From nerdy suburban kid to global rock star: Lee poses with his trusty bass guitar ahead of Rush’s gig in Shepperton, U.K. April 1979. Photo: Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images. Inset: Lee (middle) with bandmates Alex Lifeson (left) and Neil Peart (right) in 2015. Photo: PEGGY SIROTA/Trunk
What a Rush! Geddy Lee’s Memoir Hits High and Low Notes of the Rock n’ Roll Legend’s Life
In an interview about 'My Effin' Life,' the Rush frontman talks about drummer Neil Peart's death, being the child of Holocaust survivors and his writing process / BY Kim Hughes / November 17th, 2023
There are drugs aplenty, of course, and one trashed hotel room in 1978. But there is no orgiastic sex, greed or outsized ego in My Effin’ Life, the new memoir from Rush singer-bassist Geddy Lee, which, though lacking the salaciousness of most rock ’n’ roll autobiographies, is a triumph of memory and ancestral exploration.
The book’s 500-plus pages contain candid reveals that will melt the minds of Rush nerds who have always wondered why, for instance, the band only toured rock-mad Japan once, in 1984, never to return. (Drummer-lyricist Neil Peart picked a fight with a gang member who was beating up a woman, and was disgusted by the apathy of witnesses.) Or, how Lee achieved the “growling in the middle-section battle scene” in the song By-Tor and the Snow Dog from 1975’s Fly by Night album. (By detuning his E string and playing it over the rhythm track through a Fuzz-Tone, repeating it with an Echoplex.)
“I wanted to include things I thought Rush fans would dig hearing about,” Lee, 70, says in a recent phone interview from his Toronto home, ahead of a worldwide book tour. “They were in the back of my mind when writing. We have done a hell of a lot of interviews over 45 years. Rush fans know almost all of it,” he chuckles. “I tried to look for stories that maybe we’d never talked about before.”
Lee also chronicles Peart’s three-and-a-half-year battle with glioblastoma, a deadly brain cancer, and how Peart swore him and guitarist Alex Lifeson, 70, to secrecy about his prognosis and treatment. “It weighed on us constantly and put us in a position where we were being deceptive every time someone was inquiring about Neil or the state of the band,” Lee confirms. He and Lifeson were “very protective” of their bandmate’s privacy, even after Peart died in January 2020, at 67.
“Our friendship … I can’t even explain it,” Lee says. “When we three would get together, everyone else in the room would disappear. We knew how to make each other laugh so easily that we became an island amid any party or backstage scene.”
Rush formally disbanded after a final show in August 2015, because Peart wanted to stay home in Los Angeles with his second wife, Carrie, and their daughter Olivia. He had lost his 19-year-old daughter, Selena, in a car crash in 1997; his first wife, Jackie, died of cancer less than a year later. Lee describes how Peart’s new family filled a deep void he was determined to nurture by quitting the road.
Since then, Lee writes that Lifeson has been “fine-tuning his golf game and partnering with some fellow enthusiasts to build a course north of Toronto,” and playing in a new band, Envy of None. Lee, meanwhile, is most often seen cheering the Toronto Blue Jays from behind home plate or hanging out with his precocious nine-year-old grandson, Finnian. “There’s nothing like a grandchild to make you aware of life’s full circle,” he writes. “… writing books, travelling, bird photography, collecting baseball memorabilia, oh, and drinking good wine have become almost as important to me as writing music.”
In My Effin’ Life, written with both gravitas and humour, Lee devotes a chapter to the story of his parents, Holocaust survivors Morris and Mary Weinrib, who met as teens at a Nazi work camp in their native Poland. They were both sent to Auschwitz, but they lost touch after Morris was shipped to Dachau and Mary was sent, along with her mother, siblings and cousins, to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
When the war was over, Morris found Mary in a displaced persons camp, married her, and they emigrated to Toronto, where the Yiddish-speaking couple ran a variety store. “It was imperative for me to tell my parents’ story because the Holocaust loomed so large through my entire upbringing,” says Lee. “Even today, all of us kids of the Holocaust would agree that it has a profound effect on how you think and who you are and what you’ve become. It’s part of the fabric of my personality.”
In 1965, when Lee was 12, his father – known as Moshe in Yiddish and Moszek in Polish – died of a heart attack. That left his mother, Mary (Manya/Malka), to raise Geddy, his older sister, Susie, and his younger brother, Allan. (Geddy comes from a nickname bestowed by his friends, who were mimicking his mother’s pronunciation of Gary.) “Outwardly, he’d survived the horrors of the Holocaust seemingly unscathed,” Lee writes, “but his heart was damaged by six years of slave labour in the camps. I believe he suffered not just physically, but spiritually, too – by which I mean that he had lost his religiosity – if he had any in the first place.”
Mary, who died in 2021 at 95, “was not shy to tell horrific stories about her experiences in the war,” says Lee. “Even when we were quite young, we would hear these stories, but they didn’t always sound exactly the same. I wanted to be sure I got it right.” When the kids took their mother to the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in 1995, they recorded her stories, and Lee began the arduous task of cross-referencing them to get the full picture of the family’s story. More relatives were discovered by From Numbers-to-Names, an AI-powered search engine where you pop in a photo and it searches Holocaust databases for similar images. “It spewed out a number of photographs of my family in Bergen-Belsen, so I collated all this material and tried to write it as accurately as I could. I worked long and hard on it,” Lee says.
My Effin’ Life is Lee’s second book after the 2018 coffee-table tome, Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass. Lee collaborated with his friend, broadcaster and writer Daniel Richler, on both books, and says Richler instigated My Effin’ Life – its title a nod to his habit of dropping F-bombs – during the pandemic lockdown, mere weeks after Peart died. Lee had just come back from a holiday with his family – including his wife, Nancy Young, to whom he has been married for 47 years – and “there was grief and sadness in the air,” he remembers. “It was a reflective period. And here I was, sitting at home, my mind going to rather dark places.”
Richler sent Lee a one-page memory about his father, renowned Canadian author Mordecai Richler, and challenged him to do the same. “I wrote a couple of paragraphs, and we started going back and forth. He noticed my responses were getting longer and longer,” Lee laughs. “He finally said to me, ‘Ged, I think you’re writing a book.’” Richler was also tasked with cleaning up Lee’s language, which is so blue that his son, Julian, has to remind him to tone it down in front of Finnian. (Choice trivia: Lee’s daughter, Kyla, was conceived following a trip to Egypt, where her parents engaged in a fertility ritual, walking seven times around a statue of Pharaoh Amenhotep III.)
My Effin’ Life offers context and elaboration of Lee’s rise from self-described nerdy suburban Jewish kid to an internationally revered rock star with movie credits, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction and countless consecutive gold and platinum records to the band’s name – fifth only behind The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. While the chapter about his family’s Holocaust experience was tough to write, Lee had fun remembering the ’60s, ’70s “and parts of the ’80s that weren’t fogged over by work – or other influences,” he jokes. But, as he approached Peart’s diagnosis, he became more emotional.
“Youth provides rose-coloured glasses to view the world through,” he says. “Those last few chapters were difficult moments in life for me, for Alex, and, of course, for Neil and his family. I wanted to be fair to all of that, and it made the writing more difficult. But I feel like I landed in a nice place.”