A glimmer of recollection and smiles pass over Geddy Lee’s and Alex Lifeson’s faces when I tell them Rush played a dance at my Thunder Bay high school in 1973.
“How’d we go over?” Lee asks.
“Pretty much exactly as described in the movie,” I reply, to bursts of laughter from Lifeson and Lee.
The movie is Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, a comprehensive filmic journey from the makers of Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey that begins in the lifelong friends’ own Willowdale high school and follows them through their evolution and eventual icon status. (It plays in select theatres across Canada for one day only, June 10, before heading to DVD.)
Crazily dedicated to playing their own material — and too young to play bars before the drinking age was lowered — Lee, Lifeson and then-drummer John Rutsey played secondary schools from Kenora to Kitchener. As related in Beyond the Lighted Stage, their audiences typically glowered at them from the sides of the gym.
“We were always trying to write our own songs, no matter how s---ty they were,” Lee says. “We always had faith that we’d get better at it.”
“In fact,” Lifeson adds, “within a couple of months of starting the band, we were writing our own material. And that’s what it is about the high schools. They wanted to dance to stuff they knew.”
Like Sabbath and Zeppelin. “And Deep Purple,” Lee adds with a laugh. “When we finally hit the bars, if you didn’t play Smoke on the Water, you were in big trouble.”
The film carries on from their days as a self-styled blues-rock band, to their first word-of-mouth single Working Man (which broke on a Cleveland radio station), to the departure of drummer Rutsey in 1974 and the hiring of an introverted bookworm named Neil Peart, whose Byzantine poetry would become Rush’s lyrical trademark. (The band’s first hit album Fly By Night also included their first “epic,” the Peart-penned By-Tor and the Snow Dog, with its images of “the tobes of Hades” and a battle of good and evil across the river Styx.)
Lee says seeing the hair and costumes — the band went through a muumuu phase during their prog-rock heyday — “made me feel grossly uncomfortable.
“Obviously looking back that far exhorts a number of feelings, from embarrassment at all the fashion crimes we committed to this kind of strange out-of-body experience watching yourself as, basically, a child.
“It was a pretty bizarre experience going through all those songs and feeling like, ‘Was that really me’ And then you get to the modern day, and then it’s just boring. Because you’re up there looking like you look, and you’re talking or (Lifeson) is talking. And the last thing I want to hear is him talking about the same things we talk about all the time.” (Peart rarely gives interviews.)
The backward glances are often quite funny. Amid a stream of admiring reminiscences from the likes of Billy Corgan and Trent Reznor (enthusing over the life-changing challenge of learning La Villa Strangiato from the album Hemispheres), there’s Gene Simmons talking about KISS touring with Rush.
Simmons still remains puzzled by the trio, who’d pass on the aftershow party “and go back to their rooms and watch TV.” Outsiders in school, they appeared to be outsiders in the world of rock stars as well.
“I don’t think we were aware of it in those terms,” Lee says. “We were all about playing, not partying. Our music was very player-driven and I think that explained why it was kind of an acquired taste.”
Still, it’s surprising their story has not been told before. “We had a fan once who got very close to us, and he insisted on doing a fan’s version of Rush’s story,” Lee says. “And it was just really bad, and we thought, ‘Who needs this’ ”
But Lee had participated in A Headbanger’s Journey and put a word in for directors Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn. The movie was more or less born the day Lee let Dunn dig through a box of old pictures. “I scoured the basement and found this mother-lode of early photographs, and you should have seen Sam’s face. Photos, hand-written lyric sheets, all that stuff. He was so thrilled.”