Guitarist Alex Lifeson was grinding out the life depicted in Rush‘s song “Working Man” long before they ever put out an album. By the time the future Canadian rock legends got to the middle part of 1972, they were gigging steadily, playing five to six nights a week.
But every band has to start somewhere. As detailed in Wandering the Face of the Earth, the indispensable official book which documents Rush’s entire touring history, that “somewhere” began on Sept. 6, 1968.
That was the day that Rush played their first paying gig — for 25 dollars — in front of 30 people at the Coff-In, a dingy venue located in the basement of a church in Toronto. The group featured Lifeson on guitar, bassist and vocalist Jeff Jones and drummer John Rutsey. Performing a mix of covers, including songs by Jimi Hendrix and Cream, the lineup wouldn’t last beyond that initial performance.
When they played that same church basement a week later, the band had a new bassist and vocalist, one Geddy Lee, who had come in contact with Lifeson two years earlier. “We were aliens in a class of conformity and we became best friends,” the guitarist remembered decades later.
Once drummer and lyricist Neil Peart entered the picture on July 29, 1974, replacing Rutsey, a brotherhood was officially solidified. It lasted for 19 studio albums in a career spanning more than four decades, until Peart’s tragic passing at the beginning of 2020. Each bandmate made time for their own individual pursuits — with Lifeson eventually making his first solo record, released under the banner of Victor in 1996 — but mostly, it was just Rush.
So it makes sense that when the guitarist found himself somewhat unexpectedly at the end of his touring days with Rush, he wasn’t anxious to resume. “After 40 years of touring at that level, not to mention the six years before that of spending weeks in small bars and small towns, I’m not in a big hurry to go back on the road,” Lifeson told UCR in 2021.
Instead, he’s found great pleasure in exploring his own projects — including a new band, Envy of None. A common thread remains, however: his unmistakable guitar tone and the lifetime of innovation he’s created using his instrument — on Rush records and beyond. The music Lifeson is making these days proves that he hasn’t lost his curiosity for creating new sounds or his love of experimentation.
As the guitarist turns 70 on Aug. 27, 2023, we’re taking a look back at what was going on in his career at other milestone birthdays.
1973: In the Beginning
By the time Lifeson’s 20th birthday arrived on Aug, 27, 1973, Rush were already nearly five years into their touring career. Two days earlier, the band performed at Toronto’s Picadilly Tube, their latest gig in what was becoming another busy year. Although their self-titled debut album wouldn’t arrive until 1974, the band played over 100 shows in 1973, including a memorable October 27 spot opening for the New York Dolls in front of 1,200 fans. “It was an old burlesque theater, pretty run-down and crappy,” Lifeson recalled in 2015. “But to us it might as well have been Wembley.”
1978: New Hemispheres
Lifeson’s 25th birthday came as Rush was finalizing their sixth studio album, Hemispheres, which would be released that October. Recording and road work had been symbiotically relentless, but it was all paying off. They wrapped up their latest tour on May 28, sharing the stage with openers Sweet and Uriah Heep in front of over 20,000 people at the Wisconsin-area Alpine Valley Music Theatre, setting a new house record. They spent June and July recording the album and after a well-deserved break, were back out on the road nearly two weeks prior to the October 28 release of Hemispheres.
Listen to ‘The Trees’ From ‘Hemispheres’
1983: Sending Signals Under Pressure
Lifeson turned 30 as the band was nearing the last part of the touring cycle for 1982’s Signals. A run of tour dates ended on May 25 in Scotland and they used the summer of 1983 to work on songs for the forthcoming Grace Under Pressure album. Fans witnessed five special shows that September as the members mounted a residency at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. With Marillion supporting, the group previewed three songs from the upcoming record live for the first time. It offered an embryonic look at what was on the horizon for Grace Under Pressure, which was released in April of 1984.
1988: A Show of Hands
The guitarist’s 35th birthday came close to the end of what had been an incredible decade for Rush, led by the success of 1981’s Moving Pictures. Four more albums followed, with the band continuing to embrace a more keyboard-heavy direction. They experimented with technology on the concert stage too, with their 78 date run for 1987’s Hold Your Fire featuring a quadraphonic PA system. They commemorated the trek by recording their April 1988 performances in Birmingham, England for the A Show of Hands live release, which came out in January of 1989.
1993: Back in the Forefront
Celebrating his 40th birthday, Lifeson was enjoying a renewed wave of popularity with Rush. The band had been rejuvenated by the success of 1991’s Roll the Bones, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard album charts. More than 100 shows followed on the subsequent tour, which wrapped up in mid-1992. They spent a hefty chunk of 1993 recording the eventual Counterparts album, which arrived that October. Lifeson saw the moment as an important shift for the group. “I think Counterparts was that record where we still combined all of those keyboards and all of that stuff that we were going through at the time,” he told UCR in 2021. “But with the guitar back in the forefront, sort of leading it.”
Listen to ‘Nobody’s Hero’ From ‘Counterparts’
1998: Different Stages
The guitarist turned 45 in 1998 with the 25th anniversary of Rush approaching in 1999. It was a difficult time for the group, as Peart faced two tragedies: the 1997 death of his 19-year-old daughter, Selena Taylor, who died in a car accident and the subsequent cancer-related passing of his wife, Jackie Taylor, the following June. Understandably, the band began an extended hiatus. They released Different Stages, a 3 CD live album, in November of 1998. Lee reflected on the pending quarter-century milestone at that time. “It’s kind of a miracle in a way,” he shared during an interview for Canadian press. “It’s based on a solid relationship, a great respect for each other and a desire to focus on the music and nothing else — not to allow financial matters or personality disorders to get in the way. That’s hard, but we’ve been able to do it.”
2003: 50 Years Strong
As he turned 50, the guitarist saw his flagship group continuing to evolve. Rush had come back strong fro their long break with 2002’s Vapor Trails. Though they toured extensively that year, the band only played one concert in 2003 — but it was a high profile gig in support of the then-current SARS epidemic. Rush and AC/DC were direct support to the Rolling Stones on July 30 in front of a crowd in the Toronto area which stretched close to 500 thousand attendees. They returned to the road the following May for the R30 world tour celebrating their 30th anniversary, while also delivering the Feedback covers EP, which arrived in June.
2008: Modern Day Warrior
Lifeson’s 55th birthday came in the midst of another busy year for Rush. They’d spent 2007 touring in support of that year’s Snakes and Arrows album. As had become tradition, it was time for another live LP, 2008’s Snakes and Arrows Live. But this time, they also scheduled 49 more concerts from April through late July to celebrate the new live set and they also had some fun promoting the record. Lifeson, Lee and Peart made an appearance on The Colbert Report, playing “Tom Sawyer” on the Rock Band video game, scoring an unimpressive 31%. “I’m just starting to get a feel for it,” the guitarist quipped. It was their first live television appearance in over 30 years. Earlier that year, they also found time to film a cameo in the Jason Segal / Paul Rudd comedy, I Love You, Man.
Watch Rush Play ‘Tom Sawyer’ on ‘Rock Band’
2013: Blah, Blah, Blah…
Lifeson celebrated his 60th birthday several weeks after wrapping up the Clockwork Angels tour at the beginning of August. It had been a milestone year for the band, who finally were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in April. Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins handled the induction honors, with Lifeson delivering an instantly memorable speech, where he said “blah, blah, blah” to the crowd (yep, that’s it) over and over for two minutes. The close of the Clockwork Angels tour brought a much-needed break, which the guitarist told Billboard would last for a “minimum” of a year. “Right now we’re just relaxing,” he said in late November. “We’re taking it easy and just enjoying our current employment.”
2018: These Things Can Happen
Lifeson’s 65th birthday found him starting to enjoy life away from the road. Rush had played the last concert of their 40th anniversary tour on Aug. 1, 2015. He effectively confirmed the end of Rush in an article published in January of 2018 in the Globe and Mail. “It’s been a little over two years since Rush last toured,” he explained. “We have no plans to tour or record any more. We’re basically done. After 41 years, we felt it was enough.” Lifeson found plenty of ways to keep busy, however, describing that he had been “writing on four or five different little projects.” He was also enjoying branching out, challenging himself with television work and writing a monthly newspaper column. “It’s fun to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation,” he shared. “If you have a little bit of confidence and you just get out of your way, these things can happen.”
2023: That Was Then, This is Now
As he enters his seventh decade, Lifeson is still making new music, though it’s not with Rush. He began writing songs a year after the Canadian rock legends finished 2015’s R40 tour. “I do that just to keep myself in tune and keep my fingers working,” he told UCR. “[But] once I start doing it, it grows into this other thing.” In this instance, the songwriting led to Envy of None, Lifeson’s current band, which also features collaborator Andy Curran (Coney Hatch) and vocalist Maiah Wynne. To date, they’ve released an album and EP in 2021 and 2023 respectively. He also reunited with his longtime Rush cohort Lee in 2022. The pair first came together that August for a guest appearance at a concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of the animated South Park series, performing the Rush classic, “Closer to the Heart.”
They teamed up again less than a month later to play additional Rush favorites at the London and Los Angeles memorial concerts for Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins. Lifeson also continues to play on other people’s albums — including Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, who tapped the guitarist to play on his 2021 solo album alongside Metallica’s Kirk Hammett. As for a future collaboration with Lee? You won’t find Lifeson ruling out the possibility. “We’re still very close. We talk to each other, probably every other day,” he shared with UCR in 2021. “He’s my absolute best friend and always was. That’s not going to change.”
Watch Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee Perform ‘Closer to the Heart’
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