The Spirit of Rand
If you were to ask anyone, "Family Feud"-style, what they associate with the Canadian power trio Rush, somewhere near the top of the list would be Geddy Lee's wailing siren of a voice. Also near the top would the band's most notable lyrical inspiration: novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand.
The blend of Lee’s voice and Rand’s ideas has led Rush to great commercial heights in its 30-plus years, although to many the Lee-Rand combination is the musical equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard, scratching out long-winded, dangerously self-absorbed Objectivist treatises. "What about the voice of Geddy Lee/How did it get so high/ I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy?" Pavement asked in its 1997 song "Stereo."
Certainly, there are many other reasons Rush is still filling arenas after all these years: The incredible musicianship and interplay of Lee on bass, Alex Lifeson on guitar and Neil Peart on drums. The band's status as Canadian national heroes, particularly Lee, with his hockey hair and devotion to the Toronto Blue Jays. That kick-ass synth line in their signature song, 1981's "Tom Sawyer."
Still, the Lee-Rand connection intrigues, in part because their backgrounds have so much in common. Rand's philosophy grew from watching the Bolsheviks persecute her Jewish family and take their business, a chemistry shop, during the 1917 Russian revolution. Lee grew up the son of two Holocaust survivors from Poland who opened a variety shop in Toronto after World War II. Rand's distrust of any theological or governmental power led her to declare herself an atheist as well as an Objectivist. In Rush's signature song, "Tom Sawyer," Lee espoused the band's philosophy that its "mind is not for rent/to any god or government."
Of course, as any self-respecting Rush fan knows, it is drummer Neil Peart, not Lee, who writes the band's lyrics and for a long time was the band's card-carrying Rand acolyte. But Peart tapped into something in Lee's subconscious that made him a more compelling deliverer of Rand's philosophy than Rand herself. The Fountainhead might be heavy reading, but Rush is heavy rock.
Gary Lee Weinrib was born in 1953, six years after his parents, Morris Weinrib and Manya "Mary" Rubenstein, arrived in the Toronto neighborhood of Willowdale, then as now a center for Canadian Jewish life. Lee's parents met as teens when they were interred in a labor camp in their hometown of Starachowice, Poland. Later, they were shipped to Auschwitz, and then split, with Morris taken to Dachau and Mary to Bergen-Belsen, until they were liberated by Allied soldiers and reunited after the war.
After their liberation "they didn't know what to do," Lee told Circus magazine in 1977. "They still lived in the concentration camp, as most people did, trying to collect themselves. When they liberated them, they thought they were the only people left in the world. Can you imagine that? They thought they were the few survivors. They were slowly informed that the world was still going on. Then they couldn't understand why they were saved. How could it happen? How could God let it happen? They gathered up what they could and came to Canada. They were going to go to New York, but someone said it was nice in Canada."
Lee's parents did not hide their Holocaust experiences from their three children. Lee told the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles that he remembers hearing the horror stories starting at about age eight. He also could see the after-effects in the dicey health of his father, who died the year before Lee's bar mitzvah. Lee's mother kept "Geddy" (her Yiddish-inflected pronunciation of "Gary") busy working the family variety store; she was not thrilled when her fifteen-year-old son started playing in bands around Toronto, including a precursor to Rush that included guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer John Rutsey.
Unlike Rand, who developed her politics while watching the Soviets nationalize her father's chemistry shop, Lee did not radicalize politically upon the knowledge that the state had attacked his family and heritage. Instead, he went into rock 'n' roll for the usual reasons: rebellion against a protective family, and girls.
"When I first started playing my mother was very against it. She had come out of the war, out of a concentration camp—and she wanted me to be what her people could never be—to grow up and have the security of being a doctor and this and that... The first years I was doing this she couldn't understand it at all. It was a very intense situation," Lee told Circus.
But what Lee got from his parents was the notion that you need to work particularly hard if you wanted to go into business for yourself. From the start, Lee and his bands played anywhere they could in Toronto. Lee, who identifies himself as a cultural Jew, also came back to temple for meaningful occasions, such as when he got married to Nancy Young in 1976. (As an aside, Nancy Young is the sister of Lindy Young, who kicked Lee out of an early version of Rush. One wonders if Lindy Young thinks about that at family reunions.)
When Rutsey either left or was kicked out (depending on the source) in 1974 over his diabetes-related health problems or his desire to make Rush a Bad Company clone (again, depending on the source), Lee and Lifeson found Peart, a St. Catharine, Ontario, high school dropout who had come back to Canada after trying to make a career in England. Lee and Lifeson loved Peart for his drumming, and even more for his willingness to take on writing the lyrics.
In the 1988 book Rush Visions: the Official Biography, author Bill Banasiewicz notes that Peart and Lee bonded over Objectivist theory, turning the band from a fist-pumping precursor to Loverboy into the prog eggheads we know today. For its 1976 album 2112, dedicated to "the genius of Ayn Rand," the band found an unlikely commercial breakthrough thanks to the 20-minute title track, a meandering, rocking, Lee-screeching novel about a man who gets smacked down by high priests after his discovery of a guitar threatens to undo a (presumably falsely) utopian society.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand wrote that man has his "own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." Speaking of productive, Rush spent about the first 20 years of its career in a constant album-tour-album cycle. And speaking of reason, its songs were more likely likely to be about trees as an allegory for political and personal interaction ("The Trees," from 1978's Hemispheres) or about two-lanes wide airguns blasting at someone driving a sports car after vehicles have been banned ("Red Barchetta," from 1981's Moving Pictures) than about finding some hot tail after the gig.
Rush has the distinction of being the only rock group cited in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies—its Fall 2002 publication of "Rand, Rush and Rock" was then followed with a Rush-dedicated symposium, detailed in its Fall 2003 issue, on such topics as "Rand, Rush, and De-Totalizing the Utopianism of Progressive Rock."
While some detractors may find the use of Rand to be merely addle-brained, others found it far more dangerous. In Visions, Lee is said to have been stunned, given his heritage, that a New Musical Express reviewer in 1977, citing Rush's lyrics, had the nerve to call the band "fascists."
In fact, over the years, Rush has begun to downplay Rand's influence on its work. Peart now refers to himself as a "left-learning libertarian," distrusting mass movements and concentrated power, an odd thing, it might seem, for the drummer of a band which released a live CD and DVD set, Rock in Rio (2003), documenting a show in front of 40,000 people.
Lee himself has said the connection with Rand was less about politics and more about something very rock 'n' roll—individualism and defiance. The band, Lee has said in various interviews, found in Rand someone who eloquently espoused its own belief that government and mass movements were usually detrimental to artistic expression.
That view is stated most directly in what the band once called its "Fear Trilogy," three songs played in order on tour. With sequencing inspired by George Lucas, part one is "The Enemy Within," from 1984's Grace Under Pressure, part two is "The Weapon," from 1982's Signals, and part three is "Witch Hunt," from 1981's Moving Pictures. (It was no longer a trilogy after part four, "Freeze," appeared on 2002's Vapor Trails.) The songs describe how demagogues use outside influences as a means to kill individual expression. A line in "Witch Hunt" seems particularly appropriate to Lee's family background: the strangers "who threaten us" are "immigrants and infidels."
Not to say Rush is completely humorless. Lee has taken vocal turns with such Canadian comedy duos as Bob and Doug McKenzie and South Park’s Terrance and Phillip. Many Rush shows begin with the theme song to "The Three Stooges." (The Stooges have three Jews instead of just one, but Rush is very much like the old comedy group in that generally women hate them both.) Lee generally comes across as a happy-go-lucky guy, which perhaps is why it took Peart to crystallize his feelings about growing up Jewish, a child of immigrants and survivors. Certainly, Lee could see in his own parents’ story, as Rand did in hers, that a concentrated governmental and social movement could have tragic consequences for those deemed "other."
The only Rush song that directly deals with the Holocaust is 1984's "Red Sector A," which, in typical Rush style, is more portrait that personal rant. Peart has said he wrote it with Lee's parents in mind, which is most clear in the couplet that frames the song, evoking the confusion they felt at upon their liberation: "Are we the last ones left alive? Are we the only human beings to survive?"
In the 1977 Circus interview, Lee and interviewer Debra Frost discussed how perseverance had been key to the band's success—the perseverance to play 300 dates a year, throw back critics' slings and arrows and stay true to their musical vision.
Frost asked Lee about his parents, "Was 'perseverance' a key word to their survival?"
Lee responded: "I would say so. "
Bob Cook is a Chicago-based writer whose work has appeared on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," as well as various alt-weeklies, web 'zines and other publications of varying repute.