For a band so technically gifted and precise in their playing style, Rush was surprisingly dedicated to the art of getting high. Playing any of Rush’s music requires quite a bit of focus and concentration in order to pull off with any sort of proficiency, but according to the band, there was a fair amount of mind-altering going on backstage before shows in the early years.
“In the very, very early days, occasionally – well, more than ‘occasionally’ – Neil and I would smoke a joint before going on,” Alex Lifeson explained to High Times magazine. “I mean, this is in the mid-70s; I would never, ever do something like that now. I won’t even have a sip of beer before a show, because I need to be extremely clearheaded. Of course, some people can smoke and remain clearheaded – just not me.”
If they were impaired at all, it remains hard to tell: there is live Rush footage from as early as 1972 when original drummer John Rutsey was still in the band. You can queue up pretty much any era of Rush live performances and be blown away by the exacting nature of their playing. These are guys who are so locked in and so skilled at their respective instruments that it would be impossible to tell if any one of them was partaking in a little bit of devil’s lettuce.
“Do things go better with pot? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t,” Lifeson added. “I find that you can be very imaginative when stoned, you can be very creative – but implementation is sometimes difficult. In the past, there have been times when I’ve been really inspired in writing and came up with things that I would never otherwise think up. But the actual playing can be obstructed a little bit.”
The truth was that, while songs like ‘A Passage to Bangkok’ were open admissions of their indulgences in “higher” activities, Rush was almost always straight while recording their music. They had to be, otherwise, the results wouldn’t have lived up to their own lofty standards. Part of the reason why was that the band had a negative experience while recording stoned in their early years during the sessions for their third album, 1975’s Caress of Steel.
To be fair, the actual recording wasn’t negative for the band or producer Terry Brown. “We went in serene and confident, and emerged with an album that we were tremendously proud of,” Neil Peart recalled in a 1977 tour booklet, adding: “As a major step in our development, and featuring a lot of dynamic variety and some true originality.” Despite this feeling, Caress of Steel sold poorly and confused much of the band’s initial audience, something Geddy Lee chalked up to being a little too loopy during its production.
“We were pretty high when we made that record,” Lee acknowledges with a laugh in the documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. “And it sounds like it to me.” In the same documentary, Brown acknowledged that Caress of Steel was “a dark record”, but reiterated that he and the band were proud of the work when they were finished with it. The subsequent push for more commercial material from the band’s record company led Rush to draw a line in the sand: they refused to compromise, and instead recorded 2112 under the assumption that it very well could have been their final album.
Instead, 2112 found Rush the audience that had been lost through Caress of Steel. Now once again able to headline tours, Rush rebuilt their crowds by touring relentlessly, eventually gaining enough momentum to reach gold-selling status by 1977. Although not a blockbuster by any means, 2112 bought the band their creative freedom, allowing them to produce the music they wanted to make without interference. It also served as an important lesson: you can write songs about getting high, just try to avoid lighting up in the studio when you can.