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Rush frontman Geddy Lee reflects on his music and life in a new memoir


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: To some, they are rock gods, to others, a trio of nerds.

From the 1970s to the 2000s, the Canadian band Rush achieved huge success, driven by their virtuosity and eclectic, lyrical songwriting. After the death of drummer Neil Peart in 2020, lead singer and bass player Geddy Lee stepped away from the stage. But he has returned now in a spoken word tour to accompany his new memoir.

Lisa Desjardins spoke with him for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Lisa Desjardins: Their sound was hard to label. For 40 years, the band Rush refused to blend in, becoming rock legends with hard work, 24 gold and 14 platinum albums, and touring nearly every year.

Their songs about power and identity were unusual then, rock anthems about teen mental health and even A.I. But they are now taking on new meaning. And their lead singer, Geddy Lee, is doing something new, pausing to look back with his memoir, "My Effin' Life."

I asked him about the band, virtuosos. Some call Neil Peart the best rock drummer in history, and "Rolling Stone" has listed Lee on the bass and Alex Lifeson on guitar as among the best on those instruments.

You all spent your life not just being good, but trying to reach the sort of unfathomable level of quality. Why push so hard?

Geddy Lee, Author, "My Effin' Life": Why? It's just in my nature, I think. And I think my partners share that trait of wanting to do whatever it is we do as best as we can do it.

Lisa Desjardins: In music and message, Rush's songs often bolster underdogs and attack toxic power, from high school cliques to fascists, meaningful to Lee especially.

You also write in the book how both of your parents survived Nazi concentration camps. I want to ask you. There's an intense debate right now about hate, about speech, culture, and art is part of that. And I wonder, how do you think about the tension now between free speech and rising hate that we see?

Geddy Lee: You know, people are smart. People should be able to discuss things. The death of discourse is not good for the human race. It's not good for improving things. You know, it's through discourse and through educating each other about the things that are important to have a good, safe, peaceful life.

That cannot go away. And when you see that starting to happen, it scares me. It really scares me a lot. And I am put in mind of what was going on in Germany before World War II. There are danger signs all over the world right now, and that worries me a lot.

Lisa Desjardins: That's the image most Rush fans have of them, thoughtful, philosophical, and different from others in rock.

Geddy Lee: There's certainly the theme of identity and multiple identities is a big part of the book.

Lisa Desjardins: But his book is candid and confessional about the reality of music-making.

You talk about Bolivian marching powder.

Geddy Lee: Yes.

Lisa Desjardins: Doing lines of cocaine in the '70s and '80s. I think your fans will be surprised by that.

Geddy Lee: You have to remember, we were very young and suddenly finding ourselves with 23 gigs in a row, for example, driving every night, playing every day, driving, driving, play, drive, play, drive.

And so, even our youthful stamina, such as it was, every once in a while needed a bit of help. But the problem is that it's an insidious drug. And you think you control cocaine, but very rarely do you, because it takes control of you.

You asked me earlier about our work ethic and are obsessive to be perfect. Well, that's the thing that controlled your drug intake. You can't go out on stage and seek perfection if you're inebriated or somehow distorted or handicapped by a drug. So that's the thing that really did save us.

Lisa Desjardins: I wanted to come back to that idea of community.

The Rush community, the Rush fan base, they love you. I know. I am part of that community. I think the Rush fan base sees themselves sometimes as people who don't fit in everywhere in society, don't think that society looks at them, and they have found something in your music that is refuge.

Why do you think that is, and what does that mean to you?

Geddy Lee: It means a hell of a lot to me. And it sustained us.

Lisa Desjardins: Especially in the late 1990s when, within a span of months, Peart's daughter and then his wife died in separate events. He was shattered, and the band took its longest break.

Geddy Lee: When he came back to us and we decided to go back on the road, made an album, the day we did our first show in Hartford, people had come literally from all corners of the world to welcome us back. And that was so moving. It was so overwhelming.

And that was the first time I realized the depth of their ability to relate to us. Now, how did that come to be? It's hard to know. Our earliest fans, of course, loved that we played fast and complicated stuff. And so our earliest fan base was largely males and largely other players, young players.

But now it's changed. We have young musicians of every gender just following us and studying our music, which is, of course, the ultimate compliment.

Lisa Desjardins: Now Rush's music has become a kind of Rachmaninoff of rock, complex and challenging, but idolized.

Have to ask you, do you think you could tour musically again?

Geddy Lee: Yes, I could. Will I? It remains to be seen, but, yes, I could. And I do have a desire to do that.

Lisa Desjardins: However you label his music, Geddy Lee wants more ahead.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

William Brangham: Check out our Instagram for more from Geddy Lee. Hear his answers to Lisa's lightning round of questions on everything from baseball to robots to Bjork.

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