Few artists are as synonymous with their instrument as Rush’s Geddy Lee and his bass. The musician crafted out a career by being one of the most advantageous players in rock and roll and has often waxed lyrically about the importance of bass guitar.
As part of Rush, one of the most gifted prog-rock bands ever, Lee challenged himself and his audience to accept the bass guitar as a primary instrument in any band. It’s something you’re average listener may not be akin to but after listening to the isolated bass of Lee’s on Rush’s classic ‘Tom Sawyer’ you’ll soon understand.
Geddy Lee once said that he always wanted bassists to think of the melody when they were writing bass parts for their songs. So often has the instrument been pushed to the background and set aside for rhythmic chordal plodding. “Paul McCartney, I was a huge fan of his bassline,” remembers Lee. “Some of The Beatles basslines are really inventive, really unusual. And quite, in their own way, considering it’s pop, quite busy.”
Adding: “They really change the song with what they’re doing. So I was always drawn to the bass players that had a sound that was different from your typical vroomy bass sound and I was always drawn to guys that wrote interesting melodies. What makes Paul McCartney and Squire such great bass player sis that they write melodies.” One song which allowed Lee to flourish was the brilliant track ‘Tom Sawyer’.
Arguably one of the band’s most famous songs Lee agrees “it changed our lives” stating that the song not only aligned them to their original crowd when it was released but thanks to a central role in the film I Love You, Man featuring Jason Segel and Paul Rudd it introduced the band to a whole new generation too.
Lee remembers, in an interview with The Guardian, why the band decided to let Hollywood have their song: “When [the director] John Hamburg approached us about it, our instincts were to say no. But we were going through a phase where we decided to take the George Costanza approach to our career. We decided that anything we were going to say no to instinctively, we would now say yes to. It served us very well.”
The song may be marked out as one of Lee’s finest with Rush but as with all of their songs, Lee didn’t have a hand in the lyrics. The words that the late great Neil Peart wrote were always incredibly personal. He reflected on ‘Tom Sawyer’ with a Rush fanzine back in 1985: “Tom Sawyer was a collaboration between myself and Pye Dubois, an excellent lyricist who wrote the lyrics for Max Webster.”
“His original lyrics were kind of a portrait of a modern day rebel,” remembered Peart. “A free-spirited individualist striding through the world wide-eyed and purposeful. I added the themes of reconciling the boy and man in myself, and the difference between what people are and what others perceive them to be – namely me I guess.”
The extremely personal nature of all the band’s songs has meant that Lee has often found himself interpreting the emotions of his friend. “It has felt odd at times,” he says. “It has felt very comfortable at times, at times very uncomfortable. Being an interpreter for Neil has been a singular pleasure of mine and a really difficult job at the same time, because I’m not always on the same page as him. As we grew as a band, I became trusted by him to be his sounding board and his editor, and if I couldn’t get into a thing, he would leave it alone. That’s the beauty of a relationship that lasts.”
It’s a relationship which you can hear crystal clear below in the isolated bass for Rush’s ‘Tom Sawyer’. Lee is working through his friend’s personal song and making it tell its very own story. It’s a talent few posses but Geddy Lee has in spades.