live in those days?

We were not well re­ceived! Cana­di­ans are largely ap­a­thetic, so we would be play­ing and they wouldn’t boo or any­thing, but they wouldn’t ap­plaud ei­ther, which is sort of odd. We just fig­ured it was an­other gig, an­other pay day.

Did it pay much? It paid for our gas and enough money to get a meal. Did you even­tu­ally have to ditch the cov­ers to get ac­cepted as a ‘real’ band? Quite the op­po­site, we had to in­crease the cov­ers to get hired into bars, and that was kind of a life or death thing other­wise we couldn’t go for­ward. And at that point none of us was pay­ing at­ten­tion to school any longer, so you put all your chips in. We used to do like a twenty-minute ver­sion of Road­run­ner, the old Mo­town stan­dard. Alex would show off as usual, all the histri­on­ics, and it was one of his early Echoplex so­los à la Jimmy Page. I think we played Suf­fragette City by Bowie and that be­came a big closer for us. So we dot­ted the set with enough cov­ers to keep the bar own­ers hir­ing us, and in be­tween we would slot our in­fe­rior, orig­i­nal blues-rock tunes, and that’s how we lived for a cou­ple

of years.

As a teenager you saw

Cream at Massey Hall, the venue where, over three nights on the 2112 tour, Rush would even­tu­ally record All The World’s A Stage.

I went alone, too. None of my friends wanted to see them, can you be­lieve that? I re­mem­ber say­ing to them: “I’m go­ing; you guys are id­iots!”

Sadly, the book came too late to in­ter­view Cream bas­sist Jack Bruce or John En­twistle.

Any of those he­roes, Jack Bruce, John En­twistle, Chris Squire. That said, I don’t know why I never reached out to Jack Cas­sady [Jef­fer­son Air­plane/Star­ship], be­cause he would have been a fas­ci­nat­ing in­ter­view and he was one of my ear­li­est he­roes and I feel like I didn’t do him jus­tice in the book.

When you were talk­ing to peo­ple for the book, how did it feel be­ing on the other side of the in­ter­view?

I re­ally wish that I had al­lowed for more of those in­ter­views, be­cause they were the most fun part for me, but I ran out of time and pages. I was for­tu­nate enough to get away with 408 pages on bass gui­tars! But I do wish I’d done more of them.

“Rush kind of fash­ioned our­selves af­ter Cream, re­ally.”

You asked peo­ple to bring basses to the in­ter­view. Why was that?

I would reach out to peo­ple with a spe­cific thing in mind. Like I knew that John Paul Jones is a pro­foundly im­por­tant bass player in my life, but he’s also a pre-em­i­nent ex­am­ple of the ’62 Jazz bass play­ing. Lis­ten to all those early Zep records. He said to me when he ar­rived for the in­ter­view that he didn’t still have his first bass, but he found one that was iden­ti­cal and he brought it. And that’s what I was af­ter with th­ese guys. I wanted to know about where they started, but I also wanted to know what they were pas­sion­ate about now.

I loved their sto­ries. I loved lis­ten­ing to Bill Wy­man tell me about when he was a kid and his sis­ter would take him to th­ese dances, and she would be danc­ing and he would sit there and lis­ten to the band. Or John Paul Jones talk­ing about the first time he heard the bass in some sea­side town, and it was boom­ing out of some speak­ers. Or some­one just gawk­ing in the win­dow of a store look­ing at a Fen­der bass and wish­ing one day they would be able to buy one – just like I did.

That said, your first gui­tar wasn’t even a bass. It was an acous­tic gui­tar with palm trees on. I was very young, and I talked my mother into let­ting me buy it from my neigh­bour. The first song I learnt how to play on it was For Your Love by The Yard­birds. And then I fig­ured out Pretty Woman

– great gui­tar part. But I wanted to be in a band. The band of mo­rons that I was hang­ing out with at the time, the bass player’s mum wouldn’t let him hang out with us, so we lost him and they all voted me in. I begged my mum to loan me thirty dol­lars so I could get this thirty-five dol­lar bass at the lo­cal store. It was a Canora model, Ja­pa­nese made, sort of a cheap copy of a Fen­der bass; I guess the die was cast.

Let’s talk about one of your other loves, base­ball. Your col­lec­tion takes up about as much room at home as the basses and bot­tles of wine you col­lect. When did you first pick up a base­ball and think: “I need an­other four hun­dred of th­ese.”

Ha! I was a manic base­ball fan, but it never en­tered my mind to col­lect. I had a friend who worked in the club­house for the Toronto Blue Jays, and ev­ery year he would give me a set of the Amer­i­can league teams. They all come through and they sign for the club staff, and he would stash th­ese balls and ev­ery year I would get a set. This started in the late sev­en­ties. Then I thought it’d be cool to get a [1920s/30s base­ball leg­end] Babe Ruth-signed base­ball, be­cause he was this icon in my mind. So I called up this col­lec­tor that I’d met and asked if I could buy a Babe Ruth ball, and I was like: “Wow, it’s that much money?! I don’t know about that.” Even­tu­ally I did buy the base­ball, and then you start think­ing what are the other great play­ers it would be cool to have. and that’s how it starts. And forty years later you have a room full of base­balls.

Not least your cab­i­net filled with base­balls signed by pres­i­dents and world lead­ers.

I have four base­balls that were signed by JFK. There was a base­ball up at auc­tion from the open­ing game of 1961. The US pres­i­dent shows up, they sit in the stand, and they would toss a ball out on to the field. The player would catch it, go to the pres­i­dent, the pres­i­dent would sign it, and in this case Lyn­don John­son signed it too and the player signed it. And it was up for auc­tion. And I thought, what a cool, Amer­i­can me­mento, so I bought it.

Then, fast-for­ward thirty years, and I see one go­ing for auc­tion, and I’m like, wait a se­cond, I have that, how can it be?! So I read up on the game. And him be­ing the true Demo­crat that he was, he didn’t feel it was right to throw out a ball to just one team, he threw one out to a mem­ber of both teams, so there were ac­tu­ally two open­ing day pitches. Of course, I had to have it! So I bought it.

In mo­ments like that, do you ever hate your ‘col­lec­tor’s gene’?

Yeah! Col­lect­ing isn’t al­ways easy. I say this to peo­ple: once you get past the point of dab­bling and ad­mit that you’re a col­lec­tor; then the col­lec­tion must be fed! Other­wise, what is it? It’s just a bunch of stuff! Pick a par­tic­u­lar thing and make that a valid use of your time and re­sources. Lis­ten to me… [trails off, laugh­ing help­lessly].

Talk­ing about first pitches, you once threw out the first ball for your beloved Blue Jays.

I prac­tised for that more than you will ever know. In 1993 I got asked to sing the an­them at the al­ls­tar game in Bal­ti­more at Cam­den Yards, so I did that. It was a nerve-rack­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, eighty mil­lion view­ers. Ac­cord­ing to

Alex I sang the slow­est ren­di­tion of the Cana­dian na­tional an­them ever to be pub­licly per­formed. As I said to him, I was try­ing to get the most out of my screen time, dude.

Then around 2000, Rush were on tour and the Texas Rangers asked me to throw the first pitch. Alex came with me, and I threw out the pitch and Alex was the catcher. So here we are, a crowd of Tex­ans just start­ing to get into the sta­dium, and there are th­ese two long-haired guys on the field, you know, what the hell are they do­ing there? So when Alex catches the ball, he jumps up like it’s the fi­nal out of the World Se­ries, and he runs at me and he tack­les me on the mound. All th­ese good old boys from Texas are sit­ting there go­ing: ‘What the hell’s go­ing down on the field there?! “I’m sur­prised they didn’t run us out of town.

“I’ve col­lected all my life: wine, base­balls, art, stamps! I have four base­balls that were signed by JFK.”

So I’d done that and lived, but I’d never done it for a home game be­fore. I used to throw three in­nings’ worth of pitches back­stage ev­ery night be­fore a show. That was un­til I got a sore arm and I couldn’t play bass. So when the Blue Jays asked me, I was thrilled, but I was more ner­vous than I ever get be­fore a show.

I went out, did my thing, threw a curve­ball, got a strike and I was re­ally, re­ally pleased about that. I’ve been asked to do it since, but no way. What do you want from me?! My ma­jor-league ca­reer says I threw a strike!

And what about wine? We’ve got £50 to spend. Which one bot­tle of wine should we buy – not to col­lect, but to drink – and why? Well, that’s a good ques­tion, and of course it de­pends on your taste. But for a red wine, and for my tastes, I would try and pur­chase a good Beau­jo­lais Cru from Lapierre or Foil­lard. Great, food-friendly wines and rea­son­able. For a white wine I would look for a nice Sancerre from Fran­cois Co­tat.

Go­ing back to the day job, what’s next for you and your mu­sic?

I’m go­ing to start go­ing down to the stu­dio and start us­ing all those basses that are star­ing me in the face and see what hap­pens. I’m not go­ing to prom­ise that I’m go­ing to do a record, this is the way I look at life right now. I kept my fam­ily wait­ing for me for forty-two years, and I’m not do­ing any­thing ever again that keeps them wait­ing. I owe it to my beau­ti­ful, fan­tas­tic wife to be with her when she can stand me be­ing with her, and I owe it to my grand­son to be around and my mother now that she’s older, and my kids. So that’s my first pri­or­ity right now. But I still love mu­sic and I think I still have some­thing to say, but I won’t know that un­til I start bang­ing away down­stairs. If

I start bang­ing away and it feels like I have some­thing valid to put out there, then I’ll go ahead and fol­low that dream. Well, with my fam­ily’s per­mis­sion.

How has the time since the R40 tour ended been for you? When did you ad­mit to your­self that Rush was over?

The first few months af­ter­wards, you’re just sort of bask­ing in the post-tour glory; it was a great tour, it was a fan­tas­tic me­mory and the last gig was quite emo­tional. I would say I was a lit­tle emo­tion­ally bruised for a few months. But of course I had the com­fort of my fab­u­lous wife, and we just set off do­ing what we do: trav­el­ling, walk­ing, me en­joy­ing the fam­ily. I don’t know when it came to me that we wouldn’t re­turn. I sort of sus­pected when we fin­ished that we were re­ally fin­ished. I guess I held out some hope that maybe that wasn’t so, but I think over time I just got used to the idea, and over time I started to un­der­stand that for Neil to leave was the right de­ci­sion for him. Since then we’ve re­mained friends and we talk all the time. But the first few months I think were dif­fi­cult, and now it’s not dif­fi­cult. I still have mo­ments.

I think the book was a fan­tas­ti­cally stupid idea for me, it was a ridicu­lous project. But my life has been ridicu­lous, and there are so many things about the way I live that are ex­treme, and yet at the same time I’m a pretty down-to-earth per­son. But I have th­ese ma­nias and th­ese ob­ses­sions, and in many, many ways do­ing a book was a kind of ob­ses­sion ther­apy for me. I mean that in a good way, I think.

On the up­side, Clock­work An­gels was a great al­bum to end on.

But I didn’t think it was the end!

And fi­nally, when were you hap­pi­est in Rush? I’ve never thought it like that be­fore, but I can tell you that ever since we came back af­ter Neil’s ter­ri­ble tragedy with his fam­ily, and hav­ing had those five dark years we were away, ev­ery tour I did with Rush I savoured. I would say that pe­riod from com­ing back af­ter Neil’s tragedy to the very end were re­ally the golden years for me. I felt like I ap­pre­ci­ated ev­ery gig, ev­ery note that we played. The ca­ma­raderie that the three of us had, I never took it for granted, not one day. So I would say that was my hap­pi­est time in Rush.

“I still love mu­sic and I think I still have some­thing to say, but I won’t know that un­til I start bang­ing away.”

Yes bas­sist Chris Squire, one of Lee’s ma­jor mu­si­cal he­roes.

Rush play­ing Spring­field, Mas­sachusetts, De­cem­ber 1976.

Rush mak­ing their ac­cep­tance speech at the Rock And RollHall Of Fame In­duc­tion Cer­e­mony in LA, April 18, 2013.

Cream (l-r: Jack Bruce, Gin­ger Baker and Eric Clap­ton) play­ing their farewell show at Lon­don’s Royal Al­bert Hall, Novem­ber 26, 1968.

The Who’s John En­twistle, an­other of Lee’s bass­play­ing mu­si­cal he­roes.

The Ne­gro Leagues Base­ballMu­seum in Kansas City in­cludes a col­lec­tion of morethan 200 au­to­graphed base­balls do­nated Geddy Lee. Lee talk­ing to Toronto BlueJays man­ager John Gib­bons at Rogers Cen­tre in Toronto, April 2, 2013.

Do meet your he­roes. Lee with John Paul Jones at the Clas­sic Rock Awards in Novem­ber 2010. In­set: Jones with Led Zep­pelin at the LA Fo­rum in 1973.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.