Rush: Vital Signs
Originally published in Guitar World, August 2007
As Rush drop their latest release, Snakes & Arrows, guitarist Alex Lifeson reflects back on Moving Pictures, the prog-rock masterpiece that gave life to the power trio’s legend.
If you were a teenage male in the Seventies, the chances are very good that you had long hair and a wispy moustache and went to rock concerts with a doobie in your back pocket. And the chance is even better that the band you went to see was Rush. Back in their heyday, guitarist Alex Lifeson, bassist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart effected a Jedi warrior sci-fi look straight out of the then-newly released Star Wars film. No doubt the first image you glimpsed of Lifeson was that of a mythical-looking rock god with a blond Prince Valiant do, resplendent in satin scarves and capes and wielding his Alpine White Gibson EDS-1275 double-neck on such space-rock classics as “Xanadu” (no, not the Olivia Newton-John hit, although that would have been interesting). Lifeson cut quite a figure in those halcyon days, especially when bathed in orange-and-yellow lights as he soloed before a backdrop of the “starman” logo taken from the back cover of Rush’s science-fiction opus, 2112.
But the Alex Lifeson who sits before me in the Guitar World offices bears not a soupcon of that enigmatic, angelic presence. “I feel like I have little connection to that person at all,” he says, between sips of bottled water. Now 53, he’s still blond, though his close-cropped hair is flecked with gray. “And I’ve lost some in the back,” he says, leaning forward to display the lamentable evidence of male-pattern baldness. “I couldn’t grow that Peter Frampton hair again if I tried. Come to think of it, Peter Frampton can’t grow Peter Frampton hair anymore!”
Refreshingly devoid of rock-star vanity (“Rush has never been a band of pin-ups, thank God!”), Lifeson brims with good cheer and is big on eye contact. “It’s a fabulous time in my life,” he says. “In July I'm going to be a grandfather again, which thrills me to no end.” (Lifeson already has one grandchild from his second son, Justin.) “It might not be very rock and roll of me to say, but I love being a grandfather. Love it, love it, love it.”
He pauses briefly, becoming reflective. “The thing is, I don’t take anything for granted anymore—my family, my music, you name it. Unfortunately, it took Neil’s tragedies to teach me that.”
The tragedies he’s referring to are almost unbearable to consider. In 1997, Peart's daughter and only child, 19-year-old Selena Taylor, was killed in a car accident. Less than a year later, his common-law wife of 22 years, Jaqueline Taylor, succumbed to cancer. “Neil was 44 years old and his life was over,” Lifeson says softly. “How do you come back from that? Geddy and I didn’t know what to do, other than to be there for him and give him his space.”
As it turned out, Peart needed a lot of space. Music, which had always been the drummer’s anodyne, offered little solace. “Neil told us, ’Consider me retired,’” says Lifeson, “and in a way, we had to take him at his word.” Peart set out on a two-year, 55,000-mile motorcycle trip back and forth across North America (documented in his book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road). Eventually, his travels took him to Los Angeles, where he met his future wife, photographer Carrie Nuttall. The two married on September 9, 2000. Not long after, Peart called his band mates to tell them he was ready to give music another go.
“We were thrilled for Neil on so many levels,” says Lifeson, “and of course we were ecstatic that he wanted to get the band back together. But it was tough. He hadn’t touched the drums in years, and when he finally sat down at the kit, I’d say he was one-tenth the drummer he used to be—still pretty great, but there was a long way to go. However, we weren’t putting any time restrictions on him. When he was ready, so were we.”
In 2002, Rush released Vapor Trails, their first album in six years. A brave, although at time tentative album, it saw the band embracing, as always, odd meters (the song “Freeze” alternates between 6/4, 5/4 and 4/4) but eschewing keyboards and guitar solos. “We felt the record should be as natural as possible,” says Lifeson. “We were learning to be a band again. That can be hard to do when you’re getting on in years and you’ve been through hell.”
A middle-aged Rush needn't be a bad Rush, and the band’s bold new album, Snakes & Arrows (Atlantic), should be greeted with hosannas by the faithful. Produced by Nick Raskulinecz, who helmed the Foo Fighters' One by One and In Your Honor, it sees the Canadian trio stoically refusing to become part of the ancien regime of prog-rock. The slamming, riff-heavy first single “Far Cry” immediately joins the ranks of Rush's finest pop offerings. Interestingly, however, the record's most rewarding moments are also its most frustrating. On acoustic-based tracks such as “The Larger Bowl” and “The Main Monkey Business,” Rush provide the musical answer to filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard's theory of filmmaking—that a story must have a beginning, a middle and end, but not necessarily in that order. “Workin' Them Bones” features some of Peart's most heartfelt, straight-forward lyrics (“No one gets to heaven without a fight”—hey, he knows). As sung by Geddy Lee, whose upper-register wail has deepened with age, the words hit you where you live.