Israel

Locked down? Open up to… Rush’s Jewish frontman Geddy Lee

NEW YORK — From August 17, 1974, through August 1, 2015, there was one, and one band only, boasting the top spot at the intersection of complex, high fantasy prog and bleeding edge synthesizer-driven power rock. That band was (and always shall be!) Rush, and while part of what makes Rush so perfect is its equilateral triangle-like division of labor, one-third of this group, and certainly the most visible, was Jewish.

Geddy Lee, the singer, bass player and synthesizer sorcerer in Rush, was born Gary Lee Weinrib to Polish-Jewish immigrants in Toronto in 1953. Most songs were co-composed by Lee and guitar wizard Alex Lifeson. Drummer Neil Peart (who replaced founding member John Rutsey on the above date in 1974, thus making that the band’s “true” birthday) wrote the group’s unusual lyrics. Lee’s nickname “Geddy” (now his legal name) derived from his mother’s thick Polish accent. Both she and her husband were Holocaust survivors who had been through the camps, and their experiences inspired one of the band’s most meaningful songs.

Rush was one of those bands that everyone has heard of (and had one hit song, “Tom Sawyer,”) but can maybe seem off-putting. Their fanbase is intensely loyal and obsessed, and usually male, and at least in the 1980s were often proud early adapters of computer technology. They were the band beloved by nerds — and that can sometimes come with a haughty, gate-keeping vibe — but the band’s compositions and clever lyrics were undeniably oozing smarts. On a purely musical level, there are moments of overlap with the operatic heavy metal of bands like Iron Maiden (a far “cooler” group) and also the reggae-inspired pop-rock of The Police (much more user friendly, and likely to have more women show up at the concerts.)

There is a lot that defines Rush — the lyrics, the logo, the outfits, the brutally complicated rhythm patterns — but mention Rush to most people and the first thing they’ll do is emit a high-pitched, nasally shriek. Not a bluesy wail, like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, or a bayou yawp like Credence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty; the mating call of the Rush fan (or Rush mocker) is an attempted imitation of Geddy Lee’s voice ripping up the scales.

An early example of this is the catchy rock number “Fly By Night” from 1975.

“Fly By Night” is a fairly simple song, and for that reason is not altogether indicative of what made them an early success. Drummer-lyricist Neil Peart, later an author, was nicknamed “The Professor,” and was a polymath interested in history, science, philosophy, and also just liked being a bit of a show-off (like writing a song about and comprised of anagrams). Peart famously crafted wild fantasy and science fiction lore for the band’s more far-out fans to obsess over. Lifeson and Lee dove into this sandbox as composers and instrumentalists.

In addition to Lee’s singing and early use of synthesizer, he always did more than just play the bass. In a rock context, “bass player” can sometimes be a placeholder for a dude to plunk out three notes, but Lee played bass as if it were a lead instrument.

To examine all of what I’ve just described, let’s take 10 full minutes now to listen to a song about black holes, “Cygnus X-1: Book One — The Voyage.”

At the dawn of the 1980s, Rush eased up a little bit on these epic length tracks with byzantine time signatures. (Some, including my younger self, mourned a bit.) In 1983, at the birth of the video game age, they scored a massive hit with a perfect song, “Tom Sawyer.” It’s everything that made earlier Rush great, just toned down a smidge. Even if you think you don’t know it, trust me, you’ve heard it.

It was during this middle period where Peart, inspired by stories Lee had told him about his mother, wrote the lyrics to “Red Sector ‘A’.”

Both of Lee’s parents were survivors of Nazi concentration camps. Indeed, they met, as he tells it, building work camps in 1939 at the ages of 12 and 13. They both ended up at Auschwitz and, somehow, continued a flirtation before both being transferred. His father, Morris, was sent to Dachau, his mother Manya to Bergen-Belsen. Manya (now Mary), her sister and mother survived numerous rounds of selection. Lee’s parents were reunited at a displaced persons camp after the war and emigrated to Canada.

It may seem weird, or even untoward, that there should be a toe-tappin’ rock tune about the Holocaust. But if you listen to it, you’ll hear it is a serious song, and an emotional one. It is vague enough that it doesn’t mention Auschwitz by name, but it is clearly about Nazi concentration camps. Lee sang it to cheering fans at sports arenas for decades.

Though the band still sold out concerts and delighted their fans up until their retirement, they were never as visible to the mainstream as they were in the 1970s and ’80s. Perhaps this is why adoration from those already initiated only increased.

They seemed particularly beloved by comedians. Fellow Canadians Joe Flaherty and Eugene Levy made short videos for their live shows, Trey Parker and Matt Stone animated a short “South Park” clip for them, and the Paul Rudd film “I Love You, Man” nearly bases its entire plot around being obsessed with Geddy Lee’s bass playing. Also, one of Lee’s few extra-Rush recordings was Bob & Doug McKenzie’s comedy album, singing and doing schtick on their anthem “Take Off.”

Their final studio album, “Clockwork Angels,” was released in 2012, and for a bunch of older guys it still kicked a lot of ass.

Rush took their final bow in 2015, and Neil Peart died in January of this year. Lee published a coffee table book about the electric bass in 2018 (“Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass”) and recently popped up harmonizing in a virtual benefit track to raise funds for the Canadian Red Cross. Lee is a bit of a ham and he and Alex Lifeson, friends since high school, remain in touch. There’s no Rush without Peart, but I suspect we haven’t heard the last from the two of them.

Let’s wrap it up with Rush’s magnum opus. Behold: all 20 minutes and 32 seconds of “2112,” their 1976 science fiction opera with blazing guitar solos, impossible drum patterns and vaguely Ayn Rand-ian themes. I purchased the cassette for $3.99 at a supermarket when I was 14 years old because I thought the cover looked cool. My life was forever changed. This 2016 “motion comic” video is officially sanctioned by the band, and even if you think this is garbage you at least must agree it is unique.

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