Geddy Lee is reluctant to look back. The Rush bassist and vocalist has said so not only in press and publicity materials for his new memoir, “My Effin’ Life,” he says so several times in the book itself. This, as should require no further elaboration, is rather a contradiction. Even so, he returns to that hesitance even as the publication date looms ever closer.
“I didn’t like the idea of talking about my life” Lee says over Zoom. “I didn’t like the idea of delving into what I feared would be just narcissism about I did this and I did that. And so I stayed away from it. I thought, I have unfinished business. My life is ongoing. I must be much too young to write a memoir.”
Lee chuckles after that last bit, seemingly aware of the irony of refusing to engage in a display of narcissism for narcissistic reasons. And indeed, not only did he write “My Effin’ Life,” he’s bringing it to the Orpheum on Saturday, mining his disinclination to gaze into the rearview into an onstage interview and audience Q&A in lieu of a more typical book tour. (Ticketholders will receive a copy of the book.) Lee explains the factors that overcame his objections, some personal and some global.
“My book agent was always nudging me. He would send me the new Beastie Boys memoir and say, ‘Hey, look, isn’t that great? Read it.’ So I could ignore that,” he says. “But now it’s 2020 and I had just suffered a loss of my bandmate and friend Neil Peart [Rush’s drummer, who died in January of that year] and suddenly found myself locked down in a global pandemic, alone with the reverberations from that terrible thing. It put me in a very reflective mood. I was unhappy. And I had to try to work on my unhappiness, because it’s not a good way to be. So I was doing some therapy with my therapist and trying to resolve this situation. And one of the things, of course, that you do in therapy is talk about your past and try to find out if there were things and other losses that you left unresolved, some kind of sorrow that you hadn’t ever dealt with and maybe compartmentalized.
“So you combine that with the fact that my mother was going through the later stages of dementia, which was terrible for me to witness. When I would see her — on the rare occasion I could get to see her during the early part of the pandemic — sometimes she just wouldn’t know who I was, or she was looking for members of her family like it was 1935 all over again. Those things stayed with me. They were weighing heavily with me. And so I realized that our memories are fragile, and they can disappear suddenly. So I started thinking that maybe this is something worth doing.”
That might suggest that “My Effin’ Life,” released on Tuesday, is a heavy read, and Lee certainly doesn’t shy away from several difficult (and, by terrible happenstance, newly relevant once again) topics, such as the antisemitism he faced growing up Jewish in 1950s and ‘60s Toronto and his parents’ horrifying experiences as Holocaust survivors. “Growing up in a household of those stories formed my worldview, good and bad,” says Lee by way of explaining why he devoted an entire chapter to the latter, “but it also formed my value system and my belief in human rights and all the things that go along with that.”
But “My Effin’ Life” is joyously thoughtful and engaging and sparkles with life, with the author’s storytelling off-handed enough to establish a distinctive voice but not so much that it derails the narrative. (When told that the title may be the rudest thing ever said by a Canadian, Lee responds, “You don’t know the Canadians I know” with a laugh.) What’s maybe most remarkable is that it remains lithe and propulsive despite Rush — a trio comprising Lee, Peart, and guitarist Alex Lifeson — being, substantially, a band without drama. Marriages and babies happen early, and if there were groupies, Lee doesn’t discuss them. Drugs are taken in not-insubstantial quantities, but they’re mentioned matter-of-factly and without either glamorizing or demonizing them. The biggest intra-band conflict — original drummer John Rutsey’s ouster after Rush’s first album — is followed with a reference to him attending Lee’s wedding several years later.
Lee even acknowledges (and somewhat respects) many of the criticisms he’s encountered over the years — about his voice, his looks, the nerdishly proggy complexity of Rush’s music — without being angry, bitter, or petty about it. After all, it’s probably easy for him to have that level of comfort in his own skin when all those things have gotten him basically everything he ever dreamed of.
“I think success for the three of us came very, very slowly, and so we had time to absorb the shots that were taken at us, the criticisms that were taken at us,” Lee says. “And because it took place over such a long period of time, I think we never really lost sight of what’s important and never allowed ourselves to go off on some kind of egomaniacal tangent. We’re just not built that way. Besides, the three of us are very fond of making fun of each other, at each other’s expense. And that’s a very helpful way of keeping each other in check.”
It probably also helped that Lee found his people early. Notably, his wife, Nancy, and Lifeson show up early in “My Effin’ Life,” when he’s still a teenager. While Lee jokingly references Robert Mitchum’s explanation for his own marriage’s longevity — “lack of imagination” ― he takes his lifelong loyalties seriously.
“I think it comes from not having a lot of friends as a young child, or not feeling part of a peer group. So when Alex and I met we just connected like two people, and it was just a remarkable connection,” he says. “I just cannot imagine a life without him in it. And even though it’s been pushing nine years since our last tour, I see him [and] talk to him all the time.
“As for my wife, she has survived me and all my insanity, and all of my dereliction of duty,” continues Lee. “I was fortunate that these two people I met in my life as a young 17-year-old — or even younger with Alex — I found two people worthy of hanging around with for over 50 years.”
GEDDY LEE ‘MY EFFIN’ LIFE’ BOOK TOUR
At the Orpheum Theatre. Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. www.rush.com/geddylee
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc.