Geddy Lee on Neil Peart’s personal struggles, shaping his lyrics, and loving Rush

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 5, 2002

By Steve Newton

Rush’s latest CD, Vapor Trails, may be its best recording ever, and since the Canuck prog-rock trio now has 17 studio releases to its credit, that’s saying something. But the album would never have been made if drummer-lyricist Neil Peart hadn’t had the inner strength to overcome the 1997 car-crash loss of his teenage daughter, Selena, and his wife Jackie’s death by cancer mere months later. As detailed in Peart’s new book, Ghost Rider, he dealt with those twin tragedies by hitting the road on his BMW motorbike and trekking from Quebec to Alaska, then down to Mexico and Belize, all the while chronicling the people and places he experienced on his travels. Rush vocalist-bassist Geddy Lee is still in awe of his bandmate’s ability to carry on after such grief.

“Listen, it was a very difficult time,” Lee says from a tour stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “He’s a very intense guy, and these past few years have been very strange for him, and for us as his friends. So we tried to be the best friends we could be to him, and I’m really happy for him now, knowing that he’s feeling strong and has a positive direction for his life.”

For those who haven’t followed Rush’s 28-year recording career, the band has stuck with the same basic songwriting process ever since Peart took over the drum kit from the unfortunate John Rutsey on the group’s second album, Fly By Night. Peart writes the lyrics; Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson come up with the music. That kind of inflexible relationship makes you wonder if Lee ever feels the urge to contribute the odd batch of lyrics himself.

“Only if I’m forced,” he comments with a chuckle. “You know, Neil’s done a great job for us all through the years. We work very closely together on songwriting, and I have to shape his lyrics into melodies, so I have a lot of input into the way these things turn out. So I think it’s a benefit to him to have me as kind of a sounding-board editor–slash–melody writer. And it’s a nice partnership.”

That said, the long-time partnership was tested with Vapor Trails. Apart from Peart’s personal misfortunes, there was the five-year stretch between the new disc and the previous one, Test For Echo. That time period did allow Lee and Peart to produce their own projects, for themselves and for others, but it also made it difficult for the threesome to get back into the swing of things. “It was a long, slow process getting on the same page in terms of our playing and writing,” Lee relates.

Not only did Vapor Trails take ages to get under way, it also took one full year to complete. Usually Rush spends four to six months on a record, but the band’s tendency toward perfectionism asserted itself. “I’m kind of a mental case about making it as good as we can make it,” Lee reveals. “In some ways, I have to have it taken away from me or I’ll just keep fiddling with it.”

And when the album was finally finished—with the invaluable help of mixer David Leonard’s fresh ears—there was still the problem of deciding the songs’ order. For Rush, it’s a bigger issue than you might think. “You drive yourself crazy for a coupla weeks trying different combinations,” Lee explains, “until you feel like you’ve got a nice journey to take the listener on. Ever since vinyl disappeared, it’s made sequencing much more difficult, because you don’t have two sides, and I don’t like that. I like having two sides and being able to shape two different kind of moods, perhaps. Now it’s all one long thing and you have to balance the dynamics and the musicality out in such a way that you still keep interest going.”

From the heavy, almost ’70s-metal riffs of the leadoff single, “One Little Victory”, through to the propulsive closer “Out of the Cradle”, Vapor Trails is vintage Rush. As Peart explains in his essay “Behind the Fire: The Making of Vapor Trails”—which serves as the band’s current record-company bio—the group “envisioned advertising slogans along the lines of: ‘If you hated them before, you’ll really hate them now.’ ”

But all the detractors in the world haven’t stopped the trio’s blend of driving melodic hooks, complex rhythms, and thoughtful lyrics from selling more than 35 million LPs, tapes, and CDs worldwide. Vapor Trails recently garnered a three-and-a-half-star rave in the prestigious Guitar World magazine, wherein reviewer Mac Randall wrote that “when you’re looking for hard rock with brains, you still can’t do better than Rush.” The question remains: after 28 years and 23 albums, how long can Rush keep at it? Lee says he has no idea.

“I just take it one project at a time at this point. As long as we’re feeling good and enjoying working together, I guess we’ll keep kickin’ it around. And I guess when we get to the point that it’s either no fun or we don’t believe we can produce anything valid, then we’ll fade out into the sunset.”

One thing the 48-year-old rocker does know for sure is that he’s enjoying playing live now as much as he ever has. Local Rush freaks can check out his three-mile smile when the band plays GM Place on Sunday (September 8). “I’m loving it,” he says. “We’re playing the best that we’ve ever played, and the presentation of the show is… I’m just really happy with it. The crowds are walking away extremely enthralled. I’ve had a lot of our fans say that it’s the best tour they’ve ever seen of us.”

Geddy Lee sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

On the new track “Peaceable Kingdom”, which was directly inspired by the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.: “That’s a song that definitely deals with the oceanic gap between belief systems.”

On how Vapor Trails coproducer Paul Northfield helped save Neil Peart’s tragedy-inspired song, “Ghost Rider”, from near-abandonment: “We were having some problems making sure that that song was fully fleshed out, and Paul came in to be that objective voice at the right time.”

On Lee’s regimen for taking care of his voice on tour, which requires him to, among other things, choose red wine instead of white: “White wines are a little more acidic and, as a result, are more mucolytic. So they dry you out more.”

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