Alex Lifeson, Literateur

Neil Peart, with his lyrics, books, essays, articles, blog posts, and book reviews, is typically thought of as the literate member of Rush, but Alex Lifeson has produced a body of work that’s worth serious attention. We reproduce excerpts (with some standard editing) of his writing here.

Amplification, Guitarification, and Effectification

I’ve broken down the equipment I’m using into three categories: amplification, guitarification and effectification. It is truly an amazing coincidence how similar all three categories are to each other. For instance, through my keen sense of awareness, I’ve noticed all three have a series of knobs. Also the amps and assorted effects all have glowing lights.

The amps I’m using are four Marshall Combos, which we jokingly refer to as the Marshall Combos.

In the guitar department I’m down to four, a black one, a red one, a white one and a brownish one. They all have six strings and a long wooden piece sticking out from the body. I also have two acoustic guitars, both with six strings, one steel string and the other plastic (or something like that). Both guitars have rounded bodies to make them impossible to play sitting down. They also have holes all over the soundboard, which is sort of like a diving board, I think. My double-neck guitar was recently crushed by an elephant. Too bad.

For effects, I have many: a Westinghouse Blender, two Amana Freezers, a gas pedal, a flower pedal, Maestro Parametric Filter, cigarette filter, six nozzles, three lungs, and an M.X.R. Micro Amp. All of these effects are capable of producing a wide range of sounds. Some are scary while some are awful. I prefer the scary sounds.

From the Signals (1982) tour book

My Factory-made Hentors

So, another tour, huh? Well, let’s see. I’ve got these great new guitars. You may have heard of them: they’re Hentors. They’re named after Devidip Hentor, who was a very interesting character. He was born some years ago and grew to amazing lengths. Instead of body hair he grew a kind of green woolly substance all over his upper torso, which resembled a sweater. He was a brilliant man who could sit in a chair all day and think of a million great things to do without actually doing them. He was an inspiration until his unfortunate accident whilst jogging in three feet of snow wearing cheap snow boots and light summer cottons.

Two models of Hentors were built and I’m lucky enough to have them both. One is a “Sportscaster” and the other is I’m not going to tell you.

Anyway, these guitars look a lot like the guitars I had on the last 47 tours. So much so that if someone was really stupid they’d think they were different guitars. Otherwise everything’s the same. So, here we go on my equipment list. I use amps. And magic guitars that have no long black wires. And talk about strings. I have at least six on all my guitars. I also use expensive boxes with knobs and lights on them and instructions in more than five languages except English. I also have these piano-like things but I’m not sure on how to switch them on. You have to use a special Jack for that. Finally, all the equipment I use is made in factories.

From the Grace Under Pressure (1984) tour book

He Made a Good King, Mon

A message from H.R.H. King Lerxt, King of Schmengland

This was supposed to be my equipment list, but I sold all my gear. I just borrow things I need from friends. Some old stuff. A few wires here, a couple of guitars there, some machine guns . . . . Oh, yeah, the machine guns. Well, the story goes something like this: During our stay in Montserrat we decided to have a dinner picnic on a beautiful deserted beach. It was a lovely day and a great barbecue. There was much laughter until we heard the machine guns and bombs exploding. The sky was a crosshatch of jet fighter and missile contrails. I had a hunch that something was up.

We immediately headed back to the studio. It was a blazing inferno with temperatures well above 100 degrees C. We managed to save all our gear and the blender, which we use to make daiquiris. It was there that we learned from one of the locals that a coup had taken place.

“Yeah, mon, dey kill dat monkey ass. Now is da time of da King, mon.”

After I heard his incredible tale I thought to myself—Kingman? Who is Kingman? The accountant? The Calypso group, The Kingman Trio, maybe?

As if this man had read my thoughts, he said, “No, mon, not Kingman—The KING, mon!”

Now it was all too clear. I suddenly realized destiny had brought me to this island to do a job. I looked up as the flaming studio sparked a reflection in my eyes and bravely said: “But they have guns! We need something better than guns. We need gubs!”

We also needed a defence budget, so I sold my equipment that same night, met at a dark lagoon with a Cuban gub runner, quelled the rioting, and became King Lerxst by 8:30 the next morning. Boy, was I bushed.

I enacted two important laws that Monday morning. The first was the “No Work Today” law, and the second was “Big Al Day,” which fell on the first Monday of each week, when all the drinks on the island were free.

Sure, there were a few unhappy subjects, and I have had my fair share of assassination attempts, but after the third Monday things were pretty well settled down. Yeah that’s what the world needs: more “Big Al Days.”

From the Power Windows (1985) tour book

The Notorious Schatz

He looked at me coldly and asked: “Do you want the equipment or not, my friend?”

I said: “Just the list, if you don’t mind.”

“You are a fool then! Get out and never come back to this place again . . . my late friend!”

I figured it was time to leave but I didn’t know where I was. Last I remember, we were on one of those group tours in Gallien-Kruger National Park. But I . . . can’t . . . seem . . . to . . . remember . . . exactly what . . . Wait! I do remember now! I received a cable from a Mr. Johnson instructing me to put my signature on some kind of document at an office in Zurich. I flew there on a Ja Maha Air out of Vacici el Barundi and was met at the airport by a Herr Roland from the offices of Cuzle, Cuzle and Shmelecki. Before we got to the office he suggested we have a drink: “Come, we will make drinken” and we stopped at some dark roadside 24-hour bar and hobby shop called the “Dimension D.” We went inside and there at the back by the S.E.C. 12 channel transmitters and the balsa ailerons was the notorious Schatz. I was in big trouble. He had a Mac under one arm and a Backgammon game under the other. Who knows what he had in his pockets. Time to splittez-vous. I looked over at my escort, the walking building, and asked “Hey, Mongo, you hungry?”

He looked at me and said: “Ja, I am making hongry unt mine interior.”

Well, I suggested a knuckle sandwich and then headed for the door just as the drink I ordered, a Tahiti Tingle, took its effect. I’d been drugged and fell to my knees and now looked eye to eye with Schatz. I said: “So yoi gralf kanoff illglit!”

He just looked at me and laughed: “Yeah, that’s right!”

When I awoke I was tied to a table and Schatz was explaining about a new program he’d just developed. He was the only one listening. He was listening to himself so intently he didn’t notice the sword I had taped to the bottom of my shoe. Out the window, down 16 stories, hijack a cab to the airport, steal a Lear Jet, land on the Queen Mary, swim half the North Atlantic, stop for lunch at Big Al Hernsburgers, and then . . .

“Wait, my friend, I didn’t really mean all that. I lost myself for a moment. Now please, do you want the equipment or not?”

“No,” I said, “It’s just not quite as exciting as I hoped.”

From the Hold Your Fire (1987) tour book

Not Filling in the Warranty Card was a Mistake

After taking a long break from touring, I started thinking about setting up a new system that was different from what I had been using during the last few tours. It occurred to me that perhaps I should consider using equipment manufactured in a country on the leading edge of this technology, and in the spirit of perestroika and glasnost decided that the Soviet Union was just the place. I arrived in Moscow and made my way to the local music shop: “Large Fun Music Store,” and spoke to the sales comrade about the latest in musical equipment.

“First ting, you are coming to right place. Second ting, I give you best deal dis side of Leningrad and I want you to know I’m losing rubles on dis deal. Nobody can ever say Yuri Leestiniki try to rip dem up.”

Feeling assured that I wasn’t getting rubble for my ruble, I asked Yuri to show me what he had in the way of guitars. He returned ten minutes later with the strangest guitar case I’d ever seen. It was quite flat and about a half meter square, made of plywood with a long nail hammered into the top and bent over to use for a carrying handle.

“Dis is last model in whole Soviet Union and was sold to guy from Kiev but he never call me back today, so even because I will to get in trouble, I will sell to you.”

What a deal, I thought.

“Okay, Yuri,” I said, “let’s have a look at it.”

Yuri opened the case by prying with two screw drivers at either end and keeping his foot firmly on the “carrying nail.” When he finally got it opened, there was this . . . this thing. It sort of looked like the shape of a guitar but in place of the pickups were these magnets like we used to have in school with the red-painted ends, and in place of a volume control was an on/off switch that looked as if it had come out of a household fuse panel.

Oh yeah, it didn’t have a neck.

“Oh, you are wanting neck too?” he said, surprised. “Neck is extra but I can order for you one to be here in four to six months. Maybe.”

“Okay,” I said, “forget the guitar for now. What about amplifiers?”

“Best amplifier in world I have in stock right now. Is called a “Khrumy” and it come already wit speaker. Is new modern design and also is good for heavy-metal sound because is made from pure and complete iron. You are first to solder wires into electric plug on wall in house and after to maybe stand back for maybe one minutes. Is good to wear big orange rubber gloves when making amplifier to work. Is good amp but sometimes someting is maybe breaking, and so is good buying one more amplifier for spare part. Is nice green color, don’t you tink?”

Yes, well. I asked about the price anyway, thinking that it could make a decent fridge at least.

“If you have to ask, you are not affording it,” he answered me. “But I am liking you and we are just finish a big sale. Dis is last day, as matter of fact. I must to be crazy but I let it go for . . . aah . . . eight tousand rubles.”

“What!?” I screamed.

“Okay, okay. How about two pair of jeans and maybe some sandwich.”

The amp came with wheels and a small thirty-horsepower motor, so after I paid Yuri and we got the motor started, I said goodbye and he reminded me to fill in the warranty card for the ten-day warranty. I drove the amp back to the airport and headed home.

I arrived home and was excited to get the amp plugged in and hear it. I got out the soldering gun, soldered the wires into the receptacle, stood back for one minute . . . and my house burned down.

You know, I kinda liked my old gear.

From the Presto (1989) tour book

In Selecting a Guitar, Alex Weighs the Scales

Have you ever noticed how fish have scales and you can play scales on a guitar? I wanted to have a guitar made from fish, but I don’t know. I asked my friend Gil about it and he said it would probably cost more than a fin and then gave me some line about only a bass player would use a guitar made from fish. He’s a reel jerk anyway.

I wanted to try some new ideas for guitar picks. I tried a donut first. Then I tried another donut as a pick. That was stupid. Next, I tried an axe. I’ve always wondered why people call guitars axes. Axes make lousy picks but they’re great for cutting wood. I had to get another guitar because axes are great for cutting wood. Axes are also great for cutting fish so there’s another strike against a fish guitar. I tried a plastic bag but the green ones have a dull tone and as far as I’m concerned, they’re garbage.

Well, what about amps? I had a great idea. I wore a hearing aid, turned up this one amp loud, and just played and played and it seemed loud enough. I found that I could hear conversations more clearly when I sat in the back seat of cars or in movie theaters. Sounds of the wild outdoors were amazing. The only problem was the guitar cord plugged into my ear. I almost called my friend Yuri in the Soviet Sort of Union of Kinda Socialist Republics to see if he had any Khrumy amps left but discovered he moved to Florida to become an actor. And I thought I was desperate.

I was totally lost as to what to do. I went to see the Pope and he liked the idea of the fish guitar. I also told him about the donut pick and he said, “My son, that’s stupid.” Big help! So I made a trip to England and talked to my pal Queen Elizabeth. She said, “Al, why don’t you try these Crown amps I use in my rig?” I said, “Hey, great idea, Liz.” So we finished our beers and she took me down to the Royal Rehearsal Studio. She cranked up these amps and smacked the longest E sus chord I’ve ever heard. She looked at me with this great big smile and yelled over the decaying chord, “Six hundred watts! It’s really rather super, don’t you think?” So she sold them to me at cost.

Well, I had the amp scene together and now I just needed to work out the guitar situation. The fish guitar idea was not going to fly, so I gave George Bush a call. He asked me: “What do you know about PRS?” I told him I thought a couple of Tylenol, maybe a few Valium, and avoiding any confrontations was the best way to deal with it. He said “No, you idiot! PRS guitars. You know, Paul Reed Smith? I got mine around the corner at the factory. They stay the line and have a kindler, gentler tone.” So he sold me his at cost plus ten percent. “Cost plus ten?” I asked.

He said, “Yeah, well, we’re in a deficit, you know.”

I’m still working on a donut pick. Maybe a fish-flavored donut. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

From the Roll the Bones (1991) tour book

We’ll Miss J.—or, at Least, Parts of Him

Just the other day a long time ago, J. J. and I were talking about what we needed to do to change the look and sound of my equipment rig. We made a list of all the important items that needed to be considered for such a change.

Here’s what we came up with:

1. Get stuff that has a lot of flashing lights
2. Get stuff that’s bigger than it needs to be
3. Get stuff that’s really expensive
4. Get a bunch of extra flashing lights
5. Make sure you have a total of at least 50 knobs you can turn
6. Get a tractor to haul all the stuff you’ve got but don’t really need

(It was this last item that caused all the trouble . . . )

We followed our list closely. We were quite proud of ourselves, having managed to find Marshall amps from the distributor at the highest price allowable and only had to wait months for delivery. They came with the “Tons o’ Knobs” option, a relatively unknown and unused extra. We could only get three lights per stack, so we ordered four for twelve at twelve hundred per one at a quarter after ten on the nineteenth. The equation looks something like this: 3lexE 4120 sine = 12T +lt @ 19 = $$$.

Now, we knew that the Law of Excessive Amplification calls for an even number of amps, but we decided to go with three. We set it all up and realized that we’d made a mistake and immediately ordered another stack—for now. We took some time and worked the system out in a field far from human ears, and I have to say, I got really excited with the results. In fact, I was so up that I had one too many glasses of wine—a fine Burgundy from Leroy that was rich and cherry-like without an overbearing fruit, yet delicate and not smelly. Anyway, I demanded to drive the amps around with the tractor, and even though J. J. protested, I had my way. Before I realized it, I’d lost the amps in the tall Fescue while I was pulling donuts, and felt a funny bump under the tractor’s rotating blades as I sped out of control, laughing hysterically.

We just call him J. now. We did manage to find a staple gun, and after administering a whole bottle of wine (a pleasant Rioja from the ’85 vintage that displayed a robust body without the sharpness of the broken shards of glass), we managed to do a decent job of reattachment. At least he had a leg to stand on.

And I got a kick out of that.

From the Counterparts (1993) tour book

That was the Style Back Then

The old days. Yep, I remember them days. Why, we was so poor we thought “grammar” was my Mom’s Mom! My old Dad got a third part-time job washing trees in the park so’s he could afford to buy me a $50 Conora guitar. Made in Japan when that mean’t somthin’—Cheap!! No fancy-shmancy bells and whistles on that beaut, no, sir. Just pure, no sustain, dull, crappy sound—but that was the style at the time.

Yep, I remember them days.

We was so poor we couldn’t afford to think about owning a amp, let alone talk about owning one. I had to borra this one from Very Old Doc Cooper next door, who was born older than his parents. They say he went plum crazy one day and died after eatin’ a whole bushel of ’em. Anyway, back then he used to loan me his Paul amp, which had the same crappy sound that was the style at the time.

My old Dad got even another job as an electrician so’s he could legally get electrical tape so’s I could illegally tape “VOX” on the front of it. Them Vox amps was for rich guys like the Beatles, which was the group I was hoping to join ’cause I heard from some guy that they was good. I never got that job ’cause I also heard that you had to have your own stuff to get in that group. Also, I was only thirteen.

I didn’t have no kind of equipment ’cause there wan’t no other to have. In them days, you had a guitar, a amp, and maybe a real pick. And you always carried your stuff to the gig, which was for free. Why, in them days a “roadie” was when that little kid next door pooped in the middle of the street! You had to be real careful when you walked to the gig, let me tell you.

And, we was so poor we couldn’t afford to have good enough friends at them gigs who would like our sound only because they were our friends. Instead, we had the kind of friends who went “Shut up, you stupid sound too loud, man!”

“Yeah? You shut up, stupid lousy friends!”

Anyhoo, I remember them days. And what days they was.

From the Test for Echo (1996) tour book

The ‘Gear Route’ Probably Wasn’t the Best Way to Go

I didn’t know if I should write some sort of story, or tell a joke, or list my equipment like Ged and Neil did, but in the end, I chose to go the gear route. It’s like two weeks before the tour and, as always, we’re down to the wire.

I did ask my wife to help me with it, though, and she was a terrific help, as usual. She’s always been into amps and delay units and string gauges, and never lacks giving some sort of helpful advice.

The conversation went something like this:

“So, honey, I’m thinking of using the Hughes & Kettner Zentera modeling amps and the Triamps again this year, as I was very happy with them on the last tour.”


“It’s just that the Audio Technica AEW R5200 wireless system sounds so good through the Behringer MX602 mixers. It helps make the T.C. Electronics G Force sound great and really widens the T.C. Electronics Spatial Expander.”

“The spatula what?”

“Now, if it wasn’t for the Custom Audio Japan power supply and VCA units connected with the Ground Control Audio Switcher, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d have no Cry Baby Wah Wah.”

“Wah what? That’s how a grown man talks, wah wah? Where are my cigarettes?”

“I’m also taking out a bunch of guitars again. Four Paul Reed Smith CE Bolt Ons, 3 Gibson Les Pauls, 2 Fender Telecasters, a Gibson double-neck, ES 355 and SG, Taylor and Gibson J150 acoustics and my trusty Ovation Nylon.”

“You wear nylons now? Where’s that stupid corkscrew when I need it?”

“Here it is. So where was I? Oh, yeah, here’s the schematic layout Rick drew of the routing, post radio via Axces splitter pre effects, and if you notice here at the . . . Honey? Honey?”


From the R30 (2005) tour book

Making the Think in Headvoice Ideas

Excerpt from an interview of Alex by Alex, dated May 13, 2007

Let me begin by saying how lovely it is to see you.

Yes, I know, and it’s terrific to see you, too.

I dunno, but did you get a haircut or something, because, wow!

I trimmed my ears last week, maybe that? It makes a big difference.

Yes . . . Um.

Tell me, what goes on behind those eyes, deep in your brain, out the back of your head and down your leg, around the corner and so on?

What? LOL . . . did I actually say LOL? I promised I’d never do that.

No, it’s okay, you just typed it. Tell us a little about how you prepare for one of your lively concerts, just the parts while you’re awake.

Well, it takes hours of intense thinking and questioning . . . yes, questioning why you’re thinking so intensely so intensely. It’s like a giant circular circle or a snake that’s been man-made into a circle-like circle snake—but definitely not like a flying shark snake, which usually occurs to me on days off. From there it just gets intense.

I see. Fascinating. As are your shoes! They are absolutely to die for. Prada?
Pravda, actually. I bought them in Prague from a street vendor who was having a closing out sale on Soviet footwear. Placing the heel on the front of the shoe was revolutionary.

How Bohemian. LOL.

LOL, too.

So, Alexandar, let’s go deep for a moment and travel back to May 12. It’s 7 a.m. and you’re getting up. You walk down the hall, pass a mirror, glance fleetingly. You arrive in the kitchen to the prospect of a coffee. You have the coffee, shake your head and smile, you think, “this is a good coffee day,” when suddenly you stub your toe, drop the coffee cup, spill hot coffee on your pants, slip on the wet floor, go flying, smash a vase when you crush the coffee table and break the door off the dishwasher, and totally break all the coffee cups. What was it you saw in the mirror? What?

Where do you get all this stuff? That is amazing. Your research department is to be commended. I’m just blown away that you have all that. It’s as if you were there. No really, that’s something else.

The mirror, Alex. The mirror.

Huh? The mirror? What mirror? I didn’t look into a mirror.

The . . . mirror . . . Alex.

No really. There was no mirror. I glanced out the window.

What the, no, I, wait . . .

You’re SOL, buddy

Why you SOB!

Hey. FU!



Getting back to something I’d like to explore with you, I’ve watched ice melt and seen the wind die, the Leaves blow, and I’ve been a wailin’ on the high seas. If you could be a friendly insect, what would you be, and not hairy or anything?

I’ve always had a hard time answering that question. There are so many insects, maybe hundreds, and really, how do you choose? What are the criteria? It’s not easy, for sure. Maybe a salamander.

You mean like Sal, a man, ‘der? LOL again.


Continuing on that train of thought for a moment, ask yourself this: where did I leave my keys, you idiot?

In the car at the gas station while you were filling up an hour ago and you went in to get a coffee and . . . oh, oh.

If you could go back in time to just that last, say, hour and a half, what would you do differently?

Quit drinking coffee.

I couldn’t do that. I’d go crazy and I don’t even like coffee, but no one can make me quit if I don’t want to, though I’m not saying I don’t want to or quit wanting to or just plain wanting to quit.

Exactly. I’ve been saying that for years and I’m finally relieved to know other serious, smart in brain people are making the think in headvoice ideas, too. It’s time to take a coffee stand and decide stuff to make the world a faster place to live in.

Well, we seem to have run out of time. I’ve quite enjoyed our conversation, as usual, and would leave you with this thought to ponder . . . but don’t ponder too long, and when I say ‘ponder,’ I don’t mean, like, PONDER, just think about it with your eyebrows scrunched up and like you’re pondering around. Okay, then, what is the absolutely best day of your life?

Next week.

Bold and brilliant! It’s been a great pleasure. Thank you.

Charmed, I’m sure.

From the Snakes and Arrows (2007) tour book

Read Alex’s six-sentence biography and history of Rush.

More This and That: an evolving collection of Rush randomness

~ by rvkeeper on March 16, 2011.

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