Book Review | Making Music Was The Best Revenge

By | Jun 18, 2024


By Geddy Lee with Daniel Richler

HarperCollins Publishers, 511 pp.

Reviewed by Eva Fogelman


How does a son of Auschwitz survivors get a name such as Geddy Lee? So begins My Effin’ Life, the compelling memoir of the Canadian rock-and-roll bassist, vocalist, keyboardist and co-writer for the legendary rock band Rush, written with his friend Daniel Richler. “Geddy,” Geddy Lee has told interviewers, is how his Polish-born, Auschwitz-survivor mother pronounced his given name, Gary. (His original name was Gary Lee Weinrib.) A gifted storyteller, in this book Geddy Lee brings about a balance between the personal and professional. He also manages to combine two very different genres—the autobiography of a rock star and that of a child of survivors.

This striking contrast shows up in the pictures with which Lee intersperses his text. The fun photos show the evolution of his band, Rush, from a simple three-man band in 1969 to a colorful, extravagant, psychedelic group in 2015. Then there are the family photos, which strike a more somber note, from his bar mitzvah invitation (on which his mother got his middle name wrong) to snapshots of his relatives in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp, found through an AI method developed by a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Daniel Patt of From Numbers to Names.

Growing up in the poorer suburbs of Toronto, Lee experienced feelings similar to other sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors: “My life had always felt unimportant in the shadow of all that my parents endured in the camps.” He also felt like an outsider. But what marred Lee’s early life more profoundly, when he was 12 years old, was his father’s sudden death from a heart attack. The Jewish mourning rituals he followed—sitting shiva for seven days, slowly easing into life after “shloshim,” or 30 days, and then continuing to say Kaddish, a prayer for the dead, three times a day for eleven months and a day—had healing power that he valued. On the other hand, for a kid who was just getting the taste of rock and roll, the prohibition on listening to music at home for a year was something to resent.

Lee lost interest in the religious component of Judaism when “not a single adult relative asked me how I was dealing with my loss.” Instead, his extended family members berated him for leaving Hebrew school and hanging around with non-Jews. Growing older, Lee suffered antisemitic harassment from the neighborhood teenagers. He was not much of an athlete, but became an avid baseball fan. Lee’s older sister’s infatuation with the Beatles (she saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show) left an indelible impact on him—Lee saw how rock and roll could stir a craze.

For readers unfamiliar with the story of Lee’s legendary progressive hard-rock band, My Effin’ Life is a gripping insider chronicle of how they got to where they are today, from playing in an auditorium of a local school to performing in a stadium for an audience of 80,000 fans. The trio of drummer Neil Peart, guitarist Alex Lifeson and Lee—the bassist, keyboard player, vocalist, and day-to-day business manager—was a success from the start. Peart was originally Rush’s lyricist, and before too long the three were all active in writing the lyrics and the music for the group. The bandmates exhibited loving respect for each other as they matured from teenagers into adults. One striking tidbit is how Peart’s avid reading habit influenced the others to start reading and discussing books.

Lee recounts the making of each song, album and concert in detail: the names of producers, sound assistants, studios for recordings, the number of days for each recording session, the description of each location. He also writes that he considered himself the “amateur therapist and counselor to the crew.” (This role is not uncommon for descendants of Holocaust survivors, who often tend to exhibit a heightened sense of empathy.)

At its height, Rush performed 200 gigs in 1975. This reviewer found it mind-boggling to learn of their excessive use of drinking and drugs while simultaneously sustaining an extremely rigorous schedule of performances and compulsively writing lyrics and experimenting with innovative sound. By the time Rush was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, the band had been recognized with gold and platinum records, seven Grammy nominations—close in number to the Beatles and Rolling Stones—and had performed worldwide to audiences of thousands.

The book’s other theme emerges ironically in the fact that, in Rush’s early years, the band opened 28 times for Kiss. Kiss’s bassist and co-lead singer, Gene Simmons, was also a child of Holocaust survivors; he and Lee valued each other’s talents, and these gigs provided opportunities to converse. Lee makes no reference to any conversation with Simmons about their shared Holocaust family background, so it’s possible they never discussed it. This is not as surprising as it may seem: Even though most children growing up with Holocaust survivor parents recall hearing bits and pieces of their parents stories, it was not common to discuss these details with friends, even with those from similar backgrounds.

One conversation Lee does record in My Effin’ Life is the time Simmons came up to him and, holding up the mezuzah pendant Lee was wearing, said, “You shouldn’t wear that down here [Texas]. It’s dangerous to advertise you are a Jew.” Lee was not proud of the fact that he took it off, he writes. He rationalized that Simmons was an American, and therefore he must know something.

Only a few pages of My Effin’ Life are devoted to his high school sweetheart, whom he married. The reader gets a glimpse of how challenging it was to keep a marriage going with a musician who was on the road many months out of the year, missing out on co-parenting. With the pandemic and the end of Rush’s live performances, the reader is privy to Lee becoming more of a family man and enjoying his grandson.

Growing up, Lee witnessed his parents’ loving relationship, and he was heartbroken to watch his mother’s anguish in losing her husband at such a young age. Lee’s mother shared some stories of her survival with her children, but the narrative of her story in My Effin’ Life, which begins when Germany invaded her town, Starachowice-Wierzbnik, until she was liberated and concludes when she immigrated to Canada, is a well-researched historical and personal record that goes well beyond what she told him as a child. Most intriguing, amidst the murder and decimation of communities, is the blossoming love relationship that developed between his parents and that was consummated shortly after liberation.

At the anniversary ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, Lee’s mother realized that she was standing in the room where she had been married. She commented, “I am still here, standing on German soil with my three children, and the Nazis are dead and gone.” When all is said and done, Geddy Lee acknowledges that his success in life is the best revenge.

Eva Fogelman, PhD is a psychologist, author of the award-winning Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust and writer and co-producer of Breaking the Silence: The Generation After the Holocaust.

Top image: Geddy Lee on tour circa 1980. (CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia.)

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