At first glance Geddy Lee doesn’t sound like a Jewish name, but, as with many Jewish names, it’s the second glance that is often more revealing.
Geddy is the lead singer and bassist of legendary Canadian rock group Rush and has just released his memoir, My Effin’ Life, a title he says he chose because it seemed the right way to describe his bizarre and wonderful time on this planet. He’s about to embark on a book tour of the UK, starting in Wolverhampton and ending up at the Barbican in London.
He was born Gershon Eliezer Weinrib – there’s that second glance – which became Gary Lorne Weinrib when he started school in Toronto, then Gary Lee Weinrib when his mother remembered that Lorne was the middle name given to his cousin and Gary’s was actually Lee, and finally Geddy Lee, because Geddy is what a friend thought his mother was saying when she said ‘Gary’ in her Polish accent.
I e-met Geddy on Zoom because he was in Denver on his book tour and, I’ll confess, I was quite excited. I first saw Rush at Hammersmith Odeon in 1980, I still have the ticket stub, and they’ve been one of my favourite bands ever since. Their style of heavy prog rock combined with Geddy’s astonishing voice – once described as being like a guinea pig with an amphetamine habit – spoke to me. I’m not sure exactly what it said, but it might have been, one day you’re going to meet Geddy and you know that thing they say about meeting your heroes? It’s nonsense.
We wasted no time in getting down to arguably the most important part of the book and something he says is vital if you want to understand him and his value system.
“I’ve met a lot of other children of survivors…it’s really interesting to hear their stories…most of them say that their parents never spoke of that time, and in a sense I feel fortunate that my mother was so loquacious, so insistent on telling us these stories as children…
“I mean they were nightmarish, and my response was to have nightmares of course…but I’m grateful for that because I grew up understanding what she’d gone through…”
Both of Geddy’s parents, Manya and Moishe, were survivors and their stories are remarkable. They met as teenagers in Starachowice labour camp in Poland from where they were transferred to Auschwitz.
Separated towards the end of the war, miraculously they both survived and found each other again. In 1946 they were married in the displaced persons camp in Bergen-Belsen.
The full story in the book is a moving, detailed and astonishing account. In 1948, they emigrated to Canada – with the help of Geddy’s paternal aunt, Rose, who had moved there before the war – and started a new life as Mary and Morris.
And it was a very Jewish life. They had three children, the family were quite observant, the parents spoke Yiddish to each other, it was noisy and there was a lot of food. Unlike Mary, Morris chose not to talk about his experiences during the war. Not that he minded his wife’s openness though.
“Anything my mom wanted to do was OK by him. Happy wife, happy life – that’s how he lived – but he wasn’t in his heart very religious. I caught him once eating bacon and eggs in a department store…so I was getting two messages, one from my mother being fairly Orthodox and one from my dad, who had no reverence for those rules, but he did what he did to keep my mum happy, that was his gig, keep my mum happy…”
That dichotomy was to come to a tragic and abrupt end though when, in 1965, Morris died of a heart attack. Understandably, it had a profound effect on the 12-year-old Geddy.
Prior to his father’s passing he’d just discovered a love for music, but for the year of mourning that followed there was none. For 11 months and a day he went to shul and said kaddish three times a day. His barmitzvah was “very modest, a luncheon with no music” though he had let his hair grow during that time which led to another bizarre occurrence.
As Geddy says in the book, “In every home with a bar mitzvah boy, there sits in a place of honour a photo portrait memorialising the day he became a man. But my mother was so ashamed of my long hair that she refused to allow a photo to be taken. Instead, she commissioned this painting of an idealised me with shorter, tidier hair. It hung proudly on her wall, perpetuating that Great Lie for almost 60 years.”
Geddy’s year of mourning, or frustration as he calls it, had, “lit a fire under my ass,” and from then on he threw himself headlong into music, which caused much classic Jewish consternation amongst his family.
“My mother wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, she hated the fact that I was running away to join the circus…she would complain to my uncles and aunts who were brutal with me… one time I was visiting my father’s grave, and my uncle starting yelling that I’m killing my mother because I won’t cut my hair and I’m quitting school and all of this…but my mother was still my mother and once she understood that I was able to make a living and sustain myself she let up a bit…and then later in life she could have been my agent, she was the biggest supporter of the band…”
Geddy has more than sustained himself, as his hugely successful career attests to, and that longevity, and the bravery to follow his own path, owes a lot to what his 12-year-old self went through.
“The discipline of having to go to synagogue to say prayers for 11 months and one day taught me a lot about duty and sticking to your guns… there’s no question that that determination translated into my ability to stick around in the music business for 50 years…”
Two songs, Red Sector A on Grace Under Pressure, and Grace To Grace on Geddy’s solo album, My Favourite Headache, are about the Holocaust and his mother’s experiences. Clearly grace is a quality much admired by Geddy.
“When I look at my mum and her life and all she suffered, she still held her head high, and was an elegant woman. She cared about going through the world in a graceful manner, and I think that requires a lot of confidence and faith in yourself,…and I now think the best of us maintain grace under pressure, under difficult circumstances, I think that’s something to aspire to…”
There are no obvious Jewish influences to be found in Rush and Geddy’s music, but sometimes the whole point is that it’s not obvious…
“I think it’s in your fingers, in your soul, and sometimes you don’t even know when you’re imbuing it on a track, it kind of slips in as part of the stew that a musician draws from… whatever music you inputted as a young person I think, if it’s good it stays somewhere in your reservoir of ideas to be drawn upon when it’s time to output…”
Well, Geddy’s stew is a delicious concoction, full of bizarre and wonderful ingredients, maybe not all of which are strictly kosher, but there’s definitely a large and unmissable dollop of yiddishkeit in there.
My Effin’ Life is published by Harper. Geddy Lee’s UK book tour starts on December 10 in Wolverhampton, visits Sheffield, Glasgow and Portsmouth and ends in at the Barbican on December 18