For the first time in twelve years, multi-million selling Canadian rock icons Rush will finally return to European shores when they kick off a tour in September. In a wide-ranging interview, guitarist Alex Lifeson looks back on the band’s career and denies rumours that this tour will be their last.
Offering a rare insight into his personal life, the guitarist shares his thoughts with DPRP's Andy Read on everything from how the band nearly broke up following the death of Neil Peart’s wife and daughter, to how he feels about facing criminal charges for violent assault on a police officer.
NOTE: During the interview Lifeson was asked to reflect on certain issues which had been addressed in previous articles. For the flow of this article some quotes from these interviews have been used in the text. These sources have been credited at the bottom of this interview.
The Phenomenon Known As Rush
Thirty five years, twenty-three albums and worldwide sales of more than 35 million, I think it’s fair to say that it’s been a pretty good career so far, for the three musicians that make up the rock band known as Rush.
It was at the tender age of 15, that fledgling guitarist Alex Lifeson decided to catch up with a couple of kids from his Toronto neighbourhood to form a rock band. He met singer Geddy Lee in high school and the pair teamed up with drummer John Rutsey to form the band in 1969. Heavily influenced by Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, Rush began performing in clubs, while the members were still in their teens.
From the struggling early days, even in his wildest dreams would Alex ever have guessed that 35 years later Rush would still be going strong as arena-filling, multi-platinum-album-making veterans of classic rock?
'No, never in a million years,’ he readily admits. ‘When we signed our deal in 1974, we'd already been together for six years. When they lowered the drinking age in Ontario in 1971 to 18 years, we went from playing two or three high schools in a month to playing clubs two or three times a week. I don't think we ever had a week off in those couple of years.’
‘So when 1974 arrived, with so much under our belts, we thought: ‘Hey we're signing a deal and it’s for five records. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a musical career that may last for five years’. All we thought was, if we can make it to the 80s, then we’ll have achieved something.’
Although this is the band’s 30th anniversary tour – that only relates to the time since their first album. In reality, Rush has been around for more than 35 years! With most people finding it hard to stay married for anything approaching that length of time, Lifeson laughs when it’s suggested that for three blokes to stay together for so long is pretty remarkable.
‘Well we are fairly liberal in Canada,’ he retorts. ‘We do love each other very much. I live just a five-minute walk from Geddy. We are the best of friends and Neil going though that terrible tragedy in his life really brought us closer - cemented our dedication to one another. And on top of that, when we work together we have a wonderful working relationship we push each other we challenge each other we laugh 80% of the time that we are together we're very fortunate. To come through all the stuff that we've been through and live this life that we live, is pretty crazy. It's amazing that we are still together.’
In looking back on their career, Alex is thoughtful when asked what he considers to be the band's biggest musical legacy.
‘Well, we've had some very popular records and some not so popular. If there was any one achievement, it would be that we've have done it on our own terms. We've always been pretty uncompromising. We've managed to have a long career that is still quite vibrant, yet we've never had to kow-tow to record companies who said we weren't commercial enough. I think that's given inspiration to other musicians. I know, particularly through the 90s, a lot of bands would cite Rush as an influence. I don't think it was so much our music, but more the way we really stuck to our guns.'
And in terms of which album he thinks epitomises the band at its peak, the Canadian again gives a considered reply.
'Well at the time '2112' was a really big achievement for us. 'Moving Pictures' was obviously a very successful record commercially. And when I think of those records, I'm reminded of the recording sessions. Some were very happy and fun like 'Moving Pictures' was, and others were much more difficult like 'Grace Under Pressure'. So, I think from that point of view, 'Vapor Trails' is the closest to the heart of all our records - and that's because we never really expected to make that record.'
For the last few years of the 1990s, the future of the band was in grave doubt. It followed a double tragedy that devastated the life of acclaimed drummer Neil Peart. First his only child, Selena was killed in a road accident in 1997. Then less than a year later, his wife Jaqueline died. (Neil says of a broken heart, even though the official diagnosis was cancer.) As described in his book 'Ghost Rider', the double blow severely dented Peart’s own will to continue along life's rocky path. He sold his ghost-scared home in Toronto, took to his battle-scarred BMW and drove across the North American continent in search of a reason to live.
Peart subsequently remarried, to photographer Carrie Nuttall. But as his colleague recalls, the journey back for the band was also a long and painful one.
'Certainly after the tragedy in Neil's life, we were holding out hope for his recovery. It wasn't too promising at the time and obviously you get to the point of thinking that that is it. To be honest, it really didn't matter to us. The band seemed so inconsequential at that time. We were more concerned about Neil getting his strength back.'
'When we did get into the studio, there was a lot of tugging and pushing in trying to feel comfortable and getting our sea legs back. Neil really hadn't touched a drum kit for several years. There was a lot to overcome with that record. Jeez when I listen to it, there are moments that still leave me with a really big lump in my throat. It was a very passionate record. I don't know if it was our best-sounding record but it's a very personal album and it's dearest to all of us.'
Alex shows the extent of his friend’s heartbreak, when he reveals that after the double tragedy, the drummer actually went four years without even listening to music. Quoting from a 2002 CNN interview:
‘We really had to wait for him - wait before the music could come back to him. But when Neil called, I have to say that my heart soared. And the reason was, because it said so much about his recovery ... that he was coming back to the world of the living. I mean, even if he wasn't really ready for it, he was making an attempt and there was that little faint light in him that was glowing again.’
‘We got together and we were all a little apprehensive and a little unsure about how to go about it. But Neil indicated that he was ready to try it at least. It was very slow. The first two weeks we spent just talking about everything - I don't think we played a single note while we were in the studio.’
‘Now he's doing very well. He's remarried and his wife is great. She's very supportive of him and strong. And he's learnt to find happiness in life again. It was a very long, painful recovery and it's not over. It's a lifelong thing and the scars are very, very deep, but they are healing.’
Life and Death
It is clear that this whole period has had a profound impact on each member of the band. A few years ago, I had a close call with cancer, just a few months after my wife nearly died following the birth of our son. While people are always aware of the effect that such events have on the victims; the effects it can have on those who go through it with them, is often underestimated. Lifeson agrees - the whole period has had a profound impact on his own approach to life and death.
'The shock of any trauma, I think changes your life. It's more acute in the beginning and after a little time you settle back to what you were. However it leaves an indelible mark on your psyche. You're probably aware of this Andy, but you become so aware of how fragile life is - how quickly it can be taken away from you. And also, you are more aware. All the things that are important, that are truly important to you, really come to the surface. Everything else seems so insignificant.’
‘I think I've learnt to cherish and appreciate the simple things in life much more and I'm very happy with that. The sort of things like swimming out to an island and sitting down to watch the water drift by - those things make you feel really alive and really grateful that you are.'
With a tension in his voice and an unusual openness, the guitarist continues:
‘At the same time, I've never been afraid of death or the concept of death. Having gone though this and with my dad dying last year - it's changed how I view that. It's almost such a natural thing and I have no fear of it now. And that gives you freedom. That makes you feel less afraid of things and it's even more underscored by the fact that we're in America, in a country that is just full of fear. There is an administration that runs, that rules, this country and they base their power on fear - on keeping everyone terrified and afraid at all times. This is a wonderful country and the Americans are so very outgoing, they're very generous and spirited and to see this kind of control over them is very sad.’
However, it is a testament to the friendship within the band, that Alex can say that there has only been one other period when they got close to packing it all in.
'There was one other time. When we returned from Britain after the 'Show of Hands' tour, we came straight home and within a couple of days we were back in the studio mixing. That was after an eight-month American tour and then a month in your part of the world and we were just so drained. We left feeling very, very pessimistic and we all talked about not wanting to deal with it anymore.'
'We decided that we would just go home and get some rest and talk about it in a few months time. Usually our breaks are no more than ten weeks. But we ended up taking almost ten months off. When we came back, we'd changed labels; it was a new decade; a lot of things were happening and we were rejuvenated by our break. That was the only time when we got close to packing it in.'
Investors - Speculators
In 1974 Rush set up their own label, Moon Records, and unleashed their debut album onto a music buying public then keen to experience new musical ideas. A fan passed a copy onto Mercury Records, they were prepared to invest in the band and the rest is history. Since those heady days, a lot has changed in the way the industry works. Lifeson believes the change has been for the worse – that it would be almost impossible for a new band like Rush to come into the scene today.
'I think that opportunities don't exist like they did 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. At that time record companies were developers. They signed bands to multi-record deals, hoping they would grow over the first few albums. Then the next two records would be successful and that would be the pay-off for the company. That sort of development provided a very fertile farmland for the development of talent.'
'Now they've all become speculators. Today, the bands actually have to bring the record to the label. They release it on spec. If it does well, then maybe they'll sign you and if it doesn't, you're dropped. Bands come and go at such an incredible rate.'
And, with the British version of Pop Idol having already been translated into Canadian Idol, he is equally scathing about television's current obsession with creating pop stars.
'It's a celebration of mediocrity and that's what kills me. Millions of people watch these woeful amateurs that have no talent and you laugh at them. I mean what a cynical culture this has become. There are great acts, bands and musicians - but you really have to look hard for them.'
When asked whether downloading has had any effect a band like Rush, Lifeson is equally strong in his views. Quoting from a 2002 interview:
‘It’s a horrible situation. Every time you download a song offline, whether it be something from ‘2112’’ or ‘Vapor Trails’, you are hurting us. Not so much in the pocket but really in principle and respect. This is what we do for a living. We don't go out of our way to come to your work and expect everything for free and steal your property right? We were told that something like 52,000 downloads were done the first month of the release of ‘Vapor Trails’ on just one website. Then we got insane numbers like ‘One Little Victory’ was downloaded almost 400,000 times.’
So is he calling for legal regulation of music on the Internet?
‘Yes, we are all for legal regulation of music on the Internet. Bands like us can't take the hit like that and still maintain a major recording contract. I have heard all sides of the argument. The fact is, if someone wants to buy the album online and burn the tracks, at least do it legally. Let there be some kind of number to be shown that your album is indeed selling and moving units. Record labels will drop a band today if they no longer see them as viable.’
Going back to the ‘Vapor Trails’ album – on listening to it, one gets the clear impression that it was very much a case of three mates getting together for some sessions and seeing what happened. While the subject matter is quite dark and personal, the music has a very fun feel to it. Alex agrees, but confesses that the first time they went into the studio, the outcome was ‘crap’.
‘It was very much a jamming-based record. Geddy had just completed his solo album (‘My Favourite Headache’) and I'd been working with a couple of bands, so we came in feeling quite strong in our own camps. The way we got into it, was we said ‘let's just play together, record everything and then go though it and see if we've got anything.’
‘For the first month or so, we had about 97.8 per cent crap and a couple of not bad ideas. We felt very despondent at that point and we feared maybe that this isn't gonna work out. So we took a little break and when we came back it was like a whole new thing.’
They started jamming again and were getting such great stuff, that Lifeson says that a lot of the very first takes are actually what appeared on the album.
'We kept a lot of the original recordings that Geddy and I did and they had a kind of spirit that we just couldn't quite replicate. So we decided on a lot of occasions to keep that take - a lot of what ended up on that album is from the very first time it was played. It wasn't written and then recorded - that's what it was at that very first moment and that's why I think that that record has so much passion and directness to it.’
The American Tour
The American leg of the anniversary tour kicked off in Nashville on May 23. Every album bar 'Presto' is represented in a set list containing 30 songs, plus some archive videos and a couple of animated cartoons. The set opens with an instrumental medley from the first seven albums played in chronological order and is packed with classics like 'Spirit of Radio', 'Tom Sawyer', 'The Trees' and 'Xanadu'. There are acoustic versions of 'Resist' and the cover of 'Heart Full Of Soul'. For the first time ever, 'Grand Finale' is included in the '2112' medley and 'Working Man' concludes with a reggae ending.
The show has been split into two sets, with the first part lasting around 80 minutes, and after 20-minutes to grab a beer and a t-shirt, the second set extends for approximately 90 minutes. Alex confirms that there will be little change in the format or set list when the band reaches Europe - only that the show may get even longer!
'If we make any changes, it will be to add a couple of songs. We haven't really talked about that yet, but our intention is to bring our complete show over. In fact, we've arranged it so that we've got two weeks off at the end of our tour over here. Therefore we can ship everything across the Atlantic to allow us to put on the full show.'
Before the ‘Vapor Trails’ tour Geddy and Alex literally took out every one of the band’s 18 studio albums and sat down and listened to them all, before drawing up a set list that initially started off at six hours long.
'We're pretty democratic. Some songs we have to play, like ‘Tom Sawyer’. Apart from that, we like to mix it up a bit. We all have some favourites but we all seem to agree on the ones we pick. On this tour we're playing 'Between The Wheels' from 'Grace Under Pressure'. I must admit I wasn't too keen on it, but it's now my favourite song of the whole night. It's kinda nice to get those old songs out and find you still enjoy playing them as much as you did the first time.'
The UK and European Tour
After an interminable wait, Rush will finally return to entertain their fans in the UK this month. The European tour kicks off at Wembley Arena on the 8th September and with the band failing to play in this country since April 1992, Alex agrees it’s been an awful long time for fans to wait.
'It really was our intention to come across on the 'Vapor Trails' tour. We really wanted to come over but we really left it too late. By the time we decided, the window of opportunity had closed. None of the venues were available for months, so we had really blown it. And we feel bad about that. It's very difficult to do these interviews with people like you in the UK when we always get asked when are we coming to Europe. And I feel that we're always making excuses.'
'We were planning to go back into the studio to make a new record, until we had this idea to do a 30th anniversary tour and make it a kinda special celebration of that milestone. And I can give something away - Geddy said right at the beginning, that unless we go to Europe and the UK then he wouldn't be coming with us.'
8 September - Wembley Arena, London
9 September - Wembley Arena, London
11 September - NEC, Birmingham
12 September - Evening News Arena, Manchester
14 September - SECC, Glasgow
15 September - NEC, Birmingham
17 September - Arena, Oberhaussen
19 September - Schleyerhalle, Stuttgart
21 September - Mazda Palace, Milan
22 September - Olympiahalle, Munich
24 September - Festhalle, Frankfurt
25 September - T-Mobile Arena, Prague
27 September - Sporthalle, Hamburg
29 September - Globe Arena, Stockholm
01 October - Ahoy, Rotterdam
Lifeson's brush with the Law
At the start of the year, however, the tour was sensationally plunged into doubt when Lifeson hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. He is currently facing criminal charges, after a violent scuffle with sheriffs during a posh New Year's Eve dinner at The Ritz in Florida.
Charged under his real name, Alex Zivojinovich, the 50-year-old was initially facing six charges including aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting an officer with violence, and disorderly intoxication. According to police reports, the incident arose when Alex's 33-year-old son Justin allegedly became verbally abusive after being asked to leave the stage when trying to sing a song for his wife, who was also arrested. The reports paint a picture of an intoxicated, unruly, and violent father and son who refused to comply with deputies' orders. Deputies say they had to use a stun gun on the guitarist and his son during the fracas. The reports allege that Alex spat blood at one deputy and pushed a female officer down a stairwell. Invited to comment on his current predicament, Alex is firm in denying any wrongdoing.
'I can't really speak about it, as it's an ongoing thing legally. But I'll tell you this - it was a brutal experience and it was way out of control. They were extremely brutal. I haven't had a chance to tell the truth, but hopefully I will one day.'
The trial was originally due to take place a day before our interview. But with lawyers needing more time, Lifeson has been remanded to mid-October - conveniently just after the European tour concludes in Rotterdam.
'It is the hope of everyone involved that it won't even get to that,' he states. 'But should it, then we're planning on putting a very strong case. It was a very, very crazy situation and very frightening. You know, you try to find a reason for these sort of things happening. It was a New Years Eve black tie event. We were all in tuxedos. For them to act the way they did was totally out of control - to get my nose broken and being electrocuted four times. There's gotta be a reason why this happens and if it can be heard, then I hope it'll wake people up to this kind of behaviour. It's a horrible thing to go though. It's with me every single day and almost every minute of every day. One of the things that has kept me going is the incredible amount of support that I've had from fans all over the world.'
In addition to the tour, to help mark their 30th birthday, the band has just release its 19th studio album. Dubbed ‘Feedback’, this unique set sees the renowned trio performing cover versions of eight rock classics from the Sixties.
‘When we were thirteen and fourteen-year-old beginners,’ writes Peart in the liner notes. ‘We thought it would be a fitting symbol to commemorate our 30 years together if we returned to our roots and paid tribute to those we had learned from and were inspired by. We thought we might record some of the songs we used to listen to, the ones we painstakingly learned the chords, notes, and drum parts for, and even played in our earliest bands.’
Alex is happy to admit that it was hard to go through their favourite records and select a few songs, so is happy to explain why they chose what they did.
'When Geddy and I sat down to go through the songs from that period, we knew right off the bat that we wanted to do a couple of Yardbirds songs They were so influential in that period - so many great players came out of that band. The two tracks are 'Shapes of Things' and 'Heart Full of Soul'. They were actually both songs that we played in other bands and we actually did a version of 'Shapes..' for quite a few years in the early club days of Rush and it was one of our favourite songs to play.'
'For What it's Worth' and 'Mr Soul' are the two Buffalo Springfield songs. We used to play 'Mr Soul' as well. I have a club in Toronto called The Orbit Room and I go in every once in a while and join with the band on the weekend. One of the songs we do is 'For What It's Worth' and it's absolutely my favourite song. It touched me so much when I was a young teenager and I've never let it do'
Lifeson explains that by ‘touched me’ he especially means the song’s lyrical content.
‘America was at war, there was the whole movement of the 60s and it really reflected a lot of the anger and paranoia that we would read about in Canada. Using the song was actually an after-thought. We did an arrangement of it and when David Leonard (co-producer) heard it, he said you've gotta follow this through. That song is so timely for this age - certainly in America. I'll be interested to see what the reaction to it is.’
Three of the cover songs - 'Heart Full of Soul', 'Summertime Blues' and 'The Seeker' - have even made it into the current live show.
'It's wonderful to play a tribute to The Who,' says the guitarist, on the last of this trio. 'They were influential on us all. Pete Townsend was one of my greatest influences and in a lot of ways, he still is.'
'Of the other songs, we have 'Summertime Blues' - it was just so perfect for a hot summer over here and we really wanted to do a cross between Blue Cheer and The Who's versions of it. It's just such an open, happy, summery kinda song and it's so much fun to play.’ The final track was first released by Love, featuring Albert Lee and has the title 'Seven and Seven Is'. 'When it came out, it was such a cool song,' recalls Alex. 'Very fast strumming, the lyrics were psychedelic and the drumming was like a snare roll from beginning to end. It was the song that everyone wanted to play and one of the top songs on our list. The other song, 'Crossroads' is pretty much Cream's arrangement of the Robert Johnson classic.'
But Lifeson reveals that the original intention was never to release all these songs on an album.
'We were going to include two on a compilation release and maybe make some available for download from our website. But when we got into it, we became really excited about the whole idea. In retrospect, I wish we had time to do more. It would have been fun to do a couple of Beatles songs.'
In light of their recent troubles; with a set list that is pretty much a best-of celebration; plus the fact that they are all in their 50s, some observers have been busy speculating as to whether this Autumn will be the last time the band will visit these shores. Alex is keen to assert, that they are far from ready to fade into retirement.
'If we were planning for this to be the last tour, we would have said it. We haven't spoken about this being the end nor have any intention that this should be the end. We have every intention to go back into the studio after this tour and make the next Rush record and do another tour in July. That's gonna take us a couple of years. After that anything can happen. Your whole sense of priorities change as you get older - you look for other things in your life. I dunno, who knows where things will go? I think it's very exciting for us to be well into our 50s and to still be a viable unit.'
Interview for DPRP by Andy Read
The Official Rush Website
- 20 Questions with Alex Lifeson on the Counterparts Messageboard, October 19 2002
- Back On Trail with Rush, article on CNN.com, June 7 2002