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


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 Lifeson 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 underway, 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.”

To hear the full audio of my 2002 interview with Geddy Lee–and my 1992 interview with Alex Lifeson as well–subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 350 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Martin Barre from Jethro Tull, 2022
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1990
Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo, 1992
Popa Chubby, 1995
Jerome Godboo of the Phantoms, 1990
Alain Caron of UZEB, 1985
Billy Sheehan of Mr. Big, 1989
Ty Tabor of King’s X, 2001
Mike Gordon of Phish, 1993
Paul Shaffer of David Letterman, 2022
John Cougar, 1983
Cy Curnin of the Fixx, 1984
James Young from Styx, 1986
Steve Morse of Deep Purple, 1998
Lenny Kravitz, 1998
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1998
Tinsley Ellis, 1992
Matt Minglewood, 1985
Mojo Nixon and Country Dick Montana of the Pleasure Barons, 1993
Bill Davis of Dash Rip Rock, 1992
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Tom Keifer of Cinderella, 1991
Terry Adams of NRBQ, 1997
Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, 1984
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 2010
Slash of Guns N’ Roses and Slash’s Snakepit, 1995
Peter Goalby of Uriah Heep, 1983
Lenny Zakatek of the Alan Parsons Project, 1983
Marc Storace of Krokus, 1983
Chris Whitley, 1991
Buddy Cage of New Riders of the Purple Sage, 2006
Bill Elm of Friends of Dean Martinez, 1995
Simon Townshend, 1983
John Bush of Anthrax, 1993
Aldo Nova, 1983
Steven Adler from Guns N’ Roses, 2011
Mick Ronson, 1989
Tom Morello, 2011
Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers, 1993
Colin Hay of Men at Work, 1983
Mark Kelly of Marillion, 1986
Luther Allison, 1995
Lee Rocker from the Stray Cats, 2007
J. Geils from the J. Geils Band, 2006
Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20, 1997
Jason Newsted of Newsted (and Metallica), 2013
Marshall Crenshaw, 2013
Dan Hartman, 1984
Sean Costello, 2006
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Tommy Stinson from the Replacements, 1993
Brian Blush of the Refreshments, 1997
Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, 2003
Craig Northey of Strippers Union, 2021
Melissa Etheridge, 1990
Joe Jackson, 2003
Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity, 2001
David Ellefson of Megadeth, 1992
David Lee Roth, 2003
Grant Walmsley of the Screaming Jets, 1991
John Popper of Blues Traveler, 1991
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 2012
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1993
Ellen McIlwaine, 2001
Derek Trucks of Tedeschi Trucks, 2012
J.D. Fortune of INXS, 2006
Fernando von Arb of Krokus, 1984
Gary Holt of Exodus, 1985
Dizzy Reed of Guns N’ Roses, 1992
Scott Ian of Anthrax, 2012
Gary Lee Conner of Screaming Trees, 1992
Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, 1985
David “Honeyboy” Edwards, 2003
Rudolf Schenker of Scorpions, 1992
Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, 2001
Jeff Keith of Tesla, 1988
Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton of Arc Angels, 1992
Marc Bonilla, 1992
Mike Smith of Sandbox (and Trailer Park Boys), 1996
Dewey Bunnell of America, 1983
Robert Randolph of the Family Band, 2003
Keith Strickland of the B-52s, 2008
David Johansen of the New York Dolls, 2005
Nathan Followill of Kings of Leon, 2003
Todd Kerns, 2016
Bill Payne of Little Feat, 2002
Robbin Crosby of Ratt, 1989
Tommy Shannon of SRV & Double Trouble, 1998
Alejandro Escovedo, 1997
Billy Duffy of the Cult, 1989
Dave Martone, 2020
Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, 2006
Joss Stone, 2012
Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest, 2005
Jack Blades of Night Ranger, 1984
Vivian Campbell of Def Leppard, 1992
Colin James, 1995
Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, 1998
Tom Cochrane of Red Rider, 1983
Ed Roland of Collective Soul, 1995
Taj Mahal, 2001
Tom Wilson of Junkhouse, 1995
Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, 2003
David Lindley, 2002
Marty Friedman of Megadeth, 1991
John Hiatt, 2010
Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Jeff Golub, 1989
Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness, 1990
Todd Rundgren, 2006
Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, 2001
Steve Earle, 1987
Gabby Gaborno of the Cadillac Tramps, 1991
Terry Bozzio, 2003
Roger Glover, 1985
Matthew Sweet, 1995
Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds, 2003
Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars, 2001
John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, 1995
Steve Hackett from Genesis, 1993
Grace Potter, 2008
Buddy Guy, 1993
Steve Lynch of Autograph, 1985
Don Wilson of the Ventures, 1997
Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar, 1998
Trevor Rabin of Yes, 1984
Albert Lee, 1986
Yngwie Malmsteen, 1985
Robert Cray, 1996
Tony Carey, 1984
Ian Hunter, 1988
Kate Bush, 1985
Jeff Healey, 1988
Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, 1993
Colin Linden, 1993
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 1995
Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, 1986
Elliot Easton from the Cars, 1996
Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
Nick Gilder, 1985
Roy Buchanan, 1988
Klaus Meine of Scorpions, 1988
Jason Bonham, 1989
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, 1991
Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, 1985
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, 2003
Steve Kilbey of the Church, 1990
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, 1990
Dan McCafferty of Nazareth, 1984
Davy Knowles of Back Door Slam, 2007
Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel, 1986
Steve Stevens of Atomic Playboys, 1989
Billy Idol, 1984
Stuart Adamson of Big Country, 1993
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, 1992
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
John Bell of Widespread Panic, 1992
Robben Ford, 1993
Barry Hay of Golden Earring, 1984
Jason Isbell, 2007
Joe Satriani, 1990
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, 1998
Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Alex Van Halen, 1995
Eric Johnson, 2001
Stu Hamm, 1991
Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
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Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
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Uli Jon Roth, 2016
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Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
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Roy Buchanan, 1986
Gary Moore, 1984
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
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Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
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Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
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…with hundreds more to come

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