Book Review: My Effin’ Life by Geddy Lee
On conformity and the lack thereof
Memoirs are more often than not the worst way to get an accurate picture someone’s life. They’re self-serving1 and even at their most open and honest tend to shade things favorably towards the author’s favorite subject: themselves. Nevertheless, when the writer has actually led an interesting or noteworthy life, memoirs make for fascinating reads. Further, the first-hand accounts of different eras are like a travel through time. Yes, it’s colored through the filter of the memoirist’s own memory and experiences—isn’t that the case with us all?—but the accounts can be valuable nonetheless.
A few weeks ago I tore through Rush frontman Geddy Lee’s memoir, My Effin’ Life. Pardon the casual profanity, but Mr. Lee swears a lot. Not in his music—the worst word in any Rush song is “crap” from the song “Heresy” off of 1991’s Roll the Bones, and those were written by the band’s primary lyricist, drummer Neil Peart (Geddy only wrote a handful of the band’s lyrics)—and not really in interviews until fairly recently. Anyway, even I, a massive fan of the band, learned things about Geddy Lee I heretofore never knew.
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For example, while Rush has had an image as being a bunch of squeaky clean nerds, they smoked a massive amount of dope in the 70s. It seems like guitarist Alex Lifeson never really stopped. And I never knew thar the band, in the late 70s and into the early 80s,2 had a cocaine problem. Especially Lee. They just hid it well.
I respect when it hit Geddy that he was becoming the kind of person he hated. The realization came when Lee used the enthusiasm of a particularly starstruck female fan with drug connections to get her coke, promising to let her hang with the band, and then promptly having her removed from the vicinity once he acquired her blow. So disgusted with himself, Geddy decided to stop then and there. He also commented that the complex nature of the music they played made drugs a really stupid thing to do.3
Kids: drugs are always a stupid thing to do. There is no glamour, no upside. All the corny D.A.R.E.-tier anti-drug stuff is true. Drugs are for losers. Drugs enrich criminals. And the government and powers that be in general want you strung out on something or other to keep you docile. Why do you think tobacco is verboten but marijuana is becoming more and more legal and common? Why do you think the CIA flooded cities with drugs in the 70s and 80s and the government in general doesn’t seem to be all that concerned with fentanyl flooding into this country and people dropping like flies? Think about it. KNOW THE FACTS!
That’s all for Uncle Alex’s Konspiracy Korner. Tune in next time where we’ll talk about space. We now take you back to your regularly scheduled book review.
Did you also know that Geddy Lee had severe marital issues in the 70s and 80s? True story! While he is still married to his high school sweetheart, and for all we know was always faithful to her,4 Lee was a workaholic. The band always came first. It was this other entity that became a convenient excuse for his exit from the domestic sphere. Gotta make the money, right?
Geddy was always writing music, recording music, playing music, thinking about music . . . and Rush were road hogs, always on tour. Long tours. It put a strain on all three members’ marriages, but Lee can only speak for himself. Just when he and his wife might be getting somewhere, the band beckoned and off he was on tour. They lived separate lives for years, and resentment built as Lee’s beloved Nancy was left alone with their newborn son, trying to embark on her own career with no support. No wonder in the 90s, when Geddy and Nancy were expecting their second child, Lee demanded a few years of downtime. His bandmates, also family men, readily agreed.5
All good stuff. Lee shares hilarious road stories, interesting experiences about recording various albums, his musical influences, people who wronged the band (he has a long memory), his love of baseball all, meeting Robert Plant, people making fun of his voice, the band’s early days, and Neil Peart’s painful last days, being torn between his hatred of lying and his loyalty to his friend’s wishes that no one else know about his four-year-long battle with glioblastoma.
Also, how he regrets every time he ever cut his hair. There’s a lot of references to hair in this book. When Geddy started growing it out, his orthodox Jewish family was not pleased. Geddy is a Boomer, remember, born in 1953, smack in the middle of his generational cohort. Hair was a massive deal back in those days, especially in the relatively square, conformist suburbs. More on this later. Another thing that made this memoir so unique is his discussion of identity.
Geddy’s parents were Polish Jews who survived several concentration camps, including Auschwitz.6 As an aside, some asshole English reporter in the late 70s accused the band of being literal Nazis because Peart at the time was stridently, almost naively, libertarian and a massive, unabashed Ayn Rand fan. I wrote about the sorry mess in my book about the band, but suffice it to say, leftists have been accusing people they disagree with politically of being literal Nazis for decades. Plus ça change, etc. and so on.
Geddy’s Jewishness is a huge part of his life, and shaped who he is. This is not surprising. We are all something and come from somewhere. While Geddy typically doesn’t talk about his ethnicity—he doesn’t talk about himself at all too much, given his general aversion to looking back—it’s clear Jewishness is something he is proud of and has made him who he is. His harrowing stories of his parents’ experiences make up the longest chapter in the book, and are a very nice piece of historical research/family history. His mother, who passed in 2021, sounds like she was an amazing woman.7 Geddy’s father Morris died when Geddy was only 12, which was obviously hard on young Geddy and led to an 11-month period of mourning and prayer. After that, Geddy vowed he’d never be religious again.
Geddy grew up a Jew in suburban Toronto, which was not super Jew-friendly in those days. Music became an escape and a way for Geddy to fit in. Not that he was ashamed of being Jewish, but he was aware of being different. Yes he had friends, including jazz pianist Oscar Peterson’s son, Oscar Jr., future hockey legend Steve Shutt, and some Serbian guy named Aleksandr Živojinović,8 but all kids want to fit in.
Yet the stories of death and persecution haunted him. Fear was a constant in Geddy’s family life. His family were survivors but that carries with it a type of guilt: “Why were we the lucky ones?” Geddy himself outlived many of his friends, colleagues, and loved ones. And there, in the back of his mind, inculcated in him from birth, was the fear that, someday, he too may be rounded up and shipped off to some camp for the crime of being Jewish. Heavy stuff.
No wonder he remained amazed that his mother still believed in God.
Geddy was born Gershon Eliezer Weinrib. He thought his middle name was Lorne until he was a teenager (long story). He went by Gary, the Anglicized version of Gershon, and Lee was the Anglicized version of Eliezer. “Geddy” came from how his friends heard his mother say “Gary” in her thick accent—“Why does she call you Geddy?” And it stuck. So Gershon Eliezer became Gary Lee. And when it came time to be a musician, Lee dropped the Weinrib and officially became Geddy Lee. A new man for a new world. But he never forgot his roots.
And herein was the most mind-blowing part of the book: the early days of Geddy’s life as a musician. Man, all I have to say is that being a Boomer sounds like it was fucking awesome. Geddy was born in 1953, which is like peak Western civilization before it all went to shit. Geddy and his musician friends blew off school, went to the city, did drugs, bought records, went to shows, and just played. Geddy never went farther than 10th grade, which didn’t cut you off from all opportunities like it would now—the mind virus of credentialism hadn’t yet exploded. Now, people freak out if you don’t go to grad school—you’re a failure!—and the idea of getting a job with just a high school degree is laughable.
And when the nascent band didn’t have gigs? Oh, they’d just camp out at some campground and live like nature boys until more shows came around. Their manager was also roughly their age, just making business decisions and doing everything on his own. At that time, 18-year-olds were literally men on their own. Maybe it was the lack of microplastics and endocrine disrupters.
Good Lord. That world seemed so much more open. Like there were frontiers still available. Not that music was ever a stable career path, but damn, man! That era was filled with bands of high school friends or college classmates who just gigged until they got a record deal. That never happens anymore. Pop music is so professionalized, credentialized. Entertainment generally. So many in the biz are born into it. You have to have the connections. The groups who make money are prefab or legacy. Parents in the industry. All the same things we say about politics or Hollywood. The past truly is a foreign country. Maybe it was also more authentic in some ways.
Of course, you only know about the successful ones, the survivors like Geddy. But it’s hard, as someone born in 1981, one of the worst years to be born in these United States of America—front row to live through the decline in reality time, baby!—not to be very, very envious of the world I’ll never know.
All we want is a chance to make it on our own, to demonstrate competence, and to not be shunted from predetermined “choice” to predetermined “choice.” The thing I admire the most about Geddy is not his bass playing or his songwriting or his unwavering drive to never repeat himself, not his ability to self-reflect and change course (though those are all very admirable) nor his loyalty. It’s that he had the balls to ignore what everyone told him was best for him, disobey his mother, and strike out on his own.
In other words, Geddy was born in the best time on earth to not conform.
The most dangerous thing to be in any group is a non-conformist. This is true in, and maybe especially in, America9 despite assurances that we’re all about letting our freak flags fly, doing your own thing, being a rugged individualist etc.10 At the end of the day, the colonists threw off the crown over, essentially, taxes,11 and then metastasized in two short centuries into to an all-consuming global tyranny of insanity far worse than King George (who was not an evil man, from what I understand), or when the Founders themselves could ever dream of. Roman emperors were only more despotic in terms of the brutality of their repression.
I’m digressing, but the point is American culture is nowhere near as non-conformist as the propaganda leads you to believe. You could be non-conformist when (a) there was a frontier you could skedaddle to if didn’t feel like playing by the dominant functioning society’s rules, (b) there were a sufficient amount of normal, conformist types building and sustaining the society and culture that non-conformists leech off of and undermine,12 and (c) society is enough fuel in the tank, culturally and explicitly to support, and have the patience to tolerate, the counterculture.
Well, the frontier is gone, so there goes subparagraph (a). Normal people currently have no power and aren’t in charge, so there goes subparagraph (b). And American society ain’t doing so hot by most metrics, so bye-bye subparagraph (c). These are common problems when the nonconformists win. Their raison d’etre demands they be perpetual underdogs, so when they’re the alpha, they don’t know what to do but keep undermining.
So yesterday’s radical is today’s conservative, and yesterday’s pillar of society is now a hated kulak. What a strange world we live in.
I get it, though. Conformity isn’t a bad thing per se. The question, as always is, “it depends.”13 What are you conforming to? What does your conformity entail, and what does it support?
The tribe, village, society, civilization needs to preserve what works and ostracize those which are detrimental to its continued survival. This is only a newsflash to moderns. Let’s take your personal beliefs about this or that type of socio-economic-political system out of the equation. The CCP’s repression of the Tiananmen Square protestors is eminently logical when viewed through this lens. So wad the British empire’s suppression of the American revolutionaries. So is the American regime’s harsh treatment of January 6th protestors. I mean, we expected the CCP to abdicate because some students wanted “democracy”? Or the British to flake off and leave the colonies alone? By its own standard, shouldn’t the American regime haven’t have stepped down after January 6? Of course not. That is illogical. No one in power does that.
Most societies are conformist. That’s how they’re able to function. The difference between Geddy’s time—the 60s, which is rhetorically a big dividing line—and now is that the non-conforming rebels were opposed to values which, by and large, sustained Western civilization for centuries and were conducive to a healthy, functioning civilization. The values being protected via brutally enforced conformity now suck and will be the end of us all.
Anyway, this is a really good book. I give it 2112 Starmen out if 10.
See the wildly entertaining but wildly one-sided The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa. No self-reflection there!
Right when they started to achieve great success, natch.
Remember: Geddy played bass, keyboards, keyboard pedals, and sang, and did it all simultaneously.
I’m inclined to believe this. Members of other bands Rush toured with like Kiss and UFO say the band was disinterested in groupies and just read and stuff, and I was told by someone with firsthand experience with the band that when women accosted Geddy Lee on the road, he’d say “I’ve gotta go call my girlfriend.” And he would then find the nearest pay phone.
The three years between 1993’s Counterparts and 1996’s Test for Echo was an abnormally long gap for this band.
Peart later used these stories as the basis for 1984’s “Red Sector A.”
Geddy shared a great story about when he and his brother took their mom back to Poland for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the camps. This was Mary Weinrib’s first trip back to her home country since the war, they met a British soldier who was one of the first Allies on the scene, and realized they had lunch in the room she got married in.
Rick Moranis was also in Geddy’s class, but they weren’t buddies back in the day; in fact, it sounds like they never really interacted with each other.
I’m sure Anglophone Canada was and is similar.
The Greek word μαλακίες comes to mind; look it up.
Which is actually is pretty based, not gonna lie, but also a weak reason to throw off a millennium-and-a-half of tradition that, you know, actually worked.
I’m not sorry—that’s what countercultures do. And depending on the counterculture and the dominant culture it is undermining, that isn’t always a negative.
Yes, I’m a lawyer.