November 17, 2023

I wasn’t entirely happy – and never would be with any record we’d make… is one of the many surprising quotes from Geddy Lee in his new autobiography My Effin’ Life, one of the more riveting page-turners in recent memory when it comes to musician bios. For the obsessive Rush fan (is there any other kind?) this long-awaited memoir provides countless anecdotes and hitherto untold stories and unseen photos, from Geddy’s humble beginnings as a shy Jewish kid from Toronto through to the end of Rush, the legendary hard rock band he fronted for over 40 years.

Geddy has a lot to say about his 70 years on the planet, and claims to have written considerably more than what’s presented in this final version (personally, I’d love to read the unexpurgated 1200 page draft, which I promise would never bore me). He looks back with equal measures of fondness, bewilderment, anger, shock, guilt, sadness, and joy as he examines his parents, siblings, schooling, friends, heroes, bandmates, career, marriage, and children.

The entirety of one early chapter is an unflinching, harrowing account of his parents’ experiences at the Nazi concentration camps during WWII and their eventual relocation to Canada. Geddy offers the reader a chance to skip ahead to the next chapter, but cautions that it’s important for the world to consider its past mistakes in this current climate, with antisemitism cropping up more frequently and closer to home. (These tales also later serve to illustrate the absurdity of a mid-70s interviewer who accused Rush of being fascists and even quoted the famous slogan above the Auschwitz death camp in reference to them… which rightfully sends Geddy, even now, into a raging tirade.) This isn’t a pleasant chapter to read, but it sure isn’t dull. I hope people don’t skip it.

As for his own life, Geddy presents himself through an open and honest lens; an imperfect human who strives to better himself, but doesn’t always succeed. He details a propensity for being controlling – only half-jokingly referring to himself as ‘bossypants’ – and sometimes difficult to work with, particularly for producers and engineers, but even occasionally to his closest friend and bandmate Alex Lifeson, who he steamrolls over at one point with his newfound keyboard obsession, oblivious to feelings he should have been more aware of. He also laments all the time he spent away from his wife Nancy (who doesn’t want to read the book) and goes into more detail about the marital problems his life on the road caused than I expected him to.

All of a sudden, you’re sitting there looking at each other like you’re strangers. With a minefield between you. You’ve booby-trapped your life together. Things would build and build until just when I had to head back on the road. We’d have been civil for the duration, but then man, would we get into it… I’d be off again with a ‘Sorry, I can’t do this right now. I gotta go.’

Geddy also admits a yearning to be more forgiving, but still can’t help lashing out with a few profanity-laced barbs to some notable people who he feels wronged him over the years. He’s still incensed at producer Steve Lillywhite in particular for jumping ship two weeks before the band was set to begin Grace Under Pressure.

Speaking of swearing, it’s quickly evident what gave this book its title. But I must say, the more innocuous term ‘effin’ is overused to the point of distraction (I read the actual hardcover book as opposed to a digital version, so I can’t easily count how many times it appears, but it’s effin’ a lot). I’d rather he just said ‘fucking’ – which he already does say a lot anyway, and which doesn’t cause me to stumble when reading it. ‘Effin’ seems out of place and inserted superfluously much of the time. At one point I wondered if Geddy’s writing style was an homage to David Mamet plays.

Geddy is something of a worrywart, something he partially attributes to his Jewishness and partially to all the darkness and death he’s encountered, beginning at the age of 12 when he lost his father unexpectedly to a heart attack at 45. He recounts the terrible event and the subsequent period of mourning with an understandable grimness, and a still-palpable anger at extended family members who made this time more difficult on him. His awkward teenage years were just around the corner and he would soon discover rock music, grow his hair – to his mother’s endless chagrin – and begin charting the course of his life, which had no room for stifling religion anymore.

I was percolating beneath the surface, starting to reject adults at every turn, and as soon as my eleven months of mourning were over, I spent less time at home and sought out a new breed of friends.

Geddy talks about drugs in this book… a lot. Pot, hash oil, cocaine, acid, mushrooms, Quaaludes, Valium, copious drinking… it’s all here, chronicled in vivid detail. It’s not so much that I’m surprised by the amount of illicit ingestion as I am the number of times Geddy brings it up throughout the entirety of the book. I almost wonder if he isn’t trying to dispel what he views as the band’s goody-goody reputation among the wider world of rock star debauchery their peers inhabited. He even includes a photo of him onstage with a cocaine spoon dangling from his neck. Another page of photos reveals Alex’s ability to roll airplane-shaped joints, which I must admit are remarkably impressive!

Geddy’s love and affection for Alex is obvious in the glowing terms he uses whenever mentioning him. Even in more tense times, there’s never a cross word or insults or lasting resentment; only a genuine concern and care for their music and maintaining their rare fifty-plus-year friendship in and out of the band. Alex fans can rejoice in the fact that there are many stories throughout which involve him, from hilarious to wacky to painful: crashing his car and knocking out his teeth in the process because he was fleeing an angry nest of bees; drunken hotel mischief (Geddy trying to calm him all the while and winding up with a shard of glass lodged an inch from his manhood); a scary incident during the making of Clockwork Angels where Geddy finds him slumped over and screams for an ambulance; his hilarious hotel check-in pseudonyms (like Harry Bagg, Mike Oxonfire, and one that I simply can’t print here). Alex is an endless wellspring of entertainment and as Geddy’s ‘BFF’, an unavoidably important part of the book.

Conversely, Geddy mostly refers to original drummer John Rutsey by his surname, whereas everyone else is either called by their first name or an endearing nickname. They were clearly never close, although John was invited to Geddy’s wedding in 1976, where he sat at the same table as his successor Neil Peart! But overall Geddy seems to have less fondness for him in general, which apparently stems from the incident where John tore up all the lyrics he had written for the band’s debut album right before they were to record it, leaving Geddy scrambling to write them himself on the spot (apart from Here Again, penned by Alex)… no wonder there are so many ‘Yeah’s filling the spaces!

Although Geddy is rightfully proud of a lot of Rush music (and rants at one point about how certain people today misunderstand the meaning behind Freewill), he is sometimes surprisingly critical of other songs (Fly By Night and Lakeside Park among others). And as someone who refers to the mixing process as the ‘death of hope’, he is often upset with the final sound of albums (though he does muster up something of a compliment after listening back to A Show of Hands for the first time in many years, pointing out that he’s ‘barely cringing’ at it – such acclaim!) He comes across as incredibly committed to every aspect of Rush; writing, performing, mixing, mastering, set list, visuals, these were things he would obsess over. Even while away on what was supposed to be a relaxing holiday with his wife following the exhausting Vapor Trails recording, he was making endless phone calls to the studio, pinpointing flaws in the mix that he wanted addressed. One wonders how that went over with Nancy.

The Vapor Trails mixing sessions were as close to torture as I’ve ever experienced. After a year of labouring over the songs, we needed to be wowed… and we weren’t. We’d spent so long sweating over every note that we’d disappeared up our own asses.

His job on stage was no less difficult, and Geddy delves into the many tales of life on the road; good, bad, and ugly. A great deal of things can go wrong with a live show, and it seems every one of them happened to Rush at one point. Being booed off the stage, equipment failures, illness, death threats(!), riots, injuries from audience projectiles, danger of electrocution, chronic physical strain… the guy had a hard job up there, and he’s not afraid to tell us just how hard. At one point he muses about his ‘secret dream’ of a life where he only had to be the bassist in a band, and not the ‘trained monkey’ he is, performing multiple roles simultaneously in order to reproduce his own complex music. Band disagreements are touched upon as well, but without any kind of sensational dirt-dishing or bitterness. Geddy reserves his true ire for those outside his circle.

As with so many musicians’ memoirs, there is substantially more attention devoted to the early albums than the later ones. By the time of Power Windows, the anecdotes seem fewer and farther between, and most album sessions and tours go by without even a single song mentioned, giving the book a lack of balance in its final third. Thankfully, the detail picks up again with Vapor Trails (and Geddy’s solo album My Favourite Headache before it), but as a lover of some of those later 80s albums, I was eager to hear a bit more about them, and disappointed to see them somewhat glossed over. To be fair though, the book is not The Effin’ History of Rush, so perhaps I am just being greedy. To be even fairer, there are boatloads of outside stories previously unknown to me, and I doubt I’ll be the only one surprised to read about Neil getting into a shoving match with a member of the yakuza (the Japanese mafia) and never setting foot in Japan again! I did not have that on my Rush bingo card.

Geddy effectively portrays the suddenness of the numerous tragedies he has endured, with chapters reflecting a life and career rolling along swimmingly until BAM! Dreadful news is received. He speaks lovingly of those he has lost, and openly about how those losses affect his life. Some of these moments are difficult to read, and surely must have been difficult to write. But far worse to live. Neil’s nightmarish ordeals are among the worst of these from our own perspective, and finally Neil’s own death in 2020 is the most difficult of all, as Geddy’s raw pain seeps through the pages. He recounts visits to his dear friend during his final years, and though he maintains the respect for privacy that Neil wanted, the story is still an eye-opener, and one of immense sorrow for all involved.

This was our relationship on and off for more than three years, during which time I found it impossible to write music. At its best, rock and roll is a celebration, an expression of joy, but when your heart is empty, just try stirring up the molecules, it’s almost impossible… at other moments of sadness and loss, I’d been able to dig deep and find an ember of hope to ignite me and send me to my instrument… but this was different. It was simply too grave.

I will sheepishly admit that I had to correct a few typos while taking notes at this point, as my vision had blurred reading the moving words penned by one lifelong friend about another. And though I didn’t know him, I’ve always felt like I lost Neil too, that the world lost him. He was such a vital and admirable figure; someone whose thoughtful writing spoke to me so clearly, going way back to my impressionable teenage years when I would pore over the lyrics he had so carefully composed. To read such a heartbreaking account of his decline by someone who was so close to him was a bit too much for my masculine façade to withstand.

Ultimately, the book ends on an uplifting note, and despite all the sadness there are welcome moments of glittering triumph and laugh-out-loud silliness (and that includes the drawings, especially Alex’s). The 500-odd pages are well written and engrossing, and any technical errors are exceedingly minor. Geddy writes with humour, intelligence, wisdom, and a sense of pride in his life’s accomplishments. He pokes fun at those close to him – and those not – but just as much at himself (his ‘big schnoz’ gets a few mentions), and the peaks and valleys of his life’s journey make for quite a ride. Reading it feels as cathartic as it surely must have been for him to write. Well done, Gershon Eliezer Weinrib. You’ve done those around you – and those you’ve lost – proud.