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Geddy Lee reflects on the big breaks and mistakes of 'My Effin' Life'

TORONTO — When Geddy Lee goes big, he goes huge. It’s a personality trait that served him well as bassist and vocalist of prog-rock legends Rush, whose epic songs, among them “Tom Sawyer” and “Working Man,” are enshrined in Canadian music history.
Geddy Lee is seen backstage after accepting the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award on behalf of Rush during the Junos gala dinner and awards in Hamilton on Saturday, March 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power

TORONTO — When Geddy Lee goes big, he goes huge.

It’s a personality trait that served him well as bassist and vocalist of prog-rock legends Rush, whose epic songs, among them “Tom Sawyer” and “Working Man,” are enshrined in Canadian music history. 

And with Lee’s new memoir “My Effin’ Life” he aspired to similarly great heights in retelling his own life story over 500 pages.

“My original manuscript was 1,200 pages,” the 70-year-old musician said in a recent phone interview.

“If I had released it in that form, I'd have to call it ‘Every (Effin’) Boring Detail.'”

He wouldn't be the only sizable performer to turn out a sizable stack of reflections this year. Barbra Streisand's memoir, also released this month, clocks in at an incredible 970 pages, which at its mention leads Lee to chuckle.

"I've got that beat," he said of his initial version.

But to Lee's credit, he exercised some restraint. Once his final draft was handed in, he gave co-writer Daniel Richler and his publisher carte blanche to chop. They managed to pare it down to half its length while keeping the musician's self-deprecating humour intact.

Some of the stories are shared on stage at Lee's ongoing book tour, which stops in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto in the coming weeks. Surprise interviewers, including fellow musicians and old friends, appear alongside him to help provoke his memories.

Nearly every superstar musician ends up writing a memoir, but for years the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer intended not to be one of them. Things changed after Rush finished their last tour eight years ago.

At the time, Lee refused to label it the band's "final" tour. He says in the memoir that might've partly been denial that it was truly the end. He now sees that the band was slowly growing apart with drummer Neil Peart prioritizing his personal life.

When Peart died of brain cancer in January 2020, Lee began to contend with a considerable sense of loss that had started to creep into his life. 

Others close to him were confronting their own mortality. His mother Mary Weinrib was in a care home with worsening dementia as the COVID-19 pandemic put everyone into lockdown in early 2020. She died the next year.

“Part of what I was witnessing around me was the destruction of grey matter,” he said.

“It all struck me as being such a tenuous thing,” he added.

At the encouragement of his friend and author Richler, Lee began sharing anecdotes and memories of his youth over email. Those conversations kick-started the memoir with Richler working as co-writer.

"My Effin' Life" begins with Lee trying to make sense of himself, a formidable task for anyone who's tried to define Rush's experimental roots.

Born Gershon Eliezer Weinrib, the Toronto-raised musician explains how he landed on the name everyone knows him by now, and how the early death of his father shaped his childhood.

He recounts the rise of Rush, the hard lessons of touring life and his tireless quest for creative endeavours that inspire him. And while Rush seemingly didn't live the debauchery of many rock stars, Lee does 'fess up to cocaine use in the late 1970s and recalls a hotel stay that saw a drunken, half-naked Alex Lifeson, Rush's guitarist, lose his cool.

He also retraces family roots.

One chapter details his mother's experience as a Holocaust survivor who grew up in Wierzbnik, a village in Poland. Her stories are cross-referenced with research the Shoah Foundation and other resources conducted.

"I always had the desire to put that together," he said, "so that my kids, grandkids and whoever follows us will know what they went through and how lucky we all are to be here."

"What is the point of a memoir?" he asks. "It's to help explain who this person is and so I thought that was important. If you understand the household I was raised in ... you can understand me a little better."

The wealth of anecdotes in "My Effin' Life" also validated Lee's lifelong hoarder tendencies. 

Over the years, he's famously amassed a collection of signed baseballs, expensive bottles of wine and unique watches. He also saved artifacts from life on the road, which are featured among the book's photographs.

"Alex used to make these spectacular miniature model planes out of marijuana," he offers as one example.

"They were joints that could fly. I not only kept the pictures of them, I still have some of the remnants of those planes in an envelope."

Ultimately, the book helped Lee face some truths about himself. His recollections of being the "quiet, shy little nerd" didn't match with his actions, which at one point involved dropping out of high school to pursue rock music.

"I had more chutzpah," he said.

He said the memoir also forced him to contend with his failures, both as a husband and a band mate, and his constant drive to mount new projects. 

His next will be the Paramount Plus docuseries “Geddy Lee Asks: Are Bass Players Human Too?” where he interviews fellow bassists. It begins streaming Dec. 5.

Explaining his drive, Lee points to a quote from his friend, the late Canadian painter and musician Mendelson Joe, who died earlier this year.

"(He) used to say, 'Make new mistakes.' I love that," Lee recalled. "Never be afraid to embarrass yourself, that's the idea. Just go out there and try something new."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2023.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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