We Write to Remember Our Effin' Lives
Yours, Mine, Everyone’s
On November 18, 2023 at 8:00 p.m., my son and I went to Boston’s venerable Orpheum Theater to see Rush bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee discuss his new memoir, My Effin’ Life.
Yes, although I knock fanboys and fanboyism, it’s both hypocritical and half-hearted, as I am a true fanboy for Rush. I know all of their albums front to back, I’ve seen them in concert three times, I know as much about the three members’ lives as I do major historical figures, I, uh, wrote a book about them after drummer/lyricist tragically passed away from brain cancer in early 2020. Guitarist Alex Lifeson is still alive, enjoying mostly non-music related things—he and Geddy helped a Canadian beer company, Henderson Brewing create a line of Rush-themed beers1—but he’s not a writer.
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Geddy, during the pandemic-related lockdowns up in Toronto where he resides, had to deal with both Neil’s death and the subsequent death of his mother at 95, who had been suffering from dementia. Geddy—born name Gershon Eliezer Weinrib—was the son of Polish Jews, concentration-camp survivors who reunited after the war, married, and emigrated to Canada. Young Gershon, later Anglicized to Gary, was, along with several cousins, named in honor of his murdered grandfather, which led to a humorous anecdote about Geddy learning at age 16 that his middle name was not, in fact, Lorne; his mother had forgotten which male cousin had been given which middle name, but they were all Gershons/Garys.
Identity is powerful. Who we are named after us powerful. Luckily, young Gary had a good enough family life that this didn’t mess him up. The name “Geddy” came from Lee’s mother’s accent when she said “Gary,” and “Lee” was the Anglicized version of Eliezer—Lee didn’t think “Weinrib” was a very rock n’ roll name and the rest is history.
Geddy’s father died of a heart attack when Geddy was 12. A non-religious man in a family of Orthodox Jews, young Geddy saw him sneak bacon and other non-kosher foods, giving Geddy, a atheist though by in no means a particularly vocal or obnoxious one, permission to see religious structures as, in his words, “bullshit.” He also expressed his disbelief, echoing author Elie Wiesel, that any Jew who survived the Holocaust could still believe in a God that loves them.2
This got a very small, half-hearted amount of applause that ended as soon as the few people clapping realized that nobody else was. In a theater full of New England Rush fans who, according the the research I conducted for my book, skew mostly libertarian and progressive, and are only slightly over half-atheist or otherwise not religious.3
Anyway, Geddy spent a good hour-plus being interviewed by Will from Will & Grace, actor Eric McCormack. A fellow, younger, Canadian who grew up near Geddy, he is a huge Rush fan and had great questions for Geddy in a relaxed setting. Geddy is very funny, very engaging, and just seems like such a sincere and authentic person, just like his music.
After, a 15 or so minute intermission during which Boston Red Sox organist4 Joshua Kantor played Rush tunes on a keyboard on the “baseball organ” setting, Geddy returned to read an excerpt from his book about his singing voice, and then sat down with Geoff Edgers, a Washington Post writer5 who was a Boston local and wrote a recent (and decent) story about Geddy, for more conversation and questions from the audience.6
The evening was highly enjoyable, and I could talk about Rush for days. I was along my people, and even struck up conversation with the guy next to me about his well-worn Presto t-shirt, which I called a “bold choice.”7
However, this post isn’t about Rush.
Do you want to know what the most profound thing Geddy said was in a night full of profundity? It’s that he started writing at the urging of a friend when his mom started to really forget things so that Geddy wouldn’t forget things either, about his mother or about himself.
He wrote to remember. Which is one of the most ancient reasons to write at all.
Life is many things. It is not always happy, but it is not always sad. It does not pan out like we hoped and dreamed. We don’t all, like Geddy, get to spend 40+ years making the music we want with our childhood best friend and a guy who, miraculously, should’ve been a childhood best friend.8
Life is full of tragedy amidst the triumph. Look at Neil Peart: rock’s most respected drummer in one of rock’s most respected bands. Rich, famous, highly accomplished, a family man. He loses his only child in a car accident and then his wife to cancer less than a year later. Puts his life back together and eventually remarried and has a daughter in 2010. Retires in 2015 to be with her, is diagnosed with brain cancer in 2016 and dies four years later. Life is unpredictable. You take the bad with the good and there’s nothing you can do about it. Our character is revealed in how we deal with tragedy, get back up on our feet, treat others, and so on. They are clichés because they’re true. But at the end, you still die.
Effin’ life and death. Hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. What happens after, well, your mileage may vary for reasons previously discussed. Suffice it to say, you don’t think about things like this when you’re young.
I love Boston. Lots of good memories. My son and I didn’t get much time to walk around after the event, but we swung by the frog pond in Boston Common. In winter, the city ices over the wading pool used in summer and people ice skate on it. It was closed at the time but I got a picture of the titular sculptures. My wife and I used to skate here when we were dating. Good times.
The other night, I dreamt that my son and I were driving through the town I grew up in. We stopped at some stores downtown (that don’t really exist) and walked through the town common (way bigger than in real life) and then walked thorough my high school (very different, but the same as in other dreams I’ve had of it through the years). Some teachers I had 25+ years ago were still there and looked the same. I woke up when we were driving up to the house I grew up in and hadn’t been to since, shoot, since 2004, a year before my parents moved.
I guess Boston is one of my “happy places” so being there, even if only for a few hours, sparked a lot of subconscious longing for other happy places. The Orpheum Theater, too—I saw some great concerts there9 when I lived just a few blocks away. I don’t know how any of this works.
We write so we don’t forget. This includes internet blog posts. Geddy’s statement put this compulsion to share, to relate, to write, in sharp focus. Is this not due to us all carrying a tiny piece of the divine within us? Is not God the ultimate author of all? Is not Christ also called The Word? Maybe we represent something the Almighty does not want to forget. Our written recollections are then our best imitation of this act of creation. Why does anybody make art anyway, whether it be music or writing or visual? What is it we’re even trying to remember? Or do we just want others to remember us? To prove to ourselves and our descendants that we were here, that we matter?
Cavemen drew pictures of themselves killing those gigantic mammoths and bison for reasons other than just “Look at me tossing this spear right in its ass!”10
If a guy as accomplished, well-known, and beloved as Geddy Lee is worried about forgetting and being forgotten, we all should be.
You will have triumph and you will have tragedy and you will have regrets. Lots and lots of regrets.11 Things you wish you did and things you wish you didn’t do. Zigs where you should have zagged. Life is an open book until you reach a point where it is too late. You do not always have time. No, Virginia, you most certainly cannot do “whatever you want to do” in life. The search for absolute freedom has caused more trouble and misery in such a short time than few other things save for drugs, war, and Crystal Pepsi. We don’t all get to live our dreams like Geddy Lee.
That’s okay. It’s unavoidable. There is no use spending too much time and energy lamenting that which cannot be changed. Complain about it (on the internet, say) and move on. You are where you are and that’s that. Art helps us get thorough it. This matters more the older you get, when the horizon starts to move closer after years, decades even, of seeming fixed in place. And at the end?
At the end it’s time to settle up. Roll the bones, right?
You should also buy Dreamers & Misfits because it’s an awesome book.
I will say that I’m glad Rush waited until they were retired (their 2012 masterpiece Clockwork Angels was their final studio album, and 2015’s R40 fortieth anniversary tour was their last) and old men (Geddy and Alex are both 70) before merchandising and turning Rush into—and may God forgive me for uttering this phrase—a brand. While they were an active music-making concern, Rush acted with scrupulous integrity, deliberately avoiding becoming Rush™️ and focusing on the music and their live shows. I’ll allow them their recent licensing and reissue frenzy.
I mean, it’s not as if the Old Testament is full of stories about the nation of Israel abandoning God and being temporarily abandoned in return until they repent—this is not to say that Europe’s Jews “deserved” the Holocaust—nobody deserves that! It’s just that, from theological point of view, the idea that the Holocaust disproves God doesn’t make sense, but I do understand the emotion behind it.
All three members of Rush are atheist, which is fine because they never insult anybody in their songs that touch on religion: “Freewill,” “Tom Sawyer,” “Roll the Bones,” “Faithless,” “Armor and Sword,” “The Way the Wind Blows,” and “BU2B.” Of these songs “BU2B” is a part of a concept album’s story involving a clockwork world that literally controls fate, “Freewill” is about having choices, “Armor and Sword” is a lament that religion gets used as a weapon instead of a shield, “The Way the Wind Blows” is against religious extremism (“. . . from the Middle East, to the middle west . . .”), and “Tom Sawyer” merely states that “. . . his mind is not for rent/to any God or government,” meaning think about it. Only “Roll the Bones” and “Faithless” are explicitly about atheism, the latter explaining Peart’s philosophy that there is no grand plan (though there’s a little “if God real why bad things happen?” while “Faithless” is just Peart saying he relies on his own moral compass, etc. No real sucker-punches, political or otherwise, in Rush’s music.
Geddy is a legendary baseball fanatic with a famous collection of memorabilia. Rush is also very popular among professional baseball players, and has been for decades.
Don’t hold it against him; he seems all right.
The questions were presubmitted online, something I missed. I would have asked “What song did Rush never play live that you wish it did,” but the ones that made the cut were good. The most poignant (I’m paraphrasing): “If you, Alex, and Neil could be on stage right here, right now, could plug in, and play three songs, what would they be?” After a very brief hesitation, Geddy responded with “The Garden” and “Headlong Flight” from Clockwork Angels, and “Working Man” from their 1974 self-titled debut. Interesting choices, but meaningful.
1989’s Presto has grown on me over the years. It was billed as the band’s “return to heavy rock” after their recent synthesizer-heavy albums that veered into jazz-fusion tonalities and harmonies, but . . . aside from opener “Show Don’t Tell,” Presto just doesn’t rock. It also lacks the sumptuous production of 1987’s gorgeous Hold Your Fire. What it does have is flat-out well-written songs that are often beautiful and quite honestly moving. This fellow fan highlighted Rush’s anti-suicide anthem “The Pass” as a song that resonates with him. He was also about seven years my senior, and the Presto tour in 1990 was his first Rush concert—his t-shirt was from that show. I also bring up Presto because, while researching over 600 fans for my book, a far higher amount than expected cited it as their favorite Rush album, mainly because of the lyrics, and how they got them through difficult times. It makes me want to cry because this is the power of art and this is why Rush fans care about this band so much—cheesy as it sounds, they cared about us.
I honestly can’t understand Geddy, Alex, and Neil’s atheism considering that, randomly in 1975, Neil Peart decided to give music one last go after basically renouncing his dreams of music stardom decided to drive out to Toronto for that particular audition with those two particular (and peculiar) guys on that particular day. It had to be divine intervention.
Primus, Zappa Plays Zappa, Queens of the Stone Age, and Kings of Leon.
This, however, is a totally valid reason.
Lots of regrets.