‘Get Off My Lawn!’—Alex on Joining the Old Age Club
Young musicians today trying to build their sound and their audience face a very different kind of environment than when Rush was getting off the ground, Alex says in a wide-ranging chat with Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers that released yesterday.
Alex and Smith got together for dinner a couple of weeks ago, while Rush was in Los Angeles for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and Smith recorded the conversation for the first installment of his RadarMusic podcast series, called In Conversation.
Sounding at times like two old retirees chewing the fat on the front porch, Alex and Smith compared music industry executives today to bankers and speculators who only look for the hottest music act of the moment and if it doesn’t pay off big, immediately pull their resources and move on to something else. Both Alex and Smith doubted their bands, both of which are in the Rock Hall now, would have ever had a chance to succeed without record companies at the time carrying them for several years while they developed.
“Our first deal was for five records,” Alex said. “The idea was that the first two records would be those starting points; and maybe on the third record it kind of turned around and the record company would make a little bit of money. Everybody would be moving forward. And the next two would be those stronger commercial records.”
Despite the blockbuster-or-nothing mentality today, young acts continue to find a way to make it work, because that’s what young people do: they adapt to their environment.
“For fear of sounding like an old guy––’Arrggh, get off my lawn!’—it’s a different world that is their world, so they work it accordingly,” Alex said. “They don’t feel, I’m sure, that they’re missing anything, just like we didn’t feel like we were missing out on anything.”
On another note, Alex mentioned that he and his wife Charlene have been together since they first met in high school, when he was 15. She was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and came here when she was just a few years old. Her mother had met a Danish sailor but they couldn’t marry, because he was white and she was “colored,” so they moved to Denmark and then shortly after that moved to Victoria, Canada, on the west coast, and then on to Toronto.
On his first date with her, they went to a movie featuring Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale. “There were only, like, 10 people in the theatre,” he said. “And then we left, and we took the bus back towards home, but stopped in an area just before where she lived, where there were some shops and restaurants and stuff like that. We went in and had a cup of tea. We went to one place, but they wouldn’t let me in ’cause my hair was long. This is how it was all starting our first date. And I built up the nerve . . . . She could see something was wrong, and I built up the nerve to ask her if it was OK if I just held her hand while we walked. And she was like, ‘Oh, you big, stupid idiot! Sure.’ And then she got pregnant. And then everything went screwed up after that.”
“Fast worker this one!” Smith said. “Wow.”
Alex said he played inexpensive Japanese guitars when he was a kid, first a Kent and then a Kanora, because he couldn’t afford anything else, but he got plenty of practice playing Gibson guitars at local music stores, where he would go to play until the clerks kicked him out. “Somebody would come over and say, ‘OK, kid, put the guitar back on the wall and beat it.’ And then I’d come back the next week, and I’d do exactly the same thing. I was doing that week after week after week. And it was the same story: ‘OK, kid, beat it.’ But you always came back, and they always let you do it.”
The story has particular resonance today, because about three years ago Gibson launched a signature Alex Lifeson guitar model that has turned out to be a strong seller for the company. “We didn’t just stick my name on a guitar that could sell a bunch,” Alex said. “We spent a couple of years developing something that really worked for me. We went through a lot of body weights, different types of wood. . . .”
Alex says he’s using four of the guitars on the Clockwork Angels tour, along with a number of other guitars. He needs to have a lot of guitars, he says, because different songs call for different tunings, so each guitar has its own tuning, and then each of those guitars has a back-up in case something goes wrong. “I mean, I have four different tunings that I play during the course of a show,” he said, “and I need back-ups for everything ’cause the tunings are such that there’s always the possibility of something going wrong—a broken string or something like that. And it’s not something that you can just grab any other guitar; it has to be a dedicated guitar for that. So, consequently, I need to have quite a few with me.”
Aaaand . . . speaking of Caress of Steel, I think the image on the album cover, when looked at from afar, looks a lot like an Indian head penny. Take a look. —Rob Freedman, Rush Vault