Nearly 50 years after the release of his band’s first album, we’re still getting to know Geddy Lee. For much of its career, Rush managed to be an arena-level band without ever selling its three members as personalities — but as some fans learned for the first time via the great 2010 documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage, Lee (the band’s frontman, bassist, and somehow also keyboardist), guitarist Alex Lifeson, and late drummer Neil Peart were actually fascinating human beings the entire time. In his entertaining new autobiography, My Effin’ Life, Lee reveals more about his life in and out of Rush — and goes even further in his new interview with Rolling Stone Music Now. A few highlights follow; to hear the full interview, go here for the podcast provider of your choice, listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or just press play below.
As Lee recounts in his book, the three members of Rush were so high on hash oil when they made 1975’s Caress of Steel that they experienced a fascinating psychoacoustic phenomenon, hearing reverb that wasn’t actually there. “We were way too stoned making that record, honest to God,” Lee says. “I think it was almost six months after making that record. I listened to it. And what I thought had a lot of reverb and echo was pretty dry! I was like, ‘What the hell?’ But it was an important lesson to learn, and I think some of those stupid drug experiences were cautionary. They taught us, you can’t be a serious musician if you’re fucking around with these drugs when it comes to work. Sometimes you don’t learn that until you make that mistake. Playing [a gig] on acid when I was really young, after I was kicked out of Rush? I would never do that again under any circumstance. That was one of the worst experiences of my life.”
Lee’s brief cocaine period (circa late Seventies/early Eighties) was the only time substances ever crept into Rush’s performances. “In the cocaine years, coke was everywhere,” Lee says. “Like, during the drum solo, you do a line. I really didn’t do any coke before a gig because I could feel it in my throat, and that was hard on my voice. Occasionally, maybe after sound check, you might do a bump and then you get on with your day, but it was mostly towards the end of the night when you felt like you had earned a bit of a reward [laughs], so you’d get high. But it’s an insidious drug, and it really moves quietly and quickly through an entire crew, an entire organization. It was very dangerous, and it took me a while before I realized the trap I’d slipped into. Thankfully, I was well brought-up by my mom. I realized, ‘I’m behaving like a losing dog here. I have to stop.’”
Lee enjoyed Rush’s great run of synthesizer albums so much that he didn’t notice that, by the time of 1987’s Hold Your Fire, the essential sound of the band was in danger of being drowned out. “I didn’t realize how obnoxious I’d become,” says Lee, who recently had Lifeson tell him how hard those years were for the guitarist. “When he told me that story, I was embarrassed and shocked. I never saw myself as having really become a bit of a sonic dictator in that regard. But I had. I was so into the keyboard sounds, and they dominated it. It was such an exciting time in the world of keyboards. All the most interesting music was keyboard-driven in that period…. Every time a new keyboard would come out, it was like the space race. Everyone was racing to have that sound on their record before 40 records came out with the same song… I was incredibly stimulated by it all, and I wanted to grasp it and understand it. And then it was pointed out to me that I was drowning the band and we had lost something about that essential trio that I always used to say to engineers must be heard. I used to say, ‘When we make a record, it doesn’t matter how much stuff we have on it, you gotta hear the trio.’ And I had obscured that without realizing it by being so synthesizer-centric.”
Years later, though, legendary hip-hop keyboardist/producer Mike Dean told Lee he wouldn’t be in the music industry without Lee’s keyboard playing. “Mike saw me on a plane and he just flipped out and he came up to me and he wrote me this note on those little napkins you get on the airplane,” Lee says. “He said, ‘Man I would not be in the music business if it wasn’t for that period and all the keyboard work you did.’ And I walked away and went, ‘See, there weren’t all rockers that hated the keyboard period! Some of our fans were born into that keyboard period!’”
As far as Lee is concerned, there’s only one secret to achieving the godlike chops that made Rush musical heroes to so many fellow musicians. “If Rush stood for anything, it stood for the evidence of what rehearsal can do for you,” Lee says. “Rehearsal is the key. If you learn your instrument and you play it over and over again, you can retain it. And a part of your brain knows to do that. That frees up another part of your brain to sing. Most of the time in my career, the thing I think about the most while I’m playing three instruments is singing, because it’s really hard.”
Download and subscribe to Rolling Stone‘s weekly podcast, Rolling Stone Music Now, hosted by Brian Hiatt, on Apple Podcasts or Spotify (or wherever you get your podcasts). Check out six years’ worth of episodes in the archive, including in-depth, career-spanning interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Mariah Carey, Halsey, Neil Young, Snoop Dogg, Brandi Carlile, Phoebe Bridgers, Rick Ross, Alicia Keys, the National, Ice Cube, Taylor Hawkins, Willow, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Dua Lipa, Questlove, Killer Mike, Julian Casablancas, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Marr, Scott Weiland, Liam Gallagher, Alice Cooper, Fleetwood Mac, Elvis Costello, John Legend, Donald Fagen, Charlie Puth, Phil Collins, Justin Townes Earle, Stephen Malkmus, Sebastian Bach, Tom Petty, Eddie Van Halen, Kelly Clarkson, Pete Townshend, Bob Seger, the Zombies, and Gary Clark Jr. And look for dozens of episodes featuring genre-spanning discussions, debates, and explainers with Rolling Stone’s critics and reporters.